The turning point in the band’s career came when Tony Stratton-Smith came to Glasgow to see them play at Burns Howff. This pivotal moment created major changes and a new beginning…
Regent Street Incident
Obviously, this was exciting news. The breakthrough I had been waiting for since the debacle with Concord but, even now, in the warm glow of anticipation, there was still one big catch. On the demos there were four of us and onstage, we were still a five piece. Also, there was the little matter of the songs on the tape, for at this point we only featured one of them in the act, the bluesy ‘Let Me Down’. So, the next few days were spent routining the seagull song and the tale of the beaten-up boy in drag, though this proved harder than laying down the original recordings mainly because of John’s input. The problem was, his twelve string just didn’t meld with the new textures we were creating and the three-part harmonies sounded staged and artificial. Within days, we had made a decision. If ‘Strat’ offered us a contract, then we would have to part company with John. I was under no illusion that this would be easy, given the fact that he’d been central to the project from day one, but I knew that by now it had begun to dawn on him that musically, he was out of his depth.
Either way, we’d have to put on a show without the usual Heavy Mary climax, for that would just muddy the water. Whatever Strat saw had to be focused around the sound that he’d heard on the tape and it had to run smoothly. Happily, Arnie had the technical side well in hand and we knew the venue well. The Howff had been the premiere pub gig in Glasgow for years and it was here that Les Harvey’s band The Power had given the audition that was to change their lives. The way that came about was curious, for Les had agreed to play lead with a Glasgow band called Cartoone supporting Led Zeppelin on a US tour and through this met Peter Grant, Zep’s manager. Asked why he wouldn’t join Cartoone full time, Les invited Grant to Glasgow and watching the band rocking with Maggie Bell and Jimmy Dewar belting out twin vocals, he was heard to remark: ‘Stone The Crows!’, which became their new name. But just a month before our big gig, Les was electrocuted onstage in Swansea, cutting short what would have been a stellar career. Strangely though, an echo of that other Howff audition would turn out to have an influence on the night.
There are moments in life which you know are crossroads and that first meeting with Strat was one of them. My first impression was that he was on the ample side and, given his shoulder length hair and pin stripe suit, he reminded me of pictures of Oscar Wilde. But, one thing was for sure; like his label, he had charisma. With a wicked smile, a twinkle in his eye and a voice that was at once hoarse and intimate, he had the kind of presence that stands out, even in a bar as crowded as the Howff was that night. As for us, naturally we were nervous, but before we went on, that echo appeared in the shape of Maggie Bell. At this point, she was still trying to come to term with Les’ death, but she was delighted to see Strat, whom she knew from the London scene and being in the mood to drown sorrows, she was soon matching him in the whisky stakes. This meant that we had the luxury of giving a showcase without that awful fishbowl feeling and it was soon apparent that Strat was digging what he heard. Maybe that’s not surprising, for by now we had re-paid whatever dues we owed and Graham’s violin had become the electric icing on a very well baked, professional cake.
Back at his hotel, Strat took me aside and declared his interest in signing us. He would put us on a weekly retainer of £20 and all our business needs would be taken care of under one roof, so that we could concentrate solely on creating great music. He explained that this was the central ethos behind Charisma, for his years of managing groups like The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and The Nice had left him continually frustrated by the lack of support from their record labels. So, he had taken matters into his own hands by forming a company based on Berry Gordy’s Tamla Motown, which handled all aspects of the artists’ careers, from agency and management to publishing and recording. Now all of this was music to my ears, for after our experience with Campbell Connelly, the idea of integrating these seminal tasks seemed eminently sensible and therefore, totally desirable.
Remember, we were still years away from the famous case where The Eagles sued David Geffen for being both their manager and record label, and decades away from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s case against Gordon Mills for being his manager and his music publisher. Back then, no-one knew that the soul genius Marvin Gaye would end up playing in a casino in the Belgian seaside town of Ostende because he’d fallen out with Berry Gordy, whose sister he had chosen to marry and then unwisely, two time. Talk about mixing business with pleasure! At least there would be no in law problems with Strat. It turned out that he had called one arm of his company Mother Management, though the man he had running it was called Fred Munt, who didn’t sound like anybody’s Mum, but the implied sentiment of care and concern seemed eminently commendable.
For my part, I explained the situation about John, and he asked if I was sure, because Lindisfarne had made a similar decision about their guitarist, Simon Cowe, which he had persuaded them to rethink. I told him that we’d thought long and hard about it and asked him to respect our wishes, which he agreed to do. It was taken for granted that we’d have to move to London at some point in the not too distant future, and Strat said that when the time came, his PA, Gail Colson, would arrange hotel accommodation until we could find flats. Meantime, the contracts would be in the post, and I should now concentrate on writing more material for the first album, which we’d be recording in the near future, at which point we all had a celebratory drink and clinked glasses.
That night, we drove home on air. The whole process had been so serendipitous that it all seemed slightly unreal. But then, that was misleading, for it was what we’d laid down on the tapes that had sparked this incredible series of moves; that and the band’s name and Graham’s playing, and Pauline’s onstage presence and Colin’s syncopating bass and my songs, all of it fallen seamlessly and neatly into place. The only thorn on this rosebush was having to break the news to John, but when we spoke next day, he took it well, knowing in his heart that we had moved on from the early trio days. In some ways, he always blamed Colin for his demise and there is more than a grain of truth in that, for Colin started the discontent ball rolling, and once it had gathered speed, there was no turning back.
My first look at the Charisma set-up came when I travelled to London in mid-July to meet with Fred Munt, the man who ran Mother Management. Fred was a big Cockney with a Zapatta moustache, and it seemed he had been a member of the Bonzo’s road crew before joining Charisma. As he drove me into Soho in his Ford Mustang, he told me he was married to Gail Colson, whose brother Glen ran the publicity department. It also transpired that another two bands had been signed to the label, Spreadeagle and Capability Brown, neither of which I’d heard of, so this gave me pause for thought. One of the attractions of Charisma was that each of its bands had real credibility and though Van Der Graaf Generator and Audience had split, Lindisfarne were the hottest act in the country and Genesis were seemingly building a reputation; but suddenly it seemed there would be three unknown acts in the mix. So, did this not amount to a real dilution of the brand?
Gail turned out to be an extremely bright, capable woman and right from the word go, I felt she was in a different class to her husband. Fred was obviously sussed when it came to stage set ups and touring, but given Strat’s reputation for signing quirky, lyrical bands, there was a real disconnect here. Management involves artistic sensitivity and the ability to instil a sense of belief in an artist. But, within an hour of meeting Fred, I knew he possessed neither. Rather, he came across as a brash ex roadie, not someone who would appreciate subtleties. But hey, what did I know? Strat was the man of vision and Gail was seemingly the person charged with keeping him organised; besides, he already had one hit band under his wing, so when it came to personnel, surely he must know what he was doing.
The next person I met was the agent, Paul Conroy, a young man with a mop of curly red hair and a charming smile. Like many bookers, he had been a University social secretary and as he would be responsible for getting us gigs, the lifeblood of any aspiring band, it was a real bonus that I immediately liked him. Fred left me with him to get on with some business and I explained the kinds of venues we’d done, while he said he’d be starting to fill the diary for the Autumn, when they’d pencilled in recording the album. Then it was time to meet Strat and the publicist Glen Colson who came across as chirpy and personable. We all headed out for a liquid lunch and Strat mentioned that he was pulling strings to get us a spot on the upcoming Reading Festival, which ratcheted my heartrate up a notch or two. He had already asked Shel Talmy to produce the album, adding that this was the man responsible for all the early Kinks and Who hits. Being a big Ray Davies fan, this was heady news, but one thing that Strat failed to mention was that he had actually signed us to a production contract with Shel, a fact that in the fullness of time would come back to bite us.
That evening, flying back to Glasgow, I reflected on what I’d learned. All in all, the vibe was of an energetic group of music business pros, gathered round an inspirational leader, and any small deficiencies in his work methods were being capably handled by the efficient Ms Colson, who for some reason had preferred to be keep her maiden name and not become a Munt, though considering the vagaries of Cockney rhyming slang, I could maybe see why. However, there is always a change of perspective once you’re inside the bubble, and it struck me that if I had been put through to Fred rather than Mike De Havilland when I phoned that day, the outcome might have been very different. There was a sense of a powerful faction in the Munt/ Coulson camp, a feeling underlined by the fact that Mike had not been much in evidence all day. But these were just private thoughts. The big picture was that we were now signed to a happening label, and we would soon be getting another chance to get back into the studio, only this time with a producer with a proven track record.
Back home, the first thing I did was to arrange a rehearsal hall, where we could crank up the volume and let it rip. Happily, there was a community centre at the end of Kenmure Street and they were happy to rent us a room, which we soon put to good use. In this first rush of enthusiasm, I wrote ‘Circus’, ‘My Real Hero’ and ‘Jack Diamond’ all of which would appear on the new album. ‘Circus’ came from the multitude of posters that suddenly appeared that summer for a big top travelling outfit, showing how inspiration can be unleashed when the circumstances are right. At this point we were still in our own comfort zone, gigging round the Glasgow area, and looking forward to moving to London, but looking back, it was the sense of anticipation that proved inspirational, rather than the move itself, for as a couple with two small children, Pauline and I were about to find out that even with the invaluable help of her Mum, managing a career and a family would prove to be a desperately difficult balancing act.
When the time came for our first foray South, it was to do two totally different gigs. The first would be in a village hall, then the next day, Sunday Aug 13th, we were booked to do the Reading Festival. The village hall was close to Strat’s country house in Crowborough, near Tunbridge Wells, which he sometimes used for weekend parties, and we headed there after the gig, which seemed to have gone down well with the locals. The house itself was seventeenth century and it was here that Van Der Graaf had invented a game called ‘Killer’, which was basically hide and seek, but with all the lights off, and the participants on acid. Naturally enough, the searcher was the killer, and those in hiding, his potential victims, and given that the old pile had strange little corridors and uneven floors, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting. Strat assured Pauline that it was a ‘white house’, meaning there were no evil vibes in the place, and indeed, we slept peacefully enough, but that said, I don’t think I would have been too happy hiding in one of its many nooks and crannies in the pitch black, waiting to be found by one of Hammill’s henchmen, whilst simultaneously tripping.
If Strat’s house was vicariously scary, then the Reading Festival was the real thing. Driving in, with about sixty thousand fans stretching away into the distance, I was moved to ask myself how long this hippy movement could last. We were now ten years on from the point where the Beatles had shaken the world up, so a fair amount of the assembled masses would have been at primary school when this revolution started. Yet here were these hordes of heads, with clouds of their marijuana smoke drifting up into the clear blue English sky, their path already predefined by the pioneers of Monterey and Woodstock. Of course, such musings may have been to distract myself from the reality that shortly I would be standing on stage in front of this multitude, a thought that would have given even the most experienced act a wee tickle of butterfly wings. Although we weren’t novices, this was still like being tossed into the deep end, and though it was obviously a big show of confidence on the part of the label, I still question the wisdom of such an extreme baptism of fire.
I remember Strat’s entourage coming running into the front enclosure as we took to the stage, then an unseen hand seemed to lift me up as the adrenalin kicked in and as we launched into ‘Let Me Down’, it hit me like a thunderbolt that this was what I was born to do, in the Crowleyian sense that doing what you were born to do should be the whole of the Law. So, was it just the vast crowd inspiring such thoughts, or maybe the cathartic effects of being at once in a crucible of terror and at the peak of a holy mountain? Nowadays, we talk of being ‘in the zone’ as a way of explaining out of body experiences, but the truth is, I was keenly aware of some great collective consciousness waiting to be tapped, and in those precious moments when our little group seemed to think and act as one, I knew instinctively that it was but a microcosmic echo of a much larger phenomenon.
Coming back to earth was not easy, but the reviews helped. It seemed we had played a set of highs and lows, the highs being the slower songs and Graham’s playing, and the lows, the singer’s screaming. Whether the singer referred to was me or Pauline, I know not, but more likely it was me, as we’d included in the set a number we’d never played live before, and would never play again. Entitled ‘Schoolgirl’, it is now totally erased from my memory, but it did feature some rather unwisely manic screaming and for me it sums up perfectly the hubristic over ambition that would prove to be one of the ultimate reasons for our downfall. Had we simply stuck to what we knew, all would have been well. But no, that would have been too safe. We were determined to reinvent the wheel in front of tens of thousands of music freaks who had never even heard of us and naturally, we paid the price.
We moved South in September, initially to a small hotel in Bayswater. A friend called Billy Forrest had joined as a driver and he and Arnie made a good team. Gear-wise, we were given some of Van Der Graaf’s old PA, perfectly functional but perhaps indicative of our relatively low standing in the Charisma pecking order. This dynamic would come into sharp relief at one of our first gigs, at some club in Essex, which Fred and Gail both attended. After seeing us up close, they declared themselves satisfied with the standard of the band and later, over a drink, they confided in me and Pauline that Strat and Mike had signed Spreadeagle without any consultation, and Mr and Mrs Munt had been so upset at this disastrous decision that they’d insisted on signing Capability Brown to offset it.
I found this pretty gobsmacking, because I had been under the illusion that Charisma was Strat’s label and that he was the guiding light, the man who could serially spot talent like The Nice and Lindisfarne and Rare Bird etcetera, but now I was being told that this guy Fred had enough clout to get a band signed as a counterweight to Strat’s dodgy artistic choices. It was really bizarre and despite her obvious business acumen, Gail seemed to have bought into it. But there was more, for Fred now revealed that there was a subtext to all this, although he didn’t quite put it that way. Sotto voce, he explained that both Strat and Mike were gay, and moreover, they had seen Spreadeagle playing at a venue frequented by the gay community and had signed them on the spot. Now, how much of this was actual fact, I never did discover, but the implications of what he was saying were obvious. That said, Strat and Mike’s sexual orientation was absolutely none of my business. I was only concerned with their professional skills, not their private lives. But one illuminating thing about this was my instinct about a Munt/Coulson power grouping was spot on, and the fact that they were sitting here discussing Strat’s supposed lack of suss in this manner smacked to me of blatant disloyalty.
Later, I discovered that Gail and Fred had first met when the Bonzos were supporting the Byrds at some London venue. Gail was sitting in the hall when Fred appeared on stage wearing a barber’s apron, carrying an amp, but as he turned his back on the audience to lay said amp down, it became apparent that there was no item of clothing beneath the apron. Fred was, from their point of view, bollock naked. So, this was the calibre of man charged with running Strat’s management company, someone who had already overseen the breakup of two very promising bands, in Audience and VDGG and was now very much in the business of second guessing his master’s artistic judgement. At the time, I was only worried about being in the middle of this political minefield, but later I was to learn that Fred was not totally wrong about the notion that Strat’s sexual orientation might have played a part in his decision to sign us, for one of the three songs on our original demo tape was ‘Regent Street Incident’, which opens with the lines:
‘All human life is here, said the junky to the queer,
as they helped the stricken drag star to her feet.’
Now as it happens, that first line about all human life being here was actually taken verbatim from the strapline emblazoned across the old News of the World, a gutter raking redtop that would one day be consigned to the dustbin of history by a man universally known as the Dirty Digger. But apposite as the lyric was, back when I wrote it, I wasn’t to know that my little odyssey could easily have come straight from the life of Tony Stratton-Smith himself, centred as it was round the streets and pubs of Soho, with all its rich interplay of the sacred and the sordid. So, while I was sure at the time that Graham’s seagulls had caught Strat’s imagination, it turned out to be something much closer to home, the tale of a young lad beaten up in a lane off Regent Street by some unknown punter whom he’d unwisely ‘taken for a ride’.