Island Records - A History of 50 Years Of Cutting Edge Music
Artists such as U2, Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, King Crimson,
Bob Marley and - initially and exceptionally: Millie Small
- all have one major, creative platform in common - aunique record label
founded in 1959. This record label, in
spite of being swallowed up 20 years ago by Polydor and
subsequently enveloped into the Universal brand, remains a
byword for independent creativity. This was Island Records
founded in Kingston, Jamaica by Chris Blackwell and despite
a modest beginning pressing discs on borrowed equipment at
a nearby radio station and scratching together some office
space on a tiny budget, the business grew following a move
to London in 1962, bringing with it a consolidation of the
new wave of ska and American R&B which lit a fuse in drab
late-fifties / early 60's Britain.
Historians will say of course, that it was with the Beatles
and the Mersey Sound, that popular music suddenly woke up
to itself after the initial flush of Mid-50's Rock & Roll
had long since waned into a balladeering wasteland and a
renewed mish-mash of tame hybrid styles geared to "family
entertainment" - and of course there is no doubt that that
the early Mersey sound crashed through all this big-time.
But this was also a period of a massive cross-fertilisation
of styles, and for Island Records, the first big event was
to achieve a crossover for ska music into the mainstream
via a crackling, populist yet unquestionably "different"
sound - Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop" - a smash hit in
1964 and a harbinger of things to come in terms of breaking
new acts with styles which were uniquely ahead of the curve
of what was acceptably mainstream.
Thus 3 years after this, Island was focussing on
Blues-based rock music / psychedelic folk crossovers from a
crop of white musicians including the extraordinary John
Martyn as well as Free (a major act of the festival
circuit), Spooky Tooth and Stevie Winwood's Traffic. Later
came progressive bands such as King Crimson and Jethro Tull
featuring a demonic Ian Anderson fronting up with that
archetypal rock music instrument - the flute!
By the late 60's the label was signing a wave of eclectic
folk acts including Dr Strangely Strange, Nick Drake and
Fairport Convention - each hugely individual and
influential - and shortly afterwards adding a strand of
art-pop to the mix, via Bryan Ferry's Roxy Music.
But of course, it does not stop there. Moving back to its
Jamaican roots, the label signed a band locally feted in
hometown Jamaica called Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Convinced that they had found a "black rock star as big as
Hendrix", according to Chris Blackwell, Island Records
invested heavily on his instincts and produced Marley's
first album "Catch a Fire". History was made. Soon, Bob
Marley was to become Island Records' biggest selling act.
Following this reassertion of reggae as a musical force,
many reggae acts followed, including Burning Spear, Toots
and the Maytals and Steel Pulse. But alongside these were
also Robert Palmer, Grace Jones and Tom Waits - and more
tellingly, from the Dublin connections which started with
Dr Strangely Strange and which influenced the development
of acts such as Thin Lizzy, Island signed a new and raw act
called U2 , who were, of course, to become the stellar rock
act of the 1980's and some would say beyond.
The influence of Island Records is thus there for all to
see. When looking at the major waves of creative forces
against the explosive backdrop of changing popular music
tastes in the decades after the 1960's, attention is
grabbed by labels such as Island Records. Such labels took
the commercial chances which ensured a raft of creative
flowerings, and regular, risk-embracing forays into
uncharted waters of creativity.