Bob Marley to U2: Music trailblazer tells all in celebrity-strewn memoir

It’s hard to conceive of rubbing shoulders with Errol Flynn and Elon Musk in one lifetime. The worlds they inhabit in our cultural consciousness feel like different planets. But here they are. The old Hollywood film star punching Chris Blackwell on the nose at that end; the tech squillionaire drinking at his bar at this end.

The common ground they occupy, centuries apart in the legendary record biz mogul’s celebrity-strewn memoir, is the tropical enclave of Goldeneye on the north coast of Jamaica. In the age of Flynn and Noel Coward it was owned by his mum’s friend, Ian Fleming. Today, as Musk and Beyonce cavort underneath the mango trees, it belongs to Blackwell.

Chris Blackwell in his early days in his London recording studio and, right, the cover of The Islander.Credit:Getty Images

In between his carefree boyhood and equally carefree eighties lies an adventure, and a degree of cultural impact, to quietly challenge every one of those icons. Jamaican born to a Costa Rican heiress and a landed Anglo-Irish military man in waning colonial days, Blackwell followed his frankly privileged nose to build Island Records: a trial-and-error empire forged before the maps of industry were fully drawn, and so greatly helping do so.

His appetite for music and his insights into what’s good and what works arrived with his first job, cruising the island stocking jukeboxes with R’n’B 45s from America. He was up close, wheeling and dealing as the Kingston sound system scene evolved into the fantastically roughshod Jamaican recording industry of Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster and Leslie Kong.

Skipping to London with designs on international export, “I found myself hanging out backstage with the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks and, more interestingly from my perspective, their managers,” Blackwell recalls breezily. “I learnt from them simply by watching them in action. They did things their own way.”

Music fans will need little prompting to dive into this story. From Bob Marley to U2 doesn’t begin to cover it. Island’s palm-tree label is pasted on forever albums by Traffic, Free, Cat Stevens, John Martyn, Nick Drake and Grace Jones, to name only a few artists whose tenure Blackwell unpacks with especial pride, affection and pithy critical insight.

Blackwell holds Bob Marley (left) closest to his heart. On the right, Blackwell with Marley’s widow, Rita, in 2008.Credit:AP, Getty Images

In the latter we might assume the hand of co-writer and former NME journalist Paul Morley. But Blackwell’s ear for categorising and defining music, even at the tantalisingly uncategorisable end that always caught his imagination, is the asset that made Island a unique creative force in a business hooked on fast cash formulas. Yes, sure, My Boy Lollipop was his first hit, with Jamaican teen Millie Small, but he quickly learnt that “to be a genius you have to keep doing it. Otherwise, you’re just a lucky idiot.”

Blackwell is frank about his idiotic moments. He passed on Procul Harum because the word “fandango” bugged him. He didn’t see Pink Floyd or Reg Dwight (aka Elton John) going far. In the early ’80s he gunned for Spandau Ballet until his staff sold him on U2. Punk nearly passed him entirely (nice attitude, “it just lacked bass”) – but then, his A&R man Guy Stevens did go on to produce London Calling: one of many illustrations that Island was all about the long game of nurturing meaningful cultural change.

Another example is the idea of recording studio as artist’s retreat, typified by Blackwell’s Compass Point in the Bahamas. There, blissing out between tropical holiday and sweet inspiration, non-Island artists as diverse as AC/DC and Dire Straits made some of the defining albums of the ’80s.

Grace Jones (left) was signed to the Island Records label. Blackwell’s thirst for creative adventure also wound up making U2 filthy rich.Credit:James Brickwood, Getty Images

But it’s the acts that might have gone unsigned – or worse, mishandled – that define Blackwell’s distinction. Roxy Music, King Crimson, Fairport Convention and Mott the Hoople were treasured for their oddness, not groomed for consumption. “I wasn’t averse to big money. But not at the risk of damaging musicians,” he brags ever so humbly.

Ironically, it was his thirst for creative adventure that wound up making U2 filthy rich. He blew their royalties on bad film investments and gave them Island stock instead, just before the hallowed indie went the way of all brilliant ideas: bought out by a fat multinational in 1989.

That naturally undermined the chairman’s clout at the boardroom table where he once rolled spliffs in trademark shorts and flip-flops. Today, Island is just another branch of Numbercrunchers Inc, stone deaf to the next Blodwyn Pig and honestly only really familiar with Bob Marley’s hits. It’s a sad comedown from the gift he recognises in fellow traveller Joe Boyd: an understanding of “where music becomes history and how and why it will eventually be listened to”.

It’s Marley, clearly, that the former music mogul holds most tightly in his heart as he drifts off to sleep in Ian Fleming’s old house. Even recounting a life so passionately lived, his old-world colonial reserve ensures a certain emotional detachment to his story, but he reveals plenty when he writes that with “Bob Marley … you knew it wasn’t just about the charts. It was literally about changing the world.”

The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond by Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley is published by Nine Eight Books, $34.99.

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