Warriors of pop, 21 years of ZTT
From Frankie Goes To Hollywood to Seal, from Propaganda to 808 State, the UK’s original futurist record label celebrates its 21st anniversary this month. Formed by journalist PAUL MORLEY, producer TREVOR HORN and his wife JILL SINCLAIR, Zang Tuum Tumb blasted onto the scene in 1983 with bravado, manifestos and some of the most intelligent, uniquely identifiable music of the last 30 years.
They succeeded quickly and within their first year released three of the defining albums of the 80s, occupied No.1 and No.2 on the singles chart simultaneously, and put political sloganeering on the chests of millions with one of the decade’s biggest fashions. But there have been equally dramatic down-sides, too. Court cases, TV and radio bans, studio punch-ups, sexual controversy, tabloid shock over bands not playing on their records, singles being pressed only to be melted down over illegal samples… It’s been an eventful 21 years.
“A Radiant Obstacle In The Path Of The Obvious” was how Paul Morley first described Zang Tuum Tumb, and his influence—
Horn and Morley also redefined record collecting—
“ZTT: warriors of pop or theatre of hype?” asked the NME in a front page special in 1984. Sixty-two albums and over 200 singles later, the answer is clearly the former.
“I was a fan of ZTT, not just for the supposed radicalism of it, but for the sheer brilliance of the records they were putting out,” says Thomas Leer of the time he was putting ACT together with Claudia Brücken in 1988. “There wasn’t a record I didn’t like in their whole roster, so obviously I wanted to sign to a label like that.”
At the heart of this radicalism and brilliance was one band: FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. From obscurity to infamy and back again in less than five years, Frankie defined the early era of ZTT and for many, 80s music in general. Bass player Mark O’Toole‘s memories of the ZTT years are—
“The ZTT offices early on were great fun. All the bands would hang out and have a laugh. We used to get up to all sorts of mischief as none of the offices had any locks on them. Dr. Mabuse/Femme Fatale test pressing anyone? Or Art of Noise? We ‘borrowed’ them all. I liked the Propaganda guys/girls they were more fun than their image suggested! There are lots of good memories because I was doing exactly what I had been wishing for since I was a small child…”
FGTH couldn’t have been more different from ANNE PIGALLE, another early signing. For some reason she was likened to Sade by the press at the time but was far more complex and challenging. Pigalle spent most of 1984 waiting by the studio literally—
“I was very young when I signed the ZTT thing and I didn’t really know where things were going to go,” Anne remembers. “For some people, they work for 20 years and do nothing and then they get a deal, but for me it was the other way around and I had a big producer straight away. But of course being young, I was ready to make more compromises. I’ve learned that’s no good, because at the end of the day you don’t really get totally the right thing out there.”
Glamorous and daring, Pigalle’s singles were the kind of leftfield pop that only ZTT was providing a platform for. But her debut album Everything Could Be So Perfect… (ZTT IQ7) failed to capture and press her spirit onto vinyl, something that Horn had achieved so well with Frankie. “I think the album is OK but I think a lot of the production’s not so great,” she says. “I’ve got a stage persona and Trevor was not capable of capturing that.”
ZTT were the only label that gave avant-garde classical music a major platform in the 80s. Motley, Horn and Sinclair’s love of ANDREW POPPY‘s Steve Reich-styled compositions, and (in no small part) the commercial freedom that the Frankie royalties afforded them, lead to his signing and release of material that is set to be anthologised later this year for its 20th anniversary. “It’s true I did learn an enormous amount,” Poppy told Tangents magazine of his time with the label.
“They let me produce my own records—
Poppy’s second album, Aphabed (ZTT IQ9), was released just as the label went into a complete state of flux. In 1988 pop as we knew it was dead—
ZTT were bought into in a major way by WEA, Trevor Horn started producing artists outside of his label for the first time in years, Holly Johnson won his court case and walked out the front door, while Andrew Poppy and Paul Morley quietly exited stage left. ZTT, Version 1.0, was in meltdown.
If this was a film, and ZTT’s story does have more than a few cinematic qualities, then at this moment a shot of a sunset in London would fade to black, then fade to sunrise over Manchester, zooming in on the Haçienda where the crowd are going wild to 808 STATE. “A fusing of deep experimental urge with a ferocious, philosophical desire to dance,” Paul Morley later recalled, “808 State were like the missing link between Cabaret Voltaire and Aphex Twin.”
808 State’s first album, 808:90 (ZTT 2)—
But 808 weren’t ZTT’s first dance signing—
But the groundwork had been laid, as ZTT’s entered phase two, the dance years, which centred around five very individual artists. 808 State were joined by supersonic rapper and fellow Manchester luminary MC Tunes, dark samplists Hoodlum Priest and Peterborough’s Shades Of Rhythm who became synonymous with the rave scene. All scored Top 10 hits, but biggest of all in chart terms was SEAL. Trevor Horn had jumped at signing Seal when he heard Killer, the singer’s collaboration with Adamski, which was a massive No.1 in 1990. They hit it off immediately and Horn threw himself into recording the singer’s debut album which spawned four hit singles, including Crazy (ZANG 8) and Future Love Paradise (ZANG 11). Seal knew that ZTT’s reputation was precarious when Crazy was released. Could the label really survive, post-Morley and post-court case?
“If Crazy hadn’t have been a hit, people wouldn’t have looked at me,” Seal said at the time. “They’d have said ZTT fucked it up again.” By 1992, Seal had put Horn and ZTT back on the map. He scooped three Brit Awards that year, including best album, and Horn won best producer, not for the first time.
The undoubted star of Madchester The Sound of the North—
“808 State had done a track called Pacific State, which was on a little independent album called Quadrastate, and it went really big and it was selling shitloads. So ZTT signed them through a guy called Ron Atkinson, who had a record shop called in Manchester called Music Mania. They re-released Pacific and it got to No.7 in the charts. I was doing demos with 808 State at the time and one of the people down at ZTT heard the The Only Rhyme That Bites and said ‘yeah, let’s put it out’.”Continue »
The single went Top 10, as did its sequel Tunes Splits The Atom (ZANG 6) and Tunes’ album with 808, The North At Its Heights (ZTT 3). But MC Tunes and ZTT parted company when the label decided not to release his second album. It’s easy to forget how embryonic rap was 15 years ago, and Tunes would have arguments with the label about whether it was just a flash in the pan.
“I was saying how rap was going to be around in 10 and 20 years time and that it was the new rock’n’roll, but they just couldn’t see it,” he says. “They thought it was going to go the way of Showaddywaddy or glam rock…”
While MC Tunes was recording The North At Its Heights, ZTT released The Heart of Darkness (ZTT 4) by HOODLUM PRIEST, a two-piece studio outfit of Apollo 400 collaborators who soldered rap onto guitars onto samples of Blade Runner, Robocop and Hellraiser. True to Zang Tuum Tumb’s original spirit and brimming with potential, they vanished soon after. The band blamed ZTT’s reluctance to release any singles from the album and ZTT blamed Warners, who’d bought a large chunk of its business in 1988.
The purchase had put the label back on an even footing after the Frankie court case and Island years, but also limited its ability to develop artists over the long term. Warners were also wary of Hoodlum Priest’s output (which was working above the law in terms of sample clearance) and was on the edge with the imagery and artwork they wanted to use. “We’ve had enough of this corporate fascism,” the band’s manger told me in 1991 as they headed off to find a new deal.
But the Warners deal had its benefits. It was the reason why bleep house trio SHADES OF RHYTHM signed to ZTT in the first place—
By their third ZTT single, Sound Of Eden (ZANG 22), Shades were in the Top 40. Their fourth, Extacy (ZANG 24), made No. 14 and their album—
Various one-off promos and collectable singles floated out the back door of ZTT at this time, financed by the high sales of Seal and the like. Ex-Ant Kevin Mooney released a dub version of Bob Marley’s Waiting In Vain under the guise of LOMAX, (ZANG 9) and ZTT tapped into the highly influential ‘Berlin bears’ scene, pressing up criminally overlooked promos from SUN ELECTRIC and TIME UNLIMITED.
A brace of superb rave singles also appeared, although they were ignored by the charts which were then swamped by the children’s TV-sampling rave. Collectors should seek out Intensify by MANTRA USE LP PIC (ZANG 34), Rise by Scottish duo SOLID STATE LOGIC (ZANG 31) and We Can Do It (ZANG 30) by Praga Khan off-shoot GENERAL MAX, all of which came with the prerequisite stack of remixes and limited editions.
By 1993 ZTT were facing the end of an era. Again. Shades Of Rhythm had been devastated over the Happy Feelings saga and literally played out the end of their contract. 808 State’s follow-up to ex:el (Gorgeous, ZTT 12) was impeccable, bur they’d laboured over it and fallen out of the public eye in the meantime. And Seal and Trevor Horn had come to blows—
So ZTT went back to square one—
“Relax was shocking in a way that when you played it you instantly know what it is, like BANG!
In the clubs, it’s very anthem-like. I wanted to try and keep that. The idea was to get it into a club vein, to get it a bit more up-to-date, bur not to lose any energy.”
ZTT signed new artists in the mid-90s but all began to fall into a familiar path of great potential followed by one great single followed by obscurity. Ex-EZ Posse singer (and—
Only ALL SAINTS broke this trend. Two great singles and stardom, although that came after they left the label. Before Shaznay Lewis and Melanie Blatt teamed up with the Appleton sisters they were known as All Saints 188.8.131.52 and were managed by early drum’n’bass guru Ron Tom Penny. ZTT released two singles—
“We didn’t know what direction we wanted to go in and ZTT didn’t really know what to do with us,” Melanie Blatt remembers, “so it was a pretty short lived thing.”
These one-offs all appeared on Zance, ZTT’s mid-90s sub-label for dance and non-pop releases. Shades of Rhythm had already got their own imprint off the ground when their 1994 single Getting Away (and a host of collectable promos) were released on SOR Recordings via ZTT.
Their manager Ron Atkinson went on to set up the rather less impressive 7 Records imprint, which scatter-gunned house 12"s in the late 90s. Having released some flimsy remixes of Propaganda, 7 transformed into Para.llel Records before going further underground. In 2000 the Vision imprint appeared and lasted for six releases which are well worth seeking out. They include the OMD-sampling Free Again by NOWA NOWA (VSN I), ROMAIN & DANNY‘s Philly Groove (VSN 6), which featured Chicago disco legend Linda Clifford, and Sonique-favourire Mind Made Up by XTRA LARGE (VSN7).
By 1996 the only thing that was selling on ZTT was Seal. But he was more than selling—
Except for Seal, Trevor Horn’s musical involvement in the label had all but vanished. He hadn’t involved himself seriously in anything for some time and instead headed to America to produce the cream of the MOR pop scene. But in 1997 he got back into his own label to let his hair down with a few pet projects in the form of a soundtrack for the Glam Metal Detectives TV show.
This followed 1992’s Robin Williams film Toys, whose soundtrack was—
Following Glam Metal Detectives, Horn went to town on a single for TOM JONES—
Proving all the doubters wrong mid-way, by the late 90s ZTT had enjoyed over 10 years of critical and commercial success. Trevor Horn was back in the studio having fun, bur they were about to venture wildly off-course. The label thar originally placed press adverts stating “We hate all American AOR pensioners”, the one that wanted to—
First up was SHANE MacGOWAN, who started off impressively enough, debuting That Woman’s Got Me Drinking (ZANG 56) on Top Of The Pops with Johnny Depp on guirar. Bur further singles, including Haunted (ZANG 65) with Sinead O’Connor and You’re The One (ZANG 68) with Maire Brennan (ZANG 68) only preached to the converted and played to the faithful.
THE FRAMES DC were another rock signing. They had already established a major following in Ireland and bought with them a debut album which was partly re-recorded with the help of Trevor Horn. The result, Fizcorraldo (ZTT 110) was solid but hardly lit any fires. Far more impressive was their second album, 1999’s Dance The Devil (ZTT 127) with the delicate, haunting Star Star. The band split from ZTT soon after and have since said the break gave them exactly the push they needed to take a left turn with their music and start afresh.
THE MARBLES and Manchester singer songwriter LEE GRIFFITHS were the other rock signings from this period. The former purveyed bog-standard indie, the latter lightweight soul searching although, it has to be said with the odd moving moment. But it wasn’t all bad. Such a gloriously low-tech signing as KIRSTY MacCOLL had come as a bit of shock in 1992 but surprisingly her resulting, wonderful album Titanic Days turned our to be a must-have for anyone with even a passing interest in her music. Relatively ignored on release, it suffered by the weakest track leading as a single. Angel (ZANG 46) followed FGTH’s The Power of Love and LORENZA‘s Jerusalem (ZANG 25) as a ZTT Christmas single but even a front cover painting by Holly Johnson and remixes by Apollo 440 couldn’t get it off the starting blocks.
With these rock bands in place, any attempt to do something that bucked the mainstream now seemed to be absent from ZTT. As Dave Gledhill, now in Sheffield band Slo-Mo, once told Atomic Duster magazine, “I was in a band called Elephant And Rhino… like a cross between Nirvana and Pulp Fiction. It was very dark and nasty, and so extreme that I’m not sure any of the record companies wanted to touch us. I remember we did a showcase for the head of ZTT, and we started with a very dark number called Bank Job. We all came out with suits on, but with stockings over our heads. He walked out pretty much straight away…”
It was this sense of danger and experimentation that Paul Morley tried to re-inject when, as the new millennium approached, he returned to ZTT. The first thing he did was change the label’s name back to Zang Tuum Tumb and then began working on some truly important music again—
Morley was initially involved in an A&R and promotional spree, possibly ZTT’s last real attempt to look like a cohesive, focused label, that saw the release of a promo compilation—
Having provided ‘clues’ on LEE GRIFFITHS‘ First Things First EP (LEEP 1 CD) Morley’s fresh influence was most obvious as ‘co-conspirator’ on ADAMSKI’s Thing (ZTT 114CD) project and the esoteric packaging of 808 STATE‘s last album for the label, Don Solaris (ZTT 105CD). Thing worked well on paper, but not in practice, although Shark Tank‘s remixes of Intravenous Venus (10" promo, ZTT 122TPX) are worth seeking out.
Ambient was always a path that Morley had left untravelled at ZTT. But on his return he urged Trevor Horn to ‘record’ a version of John Cage’s original ambient meisterwerk 4'33" (though Horn was unwilling to split royalties on three minutes of silence!) and released the fantastically chilled Electric Hush (ZTT 99) by HEIGHTS OF ABRAHAM. One of the undiscovered gems of the latter-day ZTT catalogue, it starts off with a swirly electronic seascape and seductively unwinds from there on in. Chill-out in the purest, Eno sense (with vocals reminiscent of the grandmaster, too), it was recorded long before the genre became a byword for compilation overkill.
Before the 90s were over, ZTT’s last full-on attempt to launch a new ‘pure pop’ artist into the charts was LEILANI, a bizarre hybrid of Daphne & Celeste and Betty Boo. She started off with a fairly credible dance offering, as a double clear vinyl 12" promo of remixes from Shark Tank and The Beatmasters (ZTT 124TP1 & ZTT 124TP2) testified. But despite videos and Smash Hits Tour appearances, her single Madness Thing (ZTT 124) only scraped the Top 40 and Do You Want Me? (ZTT 134) and Flying Elvis (ZTT 145) did nothing. Her album was completed and reached promo stage but was never released, the fourth single (This Is Your Life) was scrapped and Leilani vanished as suddenly as she had appeared.
Before they got a deal, SEXUS had built an underground reputation as ‘the new Stooges’ although they actually came across more like an 18-certificate art-house version of the Pet Shop Boys. Strange bedfellows for Leilani, Sexus’ David Savage told me how things got off to a shaky start:
“Our A&R man told us that he saw us as total chart pop, put us on the Smash Hits Roadshow with all the boy bands. But at the same time, we were recording an album full of songs about murdered male prostitutes, people dying in hospitals, the thugs you meet in your local dole queue… He blew a gasket when he heard it.”
But for a while Sexus were massive. “We’d been getting more positive and fulsome press and magazine coverage of any ZTT act since Frankie,” David remembers.
“It was hard to believe it was all really happening… The Official End Of It All got Best New Single in both Melody Maker—
But this momentum slid wildly off course when the single crashed and burned through, according to David Savage, distribution issues. “Then, all of a sudden, Paul Morley returned to the label and became our A&R man,” he says. “Morley wanted us more outrageous, more extreme, more underground, more arty, more us in every way.” But it didn’t work and their last single Edenites was conspicuously anonymous—
By the end of the 90s Morley and Horn were both firmly involved with ZTT again and they dived headlong into their dream project. Some years before Horn had produced It’s Alright for The Pet Shop Boys and set about bringing one line of that song ‘Che Guvara and Debussy to a disco beat’—
The Seduction of Claude Debussy (ZTT 130)—
The finished results managed to recapture the spirit of ZTT almost 20 years after they started and this new incarnation of The Art Of Noise finally tore off the masks and anonymous imagery that Morley had played with in the mid-80s. As he explained to me at the time:
“This time around it’s us four, but The Art Of Noise exists and carries on in all sorts of ways, both in previous time and in future time, as a completely different thing to what people expect. And four people’s a perfect number for a pop group. It always works. Surreal Monkees, that’s what we are and always will be. And I accept my role as Peter Tork and always have done.”
Of course with this original team in place, more than a few collectable versions and limited editions were created. The first was a promo-only 12" of Dreaming In Colour remixes (ZTT 113) by WAY OUT WEST. But to Morley it was merely part of creating the finished album.
“We were treating it, as we often do, as a thing that might have existed,” he once told me, “and somehow the company took that a little bit literally and then it existed for a little while on vinyl and even got into a sleeve and looked quite real. But there was never any intention of releasing it in any form commercially. Maybe in the end we can value that in hindsight by saying it was part of the ‘scam’…”
Another by-product of these sessions was DAVID’S DAUGHTERS—
By 2002 tATu represented all that was right and wrong with ZTT. Trevor Horn produced and co-wrote their two key singles—
So who is on ZTT at the moment? Having spent a long time developing heavy metal band Raging Speedhorn, they are now seriously curating their back catalogue before embarking on the next 20 years. Alongside SACD remasters, Outside World (ZTT 180) included a DVD of rare PROPAGANDA and the recent ACT box set (ZTT 185) will be followed by more anthologies in the coming months.
There’s plenty more in the vaults too, to say nothing of the material from the cutting-room floor from the label’s mid-80s heyday. “Morley once told me about a big-budget Frankie movie that had been planned,” says Sexus’s David Savage, “featuring the group in a post-apocalyptic landscape full of monsters and with some big-name actors. Continue »
Alongside this heritage, Trevor Horn—
“When you don’t have a hit record or when you’re in the public eye for a while or what have you—