The Ivan Drago School of Excellence: ZE Records Special
THE IVAN DRAGO SCHOOL OF EXCELLENCE: ZE RECORDS SPECIAL!!!
Hello and welcome to the first ever edition of THE IVAN DRAGO SCHOOL OF EXCELLENCE!!! Before we look at the first inductee, you may be wondering who the hell is this Ivan Drago and what does it all mean?
Basically, when Alan and I were thinking of a name for this feature, we were stumped for ideas, so we did what all great thinkers do and watched Rocky IV. If you haven’t seen Rocky IV (shame on you if you haven’t) here’s a quick synopsis . Basically, Ivan Drago is the epitome of greatness. He’s the man. He’s everything we like to be. So in that context, the Ivan Drago School of Excellence is where we celebrate some of the greatest musicians, artists, producers, and filmmakers of all time. Soon there will be no greater accolade than being the subject of an Ivan Drago School of Excellence special. Oh yes. Anyway, should we have a look at the first inductee?
As the wonderful Strut label are releasing ZE30: ZE Records 1979-2009, a comprehensive label retrospective of ZE Records, I thought it would be rather fitting if we took a trip down memory lane and have a look at our 15 favourite ZE releases.
But first, here’s a quick introduction to one of the most ground-breaking labels of all time…
New York in the late seventies was an extraordinary place to be if you were an artist, guitarist or Andy Warhol. The emerging punk and new wave scenes were just about to explode into to life with a little bit of help from disco. There’s no other label that captures the era’s seedy magic quite like ZE.
The men behind the label were Michael Esteban and Michael Zilkha. One was a French art student, and the other was the heir to the Mothercare fortune. Both were attracted to the Big Apple’s sleazy mystique, through Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver to The Velvet Underground’s grimy paeans to “downtown”. The city still had the dangerous allure that seemed to transcend political and social divides, with clubs such as CBGBs and Mudd Club attracting individuals seeking escapism and a ruddy good time. Esteban and Zilkha were introduced to each other at a party by John Cale, and the pair bonded over their mutual passion of disco and new wave bands, such as Talking Heads and Television. Knowing pretty much everyone on the downtown scene (Richard Hell, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine – you name ‘em they knew ‘em), they decided to harness the energy of this burgeoning scene by setting up their very own record label. Using their surname initials, they christened the label – go on, have a guess -ZE.
The first ever ZE release was by Zilkha’s girlfriend at the time – a Harvard history student by the name of Cristina Monet. Recorded at Blank Studios, ‘Disco Clone’ was released in 1978, and is a rather fine piece of camp disco (featuring the spoken word talents of A Fish Called Wanda star Kevin Kline!). Cristina would become the label’s very own delightful disco princess; whilst Esteban’s girlfriend, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, would help shape the label’s artistic and innovative outlook. Descloux was the one who introduced Esteban to the delights of downtown life, as well as releasing some amazing records for the label (more on which later). As the label’s foundations were being laid through the No Wave scene, there were two people that helped take the label to the next level; Bob Blank and August Darnell.
The awesome midfield partnership of Blank and Darnell helped to cement ZE Records’ emerging reputation through their groundbreaking production and song writing techniques. Blank moved to New York in 1973 to work as a session guitarist, but he soon found his calling as a sound engineer and producer. He opened Blank Studios in 1976; the hippest and best studio in town, it quickly became the creative centre of the New York music revolution. The likes of Sun Ra, Arthur Russell and Chic were soon vying for recording time with up and coming punk/No Wave artists, and an array of the City’s finest disco DJs. Blank’s studio and production technique was the nucleus of ideas for ZE (and many other labels), and provided the platform for artists to experiment with sound and ideas. His side project, The Aural Exciters, was basically Blank asking musicians who passed through the studios to come and record a few tunes. This creative flexibility enabled one particular star to leave his imaginative stamp on ZE Records, as well as the glittering world of disco itself.
August Darnell was born in 1951 in Haiti, and later moved with his family to New York, obtaining his street credentials in the Bronx. Graduating in English, he spent some time teaching, before securing a job writing songs for Chapell Music. The company didn’t take to his propensity for Latin songs, and they mutually agreed to part-company. Finding himself jobless, Darnell and his brother, Stony, joined forces to put together the legendary Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, which in the mid-70s cut two albums for RCA. They also recorded a third for Elektra, entitled James Munroe’s HS Presents Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Goes to Washington; sadly, however, this was never released outside the US. Because they had recorded for two labels, the brothers were subsequently involved in litigation (uh-oh!), but Stony managed to keep the original band together, while Darnell and Andy Hernandez (Coati Mundi) started Kid Creole and the Coconuts, with Darnell’s wife, Addy, among the backing vocalists.
Darnell bluffed his way to into the ZE fold by telling Zilkha that he had produced the Savannah band, and as a result of this, he was offered the chance to produce Cristina. Seizing the opportunity with both hands, he quickly became ZE’s in-house producer/magician. Darnell, together with Blank, produced some truly magical records; the most notable efforts being Darnell’s side-projects, Gichy Dan (who we’ll get to later), and Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band (whose members included Fonda Rae and Don Armando!). With Darnell behind the mixing desk, the Rhumba band would produce the epic self-titled ‘disco western’ concept album, which featured the smash single, ‘Deputy of Love’. With Blank and Darnell at the helm, Esteban and Zilkhas were able to release whatever they wanted without restraint.
Soon, the label was releasing a mixture of No Wave and disco records. With an impressive roster that included Suicide, Was (Not Was), Lydia Lunch, Mars, The Waitresses, James White and The Blacks and many more (like I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, we’ll get to them later). The combination of these two different musical identities (also throwing in August Darnell’s special salsa sound), resulted in the naming of the label’s very own musical tag; Mutant Disco. It was Esteban and Zilkha’s unwavering support for their artists under the Mutant Disco banner that made the label thrive, up until the mid-eighties. The label shut down in 1986 and the two Michaels left to pursue other projects. Esteban later resurrected the label in 2003 and re-packaged and re-issued the back catalogue, as well as signing new artists Optimo and Michael Dracula.
The lasting influence of ZE Records cannot be diminished; this is a label that captured 70s New York in all its exhilarating and colourful glory. I don’t think there is another label that really understood the downtown musical landscape quite like ZE; the label where genre cross-pollination originated, and where punk met disco and they got on rather famously. Ironic and post-modern before it became knowingly packaged, the songs of Cristina and Kid Creole & The Coconuts merely alluded to post-modernism and even gave a nod to good ol’ Bertie Brecht. You can’t say that about many pop records, now can you; let alone about some disco dolly-bird and a stylish, self-proclaimed “mulatto” player. This is the blueprint for everyone from LCD Soundsystem, and beyond (listen to James White/Chance and then to James Murphy’s gang – it’s pretty embarrassing. Sorry Mr. Murphy!). Special, intelligent, fun, funky, dirty and simply exceptional, there’s no excuse for you not to investigate this wonderful label. The new Strut compilation is a perfect place to start, so buy it! You won’t regret it, but if you do, just send me a letter or something and we’ll sort something out.
To commemorate Strut releasing the 30th Anniversary album, I have done a special Spotify* playlist consisting of Days Are Number’s Top 15 ZE Records of All Time, and there’s extra bonus tracks at the end, for the songs that didn’t make it! How good is that?
So, enough of my yakking let’s get on the countdown. Grab your leather jacket and light a smoke, as we’re going downtown baby!
(*if you haven’t got Spotify, just click here)
Ivan Drago School Of Excellence: ZE Records Top 15/Bonus Material
ZE RECORDS TOP 15. EVER!
15. ARTO/NETO – PINI PINI
Arto/Neto was Arto Lindsay’s bizarre and wonderful project with artist Seth Tillett; Lindsay being an original member of No Wave pioneers DNA. He was fully immersed in the emerging East Side art and music scene and was well known for his experimental musical ideas. From producing influential Brazilian artists such as Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa, to working with David Byrne and Jean-Michel Basquiat, this guy has done it all.
Recorded in 1978 at Blank Studios, this sleazy crooner tells the tale of a ‘gay and dandy girl’ who falls in love with a bull… Yes, a bull. It’s hypnotic, strange and bloody funny.
14. COATI MUNDI – QUE PASA – ME NO POP I
Stage name of Kid Creole and The Coconuts’ vibraphone man Andy Hernandez, Coati Mundi exploded onto the scene with this, their 1981 hit ‘Que Pasa -Me No Pop I’. Hernandez’s musical credentials are impeccable (even though he blagged his way into a job producing the strings for Gichy Dan’s Beechwood No.9). He was a member of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Sunshine Band alongside August Darnell, and produced ‘Deputy of Love’ by Don Armando Second Avenue Band (he even recorded a song for the unfairly derided 1987 Madonna film, Who’s That Girl, and also had a bit part in it!). An important part of the ZE story, Hernandez has been somewhat overlooked in recent reappraisals of the label, but this sun-soaked slice of tropical pop should be a good reminder of a unique talent.
13. LIZZY MERCIER DESCLOUX – PRESS COLOUR LP
Bit of a cop out on my behalf by selecting a long player rather than a single, but Liz’s incredible output for ZE deserved more than just a solitary choice. ZE probably wouldn’t have happened if wasn’t for good ol’ Lizzy, y’know. Moving to New York from Paris in 1975, she soon befriended the likes of Patti Smith and Richard Hell. Occupying herself with the lower-East side music and art scene, she recorded minimal No Wave songs under the guise of Rosa Yemen, with guitarist D.J Barnes. The duo released the self-titled EP Rosa Yemen – Live in N.Y.C July 1978 in err… 1978. Press Colour was released a year later and exhibited bold ideas and influences. An amalgamation of sounds that included disco, funk and soundtracks, elevated the record to cult status. Descloux’s detached but charismatic vocals intrigue and delight in equal measure. Disjointed yet danceable, fun yet Teutonic, Press Colour remains one of the finest ZE and No Wave/Post-Punk/Disco records of all time.
12. JAMES WHITE & THE BLACKS – CONTORT YOURSELF (AUGUST DARNELL REMIX)
I couldn’t leave this off the list, could I? Indie disco favourite and general post-punk crowd pleaser, ‘Contort Yourself’ was the result of Michael Zilkha asking awkward sax-playing genius James Chance to record a disco album for a whopping $10,000. Chance refused to record it under his James Chance and the Contortions moniker but agreed to record it under a new one; James White and The Blacks. The result was the 1979 album, Off White. Free-jazz collided with clipped disco and soul rhythms, culminating in an agit-funk album with an added post-modern sheen… or something like that. The August Darnell remix is crisp and concise, making the track extra potent. Extra yelps and sax included.
11. RON ROGERS – YAYA
Not to be confused with Ron Rogers of T’Pau fame, this Ron Rogers was a member of the “ZE Dream Team”. He was a member of The Aural Exciters (more about them later if they made the list. Did they or did they not? Keep reading to find out!!), and also regularly helped Bob Blank at Blank Studios, producing or having a hand in producing, nearly every ZE act. Ron’s solo attempt results in a brilliant piece of lopsided disco. With stomping pianos and glittering bleeps, ‘Yaya’ is mesmerizing fun, with added silliness. Just listen out to a brilliant line about getting frisky and then forgetting about it with whisky! Hilarious!
10. KID CREOLE & THE COCONUTS – I’M A WONDERFUL THING BABY
Revolving around the flamboyant alter-ego of August Darnell, Kid Creole & The Coconuts were ZE’s most successful international act. The group debuted for ZE in 1980 with Off The Coast Of Me, which delivered the minor hit, ‘Maladie D’Amour’. It met with enthusiastic media reaction, but this response wasn’t matched by album sales. A second album Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, an infectious and fun salsa concept cruise, affirmed the group’s status with its beau monde following on both sides of the Atlantic. Darnell’s production was astonishing, managing to create melodic, off the wall pop songs with consummate ease, charm and humour. Let’s not forget that this was the guy who was responsible with one of the greatest disco songs of all time, Machine’s ‘There But For The Grace Of God Go I’, so what better way to celebrate ZE’s truly wonderful superstar than with his ever so modest hit ‘I’m A Wonderful Thing Baby’, taken from the superb Tropical Gangsters album?
9. ALAN VEGA – OUTLAW (AUGUST DARNELL REMIX)
No one can dispute what influence Suicide had on bands such as The Birthday Party, Soft Cell, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and The Sisters of Mercy (what a roll call!). With their thrilling fusion of rockabilly and electronic music played on really cheap equipment, they paved the way for every electronically minded or avant-garde band. Singer Alan Vega and multi-instrumentalist Martin Rev polarized audiences in Max’s Kansas City and other New York Clubs in the early 70s, remaining unheard on vinyl until the advent of new-wave when their arrangement of ‘Rocket ’88′ was included on the1976 Max’s Kansas City compilation. A support slot on a Cars tour brought them to the notice of vocalist Ric Ocasek who produced the album Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev for ZE. The album was recorded at the famous Power Station studios, and armed with the $10,000 given to them by Zilkha to produce a disco bomb they came up with a “psychedelic orchestral version”. Typical. Suicide were an unlikely ZE signing but they seemed to fit perfectly with the label’s chaotic and creative ethos.
‘Outlaw’ is a foot-tapping against-the-jukebox-in-your-winkle pickers-kinda song; warped rock ‘n’ roll, and quite possibly the best thing that Vega has ever done. However, it could technically be deemed not a ZE release, as it featured on Vega’s 1983 Elektra released album, Collision Drive, but for the fact that the August Darnell mix was released in 1982, and was featured on the Mutant Disco: Garage Sale Vol.3 compilation. So it’s valid. Trust me, it is.
8. AURAL EXCITERS – MARATHON RUNNER
They did make it! Well, thank god for that!
Aural Exciters was Bob Blank’s after-hours side-project, and after the sessions had finished, the producer would ask whoever was passing the studio at the time to come and play a part in it. August Darnell and Andy ‘Coati Mundi’ Hernandez, from Kid Creole & the Coconuts, wrote almost all the songs, helped by Ron Rogers & Adriana Kaegi. The best studio musicians were the house band; James Chance played sax, Pat Place from the Contortions played guitar, Taana ‘Heartbeat’ Gardner sang and everybody contributed to this crazy fun project. It really sounds like an avant-garde, Latin flavoured, P-Funk party. The album became a cult hit over the years; a mutant disco album played all over the world!
French disco trio Garcons released ‘French Boys’ in 1979 and it remains a bona-fide ZE dance floor classic to this day. Energetic, bouncy disco pop at it’s finest, the disco edit swirls with Prelude-esque strings and horns in magnificent aplomb. Produced by Michael Zilkha and Michael Esteban, it clearly shows the duo’s admiration and passion for disco, as well as displaying the dizzying effervescence that they tried to inject into every ZE release.
6. WAITRESSES – I KNOW WHAT BOYS LIKE
Probably best known in the UK for the ZE Christmas single, ‘Christmas Wrapping’, the Waitresses’ definitive career moment was probably this 1980 single.
Formed in 1978 in Akron, Ohio, and led by Chris Butler with Patti Donahue on vocals, it was only when they relocated to New York City in the early 80s that they started to achieve moderate success. In 1982 they signed to ZE and re-released ‘I Know What Boys Like’. The song, which depicts Donahue as a tease who delighted in not giving boys what they liked, is a cocky, humorous, new wave classic. This aural equivalent to a cheeky wink makes a curious addition to the ZE back catalogue, and it even mentions Harry Truman. How cool can you get?
5. MATERIAL & NONA HENDRYX – BUSTIN’ OUT
Released in 1981, this bombastic and spirited offering from Bill Laswell’s Material marked the point when the band went from No Wave moodiness to disco funkiness. With former Labelle singer Nona Hendryx on vocal duties, this EP’s only track is life-affirming in its message. With a heady brew of disco, funk and synths, this single cemented Laswell’s reputation as a prolific and daring producer, whose influence would expand in the next two decades.
4. GICHY DAN – COWBOYS & GANGSTERS
When August Darnell couldn’t release a few songs for the Dr. Buzzard’s Original Sunshine Band, he put together an impressive ensemble and released them under the title of Gichy Dan’s Beechwood #9. Appearing in 1981, this single, co-produced by Ron Rogers, is a joyous and charismatic blend of Caribbean-flavoured piano-pop and loopy-melodic disco; it even has a thumping bass line to boot. Madcap and majestic, it’s Darnell at his genius best. It was also featured on the rather good Fabric mix by James Murphy and Pat Mahoney. So it’s stood the test of time. That’s good. I mean, we all want to pass that test, don’t we? Anyway, moving on!
3. GARCONS – RE BOP ELECTRONIC
Second entry from those wacky French Garcons, this 1979 single was produced by none other than John Cale! Wonky, bouncy, slightly-jaded electronics spring exuberantly against slightly-jaded French vocals, and subsequently take the listener on a hypnotic and rhythmic ride downtown. Tres bien!
2. WAS (NOT WAS) – TELL ME THAT I’M DREAMING
Warped P-Funk meets Reaganomics on this brilliant slice of paranoid pop from Detroit’s Was (Not Was). Released in 1981, this was Don Was’ bewildering and exasperated take on the then up and coming “Reagan Revolution”. Distorting an old Ronnie speech with surrealist panache, before combining it with dream-like synths and drums, evokes a delirious daze upon the listener. This is Mutant Disco at its undisputed best.
1. CRISTINA – IS THAT ALL THERE IS?
Afraid so, dear reader, as we reach the summit of our chart. But, what a way to finish! Cristina’s take on the Leiber/Stoller classic is ZE’s very own cult record. Banned by the songwriters due to the disco princess’ liberal lyric changing (I won’t ruin the surprise if you haven’t heard it – it’s a hoot!), it remains a collector’s item to this day. The perfect culmination of bitter wit, jaded disco and punk surrealism, this captures the label zeitgeist like no other ZE release.
Hoped you enjoyed our countdown. ZE truly is a marvellous label and deserves all the plaudits and praise.
We’ll see you in about a fortnight or so for the next Ivan Drago School of Excellence and you really don’t want to miss that one. It’s a good ‘un! If the anticipation is killing you, here’s a little clue; the person in question was once an employee of Zorin Industries… Who could that be? Answer in the comments section!!!! Please!!!! Till next time, keep it Drago!