Music: Island Records founder to float new ventures
Thursday 20 November 1997
Chris Blackwell left his native Jamaica and began selling records to London's West Indian community from the back seat of his Mini Cooper at the age of 25. After launching Bob Marley, Cat Stevens, U2 and a galaxy of other stars, he sold that business, Island Records, to Polygram in 1989 for $300m (pounds 180m) but retained artistic control of output.
Now, after a falling out with Polygram, Blackwell is starting from scratch in the record business. Except, of course, he has a bit more cash to play with and still owns the Island Trading boutique chain and Island Outpost properties - an upmarket chain of luxury hotels and exclusive resorts.
Speaking from his 12-villa Strawberry Hill resort in the lush hills above Kingston, Blackwell, a white Jamaican from a wealthy island family, revealed that he will compete with Polygram through his little-known Jamaican record label Blue Mountain Music.
The focus will be reggae, particularly reggae artists Sly and Robbie, and a newly-signed English pop group, Marlena.
"Sly and Robbie played with the late Peter Tosh," he said. "They've played with Grace Jones and they've been the backbone of Jamaican record production for a pretty long time. They produced the theme from the new Jamaican film Dancehall Queen, which was a big hit for us this year.
Marlena is a two-person combo, with 21-year-old Marlena Buck from Blackpool and her 29-year-old co-songwriter Benny Dimassa from London. Both are Anglo-Italians. "Marlena hasn't put out any records yet. It's very good sort of pop music. It's not rock, it's sort of between folkie and pop. If there's anyone you'd say she's a bit like ... No, I don't want to say who she's like ... Well, Kate Bush ... But you don't want to say someone's like someone. It's kind of damning.
"Under the deal with Polygram, we can't put out any records until next July."
Blackwell, 60, who in the Fifties was aide-de-camp to Jamaica's British governor Sir Hugh Foot, received an honorary doctorate last week from the University of the West Indies in Kingston, along with one of his proteges, reggae star Jimmy Cliff, for their services to music.
He explained for the first time why he had resigned last month as the chairman of Island Records and from the board of Polygram after a dispute with Polygram boss Jacques Levy.
"Basically, we'd not been seeing eye to eye as to what my role would be. What I had wished to do was to expand a wholly entertainment group within Polygram That's why I sold them my film group, Island Pictures, three years ago. I said, look, I've run Island Records for 35 years, I don't want to do just the same thing.
"I wanted to buy the music TV cable company The Box, which now is one of the foremost ways of breaking music, and 50 per cent of Interscope, which was available at the time and which has really been the most successful record company over the last three years, with artists like Nine Inch Nails and Tupac Shakur. If they had allowed Island to buy it, Polygram would unquestionably have been the number one company in the world.
"The chairman of the board [Mr Levy] was not really keen on these acquisitions."
Commenting on his 35 years with Island Records, Blackwell explained: "Frankly, the bigger one gets, even when it's independently-owned, it's very hard. I found it impossible to keep the same spirit as when it was very small. When it's very small, you can have a sort of guerrilla force type spirit. As we became a small corporation, it became difficult to compete. As a guerrilla force, you can compete with an army but as a small army, it's very difficult to compete with a big one."
A major catalyst in Blackwell's split with Polygram was a disagreement over a new Island Pictures film called Gingerbread Man, scripted by John Grisham and directed by Robert Altman. "When the film was first shown to everyone, we all liked it . But ... it didn't test very well and Polygram wanted to change the movie. Polygram's top [film] man, Michael Kuhn, never spoke to Altman and another editor was put in on the film. I disagreed with that completely. For right or wrong, Island's approach has always been to really support the artist.
"Altman has been an entirely independent maverick operator in Hollywood for a very long time. Once you decide to go into business with him, you're essentially putting your confidence in him and his eye and what he wants to do. So I rang Levy and said, look, I want to resign. This is not how Island has ever operated."
In addition to Blue Mountain Music, Blackwell hopes to market the Jamaican football team, nicknamed Reggae Boyz, who qualified last weekend for the World Cup finals.
"We might make a compilation of reggae songs that have been written about them. I think they could take over from Brazil as everybody's second favourite team."
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