Review: Strat!: The Charismatic Life & Times of Tony Stratton Smith by Chris Groom

NB/Disclosure: I was kindly provided a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Rock and roll commentary mainly focuses on the music. It’s the exciting part of the business: there’s the art and of course all those stories of classic rockers doing crazy things. There’s a lot more to music than the musicians playing it, that’s just one side of music history. What about behind the scenes? There’s interesting stories to be found in session musicians, journalists, roadies, producers, and yes even managers.

A lot of people feel a kind of way about managers: they rip musicians off, they’re leeches, they’re boring old squares and a lot of these complaints are justified. Many managers are dishonest, only out for the money, selfish, and don’t care about the art or well being of the musicians they manage.

Everyone knows the names of the rock stars, but can you name managers? Besides a few famous ones like Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham, Peter Grant, and The Colonel, a normie music fan (not music nerds who know the topic inside and out) really can’t name a lot of managers or even say what they’re known for.

Why read about a manager, you may ask? Well some of them have very interesting stories and one of the ones that isn’t talked about nearly as much as the ones mentioned in the last paragraph is Tony Stratton Smith. Even if you’re into prog rock, you may not know that name but you’ll definitely know bands he was linked to: The Nice, Van Der Graaf Generator, and Genesis. Like a lot of other rock managers like Larry Parnes, Brian Epstein, Andy Warhol, Kit Lambert, and Simon Napier-Bell, he was gay. Classic rock is really gayer than you think!

This biography tells his story from start to finish and it’s a fascinating story and unique too, plus a foreword by Peter Gabriel. First chapter is about his humble beginnings with his upbringing in Birmingham. He was born to a young single mother and never knew his biological father. He trained as a journalist and got his start in sports journalism of all places, covering football (soccer, for the Americans) matches before transitioning to music. Not only managing rock bands like The Koobas and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, but also starting a record label called The Famous Charisma Label that allowed musicians a lot of creative freedom and had a distinctive Mad Hatter logo. He also never gave up on journalism and even invested in some music magazines, but they didn’t quite take off. Not being one to stay still, he didn’t stop at classic rock, he also worked with Monty Python and helped finance Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In the book, you’ll be reading about the rise of the bands he managed and seeing lots of name dropping, and you know how much I love how everyone in classic rock is somehow connected, small world!

Strat was a man with so many unique ideas and a real visionary. Nowadays you’ll see so many musician collabs with big brands, like the McDonald’s BTS meal, but that’s nothing new. In the 70s, folk rock band Lindisfarne made a deal with the Scottish & Newcastle Brewery which made the famous Newcastle Brown Ale to print stickers with the band on them which will be put on bottles of beer. That turned Newcastle Brown Ale from a local favourite in the Northeast to a favourite among students. The success of Lindisfarne’s Fog along with the success of Genesis put Charisma on the map, making them a strong competitor, releasing just as good music as the bigger labels. Eventually though all good things come to an end and in the 80s, Strat sold his remaining shares in Charisma to Richard Branson. After that, he ended up retiring in Spain before coming back to England.

The main point is that Strat was a unique manager who really did believe in the musicians he signed, always kept it real with them, and wasn’t afraid to go out of his comfort zone. In the book, musicians often regard him as an uncle like figure who believed in you 100%. Everyone needs someone like that in their lives.

It’s a real upstart to legend story and the award for outstanding contribution to music business is called The Strat, not the Eppy or something else. If you’re interested in the music business and behind the scenes sort of things or prog rock, this is a book you might want to pick up and read to see another side of prog rock and to get to know the man who managed some great bands. A very multifaceted person with eclectic interests. What makes this book really special is that the author interviewed over 60 people for it and most of the quotes are from the author’s own interviews.

I’ll leave this review with a great quote from Strat and essentially a manifesto for Charisma that sums up his philosophy:

“The essential thing to remember about rock is that there are very few precedents, and little criteria to it as a form and essentially it is dominated by young people, made by young people, for young people. And regrettably they tend to feel that it exists in some sort of limbo, that the way they feel it is the way it has to be.

“And I mean, no artist in any other field would possibly feel the same way. They are aware of the discipline that governs their art. This lack of discipline within rock, as an art, encourages an awful moment of self-indulgence in musicians. I grieve at the amount of talent that lies rotting, literally rotting, and always able to justify its own decay. There is NO justification! Whenever I see major talents sitting around chewing the cud, doing nothing, or doing something occasionally, which tends to be below their horizon, I think it is stupid.”

5 Takeaways/things I’ve learnt from Strat!

As always with a book/movie review, I like to write my takeaways and things I’ve learnt, makes it educational for you and gives an idea of what the book is about.

1. Strat’s sleeping in saved his life. Fate? Destiny?

Before Strat was in the rock and roll world, he was a sports journalist, and quite a successful one at that, often flying to cover matches abroad. He was originally supposed to cover the Manchester United v Red Star Belgrade European Cup match in Yugoslavia in 1958 for the Daily Sketch, but because he overslept and missed the flight, he was assigned to go and cover a World Cup qualifying match in Wales. However, other stories say that journalist Henry Rose went instead because he wanted to cover that match. Sadly, Henry Rose was one of the eight journalists travelling with the team who died: Alf Clarke, Frank Swift, Henry Rose, Archie Ledbrooke, George Follows, Donny Davies, Tom Jackson, and Eric Thompson. Three journalists survived: Ted Ellyard, Peter Howard, and Frank Taylor.

The plane landed fine in Belgrade and Manchester United won, but when flying back after a refuelling stop in Munich, the plane crashed because of problems with the engine and the snow causing slush to form at the end of the runway. Because the plane hit the slush, it couldn’t take off and it crashed into a house and burst into flames. Of the 44 people onboard, 23 died and 19 were injured. The plane crash was devastating to Manchester United and took the lives of so many great players. The players who diedwere between the ages of 21 and 28. Their names were Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, and Billy Whelan.

Strat might have felt some sort of survivor’s guilt about the crash. He was definitely shaken when a widow of one of the journalists blamed him for the death of her husband. His close friend Simon G. White believes that this is why he left sports journalism. One chapter ended, but a new chapter began: music! Still though, Strat kept flying and travelling, and yes, missing flights too due to oversleeping.

This story reminds me a lot of Seth MacFarlane and him almost being on one of the hijacked 9/11 flights, but because his travel agent made a mistake and told him his flight was going to be a bit later and he had a bit too much to drink the previous night, he made it to the airport just a bit too late for his original flight.

2. Strat was always ahead of the curve with music and always kept an open mind.

There are many examples of this in the book such as him signing all kinds of bands, but one example stands out in my head. While working as a freelance sports journalist, he travelled to America to cover the growth in popularity of football: in fact, at that time more Americans played football (soccer) than baseball and American football combined. He also travelled to South America and spent a lot of time in Brazil, where he got into the music of Stan Getz, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Gilberto Gil, and Tito Puente. In 1962, he saw Antônio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, and João Gilberto at a nightclub in Copacabana and really enjoyed the music.

In the mid 60s, Bossa Nova (Portuguese for ‘new trend’) was trendy and American and British people loved to listen to it. Famously, Getz & Gilberto’s “The Girl From Ipanema” won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1965. It is the second most covered pop song after The Beatles’ “Yesterday”.

3. He almost ghostwrote Brian Epstein’s autobiography!

Strat once said “I wasn’t that much in love with football. I wanted to write books.” And he wrote a book called The Rebel Nun, a biography of Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Latvian born-Russian raised nun (who lived on the outside world though!) who had an interest in politics and was involved with the Social Revolutionary Party, and even had plans to assassinate Leon Trotsky! She left Russia for Paris and got involved in the Russian Student Christian Movement and befriended some intellectuals. She wanted to help others however she could and worked with the Jewish Resistance in Paris and hid Jews in her home. Because of that, the Nazis arrested her and imprisoned her in a concentration camp where she died.

Because he was busy working on this book at the time he met Brian Epstein in 1964, he turned down a ghostwriting job. While talking about the book, Tony told Brian that he could maybe start ghostwriting his autobiography in six months because he wanted to finish the project he was already working on and Brian was upset. He felt slighted because he felt that he was put on the back burner and not a priority. Even though Tony didn’t take on that job, he still learnt a lot from Brian Epstein and knew that a good manager should take on a creative role when they work with rock bands. It’s not just about business.

4. Signing Genesis was a turning point for both the band and Strat.

Of all the bands Strat managed, the one you probably know best are Genesis, and they were his top selling group. What you might not know is that Genesis were a struggling band before Strat signed them. They formed in 1967 at the posh boarding school Charterhouse in Godalming, a town in Surrey. Students Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Anthony Phillips, Mike Rutherford, and Chris Stewart were students who liked beat music. In 1968, they recorded their debut From Genesis to Revelation. It was a flop and received mixed reviews. It only sold 650 copies and only after the fact when Genesis got famous did it manage to get attention. Part of the reason for the poor sales is that it was put in the religious music section because of the title. On top of that they signed a really bad contract, but luckily they got out of it because the band were all under 18 when they signed it. The band members were all from well off families and they had hopes of going onto university and go on to work in prestigious fields: medicine, law, or education. Had Strat not signed Genesis, they would have all go one to work day jobs. In 1970, Phil Collins joined the band and in 1971, Steve Hackett joined the band. The rest is history!

5. Strat missed out on Queen!

Every record label has that one who got away most notably Decca with The Beatles. In Charisma’s case that band were Queen, but it wasn’t like they didn’t try to sign them. In 1972, Queen were a pretty unknown band and they were trying really hard to get a record deal. A friend of Queen’s, Ken Testi lived with a Charisma employee Paul Conroy and they were talking about Queen and Strat wanted to sign Queen and made an offer of somewhere between £20k and £25k. Strat being unconventional, he didn’t care so much about money or business as it was about whether or not he liked the music and he really liked the music. Queen rejected the offer and used it as leverage in negotiating deal with other labels and they instead went with Norman Sheffield, who ripped them off.

Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!

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