Safari Records was formed early in 1977 by three people: Tony Edwards, Andreas (Andy) Budde and myself (John Craig). Tony was the founder and co-manager of Deep Purple and other successful artists of the 70s, Andy the son of legendary German music publisher Rolf Budde, whilst I ran Purple and Oyster Records, labels whose rosters included Deep Purple, Rainbow, The Strawbs and a fledgling Whitesnake.
With Tony living in Paris, Andy in Berlin and myself in London the plan was that we would develop a pan-European record company that would release pop records. Licensing deals were struck with Teldec in Germany and Vogue in France and our product was to be pressed and distributed by Pye in the UK. Safari was a great choice of name – not only was it an international word but we loved the idea of our artists being ‘on Safari’.
After several false starts, which even included the release of Richard Clayderman’s “Ballade Pour Adeline”, ignored in 1978 by UK radio though in later days to be a massive worldwide hit, Andy dropped out as we changed direction. It was possibly a seminal moment for Tony and myself when Howard DeVoto visited our miniscule temporary Newman Street office with a battered Buzzcocks' “Spiral Scratch” in his hand and told us that he had already sold over 25,000 copies of it from his back room. We looked at each other in the realisation that there was a new world out there – and we rather liked the sound of it.
Safari signed Wayne County and the Electric Chairs. Wayne was an American famous for his work at Max’s Kansas City club in New York. The band were all from the UK with the exception of the guitar player. Martin Birch produced an album and its first single, “Eddie and Sheena”, the saga of a love affair between a punk and a rocker, surprised everyone when it got into the lower end of the charts.
But it was to be another single release that brought real success to Wayne County with a record that our distributor had refused to service, a decidedly subtle and delicate New Wave release entitled “Fuck Off”. We pressed the record where we could and sold it through Lightning, a wholesale and export company who had seen the potential of the new punk releases. They even published their own independent chart in “Music Week” and with zero airplay, apart from that given it by one intrepid Radio Trent DJ, “Fuck Off” was at Number One for well over a year!
We recorded three albums with the artist and presided over his transformation from Wayne to Jayne. At one point during the band’s time with us Wayne was deported for overstaying his visitor’s visa. We sent him to Berlin to be looked after by Andy Budde; he was a strange innovation for Andy’s rather staid German music publishing office but there was interest in Berlin from the new punk movement headed by David Bowie who had made an album there. Wayne fitted in well with the weird nocturnal crowd that inhabited Berlin and the club scene there influenced his next album. He also took the opportunity to have a major nose job during this enforced holiday which ended when his bass player made a trip to Clapham to see the Musicians' Union. He complained that the union might be keeping an American singer out of the country but they were also putting four English musicians and union members out of work. This did the trick and Wayne came back to London to make the group's second Safari album – complete with new nose.
One track on the album was called Berlin and we chose it for a single. As a promotional device we pressed it with simply its title “Berlin”, listing no artist. We then mailed it from Berlin to all the radio stations and press people in the UK. It almost went well but for German customs authorities who could not understand why we would want to import a pile of records into Germany (already in envelopes and addressed etc.) only to post them back to whence they came! We also received a complaint from our shippers about the bad language used towards them by our senior partner regarding their inability to do what we had asked. However the records did arrive in the UK and caused a stir in the music press. No one guessed the artist but the record made the indie charts and was the catalyst for a very successful tour.
Safari was now a very UK-based organisation. Tony had moved back to London and we worked from a small basement office in Manchester Street just a couple of hundred yards from the mighty EMI. As the independents rose so the majors suffered and with typical music business compassion we gloried in their declining fortunes. ‘Schadenfreude’ was rife. “What’s the difference between EMI and the Titanic? – The Titanic had a good band” and the highly successful Stiff Records, themselves distributed by EMI, advertised “Buy now while EMI lasts”.
We had by now moved our own distribution to Spartan Records, a much more indie company, run by Tom McDonald and Dave Thomas – they were at the forefront of New Wave and distributed product by UB40, Hazel O’Connor and Adam Ant amongst many others – and our next signing was The Boys, at one time the only British punk band to have a record deal – the Sex Pistols having just been dismissed by EMI – and the first to release an album. This together with two singles had been on Nems Records.
The Boys had recorded an album at a studio in Hell, Norway and its release by us was aptly entitled “To Hell With The Boys”. In all we released five singles and two albums plus a scurrilous Christmas album performed by their alter ego, The Yobs, made in twelve hours at a small Berwick Street studio and including the performance of a black studio engineer who was press-ganged into singing White Christmas in a West Indian accent. The Boys had a strong following and sold a great deal of records without ever charting. There was interest for them around the world and they toured Europe doing many TV shows in support of their releases.
In 1978 a Melody Maker postage stamp picture of Toyah together with a small but glowing review of one of the very few gigs that her band had ever played led us to a leaky rehearsal space under Waterloo Bridge, where we saw the band and they signed with Safari who then were pleasantly surprised to learn of Toyah Willcox, actress, her performances in 'The Corn is Green' (starring Katherine Hepburn), 'Jubilee' , 'Quadrophenia' and her current casting as Miranda in Derek Jarman's forthcoming 'The Tempest'.
It was the winter of discontent with the British economy at its worst. We put out a value packed six track extended play 7" disc that played at 33rpm and with 'alternative' the buzzword of the moment we called it an AP – an Alternative Play record. It was an idea before its time for it was almost certainly the only AP ever released. Its content was later incorporated into a full album – “Sheep Farming in Barnet” – and the cover featured Toyah at the Farthingdale nuclear plant in Yorkshire, a shoot achieved with considerable difficulty as, quite predictably, guards chased Toyah and the crew from the high security site. By the next album – “The Blue Meaning” and its “IEYA” single – the Toyah band had a real underground following with club gigs selling out but as yet no chart success. It was all soon to change.
Probably the most significant and fortuitous event to take place during that time – one that dramatically increased Toyah's already burgeoning cult following – was the 1980 TV franchise round with the pressure it placed on ATV, the existing Midlands contractor, to show increased commitment to the region. Their inspired idea – certainly from our point of view – of "what about doing something on that girl from Birmingham, the one with the pink hair?" was planned first as a thirty-minute project and then, as the sheer force and charisma of Toyah Willcox the legitimate actress and Toyah the rock musician took over its filming, grew into a full-blooded hour-long documentary, one taken by the complete commercial network.
A memorable dinner was consumed by Tony and myself at a Belgravia restaurant on the evening that the programme was due to be screened, first in all the regions at 7.30 p.m. but later at 11.00 p.m. in the London area. We had no doubts about the effect that the programme would have on Toyah's career. Nevertheless we sat there nervously for it was a time of surprise power cuts and lightning strikes, and these were continually bedevilling TV schedules; would something happen to prevent its going out? At 7.35 I called friends in various regions outside London. It was on! Tony and I relaxed and ordered our first bottle of champagne! The first indeed of many for by the end of 1981 "Toyah!" was the Christmas Eve concert from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane screened live as The Old Grey Whistle Test Christmas Special and 1982 saw Toyah herself winning Best Female Singer in the Rock & Pop Awards which subsequently came to be known as 'The Brits'.
We released four studio albums and the live "Toyah! Toyah! Toyah!” before she left the label in 1985 and there were several Top 10 hits including "It's a Mystery" and "I Want to be Free" The album "Anthem" soared to number 2 and remained in the charts for a full year.
In 1981 Safari Records achieved its own individual slice of Music Week's pie chart for UK Record Sales, selling more singles than Warner Records and a London TV program decided that we were documentary material. Our small basement office also doubled as the Intergalactic Ranch House – the Toyah fan club – always offering the warmest of welcomes to Toyah followers who by then were visiting us on a daily basis. When the TV crew arrived they could not believe that we had done it all from there and found it impossible to get all their equipment into the space available. They had to leave most of it in the street covered by a tarpaulin. It was raining as usual! And they were not the only worthies that came down our rickety outside steps, for we were paid a surprise visit by the then Managing Director of EMI Records. However we were not looking for alliances and having given him the benefit of our advice we sent him on his way.
Two other major signings were Weapon of Peace and English Evenings. We released two singles and two albums with Weapon of Peace, a great reggae band from Wolverhampton who, previously signed to Graduate Records, had spent most of their career up to that time in the shadow of UB40, and English Evenings – 4 singles and 1 album – a very adaptable Yorkshire outfit became popular in Europe making a number of TV appearances in Germany and Italy.
Safari was a mischievous and irreverent label, ever ready to go where others feared to tread, recording such acts as Gary Holton of "Auf Wiedersehn Pet" fame with his stunning punk-country version of Kenny Rogers's "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" and the raunchy, scatological Canadian duo, MacLean and MacLean. The latter had caused a considerable furore with their single “Dolly Parton’s Tits” and our interest was further aroused by their album title “Taking the ‘O’ out of Country”. We needed no invitation to delve further; this was undoubtedly potential Safari material! We contacted their Canadian record company and, once signed, we started a new label in their honour – Singing Dog Records – the logo featuring my Cocker Spaniel, Humphrey (who also 'sang' on the Yobs’ Christmas album) kicking a horned gramophone. Inevitably EMI made the His Master's Voice and Nipper connection and immediately threatened us with legal action. Humphrey wrote several amusing letters to their legal department before we excised the gramophone from the logo but we found a performing dog to take the records round to radio and the music press and to deposit them on desks. All great fun!
Over The Top (OTT), a TV show of the day fronted by Chris Tarrant, called to ask whether the McLeans could come to London for an appearance on the show. The thought of their scatological material being aired on TV was irresistible! When we collected them from the airport we expected two outrageous people and were amazed to find that they were enthusiastically looking forward to viewing the works of Monet at London’s art galleries!
The label was also iconoclastic and quite prepared to do battle with powerful bodies. In 1982 our South African licensee brought a video of Juluka into the office. Juluka was the first racially mixed South African band formed by two life long friends, activist Johnny Clegg and Zulu Sipho Mchunu. For me it was to be not only the start of a business relationship but also of a close friendship that has lasted until this day. Johnny is the son of an English RAF officer and a Zimbabwean record plugger in the South African music business. Long divorced, Johnny’s father had moved back to Manchester. Sipho worked as a gardener near Johnny’s home. He and the schoolboy Johnny became close friends through their love of the Zulu guitar, which Johnny had been taught to play by Charlie Mzila, a house cleaner. Later, as Johnny and Sipho, they managed to secure a record contract to be produced by Hilton Rosenthal, their long time producer and now my close friend and our licensee in Australia.
They subsequently became Juluka – the Zulu word for ‘sweat’ – and their music was a South African and Western fusion with hidden political lyrics. Ever in trouble with the authorities and the apartheid system they refused to perform to segregated audiences. We thought they were great and released their first album “Scatterlings” and the single “Scatterlings of Africa” which made the UK charts. We were determined to get them into the UK to perform but the British Musicians' Union had instigated a cultural boycott against anything coming out of South Africa, and the Home Office always consulted with the union before granting work permits. Johnny had a British passport – no problems there – but there seemed no chance for the others despite their being the 'Bob Dylan of South Africa' with their protest songs against the government. As Johnny would often comment it was a double apartheid.
But this was Mrs.Thatcher’s Britain where government did not defer to the unions. We were the beneficiaries, for quite unexpectedly Juluka became the first South African act to be granted work permits by the Home Office since the 60s, and this despite powerful opposition from the M.U. I was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 “The World at One” – until then our horizons had never reached further than Radio 1. When we eventually got the group into London, the unions, still following blindly – even colour blindly – the letter of the cultural boycott, fought an unyielding rearguard action. They managed to frighten some television companies into cancelling projected appearances by the group, but these were replaced by others. Tony, dubbed the ‘money man’ by Sipho and now surrounded at his serviced apartment block in Chelsea by Zulus and South Africans lodged in flats adjoining his own, would breakfast and drive in with the group every morning for a daily Council of War held at our Seymour Place offices, at which we all devised ways to rubbish the opposition. We found our daily news releases well received by a very supportive press and Johnny and Sipho welcomed to TV and radio interviews by a media happy to spotlight a patent absurdity. It was an exciting time…
Juluka went on to have a minor hit in the UK, but were hugely successful in Europe – especially in France – where they received a platinum record. They were the catalyst for Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, and Paul includes the term ‘Scatterlings’ in the lyrics of “Call Me Al”, one of the tracks on the album. Sipho’s royalties enabled him to build a school and bring running water to his village in KwaZulu, and Johnny remains a major star both internationally and in the new South Africa.
Safari’s A&R policy was eclectic, to say the least, but we loved attempting to capture the mood of a nation or large sections of it. "Fuck Off" had done just that and now another single – or to be more exact an E.P. – was to do so in spades, and also to play a similarly pivotal role in the Safari story. "The Music of Torvill and Dean" not only provided us with the exhilaration of watching the 1984 perfect 6.0 Torvill and Dean Olympic Gold Medal winning "Bolero" routine, but we did so in the proud knowledge that record sales would explode the following morning. It became a number 4 chart hit and gave us all the thrills and excitement of being part of an event that had captured the imagination of the whole nation – apart that is from Top Of The Pops who sought desperately not to program it. And the pivotal role that it played came when I met Mike Reed whilst in the cutting room putting together the master for “Bolero”.
Mike had been the Musical Director of Barnum, and had produced the music from it used in the previous year's Torvill and Dean routine and now included on our EP. He was currently the Musical Director of a very successful London Palladium show, “Singin’ In The Rain”, starring Tommy Steele. He told me that Harold Fielding, its producer, could not get a record deal and that he was prepared to buy 20,000 copies to sell in the theatre. That was a lot of records and I went to see Harold. We recorded the show and it stayed at the Palladium for another three years, went on tour and came back into the West End. A very successful venture which was to prove a turning point. It led us to record two further shows released on Safari and then, in 1985, we approached Cameron Mackintosh for the rights to “Les Misérables”. It became the first release on a new label – First Night Records – that we run to this day.
But just as those early days of Safari roll up your sleeves improvisation had seen us delivering boxes of “Fuck Off” singles piled high in the boot of Tony’s Roller to our new distributor, so history repeated itself as two German pantechnicons bearing “Les Misérables” LPs and unable to find our distributor in Kent now blocked Seymour Place. It was every man to the barricades as that same spirit which had been such a part of Safari now embraced “Les Misérables”, and yet again we humped records into our offices and then out again into the boot of the Roller’s Bentley successor (and any other available means of transport) to be distributed to the Palace Theatre and West End stockists just days before Christmas, 1985.
It was to be the start of a new, highly successful business – First Night Records – whose catalogue is rapidly approaching 200 titles, most of which are now available for digital download. In 2010, 25 years after the release of Les Misérables Original Cast Recording, we released a live recording of the new anniversary production of Les Misérables, and in 2012 – along with recordings of Sweeney Todd and Top Hat – we came full circle with the cast recording of the 2012 revival of Singin’ In The Rain.
So, sadly, that was the end of Safari Records. 1977 to 1985 – just eight years, but eight years of great fun. Our most successful period was in 1981–82 when Toyah took the charts by storm but we enjoyed the freedom and irreverence of the early days when all things anti-establishment were in. I hope we made just a little dent on the musical landscape. We certainly tried.