Label of love: ZTT
Masterminded by music journalist Paul Morley, ZTT was in its brief golden age as intoxicatingly collectible as any imprint before or since.
It’s great to see Paul Morley experimenting with modern media these days, but the ex-NME journalist was actually finding new ways to show off outside the pages of the music press over a quarter of a century ago. In 1983, he joined forces with producer Trevor Horn and his wife Jill Sinclair to form the record label ZTT.
It was an unlikely partnership. Morley had been sufficiently unimpressed by Horn’s commercial synth-duo Buggles, of novelty 1979 hit Video Killed the Radio Star fame, to allegedly tag him “the dustbin man of pop”. But by 1982 the bespectacled one-time member of prog-rock band Yes had proved himself, and then some, with his fabulous, grandiose productions for ABC and, of all people, manicured, maquillaged mannequins Dollar, so Morley went to interview him for NME in August of that year.
It must have been some encounter, because by the following summer Morley and Horn had hatched a plan for a record label that would take many of the ideas of the best post-punk imprints, give them a pop gloss and spin, and introduce them to the mainstream.
ZTT, as it was called, would be a kind of pop version of Tony Wilson’s Factory (with catalogue numbers for the records, obviously, but also for events such as the day Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax was banned by the BBC). The name stood for Zang Tuum Tumb, taken from a sound poem by an early 20th-century Italian futurist called Marinetti, and that was just a hint of the glorious pretentiousness to come.
From its first release, a 12-inch EP titled Into Battle With the Art of Noise, it was evident that ZTT would be as much about Morley’s sleeve notes, with their bravura wordplay and allusions to obscure philosophy and literature (the Art of Noise, we were informed on the rear of Into Battle…, “have an almost hygienic need for complications”), as it would Horn’s magnificent bombast as he unleashed the full arsenal of the Sarm studios in west London.
ZTT’s golden age was brief, but in terms of sonic invention and commercial achievement they had done enough by 1985 to make their mark. In that two-year period, Art of Noise, comprising of Morley and Horn plus the label’s other in-house producers/arrangers Anne Dudley, Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik, (essentially the team behind ABC’s The Lexicon of Love and Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock album), pioneered a form of avant-garde cut-up sample-funk that saw them top the American dance charts.
And that’s without mentioning Morley’s marketing scams, which expose most contemporary promotional campaigns as witless exercises in stating the obvious. Whether presenting Art of Noise as a series of anonymous characters in masks or the stroke of genius that was the Frankie Say T-shirts, it resembled the sort of subversive, playful, destabilising intelligence that Chris Cunningham brought to video and Chris Morris brought to comedy in the 90s.
Frankie, Art of Noise and Propaganda were ZTT’s “crucial three”, but for many the label’s peak moment of shining, sumptuous perfection was Grace Jones’s album-length extrapolation of the Slave to the Rhythm single. For others, it might have been the neo-classical music of minimalist composer Andrew Poppy or French pop chanteuse Anne Pigalle (although the less said about Das Psych-Oh Rangers, the better). By the late 80s, following legal battles between Frankie frontman Holly Johnson and Horn/Sinclair, Morley had left ZTT and it had become Just Another Label, signing dullards like Seal and Lisa Stansfield. But for a short time, ZTT was as great, as intoxicatingly collectible, as any imprint before or since, exercising the power of the imagination and setting new standards that others could do a lot worse than follow, even today.