Island 50

50 years ago Chris Blackwell founded Island Records in Kingston, Jamaica. Transporting Caribbean sounds to swinging London in the 60s. He went on to build up one of the most diverse and exciting independent labels in the world and Don Letts tells the story.


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01Island Life *20090523

In the first part of the series, Island Life, Chris Blackwell tells Don how he brought the Jamaican music he loved from the tiny island in the sun, to the streets of London and beyond. Delivering boot-loads of vinyl in his car to record shops in London, Birmingham, and anywhere that would take them Chris built his ear for sound and a deep knowledge of the records that would sell.

Island's first hit record was Millie's 'My Boy Lollipop' but Chris would not be confined to the burgeoning reggae scene. His love of jazz brought his attention to the progressive folk and rock sounds of the time and we hear from early signings Spencer Davis and Muff Winwood of Traffic, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull and Joe Boyd who, through his Witch Season imprint, brought the likes of Fairport Convention, John Martyn and Nick Drake to the Island fold.

Yusuf (Cat Stevens) tells us how these acoustic vibes drew him towards the label and now 30 years on he is back on the label. The wheel has come full circle with a music world now much in need of Blackwell's pioneering spirit.

The next stage of Islands history was Roxy Music and Brian Eno explains how the label supported their individual groundbreaking style. Vivianne Albertine of The Slits also talks about how Blackwell never really understood punk music, perhaps because he saw real punk attitude in reggae.

Rita Marley picks up the story when Blackwell returned to his roots in Jamaica and turned Bob Marley and the Wailers into a global phenomenon. Their success was only equalled by another group from a small island with a lot to say - U2. The Irish band became the mainstay of Islands repertoire and finances up until 2006 and by the early 90s one of the biggest groups in the world.

By then Chris Blackwell had left the label and the music industry was a very different place. Don Letts follows the highs and lows of Island life over 50 years. Other contributors include Ernest Ranglin, Toots Hibbert of the Maytals, Derrick Morgan and Jimmy Cliff, who tell us about the roots of ska and reggae.

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02 LAST20090530

Don Letts picks up the story of Island by looking at some of the greatest albums ever made on the label.

Many of these masterpieces from Nick Drake's debut Five Leaves Left, to Pulp's Different Class; Fairport's Liege And Leaf to PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love; and Sparks' Kimono My House to Cat Stevens' Teaser And The Firecat; say as much about the time they were made in as the intensive creativity and individuality of the artists, who have built on Chris Blackwell's legacy.

Bob Marley became the biggest act on the label and Island's roots would always remain in Jamaica, taking the sounds of reggae and ska to the rest of the world with acts like Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff releasing some of the most groundbreaking albums of the time on Island.

But the label's success also lies in its diversity. It started with Traffic's Mr Fantasy and continued with Free's Fire And Water and John Martyn's classic Solid Air. In 1983 U2 released War. They would go on to become one of the world's biggest rock acts but manager Paul McGuinness, the man who discovered them, Nick Stewart and Bono himself explain how their first couple of albums were far less successful.

This was a familiar story at Island. Marianne Faithful explains how she came to Island, after years in the wilderness, for her critically acclaimed comeback Broken English. As a strong individual female performer, Faithfull also set a template for later Island artists like PJ Harvey, Kate Pierson of the B52s and Grace Jones, who talk to Don about life on the label. Tricky and Paul Weller also talk about the label's support for their more personal and uncompromising material.

If there is an ethos that unites this eclectic roster of artists, from global superstars U2 and Bob Marley; to the progressive sounds of English folk, glam rock and trip hop; it is that these are artists who know how they want to sound and understand the importance of a label which allows that freedom of expression.

50 years on and Chris Blackwell can still see something uniquely Island about current global superstar Amy Winehouse. Recently returned from her own Caribbean experience, Amy and new artists such as The Feeling, The Fratellis and Florence and the Machine; as well as older artists like Cat Stevens (who recently returned to Island); explain what it's like to be signed to such a prestigious label and whether the new Island can ever live up to its independent roots.