Island Records is celebrating its 50th anniversary and, despite being and hour and a half long, this documentary – which charted the inception and rise of the label – was so watchable and brought back so many happy memories, I’d have happily watched it over again as soon as it ended.
Damian Lewis narrated the story of how the legendary Chris Blackwell found the equally legendary label and not only were we treated to interviews with the man himself – a rare commodity indeed – we also got fabulous archive footage and contemporary interviews with some of Island’s leading bands and artists.
When I was growing up in the seventies, my old Panasonic turntable was topped by a shelf which sagged under the weight of Island’s records and as was noted by almost everyone interviewed last night, without Chris Blackwell and Island, the shape of music as we know it today would be unrecognisable…
There were lots of contributions in the documentary from former Island artists including Grace Jones, Toots Hibbert, Amy Winehouse, Sly and Robbie, PJ Harvey, U2, Brian Eno and Spencer Davis, but the best parts for me came in the form of the archive performance footage and hearing how Chris Blackwell’s love of reggae expanded into bringing progressive rock to the world in the late sixties.
Island began by importing Jamaican music in the early ‘60s and it went on to become one of the world’s most influential record labels of all time, particularly during the ‘70s when everything it touched turned to gold. Chris Blackwell’s ability to spot a star in the making soon became evident and by the late ‘70s, his signings included Free, Cat Stevens, Traffic, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Roxy Music and of course, Bob Marley. Imagine what the world would’ve been like if Bob had never been discovered? Unthinkable isn’t it?!
However, we heard that it wasn’t always easy and in the ‘80s, Island was in something of a freefall, however, the signing up of aspiring Irish band U2 brought the label right back into the centre of the music world. And despite the fact that by 1989 Chris had sold the label to Polygram, some would argue – me included – that no matter what name appears on the paperwork, Island Records is, was, and always will be, Chris Blackwell. He began the company with a start-up budget of just £1,000 and when he sold to Polygram, it was a deal worth £180 million; not a bad profit margin and every penny of it well deserved in my opinion.
Island gave us music that we’d probably never have heard otherwise and in many ways, it shaped the face of society and prompted many of us to make “lifestyle choices” that emulated some of the shooting stars of the time. For me, that was perhaps most notably Bob Marley and I recall vividly sitting in a corn field as the sun went down on hot summer days with dozens of friends, skinning up to the tinny but beguiling sounds of Marley playing from someone’s cassette player or radio… ah, good times! Not that I condone the act of skinning up now of course, but hey, it was almost compulsory in the ‘70s!
And it wasn’t only the great unwashed like me who were fans of almost any signing Chris Blackwell made; his artists’ music resonated everywhere, from the halls of Eton and Harrow to secondary school playing fields across the country. Those of us who were the younger generation at the time couldn’t get enough of the likes of Bob Marley and it often gives me pause for a wry smile as I hear tunes from this classic age playing from my kids’ computers, iPods and various new fangled gadgets. It may sound better in many ways but you still can’t beat the grainy sound of needle-on-vinyl which to me, epitomises all that Island stood for…
Music Week magazine I suspect would agree with me and has recently declared Blackwell to be “the most influential UK-based industry executive of the past five decades” and this film justifiably celebrated him and his achievements. From psychedelic album covers, music videos and rare behind-the-scenes footage, it was truly a joy to watch and if you love the music of that era, or in fact, music in general, regardless of era, it would be a crime to miss this film. So, as it’s a rainy weekend for most of us, you can pass a very happy 90 minutes by immersing yourself in the glory of the bygone days in the history of music as we know it today here, on BBC’s iPlayer.