“Jamaica Has A Magic To It”: An Interview With Chris Blackwell

With the imminent publication of his autobiography (co-authored with Paul Morley), Island Records founder Chris Blackwell talks to Matthew Ingram about recording sessions with Grace Jones, the importance of good cover art, and the trouble with U2

Photo credit: Island Trading Archive

In a landscape where there were scant possibilities for subcultures to coalesce, long before it was possible to say you were a “gamer”, that you followed a particular influencer, or that you only wore a certain brand of trainers, music was everything. From the late 60s through to the 1980s, better than any other label, Island records plotted all the available coordinates.

In a music industry temporarily torn asunder by The Beatles, Chris Blackwell, the label’s effortlessly charismatic founder, steered the imprint to unimaginable pre-eminence. Island, alongside Virgin, Chrysalis and A&M, was the sexiest of a new breed of massive independent labels. It represented a time when it was possible to be both revolutionary in intent and reach a huge global audience. Island’s sublabels: Witchseason, Antilles, 4th & Broadway, ZTT, Gee Street, ZE, Mango, hexagram, Sue and Trojan (familiar to all those on the hunt for arcana) benefitted from association with the panache of their parent.

Blackwell, now 84, sold Island in 1989. But, in part owing to an enforced hiatus through Covid, he has only now stopped moving fast enough to pen his autobiography The Islander. Written with his onetime collaborator at ZTT, the esteemed journalist Paul Morley, it’s a rip-roaring yarn, the ultimate behind-the-scenes insider look at the coolest label ever on the planet.

The book, bursting at the seams with original material, manages to answer many of the questions I had about the Island records story. To take only one example, as much to avoid spoilers, I had always considered that Talking Heads should have been an Island band. It turns out so did Blackwell. He’d seen them play very early on as a trio in New York but he was wrapped up in managing Bob Marley and the Wailers at that point. Consequently, Seymour Stein at Sire Records snapped them up. But, recording them at his Compass Point Studios in Nassau, attaching Brian Eno to the group (lest we forgot for many years an Island artist) and by siphoning off Tom Tom Club to his label, there’s a sense that he got a slice of the action.


One thing which immediately struck me as notable was Island’s policy of not seeking what is known in finance as “quick returns”. Blackwell worked out early on in 1964, as he licensed Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ to Fontana to distribute the record, that the big chart hit, the staple “quick return” of the music business, would bankrupt a small label having to press huge quantities of records before they could collect money from the stores. The stress of having to follow up such a hit in the fickle pop market, would tumble anyone fast.

Island chose, therefore, to sign artists when they were virtually unknown and then nurture them slowly, building an audience up from an underground base. For instance, although he could sense their potential, Blackwell amusingly describes U2’s music as too “rinky-dinky” for him (not enough bass and drums, you see…) but he steadfastly ignored advice to drop them from the label even after Boy (1980), October (1981), and War (1983) failed to light the touchpaper. It was only with The Unforgettable Fire (1984) that he saw a return on his investment.

Photo credit: Adrian Boot

At the other end of this spectrum is an artist like Nick Drake whose three albums Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1971), and Pink Moon (1972) barely dented the public’s consciousness at the time. Drake’s song ‘Fruit Tree’ even hints at the perils for him of long-term investment, “Fame is but a fruit tree, So very unsound, It can never flourish, ‘Til its stock is in the ground.” It wasn’t until a Volkswagen Cabrio car commercial in 1999 that Drake was finally unleashed, his annual US album sales instantly jumping from 6,000 to 74,000.

I had the amazing opportunity to interview Blackwell for this article and he remembered Drake performing songs to him in his Oxford Street office. I asked him if there were other artists in the catalogue who he felt could yet emerge from the vaults, whose work he still holds a candle for? “That’s exactly what I’m doing in my old age, as it were, and that is looking back on the recordings which happened thirty or forty years ago and seeing how particular songs, and what particular artists that one feels one could make have an impact in today’s music.” On the process of remastering he comments, “In the 50s and 60s you didn’t listen to the music of the 20s and 30s because the recording of the sound was so bad. But nowadays they have all the technology with which … you can go in the studio and you can make the guitar sound differently if you want it to sound different.”


On many occasions throughout the book Blackwell refers to tactics that he used to psychologically engineer situations. He describes how he learnt the trick from hanging out with Miles Davis to test a passenger’s mettle by driving (in one of his fantastic cars) at extreme speeds. To root out skullduggery in a deal with Roxy Music, a signing he was eventually convinced to give the greenlight because of the delicious cover of their debut album, he showed up unannounced at 9am in the office. Generally, however, he specialised in making artists feel comfortable, often removing them from distraction into relatively isolated circumstances, installing Traffic in a cottage in Berkshire or recording John Martyn at his house in Theale.

Blackwell openly confessed to me, “I’m not qualified! I can’t play music … I’m not a musician. I can’t write songs.” Having created the circumstances for them to be creative, he often describes leaving artists to get on with it, “I wasn’t somebody who was really telling them what to do at all, I never really believed in that.” This hands-off approach was no doubt what caused Island to be a seedbed for all manner of weird and improbable records. Paul Morley delights in unearthing and wheeling centre-stage the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s Karyobin (1968), a British free-jazz Rosetta stone. But let’s not forget either White Noise’s proto-hauntological An Electric Storm (1969) or my own favourite, with its Brian Eno liner notes, Basil Kirchin’s deeply avant-garde second instalment of Worlds Within Worlds (1974). Even The Slits Cut (1979), now surely generating more sales than for many years following Viv Albertine’s widely loved autobiography, must too qualify as something of a wonderful one-off.

However, when I suggest that, perhaps just as Eno might describe himself as a “non-musician” Blackwell might be a “non-producer,” a remark I make with a view to the genius of such a position of non-interference, of maximising his glamour in absentia, he does recall some significant situations wherein he chose to be more hands-on: “Well, I think the best example was with Grace Jones. I just felt that I could contribute to making her really happen and it was very risky because, you know, she was a model, she wasn’t really a singer.”

Because Grace was Jamaican, he brought in Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare as a rhythm section. The guitarist Barry Reynolds he’d known from Pink-era Island’s group Blodwyn Pig and because he had worked on Island’s LP by Marianne Faithfull Broken English (1979). French Beninese synthesizer player Wally Badarou had played on a Mango subsidiary hit by The Gibson Brother’s ‘Cuba’ (1978). After assembling the legendary Compass Point house band in the Bahamas, the first few days are fresh in his memory, “It didn’t really happen immediately, it was a little edgy, because the Jamaicans were solid amongst their own group, it took a couple of days before it settled in, then about five or six days later it was fine.” Because there were no amusing distractions in the Bahamas, apart from swimming, he was on hand for all the Grace Jones records. He would, “wake up and pick up some breakfast and fly off to the studio because it was fun and exciting, and interesting things were happening.”


A notable thread to Island’s history is that of mysticism. Perhaps its most successful artists, Bob Marley, U2 and Cat Stevens all have this about their work. Blackwell also describes Nick Drake’s music to me as having a “spiritual” quality. There are what seem to be powerful synchronicities around Chris’s life. In 1955 as an 18-year-old, on a motorboat jaunt along the Jamaican coast, the group ran out of petrol. Pulling up on Hellshire Beach and leaving his friends, he struck out on his own to get help for the party but found himself stuck on the ocean side of a mangrove swamp and rapidly dehydrating. Discovering a Rastafarian’s hut, then viewed as folk devils, only because of the severity of his situation did he overcome his trepidation and accept help.

It’s unquestionable that the group of Rastas saved the lives of him and his friends. Years later filming the charming and atmospheric movie Countryman (1982), based on the story of two foreigners whose plane crashes near the Jamaican shoreline, the lead actor Countryman swore to Blackwell, the film’s producer, that as a young child he had witnessed Chris being saved by elders in the community twenty-six years previously.

Photo credit: Nathalie Delon

However, I sense Blackwell’s own reticence around these supernatural currents. In the 50s, visiting a Lebanese fortune-teller in downtown Kingston to quiz her about his future, as to whether it lay in film or music, even as he convinced himself there was something to her craft, he “recognised it as con.” I asked him whether there was anything behind this wariness, perhaps relating to a need to inspire confidence in his accountability? “Yes, I think you have something there, really.” Blackwell, to a great extent, felt a responsibility of care to his charges, “I guess it would be the same in any record company probably, because you are in a business where your role really is to help guide, give encouragement and advice.” He loved touring with bands and invariably this would mean taking a practical, grounded role, rather than melting away into the ether.

I put it to him that Marley, in every respect a full-blown mystic, whose answers to the most mundane questions would, in the Rastafarian habit of “reasoning”, take on metaphysical dimensions, no doubt relied on Blackwell to take care of the prosaic details precisely so he could pursue this habit, “Yes, certainly.” But it’s not a case of him being unaware of these things, he implicitly recognised Marley’s personal aura, “When I first met him, I felt he had a magic. I knew it. The first time I met him when he and Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were stranded in London … and the three of them, when they walked into my office … they were like kings.”

Ever since that early experience, Blackwell has consistently supported and celebrated the Rastafarian community. “Jamaica has a magic to it. It really does. It’s hard to figure out what it is. But part of it, which has affected Jamaica positively, is the Rastafarian religion which initially when I was young in the 40s and 50s, they were banned, put in jail, arrested, and abused terribly … But finally, they started to get their message across … and gave Jamaica something special, something different.”


Blackwell described to me how, “I grew up a lot in the countryside because my parents were in the banana and coconut business.” One of Island’s famous logos is the palm tree. Today he has his own brand of rum and runs several hospitality businesses like the Goldeneye resort based around Ian Fleming’s old house in Jamaica, a childhood haunt of his. In The Islander these are seductively described as sanctuaries “filled with some mysterious energy.”

This history and these pursuits point to a bias towards the natural and physical which relates to the label’s aesthetic of embodiment. In the book he talks movingly of a giant guango tree outside his house in Jamaica, “I bought the tree first and foremost, and got everything that came along with it: the river, the house, a natural water hole, roaming wildlife, hummingbirds, lizards, cattle, a cave that was home to the Taínos hundreds of years before any Europeans arrived, and acres of almost ancient isolation.”

As much as it put out some of the finest Reggae recordings, The Wailers Catch A Fire (1973), Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey (1975), Toots & The Maytal’s Funky Kingston (1976), Dillinger’s CB200 (1976), Ijahman’s Haile I Hymn (1978), the label’s releases were only relatively rarely dub records. To this extent it avoided dub’s inner-space odysseys. As much as I love dub reggae, in the context of the times the Island approach was politically progressive – ecological and concerned with social justice. Marley himself makes this connection with the earth, and roots reggae, explicit on his track ‘Roots’: “Some are leaves, some are branches, I and I are the roots.”

When Island ran a studio in London, Blackwell hired the Kingston-born jazz singer and dope dealer ‘Lucky’ Gordon to cook Jamaican food at the studios. He lights up at the mention of this memory, “He used to play music all the time, jazz and Jamaican music. He brought an atmosphere into the studios that was unique in those days. People would come out of the studios and hang with him and smoke the odd spliff, and he’d feed them, have a little rum. It made the studio a place that people really enjoyed being in. It wasn’t kind of scary and where everything had to be very quiet. It had a sense of life.” He agrees that it’s certain that many people would have had their first taste of curried goat at the Island studio kitchens.

Likewise, Blackwell took inordinate care in the physical packaging of records, right from the groundbreaking Catch a Fire sleeve with its mockup of a zippo lighter. “I was very into album covers. I thought it was essential … I was an addict about album covers and I remember people used to laugh at me all the time about it. Why do I spend the money on the album covers?”


In some respects, the label’s fortunes rode this organic current right to the far reach of the 1980s, where eventually it seemed out of kilter with the times. But they never stopped grasping for synergies and it’s interesting to view Island’s 1985 attempt to publicise the Washington DC micro-scene of Go Go, with the excellent Go Go Crankin’ compilation, and its doomed attendant movie Short Fuse (1986), as the prototype of today’s staple critical move: the celebration of the micro-dance scene.

It seemed like Blackwell’s 90s internet venture, the music site Sputnik7, was doomed in so far as its core concern of dematerialisation seemed out of keeping with his historical preoccupations. Blackwell himself pointed out to me Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ (2012) as ushering in a new phase in this virtualisation of the music industry. However, in recent years, as part of a move away from the disembodied culture foisted on us all by Silicon Valley, we can witness phenomenon as disparate as the resurgence of vinyl and the widespread cultural growth in an interest in gardening and farming pointing to a welcome future trend. If there’s a lingering bittersweet sadness to Blackwell’s epic story, it’s the fragility of this promise. Once upon a time it looked like Island Records might save us all from ourselves.

The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond by Chris Blackwell and Paul Morley will be published by Gallery Books on 7 June 2022 in the USA and Nine Eight Books on 9 June 2022 in the UK

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today