“The Islander: My Live in Music and Beyond”: https://amzn.to/3wV6iI0
He’s no Clive Davis…
But that’s a good thing!
As a matter of fact, when most people were being influenced by the music Blackwell brought to the world, they had no idea who he was. After all, in the U.S. Island records were distributed by a cornucopia of labels, and if the company’s logo appeared on the label, it was tiny.
Did you know that “Back in the High Life” was an Island record?
You have no idea how big that album was unless you were conscious back in ’86 when it hit the airwaves, when oldsters became uncomfortable watching Steve Winwood “dance” in the ubiquitous video for “Higher Love.” But today when I hear that John Robinson intro I start to smile. Actually when I think of the song I hear that drum intro in my head. Do you know who JR is? Check him out: https://bit.ly/3POEYCD
That was the difference between “Back in the High Life” and the two Winwood solo albums that came before, which he essentially did all by himself.
1977’s “Steve Winwood,” was unjustly ignored when it was released, then again at that time the music scene was inundated with sounds, and FM had become playlisted, the equivalent of Top 40. And Winwood even rapped in “Time Is Running Out,” not that he gets any credit.
After licking the wounds of this commercial failure, Winwood returned with “Arc of a Diver” in 1980, which yielded a hit single, “While You See a Chance,” and prodigious sales and I play “Night Train” all the time, to this day.
But the follow-up, “Talking Back to the Night,” yielded a minor hit with “Valerie,” but was considered to be a disappointment after the huge success of “Arc of a Diver,” and his albums now being released through Warner Brothers he could work with Russ Titelman who freshened the sound, brought in all the New York players, and turned Steve Winwood into a superstar, when that meant everybody in the world knew your name, at this point Tom Freston had brought MTV around the globe. Today you can reach everybody via the internet, but getting them to listen, to pay attention? That’s nearly impossible.
And then having had this huge success, Winwood ankled Island for Virgin, where he proceeded to release ever less successful albums, both artistically and commercially. Maybe he needed Chris Blackwell.
Yes, Chris Blackwell signed Steve Winwood, as part of the Spencer Davis Group. And it’s not like other labels were clamoring to make a deal, like there was a big bidding war, the band was hiding in plain sight, you just had to find them. And Blackwell did, when the major labels were to a great degree asleep at the wheel, at least in the U.K.
Forget “Gimme Some Lovin'”…
Then again you can’t forget it, that’s just the point. Clive Davis keeps telling us how great he is, the promo is endless, he’s got to have his party at the Grammys, as if the cutting edge was ever recognized by that male-driven out of touch organization, but as far as remembering all the music he released, when he had total control at Arista and J? Well, there’s Whitney Houston… And maybe those Patti Smith records in the initial days. You see Clive specialized in hit singles, Blackwell specialized in albums. And a great number of those albums are part of the classic rock canon and are still listened to today.
It all started with “My Boy Lollipop.” Then again you don’t get to the Millie Small smash until about sixty pages in. There’s a good overview of the scene in Chris’s homeland of Jamaica first, almost all of which is unknown by the average person.
As for “My Boy Lollipop”… We had that single. I didn’t know Chris was responsible for years!
But this was a different Chris, a svengali, like Clive, and he realized that was a fool’s errand, better to focus on the music than the image, because the hit singles business was always an uphill climb.
So who did Blackwell sign?
Well, there was Cat Stevens, and King Crimson, Roxy Music, Free, Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, Melissa Etheridge and that underrated band from Ireland, U2. And you have heard of Bob Marley and the Wailers, haven’t you?
Clive may have had singles in the hit parade, but usually that’s not where the action was. Do you remember Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English”? What a surprise that was, angelic beauty returns as hard-edged croaker with an undeniable cut that was anything but me-too, I can remember roller-skating to it at Flipper’s. You can’t listen without nodding your head, yet it’s anything but mindless dance music.
Oh, did I say that Blackwell produced a good amount of this music? He had no technical training, he just tried to steer the artists to deliver their essence. Oftentimes he said nothing, just sat there in the control room smoking a spliff. Then again, he was the one who toughened up the Wailers’ sound, to appeal to the rock world.
And unlike Clive, Blackwell gives credit to others. Dave Robinson for turning Marley into the cultural icon he ultimately became, Nick Stewart for U2. That’s right, Blackwell believed in people. They generated the music, not him. Blackwell enabled artists to go on a journey, as opposed to demanding instant hits.
Oldsters are constantly complaining that young sports stars know nothing about history, especially in baseball.
It’s even worse in the music business. Today’s hitmakers believe the business began with Napster, disrupting what once was so new acts could flourish on the internet.
But if you were conscious before this…
The music business was a haven of scrappy individualists who proffered hit singles. Sure, there were majors, but like I referenced above, they were often behind the times, and anything but nimble. The business didn’t really enter the future, really blow up, become solidified, until Steve Ross purchased Elektra and Atlantic at the end of the sixties and then created Warner’s own distribution arm, WEA, in 1972. Back then music made more than movies and was uber-profitable. You see music scales like no other entertainment medium. You make the record and thereafter your costs are de minimis. Sure, most of the records stiff, but there are ones that sell millions, that rain down cash, which is why Steve Ross wanted in.
And it was clear that the artists were in charge. You made a deal, they delivered your record, oftentimes without interference, and then you had to put it out. And successful artists made more than almost anybody at the label. Today it’s reversed.
But then in 1979 it all started to crumble, but MTV and CDs caused a renaissance with untold riches, music was raining dough. You didn’t seek endorsements, you didn’t have to! You were making so much money!
Today there are only three major label groups.
There used to be six.
Just like there are two major concert promoters. You see the business is mature, consolidated. And therefore the excitement is elsewhere.
But back in the sixties…
And in the eighties, with all that new money, there were endless expansions, endless new labels, you had too many records to promote, you might as well create a new imprint, which labels constantly did.
But the seismic shock came when A&M and Island were sold to PolyGram. That’s over thirty years ago. Seems like a footnote, but back then it was unthinkable, incomprehensible, as were the payments to the owners of said indies, for Island $300 million.
But that was the beginning of the end for Blackwell. He chafed under the corporate umbrella and started anew at too big a level and failed, which he admits, and then became a real estate baron, renovating hotels in South Beach before selling them for money to build back in his homeland, Jamaica.
Blackwell literally says he’s a member of the lucky sperm club. And he delineates all of the above, in-depth. As for the man himself? You read all 320 pages of the book and he’s still a cipher.
Sure, he talks about his mother’s relationship with Ian Fleming, but we get even fewer details about his love life. He mentions wives, girlfriends, but you’re still not sure whether he’s got biological or step-kids.
Blackwell tells you what he did, and how he did it, but you don’t really get to know who he is.
Oh, he goes everywhere in his flip-flops. And shorts. Sans tie. That used to be the rock and roll ethos, the music spoke for you, if you made it you could dress however you wanted to, that was one of the privileges of making it outside the mainstream, being rich. Yet today, all the musicians want to sell clothes, and the execs are all dressed up.
And he has relationships with one babe after another. He’s a good-looking dude, but you don’t quite get his charm in this book. And you’ve got to be charming to be uber-successful as an entrepreneur, that’s what outsiders don’t understand, that’s one of Irving Azoff’s superpowers.
There’s talk of building Compass Point Studios, and creating a house band.
And there’s also reference to the label’s financial issues. Not having the cash to pay U2 royalties and giving them 10% of the label instead.
The business stories are all here. And a lot of the creative ones too. But who Chris is and what makes him tick? You can only infer.
And the money…
An independent doesn’t have deep pockets. Blackwell was selling himself, not attracting acts with cash. And like Winwood, Robert Palmer walked to EMI after Blackwell coddled and built him up, but like Winwood without Chris it wasn’t the same.
Yet then there’s the reference to buying property whenever he had a win. Well, how much money did Chris take out of Island? WHO KNOWS!
But what we do know is the Island story is ancient history.
But if you were there, you will enjoy getting an inside peek at the creation and workings of Island. And remember when a gig at the label was your heart’s desire. Just to be closer to the music.
Blackwell is an icon because the buck stopped with him, he could make a decision, he needed no approval, and he gave you enough money, room and time to do it your way, to find yourself.
And there are amazing insights. Free was wary of releasing “All Right Now,” for fear it would ruin the band. And it did!
U2 insisted on using Eno, a man Chris knew and had made many records with but was reluctant to agree to, after “War” because they were fearful of getting pigeonholed as a hit singles act. And it was “The Joshua Tree” that made them legends, and “Achtung Baby” delivered their bona fides. First time through you didn’t understand “Achtung Baby,” didn’t get it, and then like “Exile on Main Street” you realized it was one step beyond, SPECTACULAR!
And Asylum wouldn’t let Tom Waits release what became “Swordfishtrombones,” it was too out there, but he signed with Chris and became the revered Tom Waits he is today, before that he was just an out there singer-songwriter with a ragged voice, after signing with Island he became a cultural icon.
They don’t make them like Chris Blackwell anymore. Not in music anyway. Then again, you can make much more money in tech. And the heart and soul evidenced in the records is absent. It’s been commercialized. Funny how the further Chris and his brethren got from commerciality, from delivering me-too stuff that was expected, the more successful they became.
Blackwell is 84. Actually, he’ll be 85 next month. He survived, many did not.
And he got a longer run than most in this business, until just past 60.
You see the music business chews you up and spits you out. You’re hungry to have a seat at the table, you prove yourself, become inured to the benefits and then you get squeezed out without even realizing it.
And the man is in charge, the corporations, they’re publicly traded.
But it used to be different, and if you want to know how it was…
Read “The Islander.”