One of the most amusing moments in Keep On Running, a compelling BBC documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of Island Records, was an interview with Yusuf Islam (the sometime Cat Stevens) filmed eccentrically as he was fishing unglamorously under a bridge by a canal. Stevens joined Island and changed from a pop artist to a platinum-selling singer-songwriter, and he described the label thus: “the wonderful pink wonderland of rootish British music”. The film was like a story about creative innovation.
Watching the programme, there were a number of themes which came out. The first is that having been born and partly brought up in Jamaica, Chris Blackwell had an outsider’s view of the UK – for all of his Harrovian education.
The sceond was that he had a knack for finding other people who’d be gateways to talent he wouldn’t have found himself – whether Joe Boyd and his Witchseason roster (Fairport, John Martyn, Nick Drake etc), or the EG team who brought in Roxy Music, or later, Trevor Horn at ZTT.
The third is that he had a keen interest in difference: he signed Jethro Tull on the recommendation of a musician he trusted and because Ian Anderson’s one-legged flute-playing wasn’t like anything he’d seen.
Fourth, he was a classic ‘creative producer’, in the way described by Martin Dale in the film business, able to internalise the competing demands of audience, talent, and money. The story about the production of Island’s first Wailers’ record was instructive; because the rock audience was used to songs with solos in it, Blackwell remixed the reggae tracks to work some solos in. (And the other Wailers’ story, about giving them £4,000 to make that first recording without even signing a contract). This also informed his strong view that a label had to have a studio, because performers needed time to get their sound right (and not, as with some other labels, as a way to load the bands with debt for recording time so they were ever indentured to the label).
But this was also fostered by his clear belief that relationships with his artists were long-term relationships – leaving them to some extent to make their own mistakes, as for example in the case of U2’s second ‘god’ record, October. It was striking how many musicians stayed on the label after their initial bands broke up (for example Steve Winwood, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Greg Lake, Robert Palmer).
There’s a pretty credible argument that without Island, and Blackwell’s Jamaican heritage, reggae (and more specifically its rhythm) would still be as marginal as, say, merengue or rai. In the wake of Bob Marley came a host of others, some from the UK. As Richard Williams reminded us, reggae was truly despised in the early 70s (regarded, as I recall, as ‘skinhead’ or ‘crombie’ music.) yet by the 1980s it was embedded in global music, in hits by the Police, Elvis Costello, and Island’s Grace Jones.
By the 1980s, as well as the studios in Basing Street in Notting Hill, Island also owned the Compass Point Studios in Nassau, which produced some of the finest music in an otherwise dreary decade. I’ve just bought Funky Nassau, a compilation of the some of the 80s tracks cut at Compass, mostly powered by Sly and Robbie, probably the best reggae rhythm section in the world. Fine stuff from Grace Jones, to Gwen Guthris to Talking Heads, the Tom Tom Club and Ian Dury. Listening to it again put a spring in my step.
Why pink? A subtle piece of rebranding, perhaps ironic in hindsight. Island started life as a distributor, mostly of ska music, and wanted to broaden its appeal to the 60s rock audience. The pink label was chosen because it was the last colour anyone would associate with ska or reggae.
Update 8th June: I was in a bookshop yesterday and they were playing a John Martyn record. When I said it was good to hear John Martyn, the bookseller started enthusing quite spontaneously about the Island documentary. How often does that happen with a BBC4 programme?
The picture is from the cover of Island Records 1962-77, Yuri Grishin’s ‘encyclopedic reference book – more at 991.com.