The phrase “John Lennon changed my life” has probably been said more often than you’d think. The Beatles singer and principal songwriter developed a personal pop music style that not only permeated the musical world around him but helped to open up previously sheltered men and women to their own feelings. Meaning, along the way, it would be totally fair to land such a large claim of changing somebody’s life at the feet of the bespectacled Beatle. For one man, it only took one word from Lennon to start a seismic chain of events.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it came from a good place, however. John Lennon was famed for being a guttural singer, a sincere songwriter and, in truth, a bit of a piss-taker. Being a working-class lad from Liverpool will naturally instil a defensive and caustic tongue, and Lennon was never afraid to spray those closest to him with a lashing of his acidic wit. One such man who once bore the brunt of his words was Norman Smith, The Beatles engineer.
Many people have claimed over the years to have had a significant hand in making The Beatles successful. While most of those claims are less than valid, Norman Smith was certainly at the forefront of the band’s success and was a part of the recording process for over 100 songs from the Fab Four. Working as an engineer for EMI, Smith’s last work with the band came on their seminal album Rubber Soul in 1965.
It didn’t start out as easy though: “I had to start right at the bottom as a gofer, but I kept my eyes and ears open, I learned very quickly, and it wasn’t long before I got onto the mixing desk. In those days every prospective artist that came in had to have a recording test, and that’s what we started doing as engineers, because we couldn’t really cock anything up. Normally, each of the producers at EMI had their own assistants and they would be the ones to keep an eye on the potential talent, and that’s what I was doing when one day this group with funny haircuts came in.”
Smith stayed with the band from their very first artist test in 1962 right the way through to the final sessions for Rubber Soul before departing to become a senior producer, taking on the debut, the second and fourth album from Pink Floyd. Smith even went on to have a side career as an artist himself, releasing several songs under the pseudonym of ‘Hurricane Smith’. However, it was back during his time with The Beatles that he got his most universally held nickname — “Normal”.
Bestowed upon him by John Lennon, Norman Smith was given the nickname “Normal” by Lennon and the group for his unflappable and straight-laced behaviour. It’s the kind of nickname one only gives a friend and the band’s acceptance certainly set him on a path to his own success. “We all got on so well. They used to call me ‘Normal’ and, occasionally, ‘2dBs Smith’ because on a few occasions I would ask one of them to turn his guitar amplifier down a couple of decibels,” recalled Smith to Mark Lewisohn for The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions.
Smith became a close part of The Beatles machine and almost contributed a song to their album Help!. “I’d been writing songs since I was a small boy, and in 1965 I wrote one with John Lennon in mind,” recalled Smith to Lewisohn. “They were coming to the end of the Help! LP and needed one more song. George Martin and I were in the control room waiting for them to make up their minds and I said ‘I know they’ve heard all this before, but I happen to have a song in my pocket.’ George said ‘Get on the talkback and tell them.’ But I was too nervous so George called down, ‘Paul, can you come up? Norman’s got a song for you.’ Paul looked shocked. ‘Really, Normal?’ – that was one of their nicknames for me – ‘Yes, really.’
“So we went across to Studio Three and I sat at the piano and bashed the song out,” continued Smith. “He said ‘That’s really good, I can hear John singing that!’ So we got John up, he heard it, and said ‘That’s great. We’ll do it.’ Paul asked me to do a demo version, for them all to learn. Dick James, the music publisher, was there while all this was going on and before we went home that night he offered me £15,000 to buy the song outright. I couldn’t talk but I looked across to George and his eyes were flicking up towards the ceiling, meaning ‘ask for more’. So I said ‘Look, Dick, I’ll talk to you tomorrow about it.’
“I did the demo but the next day The Beatles came in looking a little bit sheepish, long faces. ‘Hello, Norm.’ I thought, hmm, they’re not as excited as me, what’s wrong? Sure enough, Paul and John called me down to the studio and they said ‘Look, we definitely like your song but we’ve realised that Ringo hasn’t got a vocal on the LP, and he’s got to have one. We’ll do yours another time, eh?’ That was my £15,000 gone in a flash. By the next LP they’d progressed so much that my song was never even considered again.”
That wasn’t to be the end of Norman “Normal” Smith, however. The engineer had a flourishing career ahead of him both as a producer and as an artist himself. When given the opportunity to write his memoir, there was only one title Smith like John Lennon Called Me Normal. He was a part of The Beatles recording process, had been an RAF glider pilot, produced the work of Pink Floyd yet, after all these years, there was still one word people associated with Norman Smith — “Normal”. Even if he was anything but.