Interview by Stephen Jones
ONE week after he received his BASCA Gold Badge Award, Chris Wright apologises for the state of his new offices on Kensington High Street as he is “still unpacking”.
Yet the first items to be unwrapped already display signs of the significant career in music he has forged, from the various framed photos of himself dotted around the office with former world leaders to the vintage Wurlitzer Jukebox containing some of the hits he signed as boss of Chrysalis.
Wright’s achievements as an independent operator in music are up there with those of Richard Branson at Virgin and Chris Blackwell at Island. So it’s somewhat incredulous to hear this multi-millionaire executive – who Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant still refers to as “The Colonel” – lament: “It’s hard for me to get awards,…”
After fifty years plus in the business – the first half in recording and second in publishing and with an enviable slew of achievements too numerous to mention (see CV breakout below) – Wright explains why this award (which recognises an individual’s outstanding contribution to songwriters) ultimately really matters to him.
“Years ago someone said Richard Branson was a businessman pretending to be a music man and I was a music man pretending to be a businessman,” he replies when asked if he still thinks of himself as an A&R man?
Farmer’s son Wright fell into the business almost accidentally, when he moved in 1962 to university in Manchester where he became social secretary and “a music fan” at a time the North West was “exploding” with the likes of The Beatles, The Hollies, Freddie and the Dreamers and Herman’s Hermits.
“Up until then everything that ever happened in music really came from London and suddenly it came from Liverpool and Manchester and I just caught up in it all,…” he explains. “When I went there I really didn’t know much about (the music business) but I had the capacity to learn about it and became absorbed in it.”
But working in the live sector wasn’t enough. After managing the Jaybirds – who became Ten Years After – he went on to become the Chris in Chrysalis with his co-founder and another former social secretary Terry Ellis (formerly the Ellis Wright Agency which live repped Led Zeppelin among other clients). From a successful early deal for Jethro Tull on Island Records, which led to Blackwell giving them an imprint, Wright remained for the most part, staunchly independent throughout his career. It was a decision which probably ensured Chrysalis kept consistently cutting edge enough to sign artists and songwriters as varied as David Bowie, Leo Sayer, Blondie, The Specials, Sinead O’Connor, Go West, Paul Hardcastle, David Gray, Billy Idol, Laura Marling,… (see our Spotify Playlist below of 12 Songs That Have Shaped Chris Wright’s Life In Music for a taster).
The one thing that links all Wright’s achievements is the timeless quality of the songs that ended up sporting the infamous Chrysalis butterfly logo, but does he feel that the song has lost its importance in the modern music business? “Well, I think as you look back, the song has always been really important, even when you look back to times when you didn’t think the song was important, in retrospect it was,” explains Wright.
“Now it’s very much about the dance beat and the feel,… obviously with urban music and rap you feel the song isn’t as important as it used to be, but I wonder if we look back on this era we will see that the song is there whether we saw them there at the time or not – because even if it’s a rap record, it’s still basically a song.
“In the very, very, early days, you didn’t think the song was important because the artists I worked with did Blues songs – it was all ‘I woke up this morning…’, ‘I want to catch the southbound train…’, ‘My girl left me…”, ‘I feel blue…’ but actually that’s what most songs are about anyway.
“Most songs come down to be like an Adele album – it’s mainly about problems in love, relationships or emotional problems. Those early Blues songs were much more basic versions of a more elaborate song someone might write today.
“Of course, there were more elaborate songs at that time but the first person I was involved with who did ‘song songs’ was Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull who was originally the singer in a blues band but he morphed into becoming something completely different and writing songs that were nothing to do with catching southbound trains.”
Another thing that didn’t change over the years was Wright’s approach to A&R. As it churned out the hits, Chrysalis had also became a powerhouse for its development of young execs who went on to have significant careers in music. Weekly A&R meetings in its heyday – featuring the likes of Doug D’Arcy, Roy Eldridge, Chris Briggs and Simon Fuller – were long discussions (powered by “fish & chips and M&S trifles with custard on top”) about acts scouts had seen performing live, rarely dissections of submitted demo tapes.
“We weren’t really a pop company, we were a live artist company,” Wright recalls. “When I was signing artists I always said to people,… it didn’t matter where I was or who we were looking at, we’d go and see them in all of the clubs at the time, Dingwalls, The Marquee, The Hope & Anchor or clubs in (Greenwich) Village in New York, CBGBs or somewhere,… but I’d always say ‘but can you see them on stage at Madison Square Garden?’
“Because I was always trying to look for somebody who had something special and could deliver on the big stage. It was about the artist and the performer, because I came from the live environment, but it gradually became more and more about the songs.”
He recalls discussions about early live shows of the fledgling Spandau Ballet and The Specials were particularly exciting and ebullient conversations. And graduating to listening to demos was pioneered in A&R meetings in the late Eighties by Ron Fair around the time of Go West (one success Wright wishes had been more successful, but were “definitely not” a live act at the start). Whether it was The Specials’ Free Nelson Mandela, Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U or Chesney Hawkes’ The One And Only, looking back Wright’s best memories centre around the biggest songs.
“I’ve always wanted artists that can write songs, because actually if you can’t write songs what’s going to make you different from everybody else?,” he asks. “You can say ‘well, there’s lots of people around with great voices’. Frank Sinatra didn’t write songs, Tina Turner had some huge records with songs people got for her, Rod Stewart didn’t write all of his songs, but he made them great songs even if he didn’t write them,… but really it’s the song and it’s the interpretation of the song.
“Leo Sayer (fellow Gold Badge winner) went in the opposite direction, he started off as a really great writer for the Roger Daltrey album, then became completely focused on his own songs, and then started doing other people’s songs and became more of a performer having enormous hits, like When I Need You by Albert Hammond and Carol Bayer Sager.”
Wright describes it as impossible to admit to the music community which were his favourite signings, describing it as akin to having to declare which is your favourite child. He cautiously replies: “I could say Blondie, because Blondie was the biggest, but it isn’t just about that. Everybody was important. Everybody was a human being and a creative talent and someone I worked with. My contribution varied from one to another. Some I was more able to influence than others. I contributed in my own little way to lots of different things.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries however, Wright can talk with apparent refreshing honesty about the signings that got away. “When I heard the first Dire Straits album – I’m a guitar fan really – I asked ‘how come we missed this? They said ‘you were at the meeting!’, but I couldn’t believe it, so I trawled back through the minutes, and proved I wasn’t at the meeting! In fact the minutes said Chris Briggs had said they were good but ‘very, very boring live’.
“And I would have liked to have signed The Faces, the latter Faces with Rod Stewart, it was (Ten Years After frontman) Alvin Lee who persuaded me not to sign them, I think he thought they would be competition for my time and my steer, so he stopped me doing that which was a great shame.
“And we signed David Bowie for publishing and he made the Hunky Dory album but my partner Terry didn’t like it,… we would have had Bowie for records, but I’m not sure whether we would have done a great job on him as he wasn’t quite our artist,… but Dire Straits and Rod Stewart and The Faces would have been right up our street!”
And he’s as honest and equally forthcoming about A&R mistakes – he regrets allowing the follow up to Paul Hardcastle’s 19, a song about the Vietnam War which touched people worldwide, with a song about The Great Train Robbery, which meant nothing to the rest of the world, flopped at No.19 and led to Simon Fuller leaving Chrysalis to launch 19 Management.
Having parted ways with Ellis in 1985 Wright also admits he regrets selling the Chrysalis recorded division at the turn of the Nineties to Thorn EMI, although shareholders forced his hand. Moreover though, he admits had they not, it’s less likely he’d have been propelled into the other successes he’s enjoyed in TV (launching Midsomer Murders, broadcast on 225 TV channels worldwide) and commercial radio (launching the Heart brand, eventually selling the business known today as Global Radio) without that impetus.
Those successes – and after selling Chrysalis Publishing to BMG Rights in 2009 – led him to be named in The Sunday Times’ Rich List of 1,000 wealthiest Brits. And certainly afforded dalliances in sport – racehorses, rugby and football. Not bad for a farmer’s lad who started off in music as a university social secretary.
Yet despite all the current changes in the music business, Wright claims if starting out today, he’d do it exactly the same way: “Is there another way, I don’t know?”
Watch the video of the interview here
Chris Wright’s autobiography One Way Or Another – My Life in Music, Sport And Entertainment is available on Omnibus Press.
Chris Wright Abbreviated CV
1944 – Born in Louth, Lincolnshire, son of a farmer
1962 – Attends Manchester University, starts booking bands
1966 – Discovers and manages the Jaybirds, who become Ten Years After
1968 – Co-founds Chrysalis with Terry Ellis, licences Jethro Tull to Chris Blackwell’s Island
1976 – Suggests adding sax to Leo Sayer’s When I Need You which tops US and UK charts
1977 – Chrysalis signs Blondie who sell 40m albums worldwide, label becomes home of new wave
1979 – Offers The Specials a label deal for their 2-Tone imprint spearheading ska revival
1980 – Signs Ultravox and Spandau Ballet in same year ahead of New Romantic movement
1982 – As chairman of the BPI, launches the forerunner to The Brit Awards
1983 – Billy Idol’s second LP Rebel Yell becomes a major success worldwide
1985 – Buys out Terry Ellis’ 50% stake in Chrysalis which goes public
1986 – Buys the Ensign label, delivering big hits with The Waterboys and Sinead O’Connor
1986-1990 – Other deals deliver success with Go West, Paul Hardcastle and The Housemartins
1990/1 – Shareholders force records’ sale to Thorn EMI after last No.1 with Chesney Hawkes
1991 – Chrysalis Group moves into television, most notably delivers Midsomer Murders
1994 – Launches the Echo label which delivers Babybird, Feeder and Moloko
1994 – Chrysalis Group moves into commercial radio, most notably launching Heart brand
1999 – Final number one with Cliff Richard’s The Millennium Prayer on the Papillon imprint
2007 – Radio interests sold to what becomes Global Radio for £170m
2010 – BMG Rights buys Chrysalis Publishing for £107m, including songs by David Gray, Laura Marling, Ray LaMontagne, Paul Anka and Rod Temperton’s biggest hits for Michael Jackson
12 Songs That Have Shaped Chris Wright’s Life In Music
1. Jethro Tull – Living In The Past
2. David Bowie – Life On Mars
3. Leo Sayer – When I Need You
4. The Specials – Too Much Too Young
5. Blondie – Heart Of Glass
6. Ultravox – Vienna
7. Spandau Ballet – True or Gold
8. Paul Hardcastle – 19
9. Sinead O’Conner – Nothing Compares 2 U
10. Babybird – You’re Gorgeous
11. David Gray – Babylon
12. Laura Marling – Ghosts