Island's Chris Blackwell on Signing U2 in 1980: Their 'Music Was a Little Rinky-Dink'

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U2 in 1987

To mark the 50th anniversary of Island Records, founder and music industry icon Chris Blackwell has taken part in a book tracing the label's formative years and beyond. The Story of Island Records (Universe), edited by Suzette Newman and Chris Salewicz, was released earlier this fall and is a colorful tribute not just to Bob Marley and the Caribbean sound he helped popularize, but to the early history of alternative rock and new wave.

Case in point: Blackwell signed international superstars U2 in 1980, but he wasn't all that impressed with Bono and his ragtag Irish crew when he first saw them perform at a London pub. "I didn't love the music," said Blackwell during an interview with NPR's "Weekend Edition" on Saturday. "It was a little rinky-dink, but I believed in them."  

An extended version of the interview appears on NPR's The Record blog, where Blackwell bemoans the loss of a label's musical identity. "Record labels now [don't] mean what they used to be to me when I was a fan," he said. "For example ... Blue Note Records was a guarantee of quality. They signed great musicians, and they recorded them absolutely brilliantly. Atlantic was a label that I loved; they had the best R&B music. King Records I loved; they had James Brown. There was a certain kind of identity with each label. That can happen when you're independent. When it's a major company, they can't do that in the same way. It's changed really a great deal, because also people don't even see a label. It used to be something where, you know, you saw that Motown record spinning around; there was a kind of excitement about it. You knew what you were going to get, that Motown sound. That doesn't exist now."

His advice for new artists trying to break? Be patient and own your work. "They can sell their music; they can market themselves on the Web. Takes a long time, because it's sort of going bit by bit, but they can promote their concerts, and they can gather e-mail addresses or Facebook pages ... and grow like that," he said. "[They can] have a very successful career and own their own masters. They don't need to give that up to a record label, which happened in the old days."

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