01 Sep 2019
CHRIS BLACKWELL was always a bit of a rebel. Born in London, raised in Jamaica, he was schooled at Harrow but scorned its uniform - especially the straw boater pupils were obliged to don.
"I used to go into town to buy liquor and cigarettes and sell them to the other students, including the prefects," Blackwell tells MOJO today. "When I got found out, the headmaster suggested to my mother that I might be happier elsewhere."
A not inconsiderable slice of that attitude, one suspects, went into the record label he launched 60 years ago. Built on Blackwell's youthful passion for American jazz and R&B, Island Records supplied the world with the treasures of Jamaican pop music, then used its success to back mavericks and one-of-a-kinds including Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Richard Thompson, Bob Marley, U2 and this month's MOJO cover star, Tom Waits. Even in the peak years of pop particularity, some labels appeared to follow the herd; Island were likely to gamble on the odd or the unique.
"Standing out, being different is so important," says Blackwell, now 82. "Most of the people I've signed, it's been purely on the strength of talking to them - it's never about demos. We signed the people, not the music. Tom Waits would be Exhibit A of that."
Blackwell's start in music came buying records and selling them to Kingston's sound systems, a minnow among the Coxsone Dodds and Duke Reids. "I think I was perceived as a bit of a joke," he reflects. "I was managing 63 jukeboxes all across the island so I could get my records heard. Radio didn't play any Jamaican music."
In 1959 came the release usually credited as the first with an 'Island Records' label: Boogie In My Bones by Laurel Aitken. But Blackwell concedes that the rise in Jamaica of ska ('this just fucking raucous music') drove him to London, seeking a market for his 'cleaner', slicker releases. It was here that he teamed singer Millie Small and guitarist Ernest Ranglin on a version of Barbie Gaye's 1956 R&B number My Boy Lollipop. "When we'd finished it, I absolutely knew that this was a hit," Blackwell recalls. "I had no doubt."
Blackwell's ears didn't lie. In 1964, Millie's version, licensed to Fontana (Island itself couldn't cope with the scale), went to Number 2 in the UK singles chart and Blackwell was suddenly a player in the '60s pop explosion, "in the mix with Brian Epstein and Andrew Oldham". But Island's transformation into a cosmopolitan, multi-genre label was not instantaneous. Blackwell was wowed by The Spencer Davis Group - again they would be released through Fontana, albeit as a Chris Blackwell production. Meanwhile, his company reissued US R&B sides through Guy Stevens's Sue imprint while Blackwell weaned himself off his 'day job' - driving around London delivering his Jamaican releases to the record shops patronised by London's Caribbean diaspora. ("Working very hard, but making ground all the time. It was a joy.")
Yet by 1970 Island had released albums by John Martyn, Traffic, Nirvana, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Spooky Tooth, Free, Nick Drake and Mott The Hoople, on the way to establishing themselves as the most eclectic label of the decade. They were in on the ground floor of UK folk-rock (though Blackwell gives most of the credit to producer Joe Boyd: "I don't think we did as well as we should have after Joe left"). Art-pop oddballs like Roxy Music, John Cale and King Crimson were accommodated. Jamaica was reflected in releases by Toots And The Maytals, Max Romeo and Bob Marley And The Wailers.
"I liked to sign talent and give minimal guidance," he says today. "Quite a few of our acts took a while to make money - if I'd been employed I'd probably have been fired. But our view was that we liked talent, and we were learning from them all the time."
One of Blackwell's obsessions was packaging. He loved 'record jackets' that communicated the vibe of the contents, many of them designed by art director Tony Wright.
"I was often being told I worried too much about the covers," says Blackwell. "But I don't think I did. The Catch A Fire one -the one that opened like a Zippo lighter- I really believed in. I really believed that Bob Marley could be a huge rock star and I felt we needed to release the first album in a manner that people would at least talk about. Unfortunately, the cover didn't last through all the pressings. It turned out that it was hard to get the record in -turned out to be a damn nuisance, in fact- but it did its job."
Blackwell relinquished day-to-day control over Island in 1989, selling up to Polygram (subsequently subsumed into Universal Music) when getting beaten to the signature of Tracy Chapman by Elektra/ Warners led him to conclude that the indie labels' competitive advantage over the majors had been eroded. But he's kept his hand in. In the mid-'90s he tried to hook up Island signee Tricky with Tom Waits ("That would have been explosive," he chuckles), and in the new century he warmed himself on the breakthrough of Amy Winehouse.
"I thought she was fantastic," he says. "Her records, they proved that Island was still Island."
Sixty years since its foundation, with artists such as Skip Marley testifying to the label's heritage, and others, like PJ Harvey, maintaining its maverick credentials, it's no wonder current Island execs queue up to pay tribute to their founder and establishing spirit.
"Chris Blackwell is a massive inspiration for all of us here," says Louis Bloom, Island UK president. "From the very beginning he helped create the blueprint of what a record label should and could be."
The first track on the accompanying CD, Island Radicals | The Maverick Sounds Of …, is by John Martyn: Goin' Down To Memphis. Which is a bit of a strange choice. The track is described on page 6:
Maverick incarnate, Martyn's career began at Island as, notionally, a folk revivalist. By 1968's The Tumbler, however, his mercurial range was already coming to the fore: witness how he tears a new dimension for this country-blues, fingerpicking his way into free jazz territory while never losing the headlong groove.
John gets a few kind remarks on the introduction to the CD.
The diversity of the Island roster was not, as Blackwell acknowledges, "a help for John Martyn in the beginning." Soon enough, though, Island signings were united by a fearless eclecticism, a willingness to subvert expectations and push boundaries, rather than fitting into a homogeneous sound. These Island Radicals became the irregular heartbeat of the label, and MOJO is proud to present 15 of them on this very special birthday CD. Beginning, aptly, with John Martyn. "He was... beyond, he really was," remembers Blackwell - as were so many of those who followed John Martyn to a home on Island.
This interview appeared in the September 2019 issue of Mojo. This was dedicated to sixty years of Island and had Tom Waits on the cover. The article features various photographs of Chris Blackwell from different periods, but nothing relevant for this site.