By Jeb Wright
Chris Thompson is most famous as being the voice of Manfred Mann & the Earth Band. Over the last 40 years, he has done that… and much more! Now one can experience all four decades that Chris has given us on his latest compilation titled Jukebox – The Ultimate Collection.
In the interview below, we discuss the project and the songs in-depth, including the massive international hit song “Blinded by the Light.”
This is a great interview with one of rock and roll’s best kept secrets. You know him more by sound than sight. You don’t often read about him, making this one a riveting interview. The fact that Chris is so genuine, outgoing, funny and interesting only adds to this amazing chat.
Jeb: By the time I interview someone about a project, they are already working on something else. So, what’s up next?
Chris: I’ve been writing two songs for a musical. I’ve wanted to do a musical for the last ten years. The story is about New Zealand, so I went there with my Norwegian band. We went there and we drove around and we wrote music at night and we recorded it.
The music was then, and is still now, really fantastic. The story was not so fantastic. I thought it was a wonderful story, and one day it will come out in whatever form.
I went to see somebody who does musicals in Germany and they totally loved the music. The music is like a story. They said that the music is a nine out of ten but the story is a three out of ten. They asked if they can go away and see what we can do with the story. We have worked on the story and they said they needed two more songs, so that is why I have done two more songs.
Jeb: You stay very busy. You have had a lot of bad breaks in the industry. What keeps you motivated?
Chris: I stay motivated because I am a musician and a songwriter and I am someone who likes to be creative. That is why I’ve branched off into the musical sort of things.
The last three years I’ve done a record, and then a compilation, so I have been churning my wheels. If I don’t do that then I don’t feel I am being what I am, which is a professional musician.
Jeb: You have such a strong voice and when I hear it I know who I am listening to. On a business level, it must be a bitch to have to always fight so hard.
Chris: I am glad I’m not starving in the music business, for sure.
I think it has to change or music will just die. Nobody thinks you have to pay for music anymore, which is really crazy. I was just in China doing something and somebody showed me this site you can go to and everything is available for free. Something has to change.
I’m a positive person and I think something will change. We sell CDs at our gigs, so I know people still want to buy them.
There are no music shops and there is no radio that is not just playing the same things everyone else is playing.
We can be grumpy about it, or whatever, or we can say ‘fuck it, we will figure out another way to do what we’re doing.’
Jeb: This new project is a double-cd of the best of Chris Thompson called Jukebox – The Ultimate Collection. How did this come out?
Chris: They said they wanted to do this and I told them I would take care of it. I can’t let somebody else do a compilation of my stuff. They didn’t actually have any input at all. They said they wanted a compilation and I found a way to do that.
We had to use some live tracks, but we had some really good live tracks, and I was able to remix them.
I wouldn’t let anyone else do that, not because nobody else can do it. I’ve got the stuff and the songs and if somebody else is doing it then I am just looking over their shoulder and they’re asking me questions, so I may as well just do it myself.
I have a friend in Brussels and in his studio he made everything sound good with everything else. He had to put it together, songs that were from 1975 to 2015… he made it sound the way it sounds.
Jeb: He made it sound cohesive.
Chris: It does. There is a new version of “Blinded by the Light.” I’ve had that version for a very long time and I’ve always loved it.
When I was putting things in tentative order I thought we needed something that really jumped out of the speakers. We were in a studio in Camden Town and I was in a room with my drummer. We did that version from my home. We tried to mix that, but neither of us is mixing people.
Martin Rushent was next door at the time mixing some big name. He is very successful in England but I can’t remember what band he was working with. I grabbed him and told him I needed help. He said, “I will do that. Come back in two hours.” We came back and he was done and it sounded fantastic. I said, “How much do I owe you?” He said, “Nothing. I just did it over my lunchtime.”
Jeb: This version really does sound amazing. How long was it sitting in your achieves?
Chris: I’ve had that version since 1992.
Jeb: Is it an emotional experience to make a compilation?
Chris: The gigs we’ve been doing, recently, I’ve been saying to the audience that I’ve made a compilation because I want people to know. I tell them that it was horrifying to find out that I’ve done this for forty years! It really did hit me that it has been forty years. It has been exactly that long. Yeah, it was very difficult to think how long a time it has been.
When I started looking at different songs… there is that song “Beat of Love,” which I’ve always really loved. I wanted to put the original demo on, but the sound quality was such that I would not have been able to make it work. It has something special and slick. I believed in that song. I threw some bits away and made it the way I wanted it.
I had a good time editing all of that stuff. It was a wrench to go back and look at that stuff but it was good as well. I am lucky.
Jeb: Talk about the Bob Marley tune... “Redemption Song” is awesome.
Chris: Manfred Mann made this South African album called Somewhere in Afrika, which is when I rejoined the band. This was a concept album that was before Peter Gabriel or anybody got hooked up with the African thing. This was one of his songs that he’d been listening to.
Manfred keeps a list of songs that goes clear back to the ‘60s that he thinks are hits. He tries to figure out a way to do them. We’ve tried four or five times with different songs and we end up throwing a lot away.
“Redemption Song” was on the list and we thought it might work. I am not sure what version even got on the album, but when we did the tour I started just doing it with the acoustic guitar and it is the way that I still do it.
It is a tribute to Bob Marley, of course, but it is fitted into the idea of the Apartheid in South Africa theme that Manfred had on the record Somewhere in Afrika.
Jeb: When you do a remake, how do you rework it and make it your own? Your versions are in some ways better than the original.
Chris: If you have a look at the liner notes in Jukebox you will see that I am singing that particular song better now than I was when I sang it with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. I am talking about “Blinded by the Light.”
My wife and I listened to many versions. I always try to make it my own, as you say, just by opening my mouth, I suppose. I try to sing it with all my heart. “For You” I feel that same way. That is a wonderful song.
Jeb: I love the way you’ve done “For You.” The version on this album is so emotional.
Chris: That is one of the very few songs where the audience will sing every word with me when I play it live. When people do that it brings tears to your eyes. It is awe inspiring. They are singing my version to the song with me. It is very good.
Every now and again we do a kind of a disco version of the chorus because the original of the chorus in Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was heavy rock. I never liked it.
Somebody did a version of the song in Germany in the last few years which was a really big hit. A whole new generation of people know that song now. They did it with a disco type chorus. We will do that song in a festival setting and I put that song high up in the set because I know people will recognize that song. It is a good song.
Jeb: You’re being a little humble. I love the way you sing that song. Without that voice the song would not have the same power. My only complaint about Jukebox is that there is no version of the Manfred song “Lies Through the ‘80s.”
Chris: There is a very simple answer, and that is that I didn’t have a version of it. We’ve only started playing that live over the last two years. I didn’t have a recording of it that I can use. When I do the next compilation I will make sure that it goes on there.
Jeb: You listen to the live versions on this compilation and you realize how good you and your band are. The live versions of the classic songs are really amazing.
Chris: I’ve got a great band. I don’t have to worry about anything with that band as we’ve been together for fourteen years. We can pretty much just turn up and play. The only reason we rehearse is to do some new songs or to change some stuff around.
We had to learn stuff from the Toys & Dishes record. That is quite complicated music. I only have to worry about selling the song to the audience, which is my job.
Jeb: Do you like being a band leader more than being a band member?
Chris: I would say one hundred percent yes. If somebody doesn’t want to do something in my band then we don’t do it. I do the organization parts and decide the set list and if we are going to do a short or long version and stuff like that.
Jeb: This compilation starts out with “Dark Side.” Tell me about that song?
Chris: That is a very personal song. It was written right where I’m sitting now. I wrote that with my keyboard player and my wife. It is funny… we were just playing the chords and she was going to go out and do shopping or something. She walked in and we were playing it and she said, “You should call that ‘Dark Side’.” I said, “Brilliant.”
It is great when somebody throws you a title because you can just start singing it. I had a chorus that I just had to build some other words around it. I called on personal experience for that song.
Jeb: How many of the songs on this album are new?
Chris: There are five new songs. The reason I put them on is a very selfish reason. I wanted people to hear them. I wanted the album to go right up to date with what I am doing now. I loved the Toys & Dishes album, so I wanted people to hear these songs. Originally there were only going to put three new songs on this, but I told my manager that I needed to put the ballad with our kids on it. I knew it had to go on. That made if four songs. I remember calling my manager and saying, “I have to put ‘Eddie Wants to Rock’ on this.”
I didn’t want the record to come out that was going from 1975 to 2015 that doesn’t have five things that represent me in the last few years. These are songs that I wrote and played in the recent times.
Jeb: What did you do before you joined Manfred Mann?
Chris: I grew up in New Zealand and started playing music there. I turned professional. I got invited to take my band to this nightclub and we played there for a couple of years.
I got headhunted by another band who were the best band in New Zealand at the time. My band was falling to pieces, anyway, so I joined them. That is when I really put all of my time into learning how to sing. We sang everything… jazz standards… We played from seven at night until four in the morning. It was fantastic for me.
After two years of that, I decided to go to England. I tried to get a gig. I found a pub I could jam at and I did that for a while. I started answering advertisements in the Melody Maker. Manfred advertised there. It said, “Singer/Guitar player. No time wasters.” I answered that ad.
I had to deliver a cassette by hand. I didn’t know it was Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and they didn’t tell me. I had an audition for Argent when their singer/guitar player left. I had a cassette that I had made for them so I made a copy and I delivered it.
I had to travel an hour and a half to get there. I knocked on the door and a hand came out and took the cassette and that was it. I went all the way back to where I was staying. The phone rang. We had a payphone outside that everyone used. The voice goes, “You just dropped a cassette off. Is that you singing?” I said, “Yeah, that’s me singing.” The voice goes, “Can you came back tomorrow?” I went down there the next day and I saw that it was Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.
I saw Manfred play where I grew up in New Zealand in 1964 so I knew what he looked like.
Jeb: Did you gel right away?
Chris: I don’t think he and I ever gelled. That is not true. For him, I was perfect. I didn’t know anything about recording. I didn’t know anything about anything but playing live and playing any song on the planet.
When he said, “Can you sing this song called ‘Blinded by the Light’?” I could do it. He never played me Bruce’s version. He just played it to me on the piano. I told him I could sing it. I took home a cassette and learned it. I was singing all of these different songs that he wanted to do. The songs required more than just a rock vocal. My, that was a long time ago.
I was perfect for him as I could sing anything. He wanted to double track songs. I had never done that before, but I found out I could sing it exactly the same. I would double track without listening to the other track and that is why it sounds the way it sounds. I just sang it exactly the same without listening to the original. That’s what he wanted me to do.
Other people can do it by listening to the first one but then one kind of ghosts the other one. Mine is flat out for both versions. I have to stop and listen to a bit and then do it again you know.
In that respect I suppose we gelled. For me, it was fun as I had never done anything like that. I remember the Philadelphia Spectrum… before that I was playing upstairs at a place called Grandpa’s to two hundred people!
Jeb: You brought something to that music.
Chris: Well, I hope so! When you asked if we gelled, I think it was my voice and the songs that we did. Ed Sharkey from Philadelphia, who was a disc jockey sent him those songs. He was a wonderful guy who is dead now. He played our records to death.
He sent Bruce’s record to Manfred. The first one he did was “Spirits” which he did with Mick Rogers. I did the second version of it. He gave Mick Rogers “Blinded” and he told Mick he couldn’t sing it as it has too many words. The song does have too many words.
Mick wanted to do more instrument stuff like Soul of Fire, which, to me, is the best Manfred Mann’s Earth Band album. I had nothing to do with it, but to me it is the best and it stands the test of time.
Mick didn’t want to do it. He wouldn’t have been suited to sing “Blinded” anyway. I am just lucky that my voice suited the song and Manfred’s version of it.
Jeb: Were you shocked when it came out and people thought you were singing about a feminine hygiene product?
Chris: That was lovely wasn’t it? It was horrible. It was known as the “Douche Song.” Warner Brothers sent Manfred and I on a three week tour to 56 radio stations in America. We had to tell people that it was not that.
The whole thing about that song is crazy. First of all, Bruce never wrote ‘revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night’. It was ‘cut loose like a goose’. I said to Manfred, “I don’t want to sing ‘cut loose like a goose’.” It was bad enough to sing those other words on that song as they were light tongue twisters.
We sat there and we came up with ‘revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night’. Those liners were the lines that made the song famous and they had absolutely nothing to do with Bruce. They are the lines that everyone was talking about.
There is a cartoon on the net that shows Bruce talking to Clarence and he has a piece of paper. He says, “‘Blinded by the Light.’ Now the next line needs to be something that is incomprehensible and will be misunderstood by an entire generation.” It was not him!
Jeb: It helped the song get famous.
Chris: I had a fantastic thing when I was living in Newport Beach by Los Angeles maybe twenty years ago. I was driving up the freeway to L.A. to do a session. Mike and Brian, these two guys on the radio… you don’t want to go on the radio with them as they destroy you. They said, “Is there anybody out there that knows what the lyrics to ‘Blinded by the Light’ are?”
People were calling in and saying stuff that was totally wrong. I pulled up at a gas station and I put my money in and the line is engaged. I tried for ten minutes but it was still engaged. I gave up and got back in the car and they said they had given up. They had the guy who could have told them trying to call, but I could not get through!
Jeb: Adding “Chopsticks” was brilliant.
Chris: That was Manfred. He kept that list of songs that he thought he could make hits and he really did know how to put a hit song together.
Jeb: You left him and then you were not hanging out in the USA at all.
Chris: No, not at all. Up until 1999 I was with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. I left the band in 1987. I had been in the band since 1979.
It took him three years to make an album but he couldn’t tour without me. I just had to do the big shows so I had to go back and do the tours and I would sing a bit on the records.
I left in 1987 and then Virgin Records came to Manfred and told him, “If you get Chris Thompson to come back and make a record then we will give you a deal.” I came back and we did Criminal Tango and we did another one as well.
He had the opportunity to fiddle around all the time with his machines and this and that. We did an album that I wanted to record it live. It was really great. We just needed a couple of overdubs. I came back and he’d gotten rid of everything and he’d put all of these sounds all over it. He just destroyed it. I did stay on and play live with until 1999.
After that I was writing and I was living in America. I had a little band and we were playing a bit. I was going to Europe to do shows with the band in Norway. I was just popping across to do shows. We started in 2002. I was going to Europe all the time to play. I was very busy as there was plenty of stuff to do.
Jeb: Was control a problem with Manfred?
Chris: No, I really thought that Manfred has lost the plot, as far as making records was concerned. Not that I had any more of a plot. I failed dismally making solo records. I made that record Won’t Lie Down with Mike Slammer, the guitar player from City Boy. We made a really great album for an English record company and they just threw it down the toilet. This would have been in 1986 or somewhere around there. I will send it to you. It’s really good.
Jeb: Your compilation has rock songs, pop songs and some of the ballads almost have a little soul feeling to them. Are you naturally that diverse?
Chris: I have always been that way. After I did the stint in New Zealand with those guys it really opened my eyes as far as music is concerned. I embraced a whole bunch of music at that time.
Growing up I was a snob. You either liked The Beatles or The Rolling Stones… you could not like both of them. I had a band that played Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago and Santana and stuff like that. We were over in that vibe for a bit.
I’ve always wanted to do all sorts of different stuff. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was totally unknown to me. I didn’t know anything about a live rock show. I had to learn that very quickly. I got up at the Philadelphia Spectrum next to Edgar Winter and Rick Derringer… Those guys, apart from Freddie Mercury of Queen were the best live performers I’d ever seen. Those guys are beasts. That Road Work album is the greatest live rock and roll show. Everybody learned from them.
Jeb: Who was the best band you toured with?
Chris: The Doobie Brothers were amazing. We opened for them for nine months. Me and Robbie McIntosh used to play a game. When the Doobies started we would sit in the dressing room to see how long we could stand it before we had to go up and watch them. We got through a song and a half one time but usually it was about a half a song. We would go up and sing “Listen to the Music” with them every night.
I have sung next to Michael Jackson. I have sung next to Elton John. I’ve stood next to Stevie Wonder and Ike and Tina Turner.
When I think about it, it is just incredible. I sang onstage with Elton and with Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson came up and sang with The Doobie Brothers. I think David Pack from Ambrosia was up singing with us. We sang “Listen to the Music.” When we finished Michael turned to us and said, “You guys have such loud voices!”
I’m the luckiest guy in the world. We played with Bob Seger. My favorite album of all-time was Smokin’ OP’s when I was growing up. I used to jam along and play guitar to that.
We played a whole bunch with Bob and with J. Geils Band and Kansas and Boston and Edgar Winter. We played with so many great people.
Jeb: You were also a Springsteen fan.
Chris: I first went and saw Bruce Springsteen in Montreal in 1975. I couldn’t believe it. The theater may have held 1500 people and there were only about 500 people there.
I think I saw 50 shows between then and The River tour. I wish Bruce would make a good record now. Then, he and the E Street band were something else. They were just the best.
Jeb: Did you ever get a chance to talk to Bruce about the songs you made of his?
Chris: I sat next to him in a fondue restaurant in Switzerland. I said, “Did you like ‘Blinded by the Light’?” I already knew that Bruce hated our version. He said to me, “What’s that other band you have?” I said, “Night?” He said, “I like them.”
We got to talking about the restaurant Denny’s. I think we talked about Denny’s for a half an hour. Denny’s was my savior when I was touring in America. I could get a fried egg at Denny’s at two in the morning.
I’m a vegetarian and being a vegetarian was very difficult in the ‘70s. We would get to a hotel at two and I had to get up at eight in the morning. I would be famished and Denny’s saved my life. I could get a potato or I could get an egg or I could get French toast.
I don’t know how that came up with Bruce. Bruce then told me a long story about him and his friend. They got to Denny’s one night. It was like listening to him on stage. He told this story for twenty-five minutes. I wish I would have had a tape recorder. He was very generous to me up until The River. He always made sure I had seats to the concert and stuff like that.
Jeb: There is another song we have to talk about on Jukebox. The Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop.”
Chris: I’ve always played that song in whatever band I was in since that song came out. Every now and again with my Norwegian band, when we were still forming how our set would go… which took about four years because I was playing with a fantastic guitarist.
We had to have some songs of his inside the set. We still do, but I put them now into my songs so everything works better. Every now and again we would need one more song to play. We could either do a ZZ Top shuffle or we could play “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac. I didn’t want to play ZZ Top, so we would play “Don’t Stop.”
I was putting together some songs for private use. The guy wanted three new songs, so I did “Don’t Stop” and I did “She’s Not There.” I did another song from a Belgium artist so that’s where that came from. I wanted to start playing it in the set again, so in order to do that I had to put it on the compilation.
Jeb: To wrap this up, I would like to have a new album of songs from you. Will that ever happen?
Chris: From an artist point of view of my ilk I don’t sell enough records for it to make sense for me to make a record. I learned that again when I made Toys & Dishes. I love that album and I had a fantastic time doing it. I know that one day one of those songs will be used somewhere, in a movie or something. There are some wonderful things there.
Nike should use “We Run” and pay me millions of dollars for that song. When I find a way to get that to Nike, it will change everything.
I don’t want to stop writing, so what is the alternative? You get somebody to come around and you make the album in your house. All of the parts on Toys & Dishes were done at my place. I know the vocal sound is fantastic. I have somebody who can help me mix.
I am just going to set up my studio and I am going to write. I guess sometime in the next two years there will be a seventy year old man sending a record out for his seventieth birthday.
I’ve got four Christmas songs and another song that are going to go on an EP that will come out at Christmas. I wrote these Christmas songs with a German friend of mine. He called me up and said, “Do you want to write some Christmas songs?” I said, “Why not.” I think they are really nice Christmas songs. We are doing some special shows in December, so I am going to have a Christmas EP that people can take away when they leave.
Jeb: You are taking total control of your career.
Chris: It will be different because it has to be different. The music that me and my generation made will not fade away. When someone rediscovers this music in twenty years, they will discover they have four records by The Rolling Stones they never played on the radio and then it will come back.
Sting can’t get his new records played. There are a lot of records that never got played, but there is a lot of great music that will one day be discovered.
Jeb: I think once you guys are done it may be the end...
Chris: I think that a generation of kids will discover it. My two daughters love songs like “Eye of the Tiger” and they listen to “We Will Rock You.” They listen to their stuff but they really like the rock stuff.
They will need to rediscover the energy of rock bands. New bands will come around. The kids will need the energy. They are not going to get that energy from X Box forever.
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