The story of Charisma Records is the story of the label’s founder, Tony Stratton Smith. No other record label so clearly represented the personality of its owner – his enthusiasms, his whims, his quirks, his entrepreneurialism, his contradictions, his whole being was infused into everything the company did.
Born in Birmingham in 1933, Strat, as he was known to everyone, began his career in the 1950s as a sports journalist on the Birmingham Gazette, Daily Sketch and Express newspapers, as well as editing the International Football Book in the early 1960s. Usually writing as simply “Stratton Smith”, he developed a knowingly verbose style, casually peppering his football reports with quotes from the likes WB Yeats and Ezra Pound. In his description of Brazil’s victory in the 1962 World Cup he states “a wild dance of tears was in every limpid Brazilian eye.” That sort of thing.
It was while covering the 1962 Cup in Chile that he met Brazilian composer Tom Jobim who got Strat interested in the world of music publishing. A few years later he visited Brazil to write a biography of rising football Pelé. The book never appeared, but Strat returned a changed man. He seems to have undergone something of a spiritual awakening, penning two non-sports books. Firstly there was The Rebel Nun (Souvenir 1965), the story of a Russian revolutionary who ends up fleeing the Civil War, becomes an Orthodox nun, travels Europe, gets arrested in Nazi occupied Paris for hiding Jews and dissidents and died in Ravensbruck concentration camp. Secondly there is the altogether more mysterious The Moon And Two Mountains. Co-written with Pedro McGregor, a Brazilian spiritist, it describes the very particular form of religion that grew up in Brazil in the 19th century. a combination of the Catholicism of Portuguese settlers, the native spiritualism and the religions of the African and Islamic slaves.
More importantly for our story, the trip reaffirmed Strat’s interest in music. He continued with some sports writing, but now began to infiltrate the world of rock and roll. He got himself introduced to Brian Epstein and became manager for Merseybeat group Paddy, Klaus & Gibbon in 1965. After selling their contract to Epstein, he went on to manage veteran Liverpool band The Koobas and relative newcomers, the psychedelic Creation. His roster grew to include a mixture of established bands such as the Bonzo Dog Band and young bands like The Nice and Van Der Graaf Generator.
It was while recording VDGG’s first album, for Mercury, that Strat came across a vital member of the early Charisma story, John Anthony. A former DJ at the Speakeasy club in Soho, Anthony has become friends with Yes and recorded a demo for them. Anthony got a taste for production and became the in-house producer for Trident Studios in St Anne’s Court off Wardour Street.
Strat was becoming increasingly frustrated in his dealings with major labels and struck on the idea of starting his own. Independent labels were not completely new – Island formed in 1959, Stones manager Andrew Oldham set up Immediate in 1965 and signed The Nice, and John Peel had Dandelion Records in 1969. Even the major labels were getting in on the act, with EMI setting up Harvest, Decca Deram and Mercury forming Veritgo to release their new, “progressive” acts.
Charisma Records was launched in 1968 in collaboration with fellow independent B&C Records. Charisma’s first release in their own right, as opposed to being part of B&C, was the eponymous debut album by Rare Bird (1969). The LP spawned a single, Sympathy, a massive hit across Europe and kick started the company’s finances.
So began Charisma’s glory years. Strat’s biggest band, The Nice, released their final two albums in quick succession before Keith Emerson split the band up and formed ELP (who Strat turned down). VDGG slowly built their own fanatical fanbase. New signings rolled in, including Lindisfarne, a folk rock band from Newcastle who could produce singles, a group of public school boys called Genesis spotted by John Anthony during a residency at Ronnie Scott’s, and Clifford T Ward, a school teacher turned songwriter who charted with the single Gaye. In the era of the “album band”, Charisma hosted a whole roster of often wonderful groups who sold solidly if not spectacularly – String Driven Thing, Capability Brown, Audience, Brand X, and Lindisfarne off-shoot Jack The Lad to name a few.
Spoken word and comedy albums also formed an important part of the label’s output. Monty Python signed to Charisma in 1971, producing such wonders as Matching Tie And Hankerchief, a glorious and genuinely innovative piece of packaging and recording, with its famous double track on side two. Other strange and wonderful releases included Sir John Betjeman’s album’s of poetry, a pair of Dame Edna Everage LPs, a recording of meditations by psychologist RD Laing, and Classical Heads, a bizarre collection of poetry readings played over various pieces of orchestral music.
While Strat was the undisputed head of the Charisma family, the day-to-day running was based around his PA, Gail Colson, the person charged with translating Strat’s sometimes vague, often contradictory and occasionally temporary ideas into a solid business. Alongside her worked her brother, Glen Colson, who worked at various times as office boy, driver, press officer and A&R man, and her husband, former Bonzo roadie Fred Munt, who ran Charisma’s in-house band managment. Paul Conroy ran the Charisma Agency and Mike de Havilland worked in promotions.
In 1971 Strat revived an idea from the 1950s whereby labels would send out their biggest artists as a package tour. The “Six Bob Tour” shows opened with the Genesis, followed by Lindisfarne and Van Der Graaf headlining with each gig only charging six shilling’s ticket price.
Charisma was very much a London company, based in and around Soho. with offices in Dean Street, Brewer Street, Soho Square, and Old Compton Street. Charisma artitsts made their home at the old Marquee, with drinks being taken in the Ship pub, La Chasse club and Speakeasy, all on Wardour Street, and studios at Trident House in St Anne’s Court. And for those who fancied a bit of a break in the country could take advantage of the studios at Strat’s Luxford House in Crowborough, Surrey.
As the company grew, Charisma tried to diversify into book publishing and film production with typically mixed results. Strat had long harboured an interest in movies and toyed with the idea of a movie based around the music of Lindisfarne as early as 1971. In 1975 he helped fund Monty Python & The Holy Grail, and in 1978 Charisma Films produced its first proper movie, a comedy called The Odd Job, followed in 1980 by the great Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, the film version of Vivian Stanshall’s Charisma LP. Other projects, including a movie of Genesis’ 1974 concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, remained unfulfiled, as did a one-hour TV special based on the music of Tony Banks.
The only problem in the early days was the acrimonious departure of John Anthony. The first rifts occurred when Lindisfarne passed over Anthony in favour of American producer Bob Johnston as producer for their second album and Genesis began insisting on having greater control over their own production. Anthony also claimed he was never paid for the Genesis and Lindisfarne albums he did record. The final break came in 1973 when Anthony decided to back his new discovery, Queen. Anthony had followed the band from their pre-Freddie Mercury incarnation, Smile. Anthony could see the band’s potential and, despite their inability to attract decent audiences, decided to put his own and Trident’s money into recording them. Strat showed an interest and offered a generous advance of £20,000 for their first album but the band turned them down, worried about playing second fiddle on a small label to Charisma’s more established acts. They went to EMI and Anthony went with them.
By the mid-1970s Charisma’s early enthusiasm had settled into a more regular working life. Genesis, by now their biggest band, had lost their singer, Peter Gabriel. But fears that the band might collapse without him proved unfounded as drummer Phil Collins took over vocals and Gabriel joined the label as a solo artist, as did Steve Hackett, the band’s guitarist. VDGG continued getting great critical notices but never really expanded their audience beyond the hardcore fanbase. Lindisfarne left Charisma in 1973. Various artists set up home at Charisma on a temporary basis, including Hawkwind and Bert Jansch. As the Seventies turned into the Eighties their output began to feature more spoken word albums from Strat’s friends in the sporting world, including Peter O’Sullevan Talks Turf and John Arllott Talks Cricket.
Sadly, as the Seventies drew to a close, Charisma’s light began to fade. Perhaps the problem was the company was so inextricably linked Strat’s personality. Other independent labels, such as Virgin, with a more corporate structure, could adapt and change to new fashions, reinventing themselves as a home for punk and new wave bands. Strat, all ready a generation older than his artists in the Sixties, simply drifted away from the music business, spending more time working on film scripts and his his other great love, horse racing. Charisma had been sponsoring days at Kempston race track since 1973 and Strat was responsible for sponsoring a number of new trainers including Jenny Pitman.
There were some attempts to keep the label going. New staff were hired as Gail Colson and others left. There were a handful of new signings, including Vivabeat, the label’s first American band, and securing the UK rights to The Residents’ Commercial Album. They scooped up a couple of UK New Wave acts like Afraid Of Mice and The Monochrome Set and a smattering of reggae bands. Come the Eighties, come Malcolm McClaren, Julian Lennon and, unlikliest of all, The Rock Steady Crew as the label tried to reinvent itself as a place for new Hip Hop acts.
But all this was merely trying to turn back the tide. In 1983 Strat sold their distribution to Virgin, and in 1985 he sold all his shares in the company to Richard Branson. Virgin used the label to reissue the label’s existing recordings and occasionally as way of releasing their own artists, such as Kirsty McColl, in the US market until 1992.
It is perhaps significant that the last proper Charisma release was by Twelfth Night in 1986, a band who were part of the same neo-progressive movement as Marillion and venerated the music of Genesis and Van Der Graaf. The label had become a museum piece rather than a living place.
Recently Charisma has enjoyed something of a revival. Richard Branson sold Virgin records to EMI in 1992, including their Charisma stock. In 2005 Van Der Graaf Generator reunited to produce a new double CD, Present, released on a revived Charisma Label via EMI. Charisma is now a going concern again as part of EMI’s Angel Group, releasing material by artists like Alphabeat, Tom Baxter and Catherine Feeny (no, me neither).
And Strat? After selling his shares in Charisma he moved to Las Palmas. On a visit to Jersey he fell ill and passed away on 19 March 1987. His ashes were scattered on the last fence of Newbury race course. A man from the days when rock was hard drinking and heavy smoking, he was a terrible businessman who ran a wonderful business; gifted and erratic, he must have frustrated as much as he inspired those around him. Part entrepreneur, part visionary, part charlatan, part Toad Of Toad Hall. In Strat’s Times obituary, Peter Gabriel wrote, “despite the competitive nature of the business, he cared more for the quality of the work than the quantity sold, always preferring the difficult challenge of backing outsiders”.