“We couldn’t get a deal for Jethro Tull. The one person interested would only sign them if they dropped the flute player”: How Chrysalis rose from a booking agency to a leading prog record label

Rick Wakeman, Chris Wright, Ian Anderson
(Image credit: Future)

In 2013 Chris Wright, one half of the team who founded Chrysalis Records, published a memoir about the highs and lows of his career. He also spoke of Prog about how he and Terry Ellis kept the business afloat as it transformed from the booking agency it had once been.

“We started mainly as an agency, booking groups for colleges all over the country, then I was managing Ten Years After, and Jethro Tull came along. So we were an agency, then we were a management company, then we sort of segued into becoming a record company and a music publisher and a promoter.”

This is Chris Wright’s succinct description of how his business with partner Terry Ellis metamorphosed from the Ellis-Wright agency in 1967 to Chrysalis Records in autumn 1968 (from “Chris” and “Ellis”). As a record label, Chrysalis became home to some of the biggest names in 70s UK progressive rock.

“When we signed Jethro Tull in 1968, we signed the group to management,” says Wright. “Their old manager had made this deal with MGM Records and we inherited that, but it wasn’t signed. Tull had made one single called Aeroplane, wrongly labelled as Jethro Toe.

“We went round to see Rex Oldfield, who was running the company in the UK, and told him we wanted an advance otherwise they wouldn’t sign the contract. He refused and was left with some copies of the single that he had to withdraw from the market because MGM didn’t have the rights to it.”

As Wright explains in his fascinating memoir, One Way Or Another, published by Omnibus Press, Chrysalis weren’t even a record company when they decided to put Jethro Tull in the studio. Nevertheless, Chrysalis paid for the recording of debut album This Was with money owed to a travel agency for the air fares for Ten Years After’s US tour. “We couldn’t get a deal for Tull,” Wright says. “The one person interested was Mike Vernon at Decca, but he would only sign them if they dropped the flute player.” 

For a while it looked like Chrysalis might not survive. When their creditors started calling at the office demanding payment, Wright and Ellis made sure only one of them was in the office at any time, as both were needed to sign cheques. It was a mispayment of health insurance money to Wright from the US trip – later repaid, he’s keen to point out – that bailed them out.

It all sounds like an unusual way to run a record company. “It was,” he says. “At the time it was very unusual, and if it hadn’t worked out we would probably have gone to jail, which would have been even more unusual.”

Although Wright doesn’t think there was a great change in business practices from the 60s into the 70s, Chrysalis’ out-on-a-wing-and-a-prayer approach put them ahead of the less flexible larger companies in a burgeoning progressive scene.

Initially they licensed This Was to Island Records, whose boss, Chris Blackwell, Wright regarded as a “kindred spirit.” But by 1970’s Benefit, Tull’s music was being released on Chrysalis. With Ten Years After, Jethro Tull and Blodwyn Pig (headed by former Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams) all selling well, Chrysalis began to expand.

The film of the Woodstock Festival, in which Ten Years After had been showcased, had such an effect that the group’s subsequent US tour was their biggest-selling yet. Chrysalis’s deal, which included a percentage on gross takings, proved unexpectedly lucrative, and Wright attracted considerable attention when banking several nights’ “overage” (excess money from the gigs’ takings) in notes he’d stuffed into his jeans pockets and covered with his kaftan. The sum, $87,500, would be equivalent to about a million dollars today.

In the expanding music markets of the 1970s, much was both won and lost. Chrysalis handled David Bowie’s publishing in the late 60s, but the vibe was that his time had been and gone. On one of Wright’s trips to the US in 1971, Terry Ellis decided against signing him to the label for the “disappointing” Hunky Dory. Luckily, their long-term publishing deal still applied to Bowie’s music released up to Low (1976).

Similarly, when Chrysalis was going through a lean time, Wright relinquished management of Supertramp shortly before they recorded 1974’s Crime Of The Century, a huge commercial success both in the USA and the UK and one of Wright’s all-time favourite albums.

Wright started booking bands when he was a social secretary at Manchester University in the early 60s. As a music fan he was fascinated by the way beat music morphed into psychedelia and then into progressive rock. Jethro Tull gave Chrysalis one of the genre’s most audacious statements, Thick As A Brick, in 1972. But Wright had noted their potential early on.

“Ian Anderson started off playing harmonica in a blues band, but he had the ability and the vision to do something different to that,” recalls Wright. “He was making music in all kinds of time signatures, with ambitious lyrics. He was probably about the first person who started veering off into what became progressive rock, with even the very early Jethro Tull stuff.”

Wright watched  Tull become enormous in the USA between 1972 and 73: “It was only Led Zeppelin that was grossing more.” But his favourite live group of the prog era was Procol Harum. “They had some great songs and they reacted very well with the audience. Robin Trower was a phenomenal lead guitarist. BJ Wilson was an amazing drummer. He was considered for John Bonham’s job, but he would never have made it with Zeppelin as he was too off-the-wall. Gary Brooker was a great singer. In their different incarnations they were a great group.

“The biggest problem with Procol was that their first record was A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” he adds. “That should have been their third record, but I wasn’t managing them at the time. I started managing them in about 1970, after A Salty Dog, which is a fantastic album as well.”

Grand Hotel, the group’s 1973 release, was launched in New York with a big party at the Plaza Hotel where, in line with the album concept, the guests – including Andy Warhol, Carly Simon and James Taylor – were asked to attend in formal dress. Was this lavish launch symptomatic of the large amounts of money being wasted by record companies at the time?

“There was more in term of budgets for launch parties and things like that,” admits Wright. “But you would have launches to suit the record you were trying to sell. Okay, it was lavish and extravagant, but that wasn’t the norm.”

So what was the company’s ethos as it grew into the 70s? “It was like a club,” he replies. “Everyone on the label was cutting-edge and high quality – potential long-term career artists that could fill out Madison Square Garden, and if you didn’t fit that bill you wouldn’t get signed to Chrysalis.”

But surely that would have been beyond the likes of progressive folk acts on the label, Steeleye Span and Tir Na Nog? “That was very early, with Tir Na Nog, but we thought at the time that they had a great potential,” counters Wright, “and Steeleye Span did become a big selling act. It’s easy to forget that folk in the late 60s, early 70s, was a key component of the hip contemporary music scene.”

In 1975 Chrysalis signed one of the most brilliant, if at times intimidatingly complex prog bands, in Gentle Giant. Wright explains that (like Steve Hackett, who was signed to Chrysalis in the US), Gentle Giant were Terry Ellis’s charges. But he points out that as well as being musically adventurous, they could also sell out big venues in the US and mainland Europe.

In One Way Or Another, Wright recalls auditioning Vangelis in the mid 70s. The composer’s subsequent successes included the Chariots Of Fire soundtrack, but not on the Chrysalis label. How did he lose out on the deal? “Vangelis had all of this equipment in a room in London’s Holland Park – there wasn’t really any room for anything else. In those days you were always travelling backwards and forwards across the pond, and I can sleep more easily with loud music that with no music at all. He was playing particularly loud and I did fall asleep. I remember it well,” he says, laughing. “It wasn’t something that one would be proud of, but it did happen.”

A young Trevor Rabin recorded three albums for Chrysalis between 1978 and 81, and Greg Lake released two albums on the label in the early 80s. But, by then, Chrysalis had signed several new wave acts, including Blondie, Ultravox and Generation X. Although he never issued any directives to Chrysalis’ older artists, when Ian Anderson started writing about rural life at the height of punk on 1977’s Songs From The Wood, Wright did have a quiet word.

“I said to Ian that people aren’t interested in these kind of lyrics,” he reveals. “But he said, ‘I’m not living in a bedsit in Shepherd’s Bush any more. I’m living in the country and I’m writing songs about my own life now.’ Which, looking back, was quite an astute thing for him to say.”

With hindsight, it seems that running a record label was easier in the 70s. “In a way, there was a lot of risk involved,” says Wright, “but we never saw it as a business in those days. We were as much fans as anything else. We made an awful lot of mistakes, and we paid for them. But towards the end of the 70s it changed.”

Perhaps Chrysalis’ most audacious move was buying Blondie out of their contract with the independent record label Private Stock in 1977 for an eyewatering £500,000. The group went on to sell 40 million albums. As Chrysalis artists at either end of the 70s, Blondie were as far removed, musically and image-wise, as it’s possible to get from Blodwyn Pig.

But as well as being a businessman of many facets, Wright was also behind the infamous cover for Blodwyn Pig’s 1969 debut album, Ahead Rings Out. “We bought a pig’s head from a butcher, brought it back to the office, rolled up a spliff and put it in its mouth, stuck on the headphones and the sunglasses and took a picture,” he says, laughing at the memory. “You wouldn’t get away with that today, would you?”

Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of Captain Beefheart - The Biography (Omnibus Press, 2011) and A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s (2020). He was a regular contributor to Select magazine and his work regularly appears in Prog, Mojo and Wire. He also plays the drums.