Adrian Snell: Fireflake to Father - The life and times of a UK CCM institution

Sunday 1st July 1990

Tony Cummings recounts the long and unusual history of CCM star ADRIAN SNELL.

Adrian Snell
Adrian Snell

According to the book of Pop Music clichés the potted bio of your contemporary music star reads thus. Birthplace: Poverty Row. Parents: Couldn't care less. Early Teens: Our hero picks up a few guitar chords and a lot of bad habits. Late Teens: The would-be-star claws himself out of the dog-eat-dog maul of sleazy clubs and pubs. Big Break: Discovery by Mr Chequebook. Adrian Snell's fascinating story could not be more different.

Adrian Snell, Europe's most successful contemporary Christian music artist has a background that tramples the hallowed stereotypes into the dust. Adrian grew up in an environment of upper middle class comfort (some would say privilege). He was deeply loved by godly parents. He was a child protégé and pursued his spectacular gift with classical music training. And by the time he'd graduated Adrian had developed a dazzling piano and compositional technique and been offered a contract by the worlds' largest music publisher. But just when you've dumped the Working Class Rock Star bit and settled back with the Adrian Snell story to read another familiar saga - an Andrew Lloyd-Webber style success saga with Broadway shows, platinum albums and life with the millionaire set - you discover that Adrian's life story doesn't, of course, go along that furrow either. For Adrian is a deeply committed Christian whose songs reflect a myriad aspects of his faith. It is a faith. This has put him into a 'Christian music' marketing and promotional backwater where 'Smalltime' rules and rewards are few. Yet despite the relative lack of financial success Adrian's career has enjoyed a succession of striking artistic achievements, like the milestone 'The Passion' album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra or the 'Alpha And Omega' album of 1988 which is the biggest selling European-origin Christian music album ever, and was performed live before a staggering quarter of a million people. His is a career that is, in part at least, a testament to the tensions that exist between the Showbiz Mainstream and the undernourished 'Gospel Music' tributary, between the need for Artistic Honesty and the commandment to take the gospel into all the world. At several interviews, at his home in Leeds, and at a recording studio in Bury - where Adrian was putting the finishing touches to his new album 'Father' - the singer, pianist, guitarist and composer spoke at length of every aspect of his life and music.

Adrian was born the second of three children in Northwood, Middlesex in 1954 to Margaret and Geoffrey Stuart Snell. His father was a prosperous businessman who had once been a district commissioner in Kenya. Both his parents were deeply committed Christians.

"When I try to trace what was happening in my spiritual awakening I see that my parents had the desire that all three of their children would grow up with a living, ongoing knowledge of Christ. I know how concerned they were to make the Christian faith, worked out in the home, an extremely natural process - not compartmentalised." A precociously talented child, Adrian was taught piano and at the impossibly early age of six he had written his first work for the piano. A year later he entered his composition "Nightwalk" in a composing competition.

"Ours was a musical home. My mum was musical and father had once had lessons - violin and piano - but had been put off by the teachers. For the rest of his life dad played piano by ear. I remember waking up on Sundays and hearing him playing hymns in his own, totally original style." In March 1962 Adrian's father was ordained into the Anglican ministry. Adrian went to prep school. By the time Adrian was thirteen the Snell family were living in Canterbury. When the question of Adrian's confirmation came up, the ceremony was performed at Canterbury Cathedral. Remembered Adrian "The experience of being confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury was quite special. Looking back I think there were lots of aspects to these rather institutionalised steps that I have doubts about. But because of that firm family background I came through those doubts. There are people who can pinpoint things like being made an altar-boy or being brought up in a religious school and it meaning nothing as the catalyst in them saying 'Christianity is a complete waste of time!' But because of that secure family framework, that didn't happen to me.

The whole instruction of a child that leads to confirmation has so much to do with the teacher and what the faith means to them and how it is imparted. You can know the facts and present yourself for confirmation and say 'yes I believe all this' without any real experience. But if one is instructed well - then confirmation can be very special, to take-on-board that commitment in a place that has been built for the glory of God. My memories are very hazy. I understood myself to be already a believer. It was a confirmation of what I believed for as long as I could remember." By the time he was attending St. Edmund's public school in Canterbury, Adrian's undoubted gift for music was causing him one or two problems. "I remember enormous frustration from my teachers about my inability to knuckle under and practice seriously - really work at technique. There was a stage when I was encouraged to look at piano as a performer, even with the thought 'could I make a concert pianist?' But it became obvious that I didn't have the discipline to do that. What I was really into was having the technique that would give me freedom as a writer. I never saw myself as a concert pianist or solely with the classics.

"My parents were very open to pop music coming into the home. I was discovering new styles and music and would come home and try new styles and ideas that I'd heard. Modern jazz - Dudley Moore had a big impression on me., He had a regular spot on TV with his trio and I was just staggered by this. I remember listening to some of the stuff he did, recording it and trying to reproduce some of the stuff he did. This was all discovery for me because I wasn't brought up with jazz." In 1968 Adrian formed his first musical group.

"The group with my friends was called 'Creation One' something incredibly over the top. Then later, there was a group with my sister Julia and her friend, who was a drummer. We were called 'Theophilly' which means Lovers Of God. In so far as my faith was part of my life from the beginning, when I started to write words and songs they tended to be words that had a message and dealt with my faith. There was no point at which I started to say to the world, or to anybody, 'I'll try to be a gospel singer.' I still don't say that now and the label causes me a lot of problems."

In September 1972 Adrian enrolled at the Leeds College of Music studying jazz. In 1974 he switched to classical music studies. In addition to investigating compositional technique the talented student also began to take singing seriously.

"When I got to college I got some advice from a voice teacher. I was aware that I needed information about how to use the voice and how to protect it, more than wanting to sing more classically or operatically. When I went to college I went with the desire that one day my path in life would be as a performer and as a recording artist."

For a while Adrian's ambitions were diverted more towards songwriting. "I got to know a composer in Canterbury who was interested in what I was writing and I thing it was he who suggested that I contact his publishers who were Chappells. I went there with some of my material and signed a contract with them. That was the first experience I had of making serious inroads into the music business. Chappells were hoping to develop me as a songwriter. I remember a couple of occasions when I was asked to submit songs for the Eurovision Song Contest when the Shadows were performing. When Chappells began to see that the religious side to my writing was very deep they talked about developing some of my writing for educational purposes - working in the schools area. What was encouraging to me was that fairly early on (17 or so) I was having interest by established publishers in my ability as a musician to write. What I didn't see was the desire to say let's drop all this and work as a purely commercial writer - because I'd never seen myself as making a choice to become a gospel singer. I was simply expressing what was on my heart - I couldn't divorce the two. That has never changed - music has always been for me a fundamental part of who I am."

In 1974 Adrian met up with Phil Thomson, the Midlands-based poet and lyricist who was to play a key role in the development of Adrian's music over the next 16 years.

"The introduction to Phil was through his brother Blair, who'd been involved a little in my management. I'd been invited to do a recording for Radio Leeds and afterwards Blair said he'd love me to meet his brother who was a poet and he reckoned that my music and his brother's lyrics would go hand in hand. And we did meet, a few days later. There was a complete gelling of relationship. I loved Phil's poetry. I'd often struggled with words. And I had several pieces of music that were saying something to me that I wanted words to and I asked him to write them. One or two of the very first one's were never recorded; 'Longing To Be Free' was one I remember well. The first song of Phil's and mine, which was recorded, was on 'Fireflake' it was 'My Soul Alive'. There was this time we went away to a beautiful place in North Devon and just wrote. We came up with seven or eight songs. That relationship between poet/lyricist and musician has been constant since then although there have been considerable periods when we have not written together.

'But there's a very special, creative relationship between us that has kept drawing us together down the years."

In October 1974, a 'chance' meeting was to have a huge effect on the direction Adrian's talent was to take him
"I was beginning in my college life to play concerts. I was invited to play at Newcastle University with Malcolm and Alwyn, who were a significant part of the Christian music scene in those days. There was a mutual sense of appreciation of what each was doing. We sat in the dressing room and talked and they told me that they were with a company called MGO and had done several albums. I told them about Chappells and I wasn't very satisfied and wanted a company that would get behind me as a performer. They recommended that I 'stay within the family' and why not contact Geoff Shearn at MGO. I went away and thought about it and decided that's what I'd do."

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Reader Comments

Posted by PAUL TONKS in KILBURN, DERBY @ 20:20 on Jun 6 2013

i have just read your article on adrian. i thought that it was amazing. so honest and yet so refreshing.
a friend bought me fireflake in the 1970's and i thought it was the most brilliant music i had ever heard. i used to play it every morning before going to work. this friend even took it with him on our holiday to barbados in 1976.
i heard adrian at derby cathedral in his cathedral tour and recently met him at lee abbey in devon.
i still play fireflake today as well as all his other records - his music reaches me like no other.
thank you for such an interesting and absorbing article.
if you see adrian, tell him he is welcome to come for a meal anytime at my house. i feel sure that my wfe would love to meet the man whose music i play so frequently.
paul tonks. tel; 01332 883107

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