Island Records: Treasure Island

GIVEN THE commercial restrictions of the business we call music, it is the rare record company that is willing to lay itself on the line and risk all on showcasing the experimental and hitherto-unproven. Once in a while, however, through a curious amalgamation of personnel, philosophy, and just plain time-place insertion, a label often rises to find itself quite unconsciously in the very vanguard of artistic taste and conception.

In the mid-1960’s, it was Elektra Records under the guidance of Jac Holzman that found itself in this enviable position. Formerly a small-ish folk label featuring the likes of Phil Ochs and Tom Rush, Elektra began investigating the burgeoning art-rock scene in Los Angeles. Though today it may seem only a matter of course, a cogent amount of foresight and natural determination must have went into the decision to actually ink the likes of Love and the Doors, not to mention the Incredible String Band, Clear Light, the golden era of Judy Collins, the MC5, the Stooges, and even David Peel with his banana-smoking Lower East Side.

Later, Columbia seized the helm from Elektra, beginning a golden era of expansion through Clive Davis that brought Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape, Al Kooper in his various manifestations, along with several other paving-stones of an adolescent progressive rock to this very influential label.

The wheel of fortune turned again and again. Warner Brothers seized the time for a flurry; the Atlantic family took hold. In the early seventies, RCA suddenly appointed a new Artists & Repertoire department, resulting in a flurry of signings that included the Kinks, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. As with all these other so-called mythic eras, the company’s commitment to creative frenzy soon returned to a business-as-usual ethic, the gains of their churning period purposefully living on beyond them.

Today, the spotlight is pointed across the ocean, to a record company that has maintained its individuality and unity of purpose with a practically ferocious air, riding a shifting pattern of musical taste that is as noteworthy for its unpredictability as its constant success in the market place. Island Records, centered out of a deceptive quiet residential neighborhood in London’s St. Peter’s Square, has built itself over the years to the point where today they look as if they’re just about to hook into their greatest period of triumph.

Previous to 1972, Island (founded and run with a delicate hand by white Jamaican Chris Blackwell) had made its fortune on imports of American rhythm and blues and a direct line with the West Indian migrants of Britain. Early ledgers show master purchases on the order of Inez and Charlie Foxx’s ‘Mockingbird’, and Blackwell was also instrumental in shaping the career of the Wailers, whose first efforts saw English light on Chris’s fledgling red and white-scribed label.

Having established a power base, Island expanded. They scored heavily in the rock field with Traffic, and opened up strong contacts in that area, including such as Free. Among musicians, Island was becoming known as a company that offered creative room as well as a sound knowledge of marketing factors, a rare breed in any day and age.

Still, a record company is a record company, and despite promising directions, Island seemed content to align itself with the present. It was able to break artists, but the question was really whether they could take that necessary step further and break trends, foreshadowing a map of the future to create and shape the reaction rather than cleverly sniff it out.

The answer came in mid-1972, when a double-take, unbelievable band named Roxy Music sought them out with a series of unusual home tapes. With the strong backing of Melody Maker writer Richard Williams, Island shrugged its shoulders and took a chance, giving the group the go-ahead to make an album. To everyone’s surprise, the resultant disc crept into the Top 30 without benefit of anything more than a stunning sleeve, a few spot appearances by the band, and some of the oddest music ever placed between grooves. When a proper hit single, the lavish ‘Virginia Plain’, followed by a matter of weeks, Roxy were in, and so was the dawn of Island’s new era.

As a band, Roxy was born in the mind of one Bryan Ferry, who today functions as writer, lead singer, and virtual leader of the group. He had graduated from Newcastle University in the summer of 1968 with a degree in Fine Arts, had lectured a bit, played piano on the side for self-amusement, and almost as an afterthought, formed a band with bassist Graham Simpson and oboist Andy Mackay. They found an engineer cum musician named Eno (full name: Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno), ultimately adding him as electronics overseer. Completing the ensemble was guitarist Phil Manzanera and drummer Paul Thompson, the one serendipitously appearing when the group needed a sound-mixer, the other answering a classified ad reading “Wonder-drummer required for avant-rock group”.

It wasn’t a bad description. Roxy defied inner logic, mingling elements of the (nineteen) fifties with the (eighteen/nineteen) eighties, slumming together influences with little regard for their innate direction. Ferry would sing in his matinee-idol voice around abstruse and generally brilliant lyrics, the rhythm section would pound out familiar mechanizations, Andy Mackay would blow his brains out on saxophone while Eno would take the whole construct and synthetically treat and mix each piece.

“I see our music as a combination of mind and body,” Bryan commented at the time. “In one sense, it’s very sexual what we do, since that resides in the nature of music. On the other hand, we also try to inject a lot of thought, and ideas. So what you ultimately have is a synthesis between the two, the intellectual and the sensual, and I think when you’re working with that kind of well-balance, then literally anything can happen.”

Anything can and did happen. Roxy followed up their debut effort with a highly perverse and delightful effort called For Your Pleasure (released in America on Warners), featuring a new dance craze called ‘The Strand’ and a clutching, ice cold rendition of ‘In Every Dream House A Heartache’, a man’s pledge of allegiance to his “inflatable dollie”. Eno left as the group’s personality became more rigorously defined, feeling that it reduced his artistic flexibility; and with only a singular consciousness left to guide them, Roxy Music was able to streamline its approach to bare but sumptuous essentials.

In particular, this meant that the group spotlight would invariably focus on Bryan Ferry, a fact which enabled him to launch a solo persona with These Foolish Things. An outwardly harmless collection of oldies (‘A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall’, ‘It’s My Party’, ‘Sympathy For The Devil’), over repeated listenings it grew deep in both thought and character. Bryan personalized these songs, taking dramatic stances toward his material that enlarged them out of their previously standardized shape. He was both urbane and satirical, self-conscious and unflappable in his interpretations. At the time of its release, the album was inevitably compared to Bowie’s Pin-ups and the Band’s Moondog Matinee, but Ferry’s approach was not geared so much toward tribute as it was to contextual restoration, and he won handily. A newly-released solo album, Another Time Another Place, has just-arrived to expected accolades, and with metropolitan readings of ‘The In Crowd’ and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, it certainly appears as if the time of the white dinner jacket is nigh.

Roxy has similarly prospered, and their latest album, Stranded, combines all tensile strains into their most cohesive effort to date. The same elements are present — that weird sense of chord structure, Ferry’s vocal gargling, slabbed intelligently with equal doses of sonic arrangement and studied sophistication — but each has now been refined to their most potent form of delivery. In a classic like ‘A Song For Europe’, the group calls upon each of their specialties at will, Bryan even murmuring in French at one point, and the results showcase a band very much in the core of formidable heat. Eno, meanwhile, let loose to try his own artistic hand, was not one to give up the good fight. After leaving Roxy he toyed with several possibilities, including an association called Luana and the Lizard Girls, before teaming up with ex-King Crimson Robert Fripp to effect a hypnotic electronic collaboration. Heartened by its reception, he embarked on his own solo project, Here Come The Warm Jets, a fascinating blend of rock and roll bordering the edge of hysteria, strangely commercial and particularly inventive.

There are those who may refer to Eno as a strange duck, and may be right, but despite any hints of “mental” he has maintained his high-minded focus in the face of pop blandishments, remaining very much committed to his own eccentric manner of media manipulation. On a recent press tour of America, Eno expanded on his own levels of awareness: “I’m feeling limited by only having an outlet in music. In fact, I’m actually at the point where I don’t have a clue what my next album will sound like. I really don’t. And that… fills me with panic, to a certain extent, because one of the things I’ve done in all this talking lately is to argue myself out of a lot of positions. I’ve clarified a whole lot of things I’m not going to do, but I haven’t really clarified the things I am going to do.”

Still, Eno professes little worry about the haziness of his directions. “I can see a lot of people — and I’m quite worried about this, because it hurts my pride — saying he’s all words and no action. And I think they’re right as well. There are far more theories than there are results at this point.”

He shrugs, a fine blonde hair tickling the back of his neck. “But at the moment, the theories are as important to me as the results. And if I could be seen in that capacity, as someone who produces theories, I should feel very happy, because then I wouldn’t think there had to be a connection. I’d like to have as much choice and freedom in my work as does a painter.”

While both Eno and Roxy Music were moving toward their respective artistic goals, Richard Williams was lured from his writer’s position to become an integral part of Island’s A&R attack. A deeply committed musical gourmet whose tastes ran from Phil Spector (on whom he wrote the definitive Out Of His Head biography) to free jazz and novelty records, he promptly set about enlarging Island’s stock of resident brilliance.

His first coup was John Cale, severed from Warner Brothers after working as a solo artist and house producer, and seeming light years from his days as raging maestro of the Velvet Underground. Williams offered Cale an unlimited scope of recording freedom, and John, considering the head-to-head battles he’d had with some of his other labels (Columbia, for one), promptly took him up.

In so doing, Island unexpectedly came upon another mysteriously cloaked figure, the sturm und drang Circe that is Nico. Cale had produced her previous solo albums, one a piece for companies seemingly at a loss to know where to enclose her, and she had spent a couple of fallow years since her Desertshore release for Warners.

The fruits of both Cale’s and Nico’s efforts are yet to become evident. John has completed his initial recording while Nico is currently in the midst of hers, but a brief foretaste of some of the things we might expect may be heard on a newly-released live preservation cryptically titled June I, 1974.

It was early this year that ex-Soft Machine and underground figure Kevin Ayers was offered a concert date at London’s prestigious Rainbow Theatre. Ayers assembled a band, and because they were friends and had worked together in the past, Kevin asked Nico if she’d like to join him on stage. Nico in turn brought along John Cale, who in turn queried Eno if he’d mind helping out. The resultant quadruple bill provided an inspiring gathering of infrequently seen proto-legends, and the evening was fortuitously captured on tape by producer Williams. It provides as nothing else could a stunning opening foray into Island’s new era.

Eno begins the session, launching ‘Driving Me Backwards’ and ‘Baby’s On Fire’ from his Here Come The Warm Jets album. While the latter sounds a trifle thinner than the original version, ‘Driving Me Backwards’ becomes a demonic amplification of what now looks to be a studio shell, Eno warbling and pressing his voice against the microphone until the sound barrier begins to look quaveringly shaky. John Cale blazes a smoky trail through a most mesmerizing cover of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (yes, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’); and then Nico, in an elegy and performance guaranteed to curl your spine, lavishes her attention on Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’. It is a work beyond comparison, backed only by the unearthly whine of her harmonium and Eno’s subdued synthesizer, a moment of stark beauty and alien contrasts.

Surprisingly, Ayers himself manages to hold his own amongst so much candlepower, and his selections (which comprise side two) are notable for their mocking self-humor as well as an understated craft-oriented methodology. Kevin is not a writer who enjoys being encircled. He moves through forms with almost a callous ease, riding a greater sense of career momentum than any he’s known for years. In his new album, The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories, he applies forthright expressions of love over a rock-bound rhythm section and then slowly hoists the whole combination into the meteoric vacuum ether of space. Nice work if you can get it.

Along with plumbing the world of avant-rock, Island has also been sticking to pop basics. In Sparks, they have a stylish and ironic au pair that has set screaming meenies off among the beleaguered pre-adolescents of the British Isles. This is unusual, as one might expect Sparks’ entire tradition to be aimed at the more mature and detached observer, the kind who chuckle knowingly with a benign gleam in their eye.

Formerly known as Halfnelson when they began, early on produced by Todd Rundgren, the core of Sparks is the brothers Mael, Ron and Russel. Americans, they reputedly received their training as child models, and saw rock as a perfect vehicle for their cosmopolitan jibes and tête-a-têtes with western civilization. Unfortunately, this resounded minimally as awkward and cloying while they were habitating the United States. Instead of moving toward change in the expected direction (which would have been to reduce their presumptions), they transferred to England and producer Muff Winwood and increased them several-fold. The results were blissfully climactic, as both Sparks and image found each other; two British top tenners (‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’, ‘Amateur Hour’) and a follow-up album (Kimono My House) later, they look on the verge of a long and imminently appealing career.

Producer Winwood also supervises the recorded work of the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, a group who has certainly proved the dictum of the sum of the parts. The Brothers’ finely-honed material and Quiver’s relaxed backing mingle as twin trellisi, and already some shards of gold have been divulged in America as ‘You’ve Got Me Anyway’, one of last year’s more pleasant surprises on the singles chart.

There has even been room in Island’s family for Sandy Denny, Miss former Fairport Convention, to come into her realized own. Until Like An Old Fashioned Waltz, her solo career seemed destined to wander arid marshes, unable to connect with either the vast musical heritage she explored with Fairport or possible new outlets. But the beautifully conceived and recorded Waltz finally connected her folk traditions with the majestic beauty of a fully orchestrated landscape, a lush and undeniably rich panorama that opens her music like a gallery. A remarkable achievement.

As is the concrete jungle of the Wailers.

In England, Bad Company and Bob Dylan share the Island logo. It’s difficult to predict how long this era of dynamic growth will continue, but when the time comes for consolidation it’s certain to be hoped and expected that Island will show, the same good sense in following through its gains as it did in acquiring them. Gardez la foi.

© Lenny KayeHit Parader, January 1975

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