"It has a legacy without parallel": Inside the new book charting the history of Island Records

Author and Island Records former head of press Neil Storey (during the time Rob Partridge was director of publicity) has promised his new book tracing the illustrious history of Island Records is as “definitive as can be”.

Hitting shelves this month, the first volume of the Island Book Of Records documents every album released on the label between 1959 and the end of 1968, with insight coming from a host of names including the legendary Chris Blackwell

Very much an essential for vinyl lovers – not least because the hardback book is vinyl-sized – each Island release is fully illustrated to include labels, booklets, die-cut covers and foreign editions as well as "scheduled but ultimately unreleased LPs". This is on top of a 20-plus page illustrated discography of 45s and EPs, subsidiary label LP releases, gig adverts, record release flyers, magazine covers, concert tickets, Island’s LP adverts and much more. 

The book marks the first volume in a project that will seek to “represent the entire analogue compendium of Island’s records from 1959 to when Chris Blackwell sold the label in 1989”, with Volume 2 (1969–1970) planned for publication in 2024.

Here, Music Week catches up with Neil Storey to find out more about his epic – and we mean epic – deep-dive into Island Records’ vaults

Why did you feel this book – or rather set of books – needed to be written? 
“The IBOR books needed to be written because, quite simply, a musical generation is dying right before our eyes. Not just the major-generals but the foot-soldiers, too. There is a direct consequence of this not being done – because if the recollections of those who were there, on the front line at the time, aren't collected then future generations will end up relying on... second hand information at best.” 

In the book’s end notes, you say of Island Records’ recorded history that “no accurate database exists, it never has”. Just how many hours went into pulling it all together? 
“The internet is a very wonderful thing and people have compiled lists which are readily available, but nothing is 100% accurate. Now, whether this is too train-spotter-ish or not I don't know – I've been an Island collector since my teens, I was lucky enough to work there in various guises over many years, nowadays my passport says I'm an archivist while I could also be referred to as a completist. I began creating my own Island albums database decades ago which was primarily constructed to help me keep track of albums I did, or didn't, have. Then I started adding in other data – sleeve designers, photographers, and notably release dates. It constantly astounds me that release date X will be published as fact when that 'fact' hasn't been fact-checked. For example, it's not hard to find artist's official sites with wrong release dates appended. Even better are the ones who give date Y without thinking to check which day of the week it refers to. You may be surprised by how many LPs are thought to have been released on a Sunday. Island release dates were on a Friday and that’s how it was, almost without exception, up until the distribution deal with EMI occurred (Spring 1977).
"The 45s database was begun from scratch far more recently. Rob Bell – whose first job was in the stores at Island in the early ’60s and who nowadays hangs his hat on the West Coast of the US – and I built this up over a number of months. The vastness of Rob's knowledge in this area is not to be trivialised. Originally, there wasn't a plan to include 45s or EPs but as the book began to be properly laid out, it became obvious we must – hence many, many hours spent compiling from our own archives and cross referencing against other listings we were able to source from since neither of us own a complete collection of 45s. Those hours spent will never be wasted, this is as definitive as it can be. We have kept artist's names exactly as they are on 45 labels. Same goes for all artists – we've not simplified it in any way. Nevertheless, some things will never be known – certain release dates were impossible to determine. So, if someone knows more exact information, then we'd be happy to amend in any future edition.”   


If you look at the full database of Island Records releases, you'll discover artists that
broke all the established rules

Neil Storey


So, how confident are you that you’ve not missed any records out? 
“I don't believe anything has been omitted although someone, somewhere will doubtless spring up saying X or Y has been missed, it being the nature of this particular type of beast. That said, from time to time one has to make a judgement call – I've heard of a particularly obscure compilation which was, allegedly, pressed up for DJs only in, approximately, 1963. Allegedly it carries an ILP catalogue number. I could find no evidence of it other than rumour so took the decision to leave it to one side. As to the 45s, we've cross-checked and treble-cross-checked almost to the point of having the type swirl in front of one's eyes. Again, I claim no infallibility but am confident this listing is as comprehensive as it can be.”  

What was the biggest surprise that you uncovered while writing this book? 
“Actually, it was surprises. Plural. In no particular order would be the cover of Keith And Enid Sing – the very first UK album. Surprisingly it does not feature Keith or even Enid on the cover. Island didn't have a photo of either so Esther Anderson [actress and Chris Blackwell's girlfriend of the time] stepped up as Enid while Winston Stona – who you'd maybe know better as the co-founder of Busha Browne's Jamaican seasonings, chutneys and curry sauces as well from his roles in The Harder They Come and Cool Runnings – was Keith. Another was that no-one I spoke to could remember the genesis of the John Foster Sings’ LP. John Foster's real name is Paolo Occhipinti and I tried to track him down in Italy but, unhappily, he proved to be elusive. Another would be Island's first gold disc. It was not awarded for a Traffic album or a Cat Stevens record as one might expect, but rather for the Why Was He Born So Beautiful And Other Rugby Songs LP. And it was the session for this album that led Chris Blackwell to be banned from the original Olympic Studios prior to them moving to Barnes. As he tells it, at the end of the evening, the studio was ankle deep in beer. David Betteridge riding shotgun for Duke Reid on the way to the bank with a fully loaded shotgun was another I didn't see coming either.”  

What, in your mind, are the essential records from Island during the Volume 1 period?
“Quite a few, so far as I'm concerned. The Sue Story – all three volumes are absolutely indispensable and, more than many, demonstrate the quality of Guy Stevens' ears. Either of the Jimmy McGriff or the Billy Preston records; The Soul Sisters; Club Ska '67 (both volumes) are as good today as they first sounded over 50 years ago, and the same goes for Club Rock Steady '68. The Best Of The Spencer Davis Group and The Best Of Millie – both key acts whose 45s were, of course, licensed to Fontana; Traffic's Mr Fantasy (the real start of the 'pink label' era and Traffic 2. Then there would also be British Blue Eyed Soul – a very much overlooked compilation; both Simon Simopath and All of Us by Nirvana, because Pentecost Hotel and Rainbow Chaser still sound majestic. Jethro Tull's This Was brought Chrysalis to the label, while Fairport's What We Did on our Holidays saw the beginning of Joe Boyd's relationship with Island. The Skatalites and Heptones LPs on Studio One are two gems from the alliance with that label.”   

Looking back now, what do you think is Island's legacy as a label? 
“Legacy? Quite simply I'd cite Island as being the most important label across a period of thirty years. For me it is the sheer breadth of music represented on the label, not just a bit of reggae, a little ska and rock-steady, a few rock bands, a couple of folk groups, some singer-songwriters etc. If one looks down the full database of releases you'll discover truly groundbreaking artists recording music that broke all the established rules. It demonstrates a legacy of which there is no parallel, that no other label in the universe possesses. No other label had Chris Blackwell at the helm – so that's one answer. CB was cited at the 2009 Music Week Awards as 'the most influential figure in the last fifty years of the British music industry', an accolade which says it all really. His was an ethic of giving the artists signed space and time to create. It was all for the long term. Examples: the oft told tale of him being informed he'd never see his money or an album being recorded when advancing The Wailers cash to make a new record. They returned with their first Island LP, Catch A Fire. There was the faith shown in Robert Palmer as it took five solo albums before he started seeing mainstream success on both sides of the Atlantic. U2 and the suggestion they should be dropped after October... heads literally rolled after that. And the faith shown in Marianne Faithfull, an artist everyone had long since given up on and no one wanted to sign. The list is near enough endless.” 

Finally, the big question – what is your own personal favourite ever Island release?
“That's really unfair to the point of being a bit below the belt; an impossible question. OK, if I was forced to take just one album to my desert island it would be Nick Drake's Bryter Layter. John Wood has been to stay here in France a couple of times and we've talked about Nick a lot – I grew up in the same village as him in Warwickshire, Tanworth-in-Arden. John said Bryter Layter was the only album he'd recorded on which he'd not change a single thing. I remember buying it on its (heavily delayed) release date of March 5, 1971, playing it immediately when I got home and being spellbound. Bryter Layter has been musically treasured ever since.” 

Photo: Jayne Gould

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