Island: The record label that changed the world

In June, the company that gave us Bob Marley, Grace Jones and U2, celebrates its 50th anniversary. Pierre Perrone joins in the celebrations.

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:10

Chris Blackwell didn't exactly have a master-plan when he founded Island Records with £1,000 in 1959. Thirty years on, he sold the company to PolyGram for $300 million. In the intervening years, Island had grown from a fledgling operation, licensing its potential hits to bigger companies, to a stand-alone independent in tune with the underground and slowly seeping into the mainstream.

Blackwell introduced the world to a whole new genre – reggae – and made a superstar of Bob Marley. He nurtured idiosyncratic talents such as Tom Waits and Julian Cope, helped Cat Stevens and Marianne Faithfull reinvent themselves, and even indulged Derek and Clive's scatological humour. In the Eighties, he produced groundbreaking albums for Grace Jones and bankrolled the excesses of Trevor Horn's ZTT label. And, of course, Island saw in U2 the potential every other record company had missed. Blackwell takes little credit for the success of the Irish group but his willingness to back the hunches of several members of his team and stay with a band who broke through on their third album, War, in 1983, and became a worldwide phenomenon on their fifth, The Joshua Tree, was symptomatic of his belief in giving his artists time, space and freedom to develop.

Island is now part of the Universal Music Group but retains such a cachet that its logo still adorns releases by Amy Winehouse, Keane, Scott Matthews and Paul Weller. Next month, Island celebrates its 50th anniversary with a week of concerts at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, the publication of Keep On Running – The Story of Island Records, a coffee-table book edited by Chris Salewicz, and a photo, artwork and memorabilia exhibition in London, prompting its former supremo to comment: "It was always my intention at Island to make records that stood the test of time, and I'm proud that Island is still a potent force in music 50 years since that first release."

Blackwell was born in London on 22 June 1937, and spent his childhood in Jamaica, but came back to Britain in his teens to finish his education. He was effectively expelled from Harrow for selling cigarettes and booze to fellow pupils, his headmaster famously remarking "Christopher might be happier elsewhere." He got by on his good looks and well-to-do family connections in Jamaica as he rented scooters, taught waterskiing and dabbled in real estate. What he liked best was travelling to New York in search of rhythm and blues, and jazz, records. He brought them back to Jamaica where he scratched the info off the labels and sold them on to sound-system operators at hugely inflated prices.

"Whenever I saw an Atlantic record, I would immediately pick it up. Ahmet Ertegun was my hero," said Blackwell, who later became firm friends with the co-founder of Atlantic Records, even if they occasionally competed for the same act. "I learned from him the value of creating a label identity which was synonymous with good quality and good music. That kind of experience made me feel I wanted to have my own label."

Indeed, this seemed the best way to reconcile Blackwell's entrepreneurial streak and his love of music. In the late fifties, he had a captive market since Jamaica produced little indigenous music because of the lack of recording facilities in what was still an outpost of the British Empire.

In 1958, Blackwell issued records by Laurel Aitken, Wilfred Edwards – later better known as Jackie Edwards – and Owen Gray on a label called R&B, and was amazed at their success in the local market. The first Island release was actually an album. "When I recorded Lance Hayward at the Half Moon in 1959 at Federal Records Studio in Kingston, I had no inkling what path this had set me on," Blackwell admitted. The name came from the 1955 Island in the Sun.

Sound system operators Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid followed his lead and, when Jamaica gained its independance in 1962, Blackwell decided to move his operation to London, where he had enjoyed substantial sales (coincidentally, the first Island 45 in the UK was "Independent Jamaica" by Lord Creator). Blackwell leased ska material from Dodd, Reid and other Jamaican producers, drove to the areas of London where the Jamaican communities had settled, and sold records out of the back of his Mini Cooper.

In 1963, he produced "My Boy Lollipop" for the 15-year-old Millie, and took the savvy decision to license what he felt was a hit to Fontana. "It was something I'd learned from the American independent record business," he reflected. "Most of the time, these small labels couldn't collect the money from the stores fast enough to pay the pressing plant to make more records in order to meet the demand."

"My Boy Lollipop" reached No2 in the British charts in 1964 and sold six million copies worldwide, by which time Blackwell had discovered the Spencer Davis Group, featuring Steve Winwood, in Birmingham. He teamed them up with his friend Jackie Edwards, who wrote their chart-topping singles "Keep On Running" (1965) and "Somebody Help Me" (1966), both produced by Blackwell. In June 1967, "Paper Sun" by Traffic, Steve Winwood's new group, gave Island its first top five single, while his brother Muff became the label's first A&R man.

Blackwell had already enlisted the maverick Guy Stevens to run Sue, Island's rhythm and blues imprint loosely allied to Juggy Murray's Sue in the US. Stevens helped put together Mott the Hoople and produced their first four albums, as well as releases by Free and Spooky Tooth. The Boston-born, London-based Joe Boyd was another Blackwell associate at the time, producing seminal albums by Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, which became as much part of the Island story as the singer-songwriters John Martyn and Cat Stevens.

As psychedelia turned into progressive rock, Island pioneered the bargain-priced samplers with You Can All Join In – assembling its roster in Hyde Park for the iconic cover – and Nice Enough To Eat – in 1969 so that hipsters could discover Wynder K Frog or Quintessence. Blackwell's unselfish vision accommodated distributing acts from the Chrysalis – like Jethro Tull – and EG management stables – King Crimson but also Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the flamboyant Roxy Music. This remained a constant as Island became the partner of choice for a wide range of smaller start-up labels.

A company with its finger on the pulse of alternative culture, Island gave a home to Velvet Underground refugees Nico and John Cale, the quirky Sparks, pub-rockers Eddie and the Hot Rods and arty punks Ultravox! in the mid-seventies. The radical Slits could only have been on Island. Blackwell missed out on Talking Heads but signed their offshoot Tom Tom Club and turned Grace Jones into the icy queen of the dancefloor. "Basically, the thing I really like is a groove," Blackwell said. That's the primary importance to me."

Island had a significant number of dance-oriented subsidiaries, most notably Fourth & Broadway (Eric B and Rakim, the Stereo MCs) and Mango (Chaka Demus and Pliers), while blue-eyed soul singer Robert Palmer repaid Blackwell's belief in him when he scored a worldwide hit with "Addicted to Love" in 1986. Blackwell was also an early advocate of African musicians King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita, Angélique Kidjo and Baaba Maal.

Fittingly, though, Island is most closely associated with reggae and Marley, even if Blackwell had originally planned to make Jimmy Cliff his Jamaican flagship artist, only for the singer to leave Island for EMI just after the release of the film The Harder They Come in 1971.

"I was disappointed. A week later Bob walked in, and he was the real thing," he explained.Island championed Toots & the Maytals, Burning Spear, Sly & Robbie, Inner Circle, Third World, Black Uhuru, and British reggae acts Steel Pulse and Aswad, even if madcap dubmeister Lee Perry, for one, called Blackwell "the thief, a parasite, a vampire [who] came like a big hawk and grab Bob Marley up," as he told Danny Kelly of the New Musical Express in 1984.

Soft Machine alumnus Kevin Ayers also had harsh words about Island's attempts to turn him into a rock star in the mid-Seventies, while Mott the Hoople, Ultravox! and the B-52s fared better at their subsequent homes, but Blackwell stayed true to his principles and always favoured the artists over the business. "It's all about the act. The problem is everyone is in a hurry, and the business of music takes over from the music itself. But if you really love the music, then patience is not a problem, because you're enjoying the whole process of what is happening."

The Nineties saw Melissa Etheridge, PJ Harvey, Tricky, Pulp and the Cranberries join the label but, by 1997, Blackwell, had his fill of the corporate life. "I never really had a job until I sold Island to PolyGram in 1989. It had gotten too corporate," he commented. Blackwell left to form Palm Pictures and run a chain of boutique hotels in Miami and the Caribbean, including the very exclusive Goldeneye estate, once the Jamaican home of Bond creator Ian Fleming. Now 72, Blackwell recently launched Blackwell Black Gold, his own brand of rum, thus completing the circle since his family used to make rum.

Purists have criticised Universal's penchant for using Island as a catch-all label for pop acts the Sugababes or The Feeling in recent years, but Blackwell has maintained a dignified silence, even if he remarked: "Once you've sold something, that's usually it." He'll be at the Shepherds Bush Empire though, safe in the knowledge that his legacy at Island is intact. "The music business is at the point where it needs to be reinvented again. The majors are still clinging on by their fingernails," he observed earlier this year.

"When I started, the cost of entry was high, because there was no way to get round distribution. But I feel proud that Island broke down a lot of those barriers, and broke the system, really. The bigger labels are like supermarkets. I like to think of Island as a very classy delicatessen."

'Keep On Running – The Story of Island Records' is released on 21 May. The Island Life exhibition is at the Vinyl Factory, London W1, from 22 May to 17 June. The Island Life concerts are at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, 26-31 of May. For more information, go to

Pictures from an island: the house photographer's story

Adrian Boot, the former in-house photographer at Island and curator of the forthcoming exhibition marking the label's 50th anniversary, notes that it was the eclectic nature of Island's roster that separated it from its rivals.

"They were all idiosyncratic, some might say difficult, artists, the kind that any normal, self-respecting company wouldn't go near. No one was spending money on world music back in those days, yet Island had all these artists from Africa. We take it for granted now but the way labels saw music then was very formulaic."

It was in Africa that Boot began his career in photo-journalism, leading to him becoming one of the best-known music photographers. Straight out of a London university while in his early twenties, in 1971 Boot went to Jamaica to teach physics. The reggae scene was just beginning to get established and soon he found himself immersed in the music. During his few years there, for a time he became Bob Marley's official photographer, capturing the reggae star in intimate poses playing guitar alone, in colourful shots in Port Royal, south-eastern Jamaica, and at home with his family. One celebrated shot of Marley leaning on his hand even went on to be the face of a Jamaican special-edition postage stamp. After Marley's untimely death in 1981, Boot had access to Marley's estate and family. Boot has compiled several books of his photography, his first, 'Babylon on a Thin Wire', was about Jamaican ghettos.

He returned to London in the mid-1970s in time for the punk-rock explosion and it was then that his career took off. He photographed for 'NME' and 'The Face' and as staff photographer for 'Melody Maker', Boot snapped the Damned, the Sex Pistols, Wire, the Clash and Billy Bragg. His other subjects include Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, Grace Jones, the Who, the Police, U2 and Baaba Maal. Among his thousands of images is a black-and-white photograph of Bono with Bruce Springsteen backstage in 1981 at the Hammersmith Palais, and an image of a group of Fela Kuti's wives. Boot photographed for Island Records in Jamaica, Nigeria, Colombia and Algeria.

"When a record comes from Island it's still a mark of quality," reflects Boot. "The name bestows a kind of authenticity on an artist. When you think about it, there aren't many record labels you can say that about."


' My biggest hits' – Chris Blackwell on Island's landmark releases

Millie: My Boy Lollipop (1964)

"Your first hit is what moves you from being one of thousands to being one of hundreds. I brought Millie Small over to England in 1963, we made the record at Olympic Studios in London, when it was in Carlton Street. What was special was that it was a perfect choice of material and artist. I had in my head the type of sound, rhythm and feel that I wanted to get. It got realised pretty much exactly as I heard it in my head. It worked well for radio, it was a minute and 51 seconds. Also, Millie's voice was irresistible. I knew it was a hit. I also knew it was way beyond what Island could handle, so I licensed it to Fontana. That record was a huge hit everywhere in the world. I went with her on a six-month world tour."

Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman (1970)

"Cat Stevens is truly one of the greats. When I first met him in 1968 and I heard his songs, particularly "Father And Son", I became very excited to sign him because I thought his work was so incredible. But he said he was signed to Decca. So I said, "Well, what's your deal with Decca?" He told me, and I said, "I think I can match that." My vision was always albums. I love a hit as much as anyone, but I really like records of artists, because that to me is what you hear in jazz records. The album was the difference between one song and a career. What I looked for was deep-rooted talent. The ability to be intuitive. Not because the lyrics or attitude was great, but lots of little things that can be exciting about artists or projects. But it also had to be something I really liked. Cat Stevens is fantastic. It's amazing in the sense that the three biggest acts Island had were Cat Stevens, Bob Marley, and U2 – all very religious."

Bob Marley and the Wailers: Catch a Fire (1973)

"Bob Marley was a gamble. I gave him £4,000 up front to make the first album. Everybody said I was mad and I'd never see the money again. The Wailers had a reputation for being total rebels and being sort of impossible to deal with. It was simply because they had been treated unfairly. I took the risk and trusted Bob and it paid off many times over. They took me to the studio and played me some of the songs – "Slave Driver", "Concrete Jungle". I was looking for rebel, militant music. Reggae at that point was known as novelty music. I wanted to work on the record to make it more palatable for the rock audience. Jimi Hendrix was a model, I felt Bob could be that big. I moved things around, I added rock guitar, synthesisers, and expanded into solos. I needed to polish it to bring in the rock audience and to get them accepted as a black rock group. "Catch A Fire" only sold about 14.000 copies in its first year, but got great reviews."

Steve Winwood: 'Arc of a Diver' (1980)

"I first saw Steve Winwood in the Spencer Davis Group in 1964. He was like Ray Charles on helium. The same phrasing, the same drive, blues chords, but there was also this incredible voice and musicianship. So I signed the Spencer Davis Group and licensed their records to Fontana. It was only when he started with Traffic, in 1967, that I put out their records on Island. I produced "John Barleycorn Must Die". Winwood is a musical genius, very gifted. But it was a shaky course after Traffic. He made some uncertain records, to say the least. So I was supportive. How could you not be with such a talent? It was when he met Will Jennings and hooked up with him that a real match was made. Will wrote lyrics that Steve could relate to."

U2: 'The Joshua Tree' (1987)

"I didn't instigate the signing of U2. Rob Partridge, head of publicity [who died last year], gets the credit for that. I went to see them in London in July 1980, and I loved them. I loved the band's name – names are important to me. I had nothing to do with their recordings, their graphics, their touring. They did everything themselves. The best thing was just to stay out of the way and give them the support they needed in order to achieve what they wanted to achieve. I don't think I ever gave them one scrap of advice on anything. What I did for U2 was give them the platform of Island."

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