- 06 Feb 20
To celebrate what would've been Bob Marley's 75th birthday, we're revisiting our classic 2009 interview with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell – in which he discusses his relationship with Marley, and his involvement in the legendary artist's remarkable career.
What’s the greatest independent record label of all-time? A lot of people would argue Sun for sticking Elvis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Josh Cash et al in the studio and thusly inventing rock ‘n’ roll; others would say Motown for their ceaseless production line of soul classics; while a good few residents of HP Towers reckon the accolade belongs to Rough Trade for their spotting of Morrissey and Marr’s nascent genius.
Entitled as they are to their opinions, they’re all wrong. In terms of longevity – they’re about to celebrate their 50th birthday – and the diverse talents they’ve gifted us – Bob Marley, Nick Drake, Cat Stevens, U2, Jimmy Cliff, King Sunny Ade, Grace Jones, Tom Waits, The Cranberries and PJ Harvey, to name just ten – no one can hold a torch to Island Records.
Although Island founder Chris Blackwell sold the company in 1989 for a whopping £272 million, the sixtysomething will be in the thick of things next year as the label marks its half-century not out with a major series of reissues, a week of shows in London and a May 2009 blowout in its spiritual home of Jamaica.
Chris spoke to Stuart Clark in September as part of a joint Hot Press Music Show and Trinity College Dublin event. Here are the highlights of that discussion…
STUART CLARK: You’ve got the most wonderfully exotic family background. Can you explain it to us?
CHRIS BLACKWELL: My mother was born in Costa Rica. Her family came to Jamaica in the 1600s – they were Portugeuse Jews, which didn’t sit well with the Spanish Inquistion which was going on at the time. My father is Anglo-Irish – his own father was killed in the first World War when he was three, so he never really knew him, and grew up in Clew Bay in County Mayo. The first time I went to Westport was when I was eight, and I’ve been a regular visitor since.
You attended Harrow in the 1940s, which must have had a whiff of Tom Brown’s Schooldays about it.
Well, I actually really enjoyed it. I was always in trouble there, mind you, but I liked it because being very sick as a child I grew up on my own, and this was an opportunity to spend a lot of time with people my own age which I hadn’t really done before that. Jamaica was a long, long journey in those days so I’d go back once a year rather than every holiday.
When and where did your musical awakening happen?
My father loved classical music, and in our house in Jamaica he used to play Wagner, Puccini, Brahams etc. at deafening volume, which I loved. It provided me with a benchmark that later in life I was able to judge other things against.
One of your early jobs was Assistant Aide-De-Camp to the Governor of Jamaica. Was that as glamorous as it sounds?
The title’s glamorous, but really my role was that of go-fer. I’d meet people when they came to his official residence, King’s House, and make sure they were looked after. I really liked the man I worked for, Sir Hugh Foot. It was an interesting time too because it was just when Jamaica was coming towards independence, and I got to meet all the leaders of the political parties. He left because he was transferred to Cyprus, and because I didn’t care too much for the person who followed him I left as well.
You also had a spell as a professional gambler. How did that go?
‘Professional’ normally means that you make a living from it, but I at best scuttled by. I used to spend all my time gambling. I’d wake up and go on my motorcycle to the horseracing. After horseracing, I’d go dog racing. After dog racing, I’d go to a bridge club, which was usually playing with a lot of old ladies. From there I’d go to a poker club, which was usually a lot of people from Eastern Europe who’d arrive there at midnight and fold and fold and fold until they got a decent hand. Although gambling is a dangerous addiction, it’s an incredible study of human nature.
Another swashbuckling episode in your early life was the 1959 shipwreck, which introduced you to the Rastafarian way of life.
Shipwreck sounds more glamorous than it really was! What happened is that my boat ran out of gas on the coral. It was evening, there were three of us there and one of the people went out to see if they could find a road. They came back three hours later – no road – so I said, “The best thing is to stay here the night and see if we can find something in the morning.” So at first light I set out, and instead of going inland decided to follow the coast, which was really quite scary because I got incredibly thirsty and had to fight my way through swamps. There was one time when I had a thousand huge crabs in front of me, but when I stamped my foot they all ran so that was okay! Anyway, I survived all that, and ended up on this beach which had a hut on it belonging to a Rastafarian fisherman. This being the ‘50s, the only thing you read about Rastafaris was that they were murderers and very anti-white people, but being totally exhausted I asked him for water, which he gave me, and ended up falling asleep. When I woke, it was dark and there were eight Rastas all around me reading from the bible. I was terrified because I’d always been told how dangerous they were, but one of them had already gone out, found my friends and taken them to Port Royal where they also accompanied me. That really was a seminal moment in my life.
You had another one a year later when you hooked up in New York with Miles Davis. That must have been a hell of an experience!
Yes, that was my university! I’ve no idea why, but he took a liking to me and let me just hang around for six months. It was the same year that he recorded Kind Of Blue, which is considered one of the best jazz albums of all time. I didn’t attend those sessions, but I was at the Miles Ahead ones he did with Gil Evans. It was a very heady time for me.
What kind of a man was Miles?
He didn’t talk much. He put the ‘C’ in cool, really, because he never spoke to the audience. The way that they played – there’d be an ensemble at first, and then there’d be individual solos. When he wasn’t soloing he had his back to the crowd. It was the same band that basically played on Kind Of Blue, so you had John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Paul Chambers. It was actually really the best.
Was he a bit of a punk rocker before the term was invented? He certainly did things his own way.
To give you an idea of how cocky I was in those days, I asked him one time why he played so many bad notes. He said, “It’s because I try and play what I hear in my head rather than what I know I can play.” I always thought that was the essence of what jazz was all about.
You went home in 1960 and started Island. What was the musical landscape like in Jamaica then?
Well, the biggest-selling record in Jamaican history up till then was Mario Lanza and ‘The Student Prince’, which was because the only people who had money were the middle-class on up. The rest of the people couldn’t afford to buy records and went instead to the sound system dances. I’d go up to New York now and again to buy records, scratch the labels off so that nobody would know who they were by and then sell them to the sound system guys for a vastly increased amount of money. I spent a lot of time in that scene – again, I was probably the only person of my complexion who went to the dances, but I got on well with the guys and then thought I’d see if I could make my own record to sell to them. So, I recorded a single (‘Independent Jamaica’ by Lord Creator), which I got pressed up, took to the shops and it went to number one. When the next two also got to number, the sound system guys figured that this was maybe the way to go, and started releasing their own records. One of the first ones was Coxone who started what became known in Jamaica as ska, and in England as Bluebeat because that was the name of the Esquire Records subsidiary those tracks were released on.
Given how successful you were in Jamaica, why did you up sticks and move Island to London in 1962?
Well, my first three or four records were successful in Jamaica, but then Coxsone and other guys like Duke Reid, King Edwards and Prince Buster came along and stole our thunder. So I went to see these competitors of mine, all of whom I’d known for ages, and said, “Let me release your records in England.” None of them really liked this guy who owned Bluebeat, so they gave me a shot and that was the birth, if you like, of the Island Records you now know.
And love! Who was buying ska at the time in the UK?
Jamaicans. I got the records pressed, and drove round in my car selling them to shops in places like Lewisham and Brixton. It was all very segregated until Derrick & Patsy released a single called ‘Housewife’s Choice’, which possibly because there was also a BBC radio programme of that name, crossed over. When I started selling records into London’s West End, it was a big deal.
If Derrick & Patsy blurred the boundaries, you completely eradicated them in 1964 with Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, which topped the UK pop chart and went on to sell seven million copies worldwide.
One of Coxsone’s records, ‘We’ll Meet’, was by Roy Panton and Millie Small who was only 15 and had a very odd voice that people loved. Thinking I should maybe bring her over, I wrote to Mrs. Small who agreed in a second to let her daughter come to England. I found the original version of ‘My Boy Lollipop’ going through some old tapes, thought “Wow, she could really do this song!” and was thankfully proved right. When that became huge, I was suddenly catapulted out of the Jamaican music business into the pop world.
How swinging were your ‘60s?
It really was an incredible time. Just thinking back to Millie, we did TV shows back then with The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, Wayne Fontana, Gerry & The Pacemakers and the Stones were all on too. It was also the time when Motown and other soul acts were starting to happen in a big way. Another of my favourite ‘60s memories was when Millie shared a dressing-room in the Brooklyn Fox with The Supremes who’d only had a couple of hits and that point. Dusty Springfield was also on the bill along with The Searchers and Little Anthony & The Imperials who were headlining.
I want to fast forward if I may through other ‘60s Island acts like the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Jethro Tull and Free to 1971 when you gave Bob Marley £4,000 to make a record. A piece of business, incidentally, that was considered far from shrewd by other people at the time.
One of my main artists back then was Jimmy Cliff. I put him in the film The Harder They Come because I thought it would be a good career move for him, but he didn’t make as much money as I told him he would and decided to leave, which upset me because I’d spent a lot of time working with him. By coincidence, somebody rang me and said, “Bob Marley & The Wailers are in London, would you like to meet them?” I should explain that we’d already released some singles of theirs on Island, but I didn’t know much about them beyond their reputation as big troublemakers. Anyhow, they came to see me, and broke and stranded as they were, the charisma emanating from them was staggering. I felt I could work with them, so I took a chance, I guess, and asked Bob how much it would cost him to make an album. His career path at the time was to have a hit single in the American black music charts, but I told him I didn’t think he had a hope of that happening. I thought he should position himself – the other two were there but I was mainly addressing Bob – as a black rock act. That’s probably because at the time he looked a little like Hendrix, and had the star quality I’d seen in Jimmy Cliff. Everybody said I was crazy and would never see my money again, but a few months later I went to the studio and they played me Catch A Fire.
Is it true that he was a hard man to get close to?
Yeah, I would think so. I never hung out or went to clubs with him – we weren’t close personally – but that didn’t stop us having a good working relationship.
At what point in Jamaica did he stop being a musician and become a deity?
At about the time of his third Island album, which was called Natty Dread. Catch A Fire wasn’t popular in Jamaica because the production was skewed towards the rock market, and included solos, which you got in ska but not at the time in reggae. The second, Burnin’, was mainly old songs he’d recorded previously but not received any royalties for plus a few new ones like ‘Get Up, Stand Up’.
Marijuana was obviously central to Bob’s music making. Are you pro or anti-cannabis?
I’m pro- it, oh yeah.
Can you tell when you meet someone whether they’re touched by genius? I’m thinking of Bob, Bono and other singular talents you’ve worked with like Nick Drake, Grace Jones and Tom Waits.
I think that’s probably what I’m good at. It’s not hearing the tape – it’s meeting the person and getting a feel for them. With Nick, he came into see me one day in this office I had in 1966/’67 in Oxford Street. I think it was actually John Martyn who suggested that he do so. He played me his music, and I liked it very much but compared to Traffic, Free, Spooky Tooth and the other rock stuff I was focusing on at the time it was very ‘light’. I told him, “I love what you’re doing, but I’m not sure whether we’re the right people credibility-wise to sell your music.” That said, why not come back in six months and see where we’re both at? So, he came back and nothing had really changed – I liked his music a lot, but didn’t feel I could do anything with it. Then, about another year or so down the line, I ran in to (American music producer and early Pink Floyd associate) Joe Boyd who’d signed Nick and we finally agreed to release something of his on Island.
According to musical folklore, the contract was written on the back of a napkin. True?
Was Nick known to be a depressive?
He wasn’t the first two times we met, but on the third occasion when I went downstairs and he had this little tape in his hands, he hardly spoke. I said, “How much do I owe you?” because the deal we had was that I’d pay him whatever the record cost, and he mumbled “five hundred pounds” and that was that.
Fast-forwarding again to 1979, did you decide the moment you clapped eyes on them that you wanted U2?
It was in Herne Hill that I went to see them. There were about four or five people with me, and about four or five people in the audience but you’d have sworn it was 40,000 – they were the same as they are today in terms of their energy and passion. Although my roots were in black music and it was early in their career – in all honesty I found their sound a bit rinky-dink – there was something about them I connected with. I’ve always felt guilty that I’ve done little or nothing for U2, except perhaps hand them the keys to the company. I told everybody at Island to follow their lead.
Given The Edge’s hero worship of King Sunny Ade and the way Bono took to gospel, I thought you might have given him a recommended listening list.
I can’t say I did, although it’s possible they were influenced by some of the artists we signed down through the years.
It’s also been said that you had a major hand in Brian Eno getting The Unforgettable Fire production gig – a pivotal moment in their artistic development.
Actually, I had a major hand in trying to stop it! I felt that now was the time they needed to make a record with Jimmy Iovine. It was suggested in a very civilised way that we all meet for lunch to discuss it, so I came over to Dublin and heard either Bono or The Edge, I can’t remember which, say that what they really wanted Eno for was his intelligence. That, there and then, was me convinced. Jimmy Iovine might have given them a hit, but at a possible cost to their soul.
You had the juxtaposition of U2 embracing black music while Grace Jones was doing covers of Joy Division and Pretenders songs. Tell us a bit about Ms. Jones.
Well, she’s a miracle for a start. The fact that she’s ingested/digested what she has and is not only alive, but also looks the same as she did 30 years ago is unbelievable. What Grace really is above all is an actress. She has a great presence and is like family to me, really. There was an English journalist called Nick Cohn who recommended her to me, but I didn’t do anything about it until I saw that famous photo of her standing on one leg with a microphone in a magazine. This was 1976, and she’d just released her debut album, Portfolio, on a little label that was run by this Jewish couple from Brooklyn. Anyway, I bought the record off them and we started our relationship. Her second record was half-as-good as that one, and the third half-as-good again, so come 1979 I had a sort of sound in my head of what I wanted to achieve with her. It galvanised when I saw another black & white photo of Grace looking like a G.I. that her boyfriend, Jean-Paul Goude, had taken. I wanted to mix a hard edge, mid-range sound with a Jamaican bass and drum. So I put together this band, went to Compass Point which is a studio I built in Nassau, had the photo blown up, 5ft by 5ft, pinned it on the wall and said to the guys, “This record has to sound like that picture does!” And that’s exactly what happened.
Okay, the hardest question you’ve had to answer all night – what are the records you’re most proud of?
It’d be a couple of the Bob Marley albums, Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing and Free Fire & Water. There are another 20 or 30 I could list, but I don’t want to be greedy!