The bigger labels are supermarkets, I like to think of Island as a very classy delicatessen. Chris Blackwell.
It’s like walking straight into a sonic explosion, somewhere deep in the heartland of Kingston’s underbelly.
Dub-fire bass-lines throb through the room like a heat-seeking nuclear missile-strike. The depth-charge echo of a far-away guitar ricochets from the ceiling as the forked-lightning of a disembodied high-hat matched to an off-beat kick-drum scythes from wall to wall before rebounding in a welter of ghostly, synchronised, recoil.
The volume control that’s calibrated to ten has clearly been set at twelve. The cat in the hat, who’s setting these controls for the heart of this sun – Natty Dread – nods his flowing locks in satisfaction; his deftness on the decks is disembowelling music into a whole new art form.
It’s a little before the witching hour and, clearly, the night – this night – is still young. Fast backwards.
The emporium into which I’ve entered promises me a wi-fi connection. I know this because there is a sign on the door proclaiming precisely that in very large letters. A frothing mug of cappuccino is procured, the laptop is plugged into the mains and fired up – emails need to be written and sent and, like anyone else on the move in a 21st century metropolis, I’m ready to roll. Or so I imagined.
Ninety minutes later and with everything written and my second coffee drained, I’m poised, ready to connect through the promised wi-fi, up into the ether and out onto the glories of the wild west wait. Oh my, I love all of this technology, don’t you… No wires – just fresh air.
All of the right buttons pulse and glow, launching satisfying arrays of miniscule emerald green lights, welcome screens fire up and… off we go.
No we bloody well don’t.
Quick as the proverbial flash, another screen pops up asking me to register with this, put card details into that, sign up with the other and check all manner of disclaimer boxes above which the typeface is so small that I wouldn’t have a clue as to what I was actually saying yes (or no) to.
All I want to do is send off everything that I’ve been writing and get on with my day but I’m being assaulted by a five bar(red) gate that will only offer the privilege of opening up if I shove plastic cash at it. The mail I want to send will take milliseconds to fire off; equals this is nothing other than daylight robbery. Using the analogy of what is now termed as snail-mail, this’d be the equivalent of any government run institution charging three or more dollars / pounds / euros to send a single letter.
Bollox to all of that – the sign on this emporium’s front door is misleading to say the least.
Thirty minutes and one ‘phone call later, I’m trudging up the stairs to Coalition’s offices – with the PR side now a memory, there are free desks a-plenty and, yes do come in and do what you need to here. An hour or so later and I’ve got all I needed to be done plus a whole heap more.
Neilo… Tina (Rob’s widow – and how sad is it to use that word) is standing on a chair, watering a straggling plant by the window, absent-mindedly plucking off some of its withered leaves. Why don’t we go and have a pizza first, then we can go off together and be really fashionably late?
Two hours later than our invitations state, we’re wandering the length of Poland Street. There it is… it must be. Mustn’t it? Look, there’s loads of photographers… I wonder who they’re waiting for? Tina’s arm links through mine; six months on, she’s still getting used to going to things like this without Rob – the epitome of a couple; their lives inexorably inter-twined having achieved the perfect balance of togetherness without being permanently joined at the hip.
I glance ahead. Gotta be it… you can almost smell the music industry gathering.
Our invitations are scanned, we’re given the once over by an over-sized bully in a tight-fitting suit that barely disguises his muscle-bulk and in we go. Thirty seconds later I’ve a pair of arms around my neck, being pinioned in some kind of mad, backwards bear hug. My name is screamed into my ear.
Its Brinsley Forde from Aswad; a group first encountered when they were but a bunch of musically gifted hooligans from Ladbroke Grove and now recognised as some of Reggae’s elder statesmen. Nothing was safe at St Peter’s Square back in the day when these teenage dreadlocks were in the building; it wasn’t uncommon to come in the morning after they’d been recording down in the basement studios to find not only most of the promotional vinyl gone but entire office hi-fi systems missing as well.
Nowadays, Brins hangs his hat in the warmer climes of the Canary Islands, is back and forth to Jamaica, London and elsewhere working on a number of album projects. We swap tales of suitcase living as a pair of grizzled dreads that constitute a percentage of Steel Pulse hang around the background.
Jon Turner, Island’s current marketing director stretches out his hand. Great to see you, come in for a coffee and a chat? Stiff co-founder Dave Robinson wanders by offering a quick, Call me, lets meet for a coffee; the legend in his own lunchtime that is John (Knocker) Knowles – one of my earliest bosses when Island’s sales force was in full cry – proffers and affectionate but bristle-bearded kiss on my cheek. You look well, Cory – been ill or somewhere nice? Give me a call, come in and have a coffee. You goin' downstairs..? Its fucking loud, PJ Harvey’s just come on and she’s heavier than Zeppelin. Knocker grimaces and plods off into the night.
Crikey, if I took up all these offers of coffee, I’d astral project. And Polly Harvey – another eeek, musically somewhat of an acquired taste and a fair ways from mine. Tina and I meander down the stairs to be met by a barrage of discordal noise. Blackwell said once that PJ had wanted to sign to Island because of Tom Waits – that’s all very well, but while Tom’s music is also something of an acquired taste, at least he has amazing songs.
Immediately to our left, pinioned to a side wall by this sonic bombardment, stands the ramrod-straight back of Captain Bill, more properly addressed as Nick Stewart, the man who signed U2 to the label. He’s alongside their perfectly suited and tied, (though, nowadays somewhat portly and slightly sweating) manager, Paul McGuinness. He’s keeping a watchful eye on his other charge – Polly Harvey… this, obviously, isn’t the time to offer up any opinion of her ‘music’.
Besides, conversation is pointless – we mouth smiled greetings at one another.
One song later and PJ’s primeval feedback howl and I aren’t getting along terribly well; time to move on – the over-populated bar is over there in the gloom… and, mercifully, it’s a bit further away from the cranked up PA system.
More and more handshakes and hugs; people I know, people I think I recognise, people I should but don’t, this is through the past darkly.
Fruit-juice in hand I wander along a darkened corridor destination the exhibit proper and slow-motion stumble over a trailing wire and straight into a slightly stooping grey-bearded figure who has a young lady in full-throttle Muslim attire on his arm.
Drat… how am I nowadays meant to address Yusuf Cat Islam Stevens… the Tillerman clearly doesn’t recognise me – hardly surprising since we’re peering at each other through shadow and haven’t clapped eyes upon one another in more than a quarter of a century. Nevertheless, honour is satisfied on each side with an exchange of smiles with both of us saying, I’m so sorry at the same time. Last thing I need right now – with AlphaBetaMusica rolling along as nicely as it is – is a fatwah being issued.
Osama Bin Lowrey is standing nearby; his current beard would worry the hell out of immigration staff at airports the world over. You need to be a bit more careful, man – Phil’s small dark eyes crinkle laughter-chips in amongst his mass of carefully sculpted grey-white facial hair; you can take a Geordie out of Newcastle, but you can never take the accent away.
Tina comes to my rescue; did you just bump into who I think that was..? Ohhh, Neilo…look, that’s your handwriting… wow… Look at that. We’re now standing at the entrance to the exhibit proper and, blown up to about ten feet in height is a U2 guest list from a show at The Clarendon, a west London venue that most probably doesn’t exist any longer. An upstairs room that sported a small stage that’s a far cry from the enorma-domes they nowadays frequent with attendant guest-lists that constitute small novels.
This one is dated March 1980… and yes, its typed out from the days when we’d just got golf-ball typewriters in the Press Office, long before wi-bloody-fi laptops had been invented. And yes, that looks suspiciously like my scribble across it.
An interesting relic – because, quite a few names have been left untouched on the list, designating them as among quite a few no-shows that particular night. One such being a certain Chris Blackwell + 1; his first U2 show came a bit later on; at a pub in Herne Hill, the same hot night that Bob Marley had headlined his last ever UK show at Crystal Palace Bowl on a glorious summer’s afternoon.
The centrepiece of this, main, exhibition room is one of the Trabants that were suspended high above the stage on the tour that followed the release of the Achtung Baby record. There is a cameraman on the outside and the presenter is struggling to get comfortable inside before voicing her piece to camera. As much as she’s having her own difficulties getting into the vehicle, one can’t help but wonder how Adrian Boot (who curated all of this) and his merry team of pranksters got the bloody thing inside in the first place.
Behind a Perspex wall are amassed dozens and dozens of wide-ranging artefacts; stuff – for want of a better word – that illustrates Island’s rich history from way back then to nowadays. It is widespread indeed and arranged more or less chronologically: from a blown up memo from CB himself to the five members of Spooky Tooth that informs them that while they’re all on weekly retainers of 30 pounds each, they’ll each be fined 10 pounds for any no-shows at forthcoming gigs via Nick Drake’s guitar to a drum used by Tom Tom Club. Tina and I wander around staring through the glass accompanied by the even-later arriving Guardian's Robin Denselow.
There are a few silkened tour jackets which were all the rage in the seventies; PJ Harvey has donated a dress worn on stage that hangs beside a pair of what look suspiciously like Edge’s flared and sequined trousers worn on… now, which tour would that have been? Would it have involved a Lemon I wonder?
There is the expected glut of concert tickets and back stage passes from the well-known bands or artists; a set of Island promotional playing cards is artfully displayed; a Bad Company sweat-shirt; lots of old yellowing contracts; company’s incorporation papers; a few original reel-to-reel tapes including one of Mille’s album; an Island clock, a fair smattering of Spencer Davis Group memorabilia; a Steve Winwood and Tony Hutcheson signed print of the original artwork for Steve’s first solo record; displays of seven inch singles on the Black Swan label as well as a number of the different imprint variants of the original Island pink label; a set of Bob Marley stamps issued in Jamaica to commemorate his passing; a very fair smattering of original album covers as well as loads of other fascinating ‘stuff’ but, as with all things, there is a fair amount of ‘stuff’ – rare as hen’s teeth ‘stuff’ – that’s not represented.
Noting that – by the way – is by no means any intended criticism or slight; far from it. It’s a remarkable collection of objets d'art.
However, it’s also a slight pity that its been laid out as it has been with barely any captioning. It could, of course, be argued that little needs captioning – a Bob Marley tour pass is, for example, date specific.
Nonetheless, this Voltaire would argue that all of this ‘stuff’ is of major social – and educational – significance and, as such, it would have been worthwhile to have properly captioned more than has been. Indeed, doing so would - according to this Voltaire - have made for a much more interesting and informative experience for the casual passer-by, interested bystander or student of music.
On another wall hang a wide range of magazine and news periodical’s front covers featuring Island acts. This, very sadly, demonstrates that Island’s own archive must be in terrible shape – for why..? Well, because there are so many of true importance that are quite simply missing.
For instance (and this is just a random observation), the week Bob Marley died, three of the four – what we called, inkies (the weekly music papers) – changed their planned front covers to portraits of Bob.
As an aside here, the Melody Maker didn’t – and that is to their eternal shame; they’d done a deal with Virgin to send journalist X and photographer Y to some far-flung place in exchange for XTC being that week’s cover feature. Rob took great delight in bunching up that weeks edition and kicking it, forcefully, around the office. Below a wonderful Adrian Boot portrait of a long-locked Bob, the NME’s caption was both simple and moving: The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
To my way of thinking, its almost criminal that none are featured. Nor indeed, are any of the very early U2 front covers; Grace Jones and others from the Face Magazine; Kid Creole in the Telegraph colour supplement – these are just arbitrary examples but… within Island’s history, these were major moments in the breaking of these acts. Further to which, every single one was framed… all of which begs the question – where are they now? Or… did someone without a real depth of knowledge assemble this particular part of the exhibit? That hardly seems likely, given Boot’s lengthy association with Island… which leads me to think rather a lot has been lost to the mists of time. Big shame.
Dotted around are numerous other pieces of either artwork or sleeve images or black and white and colour photographs of acts signed to the label. Many have never been seen before while as many are iconic images from this trawl through a musical time. Fabulous stuff indeed.
Unfortunately, once again, a large degree of captioning just isn’t there (that I could see, anyway) – for instance, I spotted an outtake from (probably) the first ever Jess Roden Band photo-session yet, from what I could see and unless one knew who the band actually were, you’d look at the image and wander away clueless as to who was actually portrayed. Similarly, the four Tony Wright variants on Winwood’s Arc Of A Diver sleeve are grouped together – yet, its just those four (albeit beautiful) images that are displayed.
Every picture tells a story – from this particular grassy knoll, it’s a crying shame that the story’s not been told here.
Closing time; the be-suited bullies are rounding us stragglers up and we’re unceremoniously herded outside. The gaggle of photographers are still milling about but, by now, their intended quarries will have long gone… a small group of us, led by Ted Cummings, pr bloke-of-the-moment, head for the pub up the road; thirsty work this exhibition-going and a bracer is needed before we all hit Portland Street where the party out of bounds is already underway.
Mojo’s editor Phil Alexander and I discuss the inside tale of their recent cover-mount CD compilation – he offers a fascinating insight (which I’m not about to detail here) and we arrange to meet again to talk through a few other things before, once more, closing time is called and we end up trolling along together – towed by the tireless, BlackBerry wielding, Cummings – across Oxford Street and toward Portland Place.
One more time, darkened-windowed limos are lined up alongside the pavement, the phalanx of photographers are in-situ, there are barriers everywhere, more be-suited bullies man the door and girls in mini-dresses and luminous lipstick begin the process of checking our names against their clip-boards and our tickets. Gaining access to Fort Knox is probably less stressful.
Eventually we are allowed in, though with such security diligence being afforded us, it is mildly surprising that no one has been strip-searched.
The mass of humanity inside is like entering a surreal kip of the serenes rugby scrum; was that really Pete ‘18 With A Bullet’ Wingfield, walking past with his now-grey beard… how would I recognise a Dr Strangeley Strange, an Amazing Blondel or a Fratelli for that matter… in amongst this mish-mash of grey-haired fogies, little black dresses and an abundance of dreads are hundreds of early-twenties, elegantly windswept, coiffed hairdo’s; its difficult to tell who’s who or what's what.
Such is the scrimmage that, unless you’re close up to someone, reach out, grab and miss and the moment’s gone. Barry Reynolds and I get set upon by an overly protective bouncer as we try to swap ‘phone numbers in the hallway. Mim Scala who I’d really been looking forward to seeing, scurries by but someone gets in the way, balancing a tray of drinks and contact is lost.
Lucky Gordon is holding court upstairs; he came to the nations attention when outed as Christine Keeler’s pimp in the Profumo affair, the scandal that brought down the Tory government in the fifties. He was also, for quite a long time, a cook at St Peters Square.
Lucky had plans for Rob and I to write his cookbook of jealously guarded recipes for him. That all came to a bit of a sticky end when, one evening hanging about in our press office lair, he demanded money (without menaces) from us for what he considered the privilege of writing his cookbook for him. Lucky, it’s the other way around, you’d need to pay us to write it for you, Rob told him. Ras-clat, you no understand, countered Lucky. These are my recipes. You two g’wan pay I. Lucky’s reputation preceded him; he wasn’t really a man to argue with and whether he still packed a gun was open to debate but his hard-man reputation was very real.
Spread over three floors and across vast acres of prime London real estate, by way of Island ‘events’ attended over the years, this has to be unique since there is one thing missing; the heady smell of ganga smoke hanging in the air. A sign of the times of course.
However, as I discover after wandering about for a bit, the smoke-rebels have been catered for… The sign saying smoking is arrowed as being downstairs and out into a basement area with a clear view of the sky. Why did I ever doubt that this particular facility would not have been thought of.
And, quite needless to say, this little part of the ‘party’ is holding court to so many people that it more resembles a Tokyo subway-station at rush hour. Even if you don’t smoke, you can’t help but get (ever so slightly) stoned.
Brinsley is there swapping cell-phone numbers with a leggy blonde, Chris Salaweicz (who edited the about-to-come-out Island book) is in the corner deep in conversation with former NME editor Neil Spencer; friends are calling other friends on cell-phones to tell them in which part of the building they are as a lady, some six feet away starts mouthing at me… I vaguely recognise her; no more. She barges her way toward me, spilling rum punch everywhere.
Over the hubbub of idle chatter near at hand, she yells I know you into my ear. You do…? I counter. Yes… I’m Eve… and I know you. Ahh… I’m struggling a bit here, the face is vaguely familiar but that’s about it. Yes, she says, you know my Mum too. And, I’ve been to your house. That takes me aback – blimey, what’s her next revelation going to be?
She takes another sip of her rum punch. I’ve had eight of these already, they’re rather good, she tells me. If she’s had eight of ‘em I’m a trifle surprised she’s still upright but, a bit like a runaway train, she carries on regardless. My Mum’s Anna Capaldi… and I’m Eve. The penny is slowly dropping into the slot machine of memory. Gotcha – there aren’t that many people who’ve had a song written about them who I have met before.
Then something else registers. This particular Eve has been to my house… back in the day when she was newly-married to the fiddling fiend Kennedy who I was managing; during the period when Nigel had decided – all Pavarotti-like – that he only wanted to be known by his surname.
Nige was – at that juncture – in Transylvania as we were involved in making a South Bank Show documentary. All was going swimmingly until Nige crashed the film-crew’s hired car into the border barricades that separated the land of Vlad The Impaler from Romania (I think). It transpired that he then decided to empty his bladder all over the offending barricade that had halted onward progress.
This didn’t exactly impress the officials who promptly surrounded him brandishing loaded machine guns, arrested him and threw him in jail.
Artists’ managers are responsible for many things – the normal such as negotiating contracts and the abnormal – such as getting one’s client out of clink. Time to call the British Ambassador.
Finding an unlisted number in Romania in the middle of the night was, I admit, a trifle tricky but, find it I did. The Ambassador – whose name was Ivor and who was possessed of the most sing-song Welsh valleys voice I’ve ever heard – was unflappable charm and courtesy itself. Five hours after the first call had been made, a few strings had been pulled and the fiddler had been released.
The next again day, Nige is on the ‘phone. Oi, Badger – that being his usual greeting. Thanks for getting me out mate but… I’m not impressed y’know. Why…I query… whats gone wrong now..? The prison was fine but you know I have to have synthetic pillows ‘cos of me allergies. And, I was a bit surprised that you hadn’t sorted that out for me.
Less than a year later, I’d had enough – fiddling genius he certainly is but… everyone has their limits and mine were reached not long after he demanded that a grand piano be put into his suite in his Malvern Hotel. Normally not a problem – it was always part of his ‘rider’ when travelling. This time, it was a bit of an issue since he and Eve (who’s standing beside me) are in the midst of parting; equals he’s moved into the best hotel in the neighbourhood and the manager of said hotel is doing his utmost to be as accommodating to his new resident as best he can…
The only problem is the hotel have to hire a crane to lift the hired grand-piano in through his bedroom window which they have to take out in order to get said piano indoors…
That, so he informs me, is not too problematic – it can all be achieved in the morning but Nige is causing a bit of a fuss. He wants it done… now; the morning is inconvenient as that’s when he practices. And, once again, it’s the middle of the night.
Yes, he was a bit unreasonable wasn’t he, suggests Eve. Mind you, we were both control freaks. Did you really fire him? I nod. I'm not that surprised... Mind you, he always said nice things about you. Hang on, I’ll be back shortly, I’m just going to go and get another of these rum punches… do you want one? I decline.
I hang about a bit longer and then decide that I’d be better pottering off into the night rather than hanging in and aiming for the breakfast that’s due to be served at six a.m.
Besides, tomorrow’s another day. While Island life was a way of life, I’ve recently planted two seeds in my own work-garden and they’ll need tending.
One will shortly bloom, the other is just starting to come into bud. Both are evergreens.
Later still the self-same-night: I can hear the sound of a nightingale singing; its Bob Marley singing Nick Drake songs that have been arranged by John Martyn – Sandy Denny, Robert Palmer, Jim Capaldi and Jacob Miller are trading harmonies and in the background is Chris Wood’s ethereal saxophone and Paul Kossof’s gentle guitar fills.