Thomas was born in Perivale, Middlesex, and now lives in London. Thomas trained in violin and piano as a child, began playing bass in London pop bands, turning down at one point the opportunity to play with Jimi Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell before Hendrix had struck fame.
Preferring studio work to playing live, he wrote to Beatles producer George Martin seeking work and in 1967 was employed on a six-month trial by AIR, an independent production company which had been founded by Martin and three other EMI producers. Although hired as a messenger and tea boy, he was also able to sit in on sessions at EMI with the Hollies and, in 1968, The Beatles during their sessions for the White Album.
Thomas later recalled:
“I went down to the studio and didn't really know what to expect because I'd only been observing up to that point. I was scared stiff and couldn't speak for hours! Ken Scott was engineering. He was 21, I was 22. The tape op was probably 20. Here we were with the biggest band on the planet. But The Beatles completely ignored me, and I got quite worried. Then they had a little break after three or four hours and they were chatting about Apple, which was new then, and I was wandering around downstairs and I heard John [Lennon] say, 'He's not really doing his job is he?' and I immediately took that to be about me. I thought, 'This is it.' I figured my whole career had about four hours left and then I'd get the bullet. George Martin would give me the bullet, and that would be the end of it.Thomas continued with the sessions, playing on "Happiness Is a Warm Gun", mellotron on "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," piano on "Long, Long, Long" and "Savoy Truffle," and harpsichord on "Piggies."
“So I went back upstairs and they started again and they were doing a take and somebody made a mistake, so I pressed the button to interrupt them to say, 'Try again.' And in that studio the interruption was a klaxon – this huge RRRRAWWWWK! [Laughs] And they didn't hear the mistake, so they came up to the control room to have a listen. And I thought, 'God, if I've hallucinated this I'm in real trouble!' But they heard it and then they went back downstairs and started again.”
By the end of 1968, he had produced his first album – The Climax Chicago Blues Band by the Climax Blues Band; two years later he was working on Home, the fourth album by Procol Harum. He was subsequently invited by John Cale to produce his Paris 1919 album at the AIR Studios, where he met Bryan Ferry, who in turn asked Thomas to produce Roxy Music.
Thomas explained how most of his production roles have arisen:
“I've been fortunate in that it's always been a case of the band contacting me rather than me being hired through a record company. So it hasn't been a manufactured arrangement. That's good because it shows they trust me, and if you haven't got the artist's trust, it doesn't matter what you do in the studio, you're not going to get anywhere.”
In 1973, as Thomas’ work continued to attract interest, he took on mixing duties with Pink Floyd for their The Dark Side of the Moon album, frequently finishing work at midnight and driving to AIR Studios to do more work on Procol Harum's Grand Hotel album until 5am.
Floyd guitarist David Gilmour claims Thomas’ role on The Dark Side of the Moon was as much umpire as mixer.
“Chris Thomas came in for the mixes, and his role was essentially to stop the arguments between me and Roger about how it should be mixed. I wanted Dark Side to be big and swampy and wet, with reverbs and things like that. And Roger was very keen on it being a very dry album. I think he was influenced a lot by John Lennon's first solo album [Plastic Ono Band], which was very dry. We argued so much that it was suggested we get a third opinion. We were going to leave Chris to mix it on his own, with Alan Parsons engineering. And of course on the first day I found out that Roger sneaked in there. So the second day I sneaked in there. And from then on, we both sat right at Chris's shoulder, interfering. But luckily, Chris was more sympathetic to my point of view than he was to Roger's.”He later helped mix Pink Floyd's 1994 album The Division Bell with Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and also co-produced Gilmour's 2006 solo album On an Island.
Thomas produced a trio of albums for power pop group Badfinger on the tail end of their career, beginning with 1973's Ass, and 1974's Badfinger and Wish You Were Here albums. Ass was originally recorded with Badfinger producing, but the group later admitted they were incapable of producing themselves. Members Peter Ham and Tom Evans solicted Thomas' help in cleaning up existing recordings and laying down new tracks. Although the succeeding album Badfinger retained Thomas from the outset and was considered by critics to be an improvement in production, neither album was successful in the marketplace. For their third project together, Thomas held a meeting with the group and pleaded that they all concentrate on making the best record they could muster. It turned out that Wish You Were Here garnered the most positive critical response from periodicals (including Rolling Stone magazine. Thomas later said:
“I mean it goes back to that first meeting. We thought 'We really pulled it off.' They came across as great songwriters and singers. I thought it was the best album I'd made to that point.”Thomas said he was sorely disappointed when he learned that Wish You Were Here, after only four months in release, was pulled off the market due to legal troubles between Badfinger and Warner Brothers Records.
In 1976, he was asked by Malcolm McLaren to produce the debut single by the Sex Pistols. He recalled:
“When I first heard the Sex Pistols' demos that they brought to me, I thought, 'This has the potential to be the best English rock band since The Who. It's a three-piece again – guitar, bass and drums.' The first single was Anarchy in the UK which made quite an impression ... Anarchy has something like a dozen guitars on it; I sort of orchestrated it, double-tracking some bits and separating the parts and adding them, et cetera ...It was quite labored. The vocals were laboured, as well.”Thomas’ colleagues in the recording industry were horrified by his involvement with the Sex Pistols, particularly when he found himself producing the band at the same time as he was working with Paul McCartney. His work with the band also led to one of his most curious album credits. Co-producer Bill Price explained:
“ The simple facts of the matter were that Chris was hired by Malcolm (McLaren) to do a series of singles for the Sex Pistols. I was hired by Malcolm to do a series of album tracks with the Sex Pistols. Life got slightly complicated, because I did a few album tracks that Chris remade as singles. Also, Chris started a couple of tracks, which got abandoned as singles, which I remade to be used as album tracks. On quite a large number of songs, when we'd finished the album, we had two versions of the song. I couldn't quite understand why Malcolm kept chopping and changing between different versions of different songs. It slowly dawned on Chris and myself that Malcolm was trying to slip between two stools and not pay Chris or me. So we said, "I'll tell you what, Malcolm. Whatever's on the Sex Pistols' album, it was either done by me or Chris, and you can pay us and we'll divvy it out amongst our little selves." Which is what we did. But it did force that very strange credit, simply because the sleeve was printed long before it was finally decided which version of each individual song was on the record. If we'd known, it would have said 'produced by Bill Price' or 'produced by Chris Thomas'. That's how you ended up with that credit, 'produced by Bill Price or Chris Thomas'. ”In 2007, Chris Thomas produced a brand new studio recording of Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols for use in the new video game Skate. John Lydon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook all play on this new version, which was recorded in Los Angeles in July 2007, with only Glen Matlock absent.
In 1985, Thomas played a critical part in achieving a worldwide breakthrough for Australian band INXS.
INXS keyboardist and main songwriter Andrew Farriss explained:
“We'd already finished the Listen Like Thieves album but Chris Thomas told us there was still no "hit". We left the studio that night knowing we had one day left and we had to deliver "a hit". Talk about pressure.”Thomas recalls he was worried that the standard of songs the band had laid down was not as strong as he wished.
“Then Andrew brought in three demos – two songs that had been completed and he played me a thing that was just this riff – dink, dink, dink-a-dink-and it was great. I thought, 'I could listen to that groove for ten minutes!' I said, 'Let's work with that groove.' So we went with that and in just two days it turned into the song that eventually broke them, 'What You Need.'”Other
Thomas helped guide Chrissie Hynde into a recording career, producing The Pretenders’ first (self-titled) album; his work on 1984's Learning to Crawl earned him the sobriquet on the liner notes as the "fifth Pretender."
Thomas opts for Pulp's Different Class as one of the best records he has made, and admits: "I love working with writers. That's the person I always respond to most in a band.’’
Thomas says his role as a producer has changed little since the 1970s.
“The essential thing, if you want to be crude about it, is people want to make a hit record. So that means I'm still in there advising them to chop a few bars out of this part over here, maybe suggesting they change this riff, and that sort of thing. I've always been very interested in arrangements. The technical side is interesting, as well, but that's more just a means to an end. I don't want to imply that I'm in there all the time changing these songs around; not at all. Most of the time I don't have to say anything about that. That's one of the advantages of working with great writers.”Production credits
Albums produced or mixed by Thomas include:
* 1968: The Climax Chicago Blues Band by Climax Blues Band, The Beatles by The Beatles
* 1969: Climax Blues Band Plays On by Climax Blues Band
* 1970: A Lot of Bottle by Climax Blues Band, Home by Procol Harum
* 1971: Tightly Knit by Climax Blues Band, Mick Abrahams by Mick Abrahams
* 1972: At Last by Mick Abrahams Band, The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (mixing)
* 1973: For Your Pleasure by Roxy Music, Stranded by Roxy Music, Grand Hotel by Procol Harum, Paris 1919 by John Cale, Ass by Badfinger
* 1974: Badfinger by Badfinger, Wish You Were Here by Badfinger, Exotic Birds and Fruit by Procol Harum, Kurofune (aka Black Ship) by Sadistic Mika Band, Country Life by Roxy Music
* 1975: Siren by Roxy Music
* 1976: Viva! by Roxy Music, Let's Stick Together by Bryan Ferry
* 1977: Hurt by Chris Spedding
* 1977: Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols
* 1978: Power in the Darkness by Tom Robinson Band
* 1979: Back to the Egg by Wings
* 1980: Pretenders by The Pretenders; Empty Glass by Pete Townshend
* 1981: Pretenders II by The Pretenders
* 1982: All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes by Pete Townshend, Jump Up! by Elton John
* 1983: Too Low for Zero by Elton John
* 1984: Learning to Crawl by The Pretenders; Breaking Hearts by Elton John
* 1985: Listen Like Thieves by INXS; White City by Pete Townshend
* 1987: Kick by INXS
* 1988: Reg Strikes Back by Elton John; Live Nude Guitars by Brian Setzer
* 1989: Sleeping With the Past by Elton John
* 1990: X by INXS
* 1992: The One by Elton John
* 1994: Last of the Independents by The Pretenders, The Lion King soundtrack, Jewel by Marcella Detroit, The Division Bell by Pink Floyd (mixing)
* 1995: Different Class by Pulp
* 1996: Filthy Lucre Live by Sex Pistols
* 1997: The Big Picture by Elton John
* 1998: This Is Hardcore by Pulp
* 1999: Run Devil Run by Paul McCartney
* 2001: Or8? by Hoggboy
* 2004: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2
* 2006: On an Island by David Gilmour; Razorlight by Razorlight