Chris Blackwell is the founder of Island Records, one of the biggest independent record labels in history. Along the way he produced and released albums by world famous artists like Bob Marley, U2, Cat Stevens, Robert Palmer, Traffic and countless others.
Believe it or not, all of this success started on the advice of a Jamaican diviner.
Blackwell, who was born in London but grew up largely in Jamaica, had held a wide range of jobs when he was a young man: property management, record distribution, and as a production assistant and scout. for the 1962 James Bond film. Dr. No. (Blackwell’s mother was a friend of Ian Fleming.) After filming was completed, producer Harry Saltzman offered her a full-time job. Unable to make up his mind, Blackwell visited the diviner. “The maps don’t lie,” recalls Blackwell. He decided to stay in the music industry.
Decades later, Blackwell would be seen by many as the man responsible for bringing reggae music to the mainstream through his small but mighty independent label, which eventually grew to include some of music’s most influential names. rock and pop.
Blackwell’s New Memoirs, The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond, (written with Paul Morley), revisits the stories behind some of these musicians and their relationship with Island Records. The legendary record producer recently spoke with UCR about a few key players.
(Blackwell will sign copies of the memoir to Rough Trade Records in New York on June 16. Details can be found here.)
I think my favorite section in the book is probably the one on Nick Drake, who has always been a very hidden character in music history. It’s a shame he didn’t get a lot of recognition when he was alive.
Well, there’s a general sadness because he’s such a sweet, kind genius, in a way, you know? When I first met him, he came to see me, to see if I might be interested in signing him. At that time he was in college, and at that time I was right in the middle of kind of hard rock ‘n’ roll – which was Traffic, the band and I called Traffic, which became, you know, really loud enough – Steve Winwood was the lead singer, and another band called Spooky Tooth. But I was more into a kind of heavy, rock ‘n’ roll kind of thing, and he was really nice. I told him that I really liked him, I really liked his music, but I didn’t really feel like I could help him at the time, because I was really focused on what I was doing. I said to him: “But come back in six months”, you know? And he came back in six months, and nothing had really changed in six months. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he was talented; it was clear he had talent. He was really special, just his aura. [Drake signed to Island at age 20 and released three albums with them, though none gained much notoriety until after his death from an overdose at age 26.]
In the book, when you describe meeting Bob Marley and the Wailers for the first time, you mention how you immediately recognized they had potential, but many of your fellow islanders thought you were crazy signing a band that you had never heard live, and which did not correspond to any traditional “rock” or “pop” group. What was it about them and their music then that made you stick with your guts?
You know, I started with Jamaican music. The first record I produced was in Jamaica, a singer I heard at a concert, and when the concert ended, I went backstage and said, “I think you’re great. I’d love to check you in.” He had never recorded before and he said “I would love to do that.” And then another guy was standing by and he said, “Well, what about me? I’d love to do that.” And then another person said, “I would love to do that.” [Laughs.] So I ended up recording three different artists who were committed to Jamaican rhythm and Jamaican feel, and the first three of them all went to No. 1. I had, you know, three records in the Top 5. So that’s how I started, and that’s what my basic knowledge or my skills were, or whatever.
It sounds like you had a lot of confidence in your choice at the time, even if the surrounding atmosphere – the recording industry, the radio industry, your colleagues – wasn’t necessarily so loyal.
Yeah, well, for the Marleys’ situation, when the Marleys arrived, they arrived on their way home, trying to get back to Jamaica. They had been stuck because their manager sent them to work in Scandinavia and it didn’t really work out well, and they came back from Scandinavia to London, but they didn’t have the plane ticket to go back to Jamaica. . So really, they were there to see me, to see if I could help them get back to Jamaica – and maybe they could make a record for me or something. That’s how I first met them, but I felt they were very charismatic, all three of them. I felt that, you know, I could do something to help them in some way, to guide them, because my roots were Jamaican music. So I knew the language. I understood this music very well.
Then there’s the opposite of that: you write later in the book about your first impressions of U2 and that “if I had just heard them on a demo tape, I would have made it”. But you saw them playing live in a small venue, and you saw Bono’s energy and the whole band’s attitude and you decided to sign them. Can you talk a bit about that?
I walked into the club, and there were probably about 10 people in the club, and then the band came in and it opened up to about 15 people. [Laughs.] So it wasn’t that they were well known or anything at all, but it was just a club that their manager had set up for me to listen to. When I saw them playing and their passion, I really started having different feelings for them from the start. Then later, as you heard other songs, that same passion was really there – it gave me a lot. But also, what is very important, was the fact that they had a manager, someone who wore a suit. I was still pretty sloppy with just flip flops and such, but there he was in a suit. In the case of U2, I was really impressed with this small club, with maybe 17 people in it [and] this man, very well dressed and very clearly a serious businessman. I thought, “Wow, well, if he’s here to do that. You can see their drive and their passion for what they were doing.” I didn’t feel the music personally, because, again, my roots [were in] Jamaican music and it’s all about the bass – the bassline, you know? And in their case, it was more high-end guitar and stuff like that. So I really decided, without a doubt, to sign them for the reasons I just told you – a manager and his passion.
Were there times in your career where, given the chance, you would come back and handle things differently?
Yes, there would be one or two. You know, sometimes there can be a group of people who each want to do their own thing. So the bassist wants to play a different feel to what the guitarist does, that sort of thing. This is something that could happen often. But then, on the other hand, when there was a band where they were just, like, locked together – that everyone knew what their role was and played them – then you would feel like that’s something that could really happen.
Something that stands out for me in the book is the relationship you had with a lot of the artists that you worked with. There seemed to be a solid level of trust and understanding between the two parties. Why do you think that was?
Because I of confidence their. I sincerely trusted them. I think if someone offers trust, you know, as long as they’re honest [laughs], it’s really the best thing you can have – because you have a working relationship where you can say to the person, “I think you could do this a little better” or “You could do this a little differently “. But you do it for them; you don’t do it for yourself. You do it because you want to help out with some advice. If they don’t feel that, then they’re right too. If you give them advice and they don’t feel it, they shouldn’t necessarily accept it.
U2 album chart
U2 doesn’t inspire weak reactions in people. There are passionate U2 fans and passionate U2 haters, and very few in between.