The story of the famous No Wave, Post-Punk and Mutated Disco label starts back in 1978 when Michael Zilkha, a wealthy heir to England's Mothercare retail empire, working in New York and of Lebanese descent, was keen on starting a record label that married punk with disco. He had purchased the publishing rights to a song called Disco Clone, a ditty by Ronald Melrose, a fellow Harvard student of his wife Cristina Monet.
When Michael bought Disco Clone, I said, That is, without doubt, the worst song I have ever heard, recalls Cristina. It is so bad that the only way you could record it would be as Brechtian pastiche. And Michael said, Do you want to give it a shot? And so it happened.Zilkha persuaded his wife to record a song under the name of Cristina called Disco Clone, an eccentric pastiche dance record which featured the uncredited Kevin Kline trying to seduce the breathy Cristina.
After that one, Zilkha started a recordlabel with Michel Esteban who was the French owner of the Paris punk shop Harry Cover (a pun on haricots verts) and the magazine Rock News. He had moved to New York with his partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux, to become part of the punk and emerging post-punk music scene. In 1977, Zilkha and Esteban were introduced to each other by John Cale who went on to produce the single. Pretty soon Disco Clone became the first release on the new ZE label (the Z from Zilkha and the E from Esteban) and the rest is history.
Disco Clone would go through several incarnations (as PC from Music From The Third Floor pointed out), prompting Blackwell to dub it Island's most expensive failure, but its charms didn't escape notice. Melody Maker called the record artfully dumb, anointing it Single of the Week.
Disco Clone #2
Thanks to PC, who was so kind to upload them for me, the two early versions from 1978 and the b-sides from the second re-release.
Disco Clone #1 (English version)
Disco Clone #1 (French version)
Disco Clone #2 (disco mix)
Disco Clone #2 (instrumental)
Ballad Of Immoral Manufacture (aka Disco Clone #3) (final and best version if you ask me, from Doll In The Box)
Disco Clone became a cult success and encouraged ZE to release a proper full-length album by Christina in 1980. She soon became the princess of ZE Records but she was destined for greatness even before she ever cut a record. She attended Harvard and London's Central School of Drama. While working as an apprentice theatre critic at the Village Voice, she met her future husband, fellow writer Michael Zilkha. She had a keen mind, biting wit, and a model's beauty. With her dramatic training, Cristina had no problem playing a disco bimbo with a proper detached decadent upper class disdain to colour the pastiche.
Cristina’s career barely lasted a half-decade, despite the initial success. Her legacy? Some brilliant singles, two albums and above all praise from the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, Blondie and Madonna.
Christina’s first album, Doll In The Box, was produced by Kid Creole and contained poker-faced covers of the Beatles' Drive My Car and Peggy Lee's Is That All There Is? (if I’m not mistaken this famous song is one of Randy Newman’s first jobs as an arranger).
Don't Be Greedy
Blame It On Disco
Drive My Car
Is That All There Is
Cristina's second album, Sleep It Off, was produced by Don Was and released in 1984 with a sleeve design by Jean-Paul Goude (a year before he used the same idea for Grace Jones). Again her lyrics dryly detailed a world of urban decadence, but the record flopped, and Cristina retired from the music industry.
What a Girl to Do Remix
Don't Mutilate My Mink
The producer of the first album was August Darnell (aka Kid Creole) who would turn the following years into one of the key figure in this spectacular outburst of extreme sounds filling the dancefloor. As singer, composer for his own Coconuts and arranger for a lot of the artists from the Label.
[Apparently some visitors are really reading this stuff here, because PC from Music From The Third Floor caught me making a few mistakes and assumptions about the Cristina kickoff of ZE and because he knows ‘a bit about the ZE label’ as he states, he was so kind to help me out on this with a few comments…
Disco Clone was in fact the first two releases on ZE. The initial one, while performed by Cristina (Monet), wasn't credited to her... the cover simply states 'Disco Clone' and 'Produced by John Cale'. It features an English and a French version of the song. There are different theories regarding who supplied the male narration on this release - it's not Kevin Kline, and many seem to think it was John Cale himself - I have it from a 1984 interview with Cristina however (published in The Face) that it was writer/socialite Anthony Haden-Guest.The second version is obviously more famous; backed by Chris Blackwell and Island Records it was re-recorded and re-released, now properly credited to Cristina, and this time featuring a pre-stardom Kline. Production was by Zilkha, Cristina and Bob Blank. Various different mixes exist; off the top of my head there's a 'Disco Mix', an instrumental version, and one retitled 'Ballad Of Immoral Manufacture' which turned up as the b-side on a later single.Cristina subsequently went on to make far superior records; her version of 'Is That All There Is', the Christmas song 'Things Fall Apart' and her second (and last) album 'Sleep It Off' are all brilliant.
The ZE Christmas album also exists in two versions; the first one was released in 1981, the second came the following year with a slightly altered track listing.]
Darnell began his career in the sixties and formed a band together with his half-brother. In 1974 they reformed under the name of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. This outfit gained them their first success, reaching gold and Top 40 status with song like Cherchez La Femme and Sunshower – one of my all time favourites – a song that M.I.A. covered for the first single of her debut album last year.
Subsequent releases could unfortunately not match this initial success. Darnell began producing for other artists before adopting the name Kid Creole and forming The Coconuts in 1980. He gathered a trio of female backing vocalist/dancers, including his wife Adriana Kaegi, and an ace band including vibraphone player Andy Hernandez aka Coati Mundi and legendary Jamaican drummer Winston Grennan.
Their first releases were heavily disco-influenced and critically well-received but not commercially successful. Darnell was recognized as a clever lyricist and astute composer, arranger and producer. Their first success was Coati Mundi's Me No Pop I, though not originally on one of the albums. It became a Top 40 hit single.
The real breakthrough came in 1982 with the classic threesome Stool Pigeon, Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy and I'm a Wonderful Thing, Baby. Next releases turned out to be relative commercial disappointments again, despite the single There's Something Wrong in Paradise reaching the Top 40.
Coati Mundi – Que Pasa, Me No Pop I
Kid Creole & The Coconuts – Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy
Kid Creole & The Coconuts – I'm A Wonderful Thing, Baby
Kid Creole & The Coconuts – Something Wrong in Paradise (Larry Levan Remix)
Also in that first year, Esteban’s partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux, a talented artist, made some recordings under the name of Rosa Yemen which were released on ZE Records as well.
Lizzy Mercier Descloux was self-taught as a guitarist, but revealed herself as a supreme minimalist, concentrating on spindly, single-note lines combined with wrong-note harmonies and funky rhythms.
The following year ZE released her solo debut Press Color. Although the record had poor sales, she toured the USA and Europe. Being the partner of the boss has some advantages offcourse but luckily for us, because she went on pioneering World Beat with great effect on her following albums.
ZE Records quickly became a hip label with artist like Alan Vega, Arto Lindsay, Aural Exciters, Michel Bassignani, James Chance + The Contortions or James White & the Blacks, Coati Mundi, Cristina, Don Armando's 2nd Av. Rhumba Band, Garçons, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Last Men, Lio [Lio wasn't part of the original ZE line-up. Her 80's output was however re-released by the label when Michel Esteban relaunched it in 2003. He initially co-produced her 1986 album 'Pop Model'], Lisi, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Caroline Loeb, Lydia Lunch, Marie & les Garçons, Mars, Bill Laswell’s Material, Miss OD, Optimo/Twitch, Ron Rogers, Suicide, The Rotations, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Was (not was),…
Really a beautiful line-up. The music Z+E were listening to, at this point at which music, art, cinema, literature, and fashion were closely integrated, was a mixture of the New Wave of Talking Heads and Television, together with the disco-funk played in clubs like The Paradise Garage and Studio 54.
As a self declared leftfield funk/disco label, ZE Records set out an agenda to bring the sounds of the New York underground together with Disco from the Paradise Garage to create something totally new.
Disco music, in its early form, was a multicultural mix of sounds, styles and grooves aimed squarely at freeing one's mind so the ass could ostensibly follow. Far from dying off, it retreated back underground once the masses got tired of the Gibb bros., Travolta’s and brain-dead dance formula their night fevers had come to represent.
It’s in this atmosphere where, in spite of all the formula and tackiness, disco's hedonistic instincts on the dance floor attracted a certain bizarre crop of wily punk, no wave, and dedicated avant-garde artists.
The people at Ze Records knew that disco in the hands of Larry Levan, Arthur Russell, West End Records and Prelude was subtly dislocating the musical norm in as spectacular and adventurous ways as anything emerging in the, back then, more respectable Rock scene. Under the influence of punk and the DIY-attitude labels as factory and Rough Trade were building the foundations of New Wave on the remains of the flash of heat and anger that punk was. ZE Records was destined to bring this attitude to the dancefloor.
Every producer or record label needs a Christmas album. Phil Spector knew it and ZE Records knew it too. So in 1981 all the American artists on Ze came up with a special Christmas track. Cristina, with the two Was brothers, went to Detroit to record Things fall Apart, while David & Don Was recorded Christmas Time in Motor City with their own band Was (Not Was). August Darnell drew inspiration from New York for his Christmas in River Side Drive. Chris Butler composed a piece for his band The Waitresses entitled Christmas Wrapping, later covered by The Spice Girls.
Lisi – My Silent Night
The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
Charlelie Couture – Christmas Fever
August Darnell – Christmas On Riverside Drive
… à suivre, en plus de lalala.