Paul Morley Interviewed: The Rise Of Zang Tuum Tumb, And The Fall Of ZTT
, December 15th, 2008 09:07
In an extensive interview, Paul Morley tells David McNamee a personal history of his involvement Zang Tuum Tumb label
There’s something almost quaint, these days, about how the idea of a dramatic set piece, or a solar flare of weirdness – if burnt hard and fast and short enough – in the context of the Great British Top 20 singles could distort people’s perceptions about what pop music actually is. The idea that a pop song, or a pop video, or an advert – or all three together (which is essentially what a ‘band’ is) – could compose a blitzing sheet of interference that mangles signals and fucks with interpretations until a piece of highly-evolved brainwashing (pop music) becomes something beautiful and world-changing. Zang Tuum Taub (the three words, a lift from Futurist godhead Marinetti’s onomatopoeic description of a machine gun, were always intended to be scripted differently, each time they were written) was a label infatuated with this promise. Former Buggle Trevor Horn had been offered his own imprint on Island Records. His wife, Jill Sinclair, would head the business side of the outfit, but she was somewhat stunned to find herself working alongside a man who some considered to be her husband’s arch nemesis. New Pop champion Paul Morley had savaged Horn in a piece for the NME, running mischievous, theory-loaded rings around the bespectacled Buggle as he sat listened, bemused.
Although Morley never had an official title for the role that Horn, somewhat perversely, bestowed upon him, he gleefully established himself as the ideological wing of both the label, which he had christened, and its in-house band, The Art Of Noise. In practical terms Morley handled A&R, marketing, PR, artwork and any other visual or textual elements, but ideologically he sought to rip up the railroads of 20th century European art, philosophy and criticism and mainline everything into a new hyper-literate, heavily satirical form of pop music. As exciting and pretentious as Morley’s Words And Music, Nothing and Ask texts were, under his guidance the new label issued a string of classic, unheimlich pop events in the early-mid Eighties: Frankie Goes To Hollywood using sexuality like a knife and holding it to Britain’s throat; The Art Of Noise’s amazing bricolage pop, pioneering not just sampling of notes, beats and riffs in pop songs, but sampling of history too; Grace Fucking Jones.
Despite detonating the pop charts with a sequence of number ones and history-making chart records from Frankie, however, ZTT was far from the pop utopia (or, at least, heterotopia) that Morley had envisioned. His more out-there ideas were met with horror by label owners Horn, and particularly Sinclair. All the while, the label’s flagship band seethed with bitterness over a label hierarchy that had them forcefully exiled from input into their own music (Horn famously banned the musicians from the studio while he himself laboriously crafted the towering, band-bankrupting ‘Relax’ number one), and wrangled as puppets of Morley’s media-games, while locked into a ruthlessly unfair record contract. The Zang Tum Tub halcyon era ended in lawsuits from Frankie, recrimination, and the gradual excommunication of pop Dadaist Paul Morley.
As just ‘ZTT’, Horn and Sinclair’s label went on to have great commercial success in the late Eighties and Nineties with Seal, Kirsty MacColl and Lisa Stansfield, and even sheltered the embryonic All Saints, but aside from what-the-fuck?? bursts of unpop weirdness from the likes of Leilani and Sexus, ZTT had little to offer than well-crafted, if mostly unexciting, MOR pop.
The two halves of this fascinating venture are collected together for the first time in The ZTT Box Set (read the Quietus review here), and Paul Morley spoke to us to give his side of the story.
Paul, as a writer, to what extent do you consider Frankie Goes To Hollywood to be your greatest piece of writing, and to what extent is your pride in that project proportional to your guilt about it?
As the kind of writer who really does consider Frankie Goes to Hollywood and indeed Zang Tuum Tumb itself to be pieces of writing, I consider it to be ONE of my greatest pieces of writing, but there other writings I would, given the chance, point to, including my book Words and Music, which was like the sleeve notes to both Kylie's ‘Can't Get You Out Of My Head’ and Alvin Lucier's ‘I Am Sittting In A Room’ if they had been ZTT releases, and to me they sort of were - but Frankie was a kind of book, a sort of novel, perhaps a screenplay, definitely theatre, well, a musical - and I suppose I did write the story, and indeed illustrate it, as it was going along, even if it was all totally out of my control. I suppose I wrote a first sentence, the kind of sentence Philip K. Dick might have written about fame and information and music and image, and that then set all the other sentences that were to come into motion, some of which I would later claim I had written. To an extent I had, because none of them would have existed in the way they did without that initial sentence. That initial sentence definitely had the words Zang Tuum Tumb in it, and the warning, or promise, or hope, that every time those words were mentioned from that point on they would be spelt differently, and whenever they were said, time would slip a few seconds into the future.
To some extent, much of what happened, although I didn't really believe it would, was described in many of the early "what if"/"let's do this"/"we believe this" manifestos I wrote about the kind of label I wanted to design. I gave these manifestos to Trevor. God knows if he read them, or if he did what he made of them, but at the time, wrapped up in the momentum, I just assumed he had, and as far as I could hear and tell the manifesto words, this idea of a label that was a mix of, say, Factory, Ballard, Duchamp, Mute, Eno's Obscure, Most's Rak, Baudrillard, Warhol, the T. Rex Wax Co., Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, Fetish, Fast, Postcard, Paul Krassner, ECM, Picador, Man Ray, Buddha, Robert Mapplethorpe, John Cage, John Cale, Spector's Wall, Charisma, Dandelion etc etc existed inside the sounds that Trevor was piecing together in his studio.
I remember that the sleeves I organised for [Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s] ‘Relax’ and [The Art of Noise’s] ‘Into Battle’ were finished before Trevor had finished the music - he took his time to get it right - and the covers of both, images and words, definitely, as far as I could see inside my fantasy, were infecting/influencing/directing what the music became. Wriggling sperms and sadomasochistic aphorisms on the cover of ‘Relax’ definitely encouraged Trevor to enhance the explosive sonic lust of the song, and ‘Into Battles’ spanners and roses and random slogans - the sleeve notes were sort of the ones I'd imagined Burroughs might have written for a Spontaneous Music Ensemble album, which I figured was something pretty strange for an ex-Buggle to be involved with - definitely contributed to the final edit and sequencing of the record, and the atmospheric anglo-alien Art of Noise combination of machinery and abstraction. I also got the feeling from the sensational size and power of some of Frankie's music, and the delicacy and spaced out corrupted swing of Art of Noise's music, that Trevor was working out how to response to my initial sentence about moving time a few seconds forward by placing certain sounds together in a certain order. As a writer I believed that words contained a kind of magic that could interfere with time, and to some extent, for a short while, ZTT interfered with time, but only in a way that could have happened because a writer was involved. A writer who believed these kind of things were happening even if, really, they actually weren't.
Oddly, no pride as such, a vague feeling of pleasure at some of the ideas that came off and the more or less pop historical consequences, and no guilt, except perhaps at my failure to keep whatever it was going and the way I yielded to the forces that wanted me to stop whatever it was I was doing in favour of rejecting most of the ideas that I thought made the label different and entertaining in the first place.
Do you think at any points your ego ran away with you too much? I guess I’m thinking of things like the NME article 'Who bridges the gap between the record executive and the genius? Me'. At what points did your grandiose ideas alienate rather than unite ZTTs artists and executives?
Funny thing, the ego thing, because I never actually directly credited myself for the things I did, from A&R to marketing and commissioning and art direction, but, yes, I think my ideas and the sprinting ego alienated people within and on the label fairly early on, but many of the ideas for the label I set in motion early on lasted long enough to have an impact before I could, to an extent, be removed from a position of power within the organisation. As a writer, I came up with ideas on my own, and I had a few weeks when no one checked my ideas - I guess no one expected such a torrent of games, reference points, art history and strategies to check - and these few weeks helped establish the image of the label, the pretension if you like, the style, the thinking, and by the time I was sort of encouraged to quieten the labels voice, to soften the intellectual conceits, there was enough of the original energy and ideas to last a good couple of years.
I'd set up the three central series, Action, Incidental and Certain, and they lasted for a while, with their different characteristics - chart pop was Action (Kylie!), Incidental was the experimental research and development wing (Alvin Lucier), and Certain was surreal, possibly bleak cabaret. The designs and images and videos and enthusiasm I'd contributed to Frankie, based on the idea that pop could save the world, was given the benefit of the doubt, because as far as the business side of things could tell, my slogans and sleeves and claims and boasts and concepts might have had a small impact on the success of things, so I was allowed to an extent to carry on with the "grandiose ideas" just in case I had stumbled onto some kind of secret - I could carry on - I was indulged - with my basic plan for Frankie, a one year plan that would lead to a film written by Martin Amis and directed by Nic Roeg that told the story of a pop group that lasted for one year before they contributed to the end of the world, an end that happened whilst they were actually flying to Hollywood to discuss the making of the movie. They landed in a post-apocalyptic world, where there was no need for Frankie, or indeed pop music. Then the adventures really began. I did have meetings with Martin and Nic about this movie, these meetings alone would have made a movie. No movie was ever made.
The Neil Jordan ‘Moments In Love’ video involving elephants in slow motion crashing into a church where some nuns were praying also never got made either. The Terry Gilliam video for [Frankie’s] ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’ was not made. The Mapplethorpe Art of Noise photographs never got done either, after a fine meeting I had with Mapplethorpe where it took me days after to translate the puzzling words I thought he was saying - I really love your English lawyers - into what they actually were - I really love your Art of Noise. (He'd spent the morning, I remember, trying to get Joan Armatrading into a dress.) Essentially, after a while, not least because some inside the labels considered the ‘Relax’ video to be pornographic, and bands on the label felt I was manipulating them to be simply my puppets in a masterplan that was all about my ego, my ideas were viewed as being increasingly impractical and troubling. I was exiled more or less from the moment I suggested Frankie Goes To Hollywood cover the Velvet's ‘Heroin’ for the b-side of ‘The Power of Love’, as part of my religious concept for that particular song, and my idea for the video, involving syringes and butterflies, directed by Derek Jarman, was ignored in favour of a scenic fairly harmless if expensive Godley and Creme version of the Nativity story. So I ended up as I began, on my own coming up with ideas, only now I couldn't do much with those ideas.
I think at one point I tried to explain why we should sign The Fall. There was silence for about ten minutes. I wanted to sign Front 242. This to Jill and Trevor confirmed that I was a communist.
I think another problem, for artists on label and label owners, was that the label, as deadly serious as it could be, had an absurdist, subversive, occasionally deadpan even slapstick sense of humour, and this wasn't necessarily the sense of humour of the artists or the owners.
Did your work in ZTT give you a kind of rock star-level of satisfaction? You are very much viewed as a kind of rock star to journalists - a lot of music journalists secretly don't just want to make music, they want to impose their own fantasies on the way music as a whole looks, sounds and is and thought about; we're not just frustrated musicians, we're frustrated Paul Morleys [Speak for yourself! - Ed].
It wasn't so much rock star satisfaction, although as a know-it-all rock journalist I naturally enjoyed the minor fame, and the vague notoriety, and the chance to earn more pounds per word than usual... but I did feel a Tynan-inspired need to actually do things, and do them as originally as I could, and not just be the writer, or the critic, or as I felt at the time, the parasite always responding to the creative energy of others - and I think very quickly it became apparent to me that without me really knowing it at the time by writing about music I had stored up a lot of ideas about how to package and make available my favourite kind of music, and because I had written about a certain kind of music for the NME, I had a kind of ideological commitment to making pop music stranger, cleverer, more beautiful, more surprising, and record sleeves and associated paraphernalia more entertaining and provocative. I just sort of took this for granted, that this is what you did when you had a label - thinking about Wilson, Last, Miller, Boon, Horne, Travis, Drummond... that a label wasn't just a machine for producing music but a way of distributing important, unpredictable information and delights that came in all sorts of forms. I think this kind of experience in the so to speak real world of the music business is something all rock journalists who fancy themselves as more or less the greatest should experience, if only because such an experience makes you realise how little the real world music industry has to do with the off world desires and standards and ideals of rock journalists.
There's a sense through reading your sleevenotes that at the point at which you left ZTT it wasn't because you'd exhausted all of your ideas, but rather that it had become an almost Smile-like uncompletable project. It sounds like your ideas became incompatible with the kind of label Jill Sinclair and Trevor Horn wanted it to be, and that what you really needed was a project where you could be an auteur, not just a salaried daydreamer. You imply that this started to go wrong at the point at which you didn't sell Frankie for millions of pounds after 'The Power Of Love'. Imagining a history where you did sell Frankie, and in which your ideas became the dominant motivating force in ZTT - if ZTT were really your label - what would have happened next? What would be happening now?
It went wrong at many stages, often at the very same time it was going right... The conflict between me and the business at the label was very quickly a problem, a basic battle between dreams and routines. I remember Jill and Trevor buying Stiff Records - by then the label of Mint Juleps, Belle Stars, Tommy Chase and Dr. Feelgood - as being the ultimate moment my heart ran away from it. I'd hung on even after we didn't sell Frankie hoping that I could reignite my side of the label - even if that was just the side where the label had a kind of voice and little slogans appeared underneath the logo in ads - but I felt more and more adrift. Perhaps I didn't like the fact it had become hard work trying to convince people that my ideas weren't the self indulgent fancies of a spoilt unrealistic NME writer who had been given a lucky break by Trevor. To be honest I was shellshocked that I had to defend ideas in meetings as early on I just had the ideas and put them into action, and couldn't believe that, say, getting Anton Corbijn to do a Frankie video was being overruled.
Jill and Trevor didn't understand why I was so mortified when they rescued Stiff from bankruptcy but as I thought set up this discriminating European boutique type label that aimed to invent a catalogue as extensive and imaginative and innovative as Factory Records I suddenly realised that what was wanted was a more mainstream kind of empire with none of my pesky, upsetting, intrusive nonsense. They thought I was just sulking and being too emotional when we shared offices with Stiff, but for me it was two aesthetic styles that just didn't/couldn't/shouldn't mix. I had been useful in helping set it up and give it an identity, but really to them had outgrown my use once they set their sights on becoming a sort of major. In today's terms I was too indie, and I guess in their ideas too romantic about music. The problem was, as I had put so much of myself into the label, and for better or worse set it up at least visually and conceptually as a reflection of my imagination, it was hard for me to leave behind, and its always been a sadness that I couldn't really have run the label, as erratically as that might have seemed from a business side. By now, well, if I had been its real world leader, not the fantasy leader, it would either be a rival to Google and Apple and U2 or have completed its one thousand piece catalogue in 2005 as obscure but pure of heart as Sarah Records, as defiant but defeated as Factory Records.
As your involvement in ZTT petered out, the janus faces of British pop seemed to become PWEI and The KLF. How do you think each of their works compared to what you were trying to do with ZTT - did either of them have anything in common with your ZTT, and did either of them succeed where you think you failed?
To be honest, I've not seen any direct signs that ZTT ideas – or Factory/Mute/Fast/Zoo/4AD/Postcard etc ideas - have really had much impact on the contemporary allegedly indie world. This might be, in ZTT's case, what is considered by those not convinced by the label as a good thing, because I built a kind of glossy folly or in fact despite my art-head post-punk leanings the definitive early 80s novelty label that was the logical next step for Trevor after the Buggles. I feel a connection, one way or another, with the fact that Drummond thinks a lot about what the hell he is doing, and what the hell everyone else is doing, and why, and I thought the idea of creating certain dramatic set pieces in a chart context was the kind of fun I liked having but either forgot how to do or never really knew in the first place. I feel a connection with PWEI in the sense that they may end up being remembered more for a t-shirt than whatever complicated and curious thinking led to the existence of the t-shirt.
Did watching ZTT grow to be a label that harboured Lisa Stansfield, Shane MacGowan and All Saints 1975 make you feel like you were being forced to impotently watch as your child was taken away and molested by its foster parents?
I wouldn't quite put it so Brandrossistically, but there was definite agony watching the thing I believed in at the time so much become a representation of the kind of thing I didn't believe in - the way I put it is that the early days were very much Zang Tuum Tumb, and the later days were ZTT, and they were sort of two labels. Of course, some people may prefer the mature and soothing Seal ZTT which led to the signing of All Saints and Lisa Stansfield, and it was no doubt the more consistently successful ZTT, but it was just so different from the first thirty or so months of the label that it is now very disturbing to see the two eras put together inside a box. But then, the box represents the label of Trevor Horn, and how for a while he hired me, and I got a little carried away and turned his project into slightly too much my personal project, and then after that the label moved away from my influence and became what it became, a fairly straightforward, indistinctive label with an idiosyncratic past. There is one label, which was a bit mad, I like to think in a good way, and then a sort of recovery. The label started out quoting Theodore Adorno and ended up, er, quoting nobody at all. Not even me.