by Margaret Chrystall
SMOKIE’S keyboard-player Martin Bullard looks remarkably good for a man who reckons he started touring as a musician 55 years ago.
Back then he was a five-year-old choirboy with three different choirs to please.
"That sort of set the tone," Martin laughed. "You finished at one church, got into a car and headed for the next one. And that is what touring is all about.
"It’s a means to an end."
He should know. With Smokie, he covers 35 (CHECKING THIS) separate worldwide territories, such is the power of Smokie’s legacy of storytelling pop which has helped the band sell 25 million albums.
"We’re away touring for 10 months of the year," he said. "We did a 12-date tour of Australia at the end of last year and we come home for January.
"There’s nowhere in the world that wants you in January. Even in the southern hemisphere it’s their midsummer holiday.
"The tours there do extremely well – we are very lucky that we’ve a lot going on.
"And that’s the story everywhere in the world, we just keep going back."
But next Thursday, Martin couldn’t get closer to home for his next gig with Smokie.
They finally play the Ironworks, practically on the doorstep of Martin who has lived with his wife Roz near Drumnadrochit for the last 23 years.
"I’m really pleased. I hope it goes well!"
The wait is almost as long as getting the chance to capitalise on their profile in Russia.
Martin explained: "We became huge there. The leader Leonid Brezhnev banned pop music with the exception of three bands and we were one of them. They could comb through our lyrics and not find anything politically likely to cause unrest. And the Russians just love stories – good storylines and good melodies – and that is what we trade in.
"But we didn’t get to play there until 1991 when the Berlin Wall came down.
"As soon as the doors were open, we were in and we were huge – five nights at the Moscow Olympic Stadium.
"We had ex-KGB as our security. It was like Beatlemania, you needed a lot of protection, you were bundled off, then driven away at speed which was all quite good fun.
"It was a far cry from the old club days."
Though 11 of Smokie’s 14 British hits came in the 1970s, they have become one of the most popular bands across the world. Scandinavia, South Africa, Germany and even China are among the places where hits such as Living Next Door to Alice, Lay Back in the Arms of Someone, If You Think You Know How to Love Me and 1995 reboot Living Next Door to Alice (Who the F*** Is Alice?) are well-known – and keep the band popular visitors.
Smokie first got together at school in Yorkshire in the late 1960s when they signed with Mickie Most’s RAK label and later top 10 songs – such as If You Think You Know How To Love Me, Don’t Play Your Rock’n’Roll To Me, It’s Your Life and Oh Carol – were all over the radio.
Chris Norman, the original gravel-voiced singer left the band for a solo career in 1986, and was replaced by Black Lace’s Alan Barton – also when Martin was recruited. Barton died after the tourbus crashed in 1995 just as the band had re-recorded what would be a hit version of Living Next Door To Alice (Who The F*** Is Alice). The band and Roy Chubby Brown donated their royalties from the number three single to Barton’s family.
"Our drummer Steve Pinnell is best friends with Roy Chubby Brown and he was asked to help us out with the – ‘language’! "
Martin said: "We just play the song and it’s the audience that comes up with the response ‘Who the f*** is Alice?’.
"One of the things about that Smokie tune – and the others are that they’re simple to play."
Simple to sing along to as well, surely part of the success of songs that speak for their era.
Martin – who after a degree in economics, working as an international banker, in signed band The Ward Brothers that was dropped out of the blue and as a keyboard salesman – was invited to join Smokie while he was, like them, based in Yorkshire.
Having met his wife Roz in Australia – a manager in the music and comedy business who became Smokie’s tour "troubleshooter", as Martin terms it – Martin then proposed and they married.
The couple took a look further north for their next home.
"We got married 25 years ago, as of last December," Martin said.
"We moved up here on the toss of a coin really. We were living in Yorkshire and it was a case of do we turn left or right at the end of our drive.
"We turned left and came to the Highlands and I showed Roz places I had loved when I visited with my father as a child."
Martin is a regular commuter – "KLM is like my bus service"– and admits he has lots of "toys" such as iPad, iPhone, to help pass the time travelling.
He also enjoys keeping in touch with Smokie fans by Facebook and Twitter and reveals it is a vital way the band now sells out tours, such as the last Australian one.
But social media is also a way Martin enjoys sharing all those journeys and global destinations while on tour.
"I get up early and go for a walk in a place, find out about where I am and if I find something interesting I put that up."
Smokie is at the Ironworks, Inverness, on Thursday, February 23.