ZTT: ‘Every record company panicked after Two Tribes’—
a classic feature from the vaults
Thirty years ago this month, the groundbreaking ZTT was born. To mark its anniversary, here’s an NME piece that captures the label in its Frankie-driven pomp, courtesy of Rock’s Backpages—
Tue 1 Jan 2013
The blue spaceship in Basing Street is housed in the studios where, all those pre-punk years ago, Island Records first recorded Bob Marley and the Wailers. Island boss Chris Blackwell’s swinging 60s bachelor pad in the west wing is still there, unchanged except for the blue and white ZTT dots splattered on the walls. But then these are everywhere, even the loos.
Inside this gilded palace of din, the new home of the hits is expanding daily. Yet another studio is being constructed, yet more personnel being drafted in. Not that you’re in a pop factory: Trevor Horn vociferously denies that ZTT is any such thing.
To be sure, things are pretty quiet. There’s no great sense of mobilisation, no target charts on the wall, nothing like Island’s own control centre in St Peter’s Square. Everything is housed here—
The boundaries between music, money and propaganda are neatly observed: Horn is permanently in the studio, while his wife Jill’s business office is perched atop the building like a nest. And Morley, well, Morley has his own elegant lair where he does very little but, of course, does it brilliantly. “Karen and Paul [MacDonald] take the phone calls for me,” he says blithely. “I hate phone calls.”
The marriage of these three highly acute minds seems to have been one of the few inspired things to happen in pop music this decade.
With an opening chapter in “Dirty Old Men With Modern Mannerisms” (Paul’s 1980 article on Trevor’s group Buggles), it’s a brilliant story for all concerned. Horn is the single most extraordinary record producer Britain has ever known, Morley pop’s most extreme and hilarious scribe, Jill the business brain that keeps them both sane. Trevor’s bizarre career has taken him from 10 years of sessions via Yes and Dollar to ABC to Malcolm McLaren and now to this—
Together they’re beautiful, although only occasionally will they bump into each other.
With just a few records they’ve achieved a magnificent amount, and they know it. Frankie’s Relax is the fourth best-selling British single of all time, Two Tribes the 11th. Neither is lording it over anyone, though. The humour is much too vital for anybody to start getting complacent or flashy about things. The figures don’t interest Horn or Morley so much as the commotion Frankie stirred, the excitement of the forbidden that a 25-year-old like myself perhaps can’t understand.
“Every record company panicked after Two Tribes, coz all they’d ever done was stick a record in a bag and stick it out—
Right now the full promotional propaganda is about to go into action for Frankie. While Horn is hidden away in the studio, adding final touches to the double Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, Morley twiddles his thumbs and dreams up ever-more absurd gambits to hype it. At the moment, he’s toying with the notion of giving away free vibrators.
“We’re trying to do what we did with Two Tribes, make it part of public language. Being a, ahem, semiotician, that’s what interests me.”
At three or so o’clock of a Friday afternoon, Paul Rutherford enters bearing a copy of the Bowie album. “Stop everything!” commands Morley. “Barney, take this down: ZTT PLAY BOWIE ALBUM! Call the NME! Call the News of the World! Actually, the News of the World just called us. Apparently they’ve got some 15-year-old who claims to have been fucked by Mark O’Toole.”
Frankie just Came Back From Hollywood, actually, after recreating their video for a Brian De Palma film called, irresistibly enough, Holly Goes To Hollywood. Rutherford is still brimming with the funkiness of it all. As a tribute he plays Erotic City, the American B-side of Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy. ZTT’s girls are all over him.
Morley is a gas. Someone told me he was going mad, drinking, doing cocaine. I’ve never seen anyone so calm, so easy, so relaxed. Paul Morley is NOT WIRED, just full of love. I discover we share an adoration of the late Eric Morecambe.
What happened in the minds of Frankie fans, Paul?
“Probably not a lot. You know I’ve always been a bit pissed off with people like Weller and the Clash and Killing Joke, these people who say there can be some kind of polemic within pop. Well, Two Tribes was trying to prove to people that it’s impossible. I mean, we get to No 1 for nine weeks with an explicit, extravagant anti-war thing with the real government warning on there, and the next week it’s George Michael taking over at No 1, and that’s the end. Nine weeks, and nothing’s happened. I like that in away. Because … what can happen? So what it really comes down to is what Trevor and me are involved in—
What I liked about Frankie was the sense of communality. There’s something refreshingly humble and ordinary about Holly Johnson that means he’s not the focal “point” of the group. He’s so uncamp. Indeed, if truth be told, he’s a good deal less “faggy” than most pop’s hetero pin-ups. Partly this was achieved by Morley’s substitution of T-shirts for pin-ups, nagging words for images.
“What persuaded me was reading Katharine Hamnett saying she wanted the T-shirts ripped off, which reminded me of Mark P saying he wanted Sniffin’ Glue to be ripped off. And I mean, I did a fanzine, so when I read that I thought, great, fanzine T-shirts! I thought it was funny reading [Charles Shaar] Murray and Bowie taking the piss in NME. Continue »
Trevor Horn has been padding around in the same tracksuit for days. Occasionally you’ll see the goggles floating towards you down a corridor and he’ll say “Hi” in his soft, gentle voice. He’s usually en route to the kitchen to get a Bounty. As his wife says: “He’s much more normal than Phil Spector.”
“At first, Jill never forgave Paul for slagging me off that first time in NME, she really had it in for him. And when Relax was banned, quite a few people were suggesting it was somehow Paul’s fault, and we’d be better off without him. However, she never subscribed to that.
“I always thought that the idea of someone who’d been such a father-figure of negative journalism having a go at it himself was great, and would be bound to cause trouble. Plus I began to see that a record company would need someone who could visualise it, who could dream it up, someone who could be the soul of it.”
Trevor’s tried to start a company before. It didn’t work. In fact, he’s tried lots of things before, and they haven’t worked either. He’s even tried the classic path of the hit record producer.
“What normally happens to producers is that they go mad. The rewards for producing big American groups are so enormous, in comparison with producing a new band for a new label—
“Generally you end up living in California, with loads of money, and it’s a whole trip, and I didn’t really fancy that. The Yes album was enough, but even before the Yes album I’d been so cheesed off watching people that I’d worked with, like Dollar, go down the drain through their own stupidity.”
What do you think of Paul’s description of the company as “a pop world within a world”? The temptation is to see it as two geniuses with a galaxy of stars agglomerating around them.
“Wow! It certainly doesn’t feel like that! I mean, I’m quite anxious that we present a wide spectrum of music, rather than being stuck in one area. I don’t like to think it’s all me and Paul, and it isn’t. I also don’t like any Phil Spector comparisons, because I don’t honestly think Phil Spector was that good. He was good a few times, but not in my mind consistently, and not with a great deal of versatility. I mean, I’ll never forgive him for what he did to the Beatles, and I think George Martin was much better than him.
“I’m afraid that pushing ZTT as me and Paul will scare people off and make them think we want to change what they are. You see, I don’t think you can ever set up a pop factory, because if you’re talking about pop factories, you’re talking about Chinn and Chapman and people like that. And sure, they were pretty entertaining records, but I’d like to think that we could use ZTT to make people listen to things they’d never normally listen to. And in any case, there’s not many pop records I hear on the radio that would make me want to start a pop factory. If by establishing a name for ourselves we can cut out the middleman, we might get people to listen to Andrew Poppy. But these are early days yet.”
Does your career strike you as strange when you look back on it?
“Yes, it does. And that’s only my career as a producer! I mean, there must be a hundred bands in England who can say they had me in them at one time or other. My first ever professional engagement was at the Isle of Man Old Tyme Dancing Festival, so I’ve never really seen too many barriers between different sorts of music! Continue »
“I’ve always tried never to do the same thing twice, because I get really bored and I find I lose a lot of freshness. I hear 12-inches now that sound like the Art of Noise with exploding voices and everything, and I haven’t done one of those for ages; I’ve tried to do every1hing but that. Y’know, the Propaganda 12-inch was meant to be a 12-inch that was orchestrated, instead of being a bunch of random mixes of things. Sometimes it gets very tough to think of something new to do, but the best way is just to keep moving. Very much a turning point was deciding to do Malcolm McLaren instead of Spandau Ballet after ABC, where I opted to go for the daft rather than the obvious.”
How long has it taken you to master the range of equipment you use?
“None of that’s really important, actually. All the equipment, the Fairlights and so on, are just another passing fad. I’m even beginning to hate all that stuff, which is why I like Frankie’s version of Born to Run so much.
“If I’m obsessed with one detail, it’s generally a very important one. I always ask myself at the end of a record: ‘Do you feel satisfied? Has it done anything for you?’ And whatever I do comes much more from that—
Has anyone adequately described your sound?
“Well, a producer has got to be the hardest job for anyone to understand, especially a music critic. I mean, you can’t fail to notice that sometimes people do really well with one producer and not so well with another, and it must concern you exactly what a producer does. I’ve never really been able to explain it myself, it’s such an enormous question. I’ve certainly never looked for anyone to describe my sound, I’ve read a couple of good appraisals of things that I’ve done that I thought were quite well put, but that’s all.”
What are you most looking forward to?
“I guess I’m just looking forward to the next thing. We’re building a new studio, and this has been the first year and I’m looking forward to the next year, just hoping that we can keep it together and keep all the records good and … God, this is why I never do any interviews, you always end up saying such boring things!
“But no, we’ve got to keep on our toes. There will always be groups around who are average and who sell records and make money, and when I listen to their records I can see that they’re basically just doing business, like trading, and I want us to kind of kick them up the ass and make sure they do better! They’re got to make better records, they’ve got to think, they’ve got to work at it. I mean, there are no rules to this business, there’s no reason why one shouldn’t sell 40m copies of a single record in this country. The business is as good as people make it.
“We’ve got to make the marketplace a more exciting place for everyone to be.”