Strat! The Charismatic Life and Times of Tony Stratton-Smith by Chris Groom
The biography by Chris Groom tells an in-depth story of a bon vivant, passionate manager and impressive founder of Charisma Records.
If one was challenged to compete with Tony Stratton-Smith in seeking out joie de vivre, he would be at great risk of failure. From his beginnings as a sports journalist to the foundation of Charisma Records, SS always stayed true to himself. A story in twenty chapters, the book by Chris Groom reveals various facets of the public persona – a correspondent, author, manager, the label’s owner. Taking on these roles, Stratton-Smith would not shy away from his habits which manifested the enjoyment of life.
Introducing Stratton-Smith with the epithet “avuncular”, the author portrays him as fatherlike and wise but also somewhat droll. “A friendly lion”, as Peter Gabriel characterises him. With his love of a strong drink and excellent ability to fire people up, Tony Stratton-Smith seems to have a Churchillian nature.
A few episodes in the book give a clue that the occasional hedonism of Stratton-Smith might have been in tune with providence. Being a night owl, he would oversleep and miss his early flight. Commissioned to cover a European Cup match between Manchester United and Red Star Belgrade for the Daily Sketch in 1958, Stratton-Smith would not be on the board of the private plane heading to Yugoslavia. On the way back to England, the team stopped in Munich as the aircraft needed to be refuelled. Subsequently, it attempted to take off three times and the third attempt resulted in the plane crash, known as the Munich air disaster.
With his experience in sports journalism and the mindset of a socialite, Stratton-Smith switched to the music industry in the early 60s. Having learnt from his previous occupation, he often turned on a competitive mode when willing to be at the wheel of a favourite band’s success. Naturally, the sport-related metaphors emerge in the text. “It might not be cricket, but there is no greater confirmation of an act’s potential than when another label tries to steal it from under your nose”, reads the first line of the chapter telling the story of the rivalry between Charisma and Chrysalis, who once had an idea to take over Genesis.
At the beginning of his career in the music industry, the road of Tony Stratton-Smith seemed to be a bumpy one. Some obstacles were arising due to lack of experience, others were caused by his desire to do what he wanted. SS famously abandoned to ghost-write a memoir of Brian Epstein in favour of finishing his own novel The Rebel Nun, a biography of Mother Maria Skobtsova. A blasphemous gesture for those involved in the 60s music industry, seemingly as agnostic as Tony declared himself. With this example, the author supports the thesis that the inner world of SS was, indeed, a mystery.
Writing a religious biography was not the only case in Tony’s life where the music business and church had to go hand in hand. After one of his bands, The Mark Four changed the name to The Creation the manager needed to get approval from both the Catholic and Anglican authorities. Groom cites Stratton’s response to Melody Maker: “I chose the name and don’t think it is irreligious. I have written a religious biography, The Rebel Nun, which received favourable reviews from a number of bishops.” Ironically, the two most recognised bands managed by Stratton-Smith had names that evoked associations with the Old Testament. The second was Genesis.
Relying on facts and figures, the author pictures Stratton-Smith not only as an unconventional manager but a maverick listener. Revising the line-up of artists he worked with, one might be surprised to see The Creation alongside The Koobas and eccentrics The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. The music taste of Tony Stratton-Smith was, indeed, a quirky one. Not a surprise that from its early days in 1969, his Charisma Records label earned a reputation of the one that offered “opportunities to acts whose music might not readily chime with popular taste”. The SS’s business style was no less distinctive. In the words of Glen Colson, the label’s press officer, Stratton-Smith appeared a “tremendous bluffer”. “He could write a letter that made it look like he was a millionaire and was offering the greatest deal to someone when the truth was that we were completely broke and no one had been paid for weeks”.
With plenty of quotations from the label’s employees (including a few receptionists) and bands related to it, the book gives an impression that charisma was, indeed, Stratton-Smith’s mojo. Groom often cites Gail Colson (Stratton-Smith’s right hand and the Charisma Records manager) and her brother Glen, giving a firsthand account of a usual day at Strat’s office: “He would rise about 11.30 am, head for the bathroom, ordering a coffee on the way and field telephone calls in the bath. Staff averted their eyes as they passed the phone through the door. The flat was small, but was home to about seven full-time staff who managed, published, booked and mothered Strat’s bands”. At the dawn of 1970, the label was managing four bands – The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Nice, Rare Bird and Van Der Graaf Generator.
This is a thorough biography, written by an author with a deep sense of admiration for the subject of his research. In the beginning, the writer reveals his personal connection to Charisma Records. As a graphic designer, Chris Groom tried his luck and attempted to show his portfolio of album covers to Stratton-Smith but didn’t meet him in person. With a sense of irony and perhaps some regret, he tells this story in third-person: “Had he known better he’d have taken his portfolio downstairs into the bar of the Marquee club where the genial boss of Charisma was more than likely having his first drink of the evening with his great friend Jack Barrie, the club’s manager. Instead, he was taken upstairs to meet the creative director Pete Jenner”. Shrouded in mystery for Groom back then, Stratton-Smith appears visibly in a reader’s imagination now.
Strat!: The Charismatic Life & Times of Tony Stratton-Smith by Chris Groom is available here.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.