Chrysalis Records Co-Founder Praised the Specials, Passed on the Sex Pistols (Twice!)
Courtesy of Chris Wright
He's a multi-millionaire, a music industry pioneer, business tycoon and co-founder of one of the most important record labels in history. And though Chris Wright's name probably doesn't ring a bell to you, acts like Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, The Specials and Billy Idol, who owe much of their careers to his label Chrysalis Records, probably do. Wright started the label in 1969 with business partner Terry Ellis (Chris + Ellis= Chrysalis, get it?) and grew it into an empire that provided a portal for dozens of British acts to tour and record in the US in the 70s. In the 80s, he was responsible for launching the careers of American bands like Blondie and Huey Lewis and the News. In1991, he sold the label rights to EMI. Of course, Wright went on to do other things outside the music industry, own soccer and ruby teams as well as a fistful of radio stations and production companies.
He charts his life story in his recently-released autobiography, One Way or Another, in which he details growing up poor on the eastern coastline of England to becoming a full-blown entertainment mogul with plenty of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll along the way. It's rock history through the lens of a top executive who learned on the job and stuck to his music tastes and ethics--almost to a fault (he famously signed Billy Idol after passing on a record deal with Sex Pistols not once, but twice!). His memoirs bare a unique perspective on some of our most beloved rock gods--one that's unflinching, honest and overall pretty memorable. We spent some time with Wright discussing his book, and his involvement with some of the biggest artists in the world.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): After going from growing up blue collar in a marsh in England to starting Chrysalis Records and building that up in the UK, describe what it was like to finally make that crossover into the US, booking Ten Years After at the Fillmore
Chris Wright: America was a long way away, Ten Years After hadn't started touring anywhere except Holland and Scandinavia. Getting groups to and from America was difficult in those days because the musicians unions on both sides of the Atlantic, the U.S. and the U.K. insisted that you had to have a permit from the union to come in and play and they insisted that there was a swap--so if an English musician came to America, an American musician had to come to England. So it was quite complicated.
We had no idea how we could possibly get the group to America. We had no idea that there was even any interest in the group in America. Then suddenly one day, there's [famous promoter] Bill Graham saying we want to bring Ten Years After to play at the Fillmore at San Francisco. So if you can imagine that, it was like "Oh my God." Then we had to go about trying to organize it which was very difficult. Normally it was the really big established agencies that got the mechanism in place to be able to do these musicians exchanges and of course it was one musician for one musician, so John Lennon coming to America would count for one bass player and a swing band going on tour in Europe. There was also logistics since we'd never been to America before, it was a daunting prospect, but hugely exciting.
What would you consider to be the key points in your development as a pioneer in the record industry?
The key points were really the mile stones in the groups' development, since we were only as big as our groups were. We didn't really have that many groups any way. So whatever those key milestones were--Ten Years After getting a residency at the Marquee Club, getting in the Fillmore in San Francisco and Jethro Tull headlining the big outdoor festival in England, getting interested in a Jethro Tull record and record companies, it was all one step at a time. We didn't have any money or set out thinking it was gonna be a good way of getting rich. We never thought we'd be getting any money out of what we were doing, we were just doing it because we loved it and wanted to make it work. It was a few years in before it was something we recognized as a real business versus something we just liked to do.
Talk about getting into the punk movement with Chrysalis and how you turned down the Sex Pistols a couple of times in favor of signing Billy Idol. What did Billy have in your mind that the Sex Pistols didn't?
In those days, the Sex Pistols it was pretty outrageous and pretty wild and pretty dangerous and the gigs were pretty unpleasant. We were coming out of an era where it was a very chilled out music scene where people sat on the floor, smoked a joint and listened to the music and everyone was like really chilled and relaxed and casual and then to go to a gig where everyone was on their feet and jumping up and down and banging into people. It was very hard to feel that that was something I wanted to get Billy Idol involved with. But when Billy Idol came along, it was a little bit less dangerous. Billy was very photogenic and the group could actually play their instruments properly and that kind of thing. Whereas with the Sex Pistols it was all about making a hell of a lot of noise and coming out with a lot of relatively obscene lyrics. So do you feel like you dodged a bullet by turning them down?
I suppose if you look back, we were stuck in a kind of time warp with music, from the mid '60s through the mid to late '70s and although we were into blues rock and prog rock it was all very similar. When you're in that era that we were in, the big rock era of that time, you never thought it was gonna change. There were so many great groups and great artists and they were always innovating themselves that punk sort of came from left field and we thought aww, it's rubbish and the people who like it weren't my kind of people. Of course, it all changed...if you look at rap music and urban music. I think when that started, people thought it was gonna be like punk or disco, it's gonna be here for a few years and then it's gonna go back to the real thing. When in actuality it hasn't gone back to anything, it's just evolved. And it's taken over.
Wright (second from right) celebrates success with another one of his famous finds, Blondie
Courtesy of Chris Wright
Did you encounter any stories about musicians or famous people in your book that you felt nervous about exposing?
It was always pretty wild, I mean if you ever saw the film Almost Famous, that seems like it was outrageous but that was just life. That's like it was in those days. There's lots of things I could've written about and gotten into a lot more depth. I think that's one for the artist to do. They were there for the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll more than I was. So it's not really my place to talk about it. Were there wild things on the road, sure. It varied from group to group. Who was the worst? Probably Led Zepplin. I spent quite a bit of time on the road with them. I could have written a ton of stories on them but most of them have been written already anyway and it wasn't really my job to do that.
You also mention bands that meant a lot culturally and socially like the Specials, you've said they were the most socially important ever signed. Why is that?
The thing about the Specials was that they came along at time when there was a big recession in England. They came from Coventry, which is an industrial town in the middle of England which has always been involved with the motor industry. We didn't have a Detroit in England, but if we did it would've been Coventry. Secondly, they were a racially mixed black and white band playing in the same group to the same audience. And the lyrics of the songs, "Ghost Town"--talking about how there's no jobs and nothing to do--"Too Much Too Young"--teenage pregnancies and what a girl's gonna do if she gets pregnant with no husband or boyfriend, that were probably one of the first groups to really do commentary on the problems they were facing then. You can't say they were the first socially conscious artists, but for England, this was a lot closer to home. Then of course you had 'Free Nelson Mandela' which became an anthem which got played in South Africa and all the townships were singing a Specials song that had been a #1 single in England and you heard it coming back on the news broadcasts. So it was quite a heavy thing to think about.
The fact that you're writing this book lends a certain perspective to the music business that a lot of people aren't used to. What was it like sharing various different historical events from your perspective?
It was quite difficult. In deciding to write the book, I had to do my best to try and make it interesting instead of regurgitating things people already know or not putting in choice stories because I read a lot of music autobiographies and a lot of them are very self serving, I did this I did that aren't I great. I read a lot of these books and I know the difference between one that's good and one that's not good.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.