The photograph on the front cover says it all – a jovial looking, round-faced gent with a double chin whose shirt is stretched rather too tight across an ample belly, a loud, polka-dot tie, a drink and a customised “Charisma” Union Jack in one hand, an oversized, joke top hat in the other, a packet of Benson & Hedges protruding from his jacket pocket, hair that could use a trim, a cheeky grin on his face, a full bookshelf in the background, pens and pad on the desk in front of him, a scene abundant in mirth.
Who was he? That’s the question with which Chris Groom wrestles in this biography of the man who founded, and somehow funded, Charisma Records, in the process discovering Genesis which made him a fortune. But Tony Stratton Smith remains elusive. There was something of the Will-O’-The-Wisp about him, his fingers in many pies, not all of them harmonising; and though his friends were many and all of them knew something about him, none of them seem to have known everything, so the author’s dogged persistence in interviewing and/or seeking assistance from no fewer than 207 named individuals in pursuit of the man still leaves a few questions unanswered. Which is how Strat, as he was universally known, probably wanted it.
Time to declare an interest. The manuscript for this book, all 268,898 words of it, landed on my desk at Omnibus Press about seven years ago. I declined to publish it, partly because it was far too long and partly because I knew from experience that books on music industry figures never sell anywhere near as well as books on music industry stars. Fast forward a few years and Chris Groom rings me up to say that he has found a publisher who requires the book to be cut by over 100,000 words, a task beyond him. Could I help? So, Chris crossed my palm with silver and early last year I reduced it to 154,000 words, eliminating repetition and rewriting large chunks in the process, tinkered with the chronology, followed a lead or two of my own, restructured and retitled the chapters, and added an index. This seemed to satisfy Wymer, the publishers, and the book finally saw the light of day at the beginning of this month.
Having thus contributed considerably – so much so that the author has seen fit to add my name to the cover, alongside that of Peter Gabriel who has written a Foreword – I can hardly review it in the customary sense. Suffice to say that although Tony Stratton Smith – the Stratton was adopted early on to differentiate him from a work colleague with a similar name – somehow manages to confound the author as regards the full picture of himself, I defy anyone to pull together a more comprehensive picture of this extraordinary man.
“Well, I never knew that about him,” was repeated to me several times by persons I spoke to for clarification on certain issues as I worked on the manuscript. This certainly confirms that those who knew – or thought they knew – him as well as anyone will find something to surprise them in the book.
Strat was a journalist, sports writer, author, traveller, music publisher, concert promoter, manager of rock bands, record company boss, film producer, wheeler and dealer, gambler, racehorse owner and, finally, a tax exile. There were rumours, unconfirmed, that he might have worked for the British secret service. He was gay, a borderline alcoholic, overweight, addicted to risk and spoke with a posh accent that belied his humble upbringing in a suburb of Birmingham. Born out of wedlock, he never knew his father. He was befriended by millionaires and paupers. He was generous to a fault and might have been defrauded by persons who saw him as an easy mark. He died, quite suddenly, from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage attributed to pancreatic cancer, aged 53, and left no will.
As the head of Charisma Records, Tony became known as a generous patron of talented musicians whose work was not necessarily in line with commercial trends, an attitude that endeared him to many in the industry but may have ill-served him as regards Charisma’s balance sheet. His legacy was a label that defies logic in today’s terms. Best known for Genesis and Lindisfarne, it was also home to such disparate talents as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Sir John Betjeman, Julian Lennon, The Nice, John Arlott, Vivian Stanshall, Bert Jansch, Price Far I, Peter Hammill and many more.
What everyone agrees on is that Strat was a joyful, carefree man of the world, often to be found propping up bars in Soho, glass in hand, when he should have been working. Fortunately, his staff – many of whom went on to become leading figures in the music business – covered for him, though they could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at some of the boss’s more unrealistic ventures. I knew him briefly and can confirm he was splendid company. That he was loved dearly is clear from the testimony of so many friends and business associates in this book. Most will be saddened to read about his final months as a tax exile in Las Palmas where he seemed to be rudderless, rarely sober and lacking the support of genuine friends.
“Ultimately, what he really cared about were the people,” writes Chris Groom, “the creativity, about imagination, inspiration and risk, and the sheer joy to be had in bringing all those elements together, lighting the Charisma-pink touch paper and standing back, glass in hand, to watch what might happen when the sparks began to fly.”