Forget its muddied recent past; Island Records should be remembered as the most inspiring indie label of all time

Forget its muddied recent past; Island Records should be remembered as the most inspiring indie label of all time

On their terrestrial channels, the BBC does little to warrant us paying our TV licences. Even Strictly Come Dancing is failing to draw in celebrities for our amusement these days. In ITV’s opposing trash cannon is the ratings-giant-come-intelligence-siphon X Factor and brilliantly naff new game show The Cube, which fills in the gaps between Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and a Lidl Matrix. Primetime Beeb is taking a pounding. Over on BBC4 though, last month saw the most inspirational documentary of the year, Do It Yourself – The Story Of Rough Trade, trumped by an even more impressive record label tale, Keep On Running – 50 Years of Island Records.

Now, you wince because Island is the label responsible for some of the most turgid records in recent years. Keane, The Fratellis, Frank Musik, The Feeling, The Rumble Strips, Tommy Sparks, Remi Nicole; they’ve cursed us with them all and offered very little by way of compensation. But before these musical faux pas – and, more importantly, before label founder Chris Blackwell left the company in 1997 – Island was the most eclectic and sincere record company to have existed.

Founded by Blackwell – an Englishman by blood but Jamaican at heart (he spent his childhood on the Caribbean island) – the totally independent company was forged in 1959 and set about releasing ska artists like Derek Morgan, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Decker. Relocating to England in 1962, Blackwell would sell his early releases to the Jamaican community from the boot of his car, but it wouldn’t be long until Island would need a much bigger vehicle to flog their vinyls from.

In ’64 Blackwell produced and released Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, which promptly sold 6 million copies, launching Island into an unknown world where an independent label could compete with the mainstream. As the ’60s neared their apathetic end and prog/rock replaced the hippy ideal, Island followed the success of Traffic and Jethro Tull with King Crimson and Free. Once the latter band had released ‘Alright Now’ in 1970, it looked like the label might have reached the ceiling of its self-funded success, and then Cat Stephens (until then a major label pop star product) and Blackwell hatched a plan for the solo singer to release his next album via the indie.

Tied into a deal with A&M, Stephen’s wasn’t obliged to release another album without wanting to but once he had another record for the shop shelves, A&M had first dibs on it. He wanted to reclaim his independence and become an Island artist but his hands were tied, until Blackwell suggested that Stephens went back to A&M to let them know he was ready to record his next record‚” with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Knowing the label’s finance dept. would never sign off such a request, Blackwell had saved Cat Stephens from a lifetime of writing records for a faceless major conglomerate.

Tales of Blackwell scams and gestures of confidence beyond anything seen by label bosses before are strune the length and breadth of Island’s history. On meeting them in 1974, he was so become with Bob Marley and The Wailers he asked them how much money they’d need to make their album and swiftly handed them a cheque for the told amount. Having not signed a thing, and after a short introduction, The Wailers returned to Jamaica ¬£4000 richer. Two months later Blackwell travelled to Jamaica to see if his money had been used how he had hoped. It had, and, with his trust returned, The Wailers became the boss’ newest signing. Similarly rejecting the tried and tested unforgiving label bod shtick, after U2’s second album flopped – the preachy, overtly Catholic ‘October’ – Blackwell refused to drop the band against his better judgement and gave them a third swipe at stardom.

Blackwell obviously didn’t create the largest independent label in history (as Island was in by the time he sold it to Polygram in 1989) on generosity and understanding alone though – his sharp ear for new music was a neat and useful tool also. His success with Jimmy Cliff came after years of patience and the eventual arrival of ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People’, but spotting the potential in Roxy Music when most would have dismissed them as ponced-up blouses was key to Island’s success. He knew ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was a sure hit, and that U2 deserved a third chance.

Above everything though, Chris Blackwell ran Island as a fan, first and foremost. His business head was firmly screwed on but his passion for eclectic music never wavered either. He’d produce his artists himself when he could and sat not in a platinum plastered office but with the rest of his staff, forever the man that started by selling his own records from the back of a hatchback. Twenty years after Island’s birth, Rough Trade launched in a similarly idealistic way, and as such is considered the unchallengeable blueprint for running an independent record company. In truth, Island forged a far more interesting ‘business’ mould. Rough Trade’s punk aesthetic was brilliant but blinkered; Island embraced more cultures and genres than any label before or since. They’re the reggae label that signed the biggest band on the planet, the most recognisable face in black music, the princes of new romance‚” and The Buggles. We never said they were perfect.

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