[Mad Hatter]

by Chris Adams

A frank reminiscence of Tony Stratton Smith and Charisma Records written exclusively for this website by the founder of String Driven Thing

I first met Strat in the summer of ’72, when he came to a gig in Glasgow to check out the band. Maggie Bell was there that night, and they knew each other well, so what should have been an audition became a session, with the drink flowing and the two of them trading rock tales. This was typical Strat, for as an ex sports writer, the pub was his natural habitat, but even in this setting, he had a certain gravitas, for at another level, he was a man apart, a rock visionary who could spot the seeds of talent and provide the soil in which it might grow and flower. In fact, it struck me then that he personified the quality that he sought in all of his artists, an indefinable something that made them unique…to wit, charisma.

That evening, he told me how he had based his label on Berry Gordy’s Motown, with management, agency and A&R all under one roof, allowing him to shape his artists’ career. At the time, I was impressed by his logic, but anyone familiar with the story of Marvin Gaye might have felt a slight frisson of anxiety. A womanising coke fiend, Gaye married Gordy’s sister, then inevitably fell foul of his brother in law/label boss/manager/agent. End result…a decade in the wilderness, epitomised by a long stint in the Belgian seaside resort of Ostende. Now obviously Strat had designed his tetra headed company for the best of reasons, but nowadays, this kind of arrangement is illegal, because record labels do fall out with their artists and an independent manager is vital to protect their interests. A classic example is Peter Grant, who went through the roof when he discovered that Atlantic were about to release a single by his band, Led Zeppelin. His ‘no singles’ policy broke every rule in the record industry bible, and most managers would have given in, but Grant got his way, because he knew it was crucial in creating the ‘otherness’ of the Zeppelin myth.

With no such constraints, Strat’s strategy was to sign a band, release an album, then set out to ‘break’ it by dint of hard incessant gigging. When it achieved a measure of success, he then used it to piggyback his next signing up the ladder of fame. Van der Graaf were head of the pecking order in ’71, and headlined a Charisma tour along with Lindisfarne and Genesis. When the Geordies shot to stardom, they had Genesis foisted on them as support for a national tour in ’72. Fans left the gigs raving about the brilliant Genesis light show, but Alan Hull was reduced to turning up the house lights during Lindisfarne’s set in a vain attempt to negate the ‘Genesis effect’. You couldn’t find a better example of a situation which, with independent management, would never have arisen.

We joined Charisma just as Genesis began to get up a head of steam, and having supported them on a couple of Home Counties gigs, were chosen to open for them in New York. Strat had come up with this stroke of PR genius, and was flying eminent members of the music press out to cover the proceedings. Fast forward to the Philharmonic Hall. Conductor Pierre Boulez has over-run his orchestra’s rehearsal, leaving Genesis two hours for their complex set up and sound check. Just before the doors are flung open, someone suddenly remembers that String Driven Thing are also playing, so we get to do a peremptory plug in as the audience comes rushing down the aisles. Not the ideal way to make your American debut, or the kind of thing that a good manager would ever have allowed.

The pattern continued when we were booked as support on the Foxtrot tour. Ten days before the start, my lung collapsed, at which point any sensible manager would have pulled us. But not Mother Management, [as Strat’s HR wing was called.] The posters had been printed, and if it was humanly possible, we would be on stage at the Rainbow for the opening night. Normally it takes three or four weeks to recover from a spontaneous pneumothorax, but against the odds, I managed to make it. Understandably though, it was one of our poorest performances, and the press made a point of saying so. Disastrous for an emerging act, but in the larger scheme of things, just another minor bump on the Charisma road map. But it was due to a string of such dire management decisions that every band who ever walked through Strat’s door eventually ended up disintegrating in one way or another.

It was only when Genesis got management from Tony Smith [no relation] that they began to achieve real success. Before that happened, they had sent back a telegram from the States saying that they would not go on stage that night if the man who ran ‘Mother’ was in the same building!! Yet none of this need have happened, for working at the label was a woman who ended up managing both ‘difficult’ Peters, Hammill and Gabriel, after the label’s demise. Gail Colson had been record producer Shel Talmy’s PA when he gave Strat a room in his Knightsbridge flat from which to launch his fledgling label. When Rare Bird hit with ‘Sympathy’, she went with Strat, and very lucky he was to get her. Had Gail been ‘Mother’, then things might have turned out very differently. She was the one who made things tick, ensuring that big man’s dreams always had a firm connection to reality. Without her, Charisma would never ever have become the force it did.

But like everyone else, she was under Strat’s spell, for despite all the strategic flaws, he was an inspirational figure. In the end, my memories of him are always fond…that breathy whisper of a voice, the twinkling eyes, the wicked laugh. I remember the agency got us a TV gig in Paris, and he sent us off in his own private car, a huge Rover, driven by his driver, Crackie, a Welshman with one lung. Crackie enjoyed the finer things of life, so we devoured huge platters of hors d’oeuvres on the way across, and before we returned, he had helped us eat and drink our way through the substantial float and the TV fee. When we got back, empty-handed, Strat just shook his head and chuckled, as though we were his wayward children. And of course, in a way we were, all of us in his Wonderland, with the Mad Hatter himself at the top of the family table.

©Chris Adams. This article may not be reposted without permission and proper acknowledgement