All of the hoopla about the 50th Anniversary of Island Records had been & gone when this blog was just a twinkle in my eye, but hey, it’s still 2009, still their anniversary and see if I care anyway that I’m late….
Island was the first record label for which I felt an affinity and there has probably only been one another – ECM, since you ask – for which I feel a similarly rosy glow. Of course, these days Island is just a tentacle of the colossal octopus that is Universal Music and they (Universal) clearly see it as a label for current music, rather than some retro backwater re-issue label, though they have not been slow to exploit what is a magnificent back catalogue.
It’s hard to convey just how galvanised I was by Island when they first appeared on the UK scene in 1967. I’d heard (and liked) the first Traffic single ‘Paper Sun’, so sauntered down to my friendly local record retailer to buy a copy. Words cannot adequately convey my astonishment when I was presented with this florid pink artefact (see picture at foot of this post) which flew in the face of everything I’d experienced up until that point. Beatles singles came with a black label, Rolling Stones with a sensible blue one – this was the point at which the Summer of Love arrived in my life.
After that came ‘You can all join in’, a modestly priced LP sampler of a dozen or so acts from this new label’s roster. By then I’d already heard Jethro Tull and Free as well as Traffic and I think Cat Stevens was in there somewhere, but this was the point at which I encountered John Martyn, Fairport Convention and several others for the first time.
Better was to come with the next Island sampler, ‘Nice enough to eat’ which emerged in 1969. New and fascinating acts like Nick Drake, Blodwyn Pig and Quintessence were introduced and so it went on,,,Bronco, If, Heads, Hands & Feet, Richard Thompson, Jade Warrior…… It really seemed for a while that Chris Blackwell had a hotline to the best rock music in the world. Certainly, the major labels seemed to think so; CBS started releasing a series of similar low-price samplers and both EMI and the Phonogram group started their own ‘progressive rock’ labels (Harvest and Vertigo, respectively) in a typical ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ response.
By and large, there was a kind of unspoken rule that anything released on Island was worth listening to, an attitude that persisted well into the 1970’s. When I was at college in Bedford in the early 70’s, I remember being very excited that we had booked an Island package tour of new acts that they were sending out on a round of UK colleges. In fact, we seemed to get a lot of Island acts, perhaps because our Social Sec. was a guy called Mick Cater, who later worked for Island and eventually became Robert Palmer’s manager.
The band who topped the bill on that College Tour were called 25 Views of Worthing and as I recall, they played (very well) in a style reminiscent of Caravan, Egg and all of those Canterbury bands. I have searched the internet in vain for any trace of them – who they were, where they came from (Worthing, maybe?) and why Island didn’t sign them or release anything by them, so if anyone reading this has any answers to those questions I’d be delighted if they would post a response and satisfy my curiosity.
By the 70’s, of course, Island was changing, becoming a truly international label, signing new types of bands – Roxy Music were a bit of a bellweather for what was to come. Although I didn’t know it then, Island still had quite a part to play in my life, but I think that’s a story I’ll save for another time……..