INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Telegraph MAY 20, 2009 - by Andrew Perry
British pop's greatest surviving mogul is in London to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his brainchild, Island Records.
As Chris Blackwell arrives at his London offices, six large cases of limes are stacked up in the hallway. For the past two decades, Blackwell has been based in his native Jamaica, where he runs several of the world's most beautiful elite hotels. In the thirty years before that, he masterminded Island Records, one of Britain's great independent labels, which gave the world Bob Marley and U2.
Island, and Blackwell himself, were always renowned for a laid-back, nurturing style, which endured at the label, long after he sold up in 1989. Casually dressed in faded denims, Blackwell, now seventy-two, is in town for his brainchild's fiftieth anniversary celebrations. Preceding a run of gigs showcasing some Island legends, there is to be a major party in London, which will acquire a fitting Caribbean flavour thanks to the hundred cases of Blackwell rum, shipped over especially - hence all the limes. British pop's greatest surviving mogul is in an unusually reflective mood.
Although you're no longer involved on a practical level, does Island's fiftieth birthday mean a lot to you?
Chris Blackwell: I never look back. I don't even have a copy of most of the records we made, but it feels great, it really does. I've seen so many companies that I've really admired drop out of sight, like Stax, and Duke-Peacock, and King. A lot of them get sold to majors, and they tend to drop them off. Fortunately, they decided to keep Island and I hope they continue to do so. Part of the reason I'm keen to get involved now is that I'd love to see it stand the test of time.
Why do you think it has, thus far?
Chris Blackwell: It's probably because two of our artists became so big. Bob Marley and U2, are probably in the Top 10 artists of all time, plus we had Cat Stevens, who actually sold the most records. Maybe it's because we've had a lot of varied music on Island, too.
When you started out in the late 1950s, pop wasn't the kind of thing you'd be celebrating in fifty years' time. It was seen as ephemeral. Was it frowned upon as a career?
Chris Blackwell: It wasn't considered a serious business, more a quasi-outlawish business, sort of like the gambling business might be seen today, or a bookmakers. It was a similar world, full of characters, and semi-misfits, of which I was definitely one. It certainly wasn't a thing that people had serious careers with. It was right at the start of something, which is always exciting, because you're feeling your way.
What kind of childhood did you have in Jamaica?
Chris Blackwell: When I was young, I didn't have a lot of contact with people, because I was sick a lot. Then I went to school in England [to Harrow]. I didn't do terribly well at school, so I came back at the age of seventeen. After that I did different things. I rented motor scooters. I had a little jazz club. I managed sixty-three jukeboxes in Jamaica, which meant I had to go all around the country to the jukeboxes, and change the records, and argue about the provision of three-penny pieces with the owner of a bar in a little fishing village or up in hills. It was all great stuff to absorb - real life.
You actually started the label in Jamaica, but, just before Independence in 1962, you went to London, where you pressed up ska hits from Jamaica to sell to England's new West Indian community.
Chris Blackwell: Yes, I made deals with my old competitors in Jamaica to release their records over here. I'd go down there every now and then, and listen to all their records, and pick the best ones. I always thought I had a good ear for it. I was up against a label called Blue Beat, and the music became known as bluebeat, so it was a bit like trying to sell vacuum cleaners against Hoover.
Legend has it that your financial backing derived from the family business, Crosse & Blackwell, purveyors of jarred foods and relishes. Is that true?
Chris Blackwell: I'm distantly related to Crosse & Blackwell, in that my father was the son of one of the ten or more children of the younger brother of the person, who started the company. Very little trickled down to him, and zero trickled down to me. I had an allowance of £2,000 a year from my mother, which was not bad at all. It allowed me to have an apartment, to get by and build on what little I was earning.
And you would deliver your early 45s around the country in your Mini Clubman.
Chris Blackwell: It was a Mini Cooper, they didn't have the Mini Clubman yet. Boy, could that thing move fast. It was tiny, and I could whisk around the periphery of Central London, where all the Jamaicans lived. It was great fun. There was a guy, Nat Fox, who had a stall in Dalston market - he was a rough character. I remember inviting him in to play some new music in my office. I had two hi-fi systems, one for buying, one for selling. My buying system never sounded so great, but the selling system sounded fantastic. I played him these records on my selling system, and he bought the lot, then when he got them back to his stall, he didn't sell them quite as quick as he thought.
Your first big hit was with My Boy Lollipop, which you recorded yourself in Britain with Millie Small.
Chris Blackwell: I didn't put it on Island because I knew it was going to be so big. Independent labels in those days couldn't handle hits, because you couldn't pay the pressing plant in time to supply the demand, so I licensed it to Fontana, which was part of Phillips. It was a big hit all around the world, and I really wanted to look after her, so I went everywhere with her, which took me into the mainstream of the record industry. I was lucky enough to see Stevie Winwood with the Spencer Davis Group, at a TV show in Birmingham. So then I started to spend more time in that area. This whole new music was emerging. It wasn't really pop, it was anti-pop. In pop, everybody dressed in uniforms. In rock, everybody would go onstage in clothes they'd been sleeping in for three days. It was much looser, and it fit with my jazz sensibility because it was musicianship, rather than a pretty face.
You sold prog-rock by marketing it imaginatively via albums, which were often packaged in beautiful gatefold sleeves. As the new coffee-table book about Island's history, Keep On Running, really shows, your products were always lovingly designed. Was that your idea?
Chris Blackwell: I really believe that if people see something that looks good, subconsciously they'll think maybe there's something going on inside, on the record. There were times when somebody came out with a cover which was actually better than the record itself, so I'd have to send them back to remake the record. Melissa Etheridge was one. The sleeve for Catch A Fire, Bob Marley's first album, was fantastic - it was a Zippo lighter, which opened.
You famously overdubbed white session musicians onto Catch A Fire, in order to make Marley more palatable to white rock audiences. Was Bob au fait with that?
Chris Blackwell: He trusted my instincts, which were that he should go after being a rock star, rather than a star on black American radio. His music was rough and raw and exciting, but all black American music at the time, other than James Brown, was very slick and smooth. Bob trusted me on that, he was as keen as I was. He was with me in the studio when we did all the overdubs. After that, it was just a matter of getting people to see him perform, and word of mouth did the rest.
Through Marley's eyes, you must've been ineradicably connected to the old order, the British Empire, while he was a ghetto ruffian, a revolutionary. How well did you work together?
Chris Blackwell: It was as good a working relationship as I've ever had with anyone. I respected him from Day One. He never told me anything which he didn't do, and vice versa. We never had any misunderstandings. But I never hung out with him. He was his own guy, he had his own life, it wasn't that kind of thing.
He was tough if he had to be, but he never gave off a tough air. He gave off a very shy and quiet image. He absolutely had an aura about him. I never saw him leading his band by toughness, I saw him leading them by example. If the bus was going on somewhere, he'd be the first person on the bus. Normally the star turns up at the end, cracks a few jokes and climbs on, but he'd be the first one there.
In many ways, pop in the 1980s became the antithesis of the rootsy music, which Island had always represented. How did you find your niche, post-Marley?
Chris Blackwell: Bob died on 11 May 1981, and Cat Stevens retired on the 12th, when Bob's death was reported around the world, so that was a dark day for us. But we had got a name, so we were in the game, as it were, and U2 became the group that carried the flag for Island.
You've said that U2 weren't initially exactly to your taste - what did you see in them?
Chris Blackwell: My roots were more in jazz, and musicianship. When I first saw them, they were nothing like as accomplished as they are now, but they absolutely had something where you just knew that they were going to be great. They also had somebody who was what I call a very serious adult as their manager [Paul McGuinness]. You don't see a lot of adults in the record business, including myself. All the labels turned them down. The most spectacular was CBS, who said, "Well, if you fire the drummer, we'd probably sign them." But at that stage, the drummer [Larry Mullen] happened to be the leader of the band.
Did you have as much input with them, as you'd had with Bob?
Chris Blackwell: Very little. I had some input, and I was overridden. Even though I love Brian Eno, and his work, I didn't think he was the right producer for them at the time they first wanted to use him [for 1984's The Unforgettable Fire]. They'd got this cult status, but I felt it was the time where they just needed that hit record. I had Jimmy Iovine [Bruce Springsteen's producer] lined up to produce them, but they wanted to go with Eno. So I went to have a meeting with them in Ireland, and I was all ready to say, "Now come on, this is how it's going to be," but they really talked me out of it. They said, we want Brian Eno for his intelligence, which was a great way of explaining that they didn't want Jimmy Iovine.
You must be relieved to be out of music, looking at all today's problems with digital piracy and so forth. Can you see a way forward?
Chris Blackwell: It will just go back to how it was in the '30s, '40s and early '50s: Count Basie would want to have a hit, because then he'd make a thousand dollars more a night in concert. The hit was really the advertising for personal appearances. Certainly in the foreseeable future, that's basically how it's going to be. If someone writes a song which is successful, they'll still make money on it, it's just they might not sell twenty million records. Amy Winehouse sold eleven million records [on Island] - that's unbelievable, but ten years ago, it would've been twenty-five million.
Which leaves the record companies where?
Chris Blackwell: It leaves the major record companies where they are now. They have the catalogue of the last hundred years of music. That's incredibly precious, and valuable. But I think new artists and new talent, and new characters like myself, will thrive in that kind of business. They can build up their own company, which is based on touring, so you bring the new act out with you. That's exactly how it was in the early days.