Interview: Chris Blackwell
26 May 2009
Picture not mine, I'm afraid. But I do still own a copy of this Wailers album complete with (battered, alas) sleeve.
No record company turns up in my record collection as frequently as Island Records. Ranging from early treasures from Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and Jackie (Edwards) & Millie ("My Boy Lollipop") via Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band to Justin Hines & the Dominoes, Lee Perry, George Faith, Max Romeo, Wailing Souls, Grace Jones and Baaba Maal, this man is responsible for the existence of some of my most cherished albums. I met the great man as part of the 50th anniversary of the label which, by that time, he had already sold to Universal Records. Can't blame Chris for moving on to pastures anew, but you can blame Universal for ruining a fine label by using it as a vehicle to foist a stream of character-free plastic pop on us.
I'm re-uploading this interview because it was quite popular in a previous version of my homepage.
Were you born in the West Indies or in England?
I was born here, went to Jamaica when I was 6 months old, came back to school when I was 8, back to Jamaica when I was 9, came back to school here when I was 10, and left back to Jamaica when I was 17.
I couldn’t resist the temptation to bring along my oldest Island records (Byron Lee and Millie & Jackie Edwards).
Look at this! That’s so funny.That’s quite something! This is my old girlfriend, Esther Anderson, and she also took a very famous picture of Bob. He – Byron Lee died last year. Wow, this is the fifth record! The fifth album we put out in England.
Do you have a copy of all your stuff?
I’m not a collector. I’m just not a collector. I wish I did now. But I was always looking forward and never really collecting stuff as I went along.
Did you ever have – early on or later – a sense of history whilst you were making all these albums?
Never. I was always thinking of how best to go about doing whatever I was working on at the time. You do something and then you’re working on something else and then you’re working on something else again, and there’s always something new you want to get happening. That’s always the way I was thinking. Still is. It’s just that this time I’m on pause for a little bit now with this Island 50 anniversary where I am looking back because of the celebration, but normally I’m just looking forward.
How does that feel, this looking back business?
I’m enjoying it. I really am enjoying it. As I said, I’m always looking forward, never stopped to look back, and now as I’m forced to in a way I feel great about it. It seems like a large body of work, really. I feel great about it. I feel proud about it.
The last 10 years it’s been a very different company than the one you left behind. Doesn’t it feel a bit odd having someone else wearing the laurels you earned?
Well, once you sell a company or a house or anything it’s no longer yours, it’s the peoples’ who bought it. I think the first thing is – at least they kept the name. There’s been so many great labels that have disappeared. A&M has disappeared. Stax. Some of the great labels in the past – ones that I wanted to emulate, King Records, Imperial Records, a lot of great labels don’t exist any more. The first thing, then, I’m thrilled that Island still exists. And also, at least in England, they’ve maintained a kind of a culture. It can’t be the same as it was. When something is independently owned it has a different kind of spirit. The whole thing works differently. There’s not a lot of people signing off onthings, it’s a different kind of thing, things move faster. But once something becomes part of a corporation it automatically gets more structured and it’s not quite the same fun. But still the people at Island, they’re still signing some very interesting things. If I’d owned Island I’d have loved to sign Amy Winehouse. She epitomizes a kind of Island act. And also just the way they’ve been with this – they’ve been really interested in polishing up the identity of the label. I think it’s great. I hope it lasts another 20, 30 years, whatever.
When you sold Island you set up Palm Pictures and the record label. Is it still going?
Still is. In fact we have a new record out, a great record, Baaba Maal. He’s made a very different record. A very very different record. We all felt we can’t have just another Baaba Maal record. We needed something else. This record is really great. Really great.
What’s the difference with this label in terms of the environment compared to starting Island in the 50s?
I made a lot of mistakes setting up Palm. I set it up much bigger than I would normally have. The reason was that I was encouraged to do so, because the feeling was that one would be able to raise a good amount of finance to be able to speed up the whole process. But we were not able to raise that finance. So we never started with the right amount of money for the size of it. So we always struggled. The other thing is, Palm started in 1998, 40 years after Island. When you start new you have no catalogue, you have nothing, so you have nothing that comes in that generates revenue while you’re working and developing the new things you’re establishing.
When you started off, did you fall into it because you were a music fan, or because of friends who were involved?
I started it purely because I was a music fan. I loved music. I loved being around musicians, I loved good musicianship.I was just like a fan of music, where the fan really wants to get backstage because they want to get closer to it. So to have the opportunity to be able to speak to someone and say “I’d like to make a record with you”, and they said “yes”, that was really exciting for me, because now Iwas really getting closer to it. Getting as close as you could possibly get, so when I took them into the studio, and they do a couple of couple of takes, and they said “what do you think”, and I said what I thought – who knew, I had no qualifications to produce anybody, but I just felt that one was a little better than the other, and I’d say that, and they’d say “OK”. I was part of it. I’d gone from being on the outside to being on the inside in little bit. I was in heaven. And I stayed that way for pretty much all the time.
The excitement must have been amazing. You had one over pretty much everyone else in Britain except the Jamaicans here. You knew the fantastic nature of Jamaican music. Did that feel like a preacher teaching the Brits?
Well, firstly, the Brits didn’t buy the music at all at first. Only the Jamaicans, when I started. 1962, 63,64, maybe 65 was when the records first started to sell to some of the English. But in the evenings, socially, I’d play my records for friends, and a lot of them really loved them because they’d never heard anything like it because there never was anything like it before. A lot of people really really enjoyed them. Particularly, the record that was most popular, it was a record called “We’ll Meet” by Roy & Millie. This little girl came on in the second verse of the song, she had this very high pitched and funny voice, and everyone said, “I’vegot to have that record”. That encouraged me to bring her over to England to see if I could make a record with her here because her voice was so distinctive. And it was very successful.
Who picked the song “My BoyLollipop”?
“My Boy Lollipop” was a song that had been released in 1957, something like that. I used to go up to New York –around when I made my first record, in Jamaica, a band that was playing in the Half Moon Hotel, when I made that record, an album, I went to New York to get it mastered and get the cover done and everything, and I would go to New York now and again and buy records and sell them to the sound system guys inJamaica. One of these records was the original version of My Boy Lollipop. But I’d make a copy of each one on a reel to reel tape, it was before cassettes,and when I brought Millie over to England I sat down trying to work out if we could find a song for her, and I found this tape which had the original version of My Boy Lollipop on it. And I said, that’s the song we should do. It was really really lucky that I found the tape.
What was the first band?
They were called Lance Haywood Quartet. I was a jazz fan. I was always a jazz fan.
How did your conversion to rock come about?
You see, rock itself was interesting. What I was never into, really, was pop, straightforward pop. I was never a pop person. Rock was a little bit the anti-thesis to pop when it first emerged. With pop, you never really talked about the musicianship of anybody, but when rock came in it had guitarists, and a lot of instrumentation. It was a different approach. The songs were longer. The whole thing was just a different approach when it first came in. A fresh approach. People didn’t really wear costumes to go on stage, they just went onstage in whatever clothes they were wearing. I reacted very strongly to that because it was great to hear – for example – a Steve Winwood, he was an incredible musician, incredible keyboard, organ, guitar. So, again, I was working with musicians, with music.
How frustrating was it that you had Free and Spooky Tooth and other fantastic rock bands and then people made the rock money elsewhere, with Led Zeppelin for instance?
Oh no, it wasn’t frustrating. Never. Believe it or not, I was never chasing after big hits. I was chasing after finding a different type of talent. Original type of talent I felt Icould work with for a long time. That was always my interest. Specifically my interest after Millie and My Boy Lollipop. Even though it was a very important record in my life, because without it who knows what would have happened. That was the record that got me a foot in the door in the general music business.But there was not really any great satisfaction. I felt I’d done a good job but then I wasn’t able to sustain that with Millie. I felt very bad to open up somebody like what happened with her, she had such a big hit and became a big star, and then not to be able to sustain it. And I didn’t like that.
Did she take it badly?
I don’t know if she took it badly, but there was clearly a disappointment of being on the front every newspaper, as she was, with the Beatles, at the time it was The Beatles and after that it was her, to being sort of disregarded, and I felt bad about that.I felt in a sense almost – guilty, really. Thereafter I was always interested in people I felt could have a long-term career.
You were in a difficult position with a lot of reggae people. They were often not very well educated, not grasping the contentof contracts, and a few said nasty things about you afterwards when it was clear that they just didn’t understand the economics of it. Was that painful?Lee Perry came back to you afterwards, didn’t he?
Not really. Yes, Lee Perry said some negative things about me. But do you know something? I love Lee Perry. I really do. I learnt more from him than anybody else I worked with. Anybody anywhere. I learned more from just watching him work. And from his point of view, I can understand why he’d be upset, because – I did a lot of records with him, and then when he had a record I didn’t like I didn’t take it.And I think from his point of view he probably felt that I was not being loyal to him. I can understand that. I was never upset about that. I really was never upset about it, because underneath it all deeply I care about him, and I know he cares about me.
In the 60s, do you think the fact that everybody was learning on the spot, managers weren’t the schooled and educated managers of today, everybody was improvising – was that a part of making it such a rich tapestry, the fact that people improvised more?
Absolutely it was. Everybody was learning on the chop, everybody was learning, a new business was being created as we went along. With everybody, not just with the musicians, with the managers, it was an incredibly exciting time, because you were breaking new ground. It had never existed anything like this before. It was very jazz. It was very improvisational. I’ve always been a jazz person, in my head and in the way I feel, so it was a very exciting time. I ultimately sold Island Records because the jazz had gone out of it, for want of a better word. It had all become very structured and corporate and people worried about their titles and that kind of thing which didn’t interest me at all.
In the wake of Island a lot of other labels – every major label had an indie label, Vertigo, Dawn etc. What did you have that those didn’t have? What was the advantage?
We were real. They weren’t real. When a large corporation has a so-called independent label it very rarely has a chance of doing anything. Because you can’t imbue a label with a kind of independent culture when really it reports to their board of directors who’re interested in their quarterly numbers. And their quarterly figures. And here’s this little label which isn’t making much difference either way because it’s – it’s a small label, and so they usually fail in the record business and in the film business.
Island had a couple of rap things, but not that many, even though Island had opened the way for experimental black music with reggae. But you didn’t put out too much rap. Why was that?
We didn’t put out too much - but we did put out one of the best rap albums of all time which was Eric B.& Rakim, “Paid in Full”! We also made this deal with these two brothers in California who had a label called Delicious Vinyl. And we had a couple of huge hits with them, Young MC and Tone Loc, particularly Tone Loc was huge. But in general, no. Partly because – I was in a sense in the center when reggae started to break, but I was not in the center of when rap music started to break. I was around, but more on the periphery. A friend of mine, Tom Silverman, he had a very strong label, Tommy Boy. And there were some other labels, but we weren’t at the center of it.
You did put out The Wild Bunch, so you paved the way for Massive Attack!
As a man who grew up with vinyl, how do you get on with MP3 and downloading and all that?
MP3 is just a very inferior sound reproduction. It’s much more inferior than cassette was, and people used to complain about cassettes in the old days. I think the whole way people store and consume music is totally different, and that’s the way it will be for the future. What I’m waiting for, and will be around the corner, is when the files are all uncompressed, and when they sell the music for a lot lot less than they’re selling it now. Once it’s possible to find with a little research to find anything you want and be able to download it for free, you can’t then ask for a dollar a track, which is what you were selling a regular song before. You can’t really do that. I’m waiting for that to happen, and when that happens I think the record business will take off again, and if it’s not compressed files the sound will be great.
How do you envisage artists to survive financially?
I think artists will survive on the sales of records, and also it will be not dissimilar to how it was in old days where a Duke Ellington or a Count Basie would hope to get a hit because they’d then get 1000 or 2000 $ more a night for their shows. It’s gonna be much more orientated towards personal appearances. But when as I say when they reduce the price and make the quality better I think it will be possible to sell many millions of records because it will be so inexpensive to pick it up.
When you compare musical quality– we haven’t just had everything hemmed in in terms of the business, we’ve also had everything comes with a marketing concept. When you compare what’s happened with rock in the last few years, does it interest you at all when you compare it to how exciting it was with Free and that sort of stuff?
That’s a hard question to answer. I’m 30 – 40 years older then when I was working with Free. But it was incredibly exciting working with Free because they were such an exciting band, they were so good, their musicianship was so good, their singer was so good, it was just really exciting. Now I’m not really full-time in the record business any more, I’m more in the publishing business, so I’m not anything as active in listening to new things, or being in touch with things. Not in the same way. I really can’t judge. There was a group I just heard recently, Animal Collective, I really love them, but in a way they sound a lot like something that could have come out in 1967.
In 1967 did these chaps just wander into your office and give you a demo tape?
In 67 people would come – let’s see. They had cassettes by 67. People would probably bring in a cassette, or still more likely a reel to reel.
I’d imagine the first Free demo must have been pretty staggering?
It wasn’t a demo. I was never into demos. I never asked anybody to do demos for me. I made a decision to sign an artist and then let them record what they wanted to record. That was always my policy. A very different policy to the one that exists now. It was my policy and it worked pretty well. My approach was really different. I was more in the a rtist business than the record business. I was interested in signing an artist, and building and developing an artist’s career. And the records would be milestones in that career. Certainly you were looking for the best record, and you were looking for something that could jump out and create a hit, provided that hit was in the spirit and style and feel of that artist. You didn’t want a hit that didn’t really represent him because you’d go off course. I never really listened to demos. I reckoned – I came from jazz – whatever they want to play, let them play. If they’re good, they’ll play good things.
Actually, Island released very few jazz albums. There was the Antilles sub-label for a while which released a few jazzier things but that was about it. Why did you not push jazz more?
You know something? I always thought in the 60s, when rock came in, and there was the musicianship with rock, that rock had a lot to cause the demise of jazz. Here they were, a lot of - in away - pop stars, musicians who became pop stars, people would see them on TV or see them live, and talk about incredible guitar solos, or incredible keyboard solos, but that was in a more popular kind of music, more structured songs. So I think jazz lost its importance. When jazz was at its most important it was the only place where you could hear musicianship other than classical music.You couldn’t hear it in pop, but you could hear great music played by the jazz masters. That was my theory. Also, I couldn’t really find anything that got me that excited. My favourite artists in jazz were Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Jimmy Smith. Going right back to Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong. I couldn’t find anything that was different. I guess some of the things that were trying to be different I didn’t really like. It didn’t really appeal.
What do you think of what’s happened with Reggae in recent years?
Well, reggae in recent years – reggae is so different from what it was in the 70s. Reggae in the 70s had such a cultural element to it. Such a social consciousness to it. And recently it has not had that. It hasn’t had it at all, it’s quite the opposite. A lot of the material is just negative, negativity, or just crassness, you know. Now and again you hear something great. But to me, again, I’m talking as a 70+ year old guy, it doesn’t interest me that much. Haha.
That begs the obvious question – which are the half a dozen or so records you think on which Island and the artist really succeeded?
One that immediately springs tomind is Tea for the Tillerman, Cat Stevens. Exodus by Bob Marley, and maybe another one, Catch a Fire by Bob Marley, because it was the start of something new. The start of moving reggae into a rock sensibility. Joshua Tree. Broken English, Marianne Faithful. Quite a few more.
I’m missing the folky stuff.
The folky stuff? Well, FiveLeaves Left, for sure. Solid Air, John Martyn. It’s hard. I hate being asked that because I’m gonna leave out something that later I’ll think I can’t believe I left that out.
Juju Music? King Sunny Ade?
Well, Juju Music, absolutely! That’s what started us on our whole African catalogue.
That’s easily in my top three concerts, King Sunny Ade at the Lyceum in the Strand.
Yes. I went to that. He was unbelievable. You became hypnotized. It was hypnotic. You’d just lose yourself. Fantastic. He was the first African artist we released. And then we worked with a lot of other people.
In some ways that was almost riskier than what you did with reggae. At that stage African music in London,you could go to Stern’s, the electrical goods shop in Tottenham Court Road, and there’d be a rack at the back with five Fela Kuti albums, and that was it. Nobody had access to African music.
Yes, but you see, to me it wasn’t risky. Because, again, I thought as a jazz label. Do you know what I mean? You’re not expecting to sell a million copies. You just want to record something that is really good and it will stand the test of time if it’s really good, and you’ll do your best to try and widen its market. But the main thing is to say: OK, this maybe in the first year will sell 50’000, and then you figure, OK, the cost of this should be related to what you think you can generate from the 50’000. And I would never think of it so much as that I had to make so much profit, I would think that I was looking to recover my investment in it. I always thought like that, which was not the best way of thinking from a business point of view. I thought like that because I thought somebody I really wanted to record because they were really interesting, really talented, so my first thing was “can I feel I support this?”. I was never thinking “this will go to the top of the charts and will sell a million records”.
Ironically, this was something you did fantastically well, have interesting music that somehow still ended up at the top of the charts.
Yes! I know. I think what Island was able to achieve was building a credible brand, especially from about 196 8until 1975, especially at that point in time, where people would think “if it’s on Island, let me hear it, it’s probably good”. That was a thing I wanted to emulate. When I used to go to New York and buy these records which I used to scratch off the label and sell to sound system guys, whenever I came to an Atlantic record I’d immediately pick it up and listen to it. And if I listened to it and didn’t like it I’d doubt my own taste. I wouldn’t doubt – I always remember thinking that and saying: that’s what I’d really like to get to if I had a label. That’s the reason to have a label. The only reason to have a label is as a filter system in some way. Hopefully create something where there’s a credibility. Where people will follow because they feel they’re not gonna be disappointed. And for a while we had that. A long time ago, haha.