ZE Records: 'It was like a fairytale'

The extraordinary story of the trail-blazing New York label that launched Was (Not Was), Kid Creole and Suicide

What kind of record label do you get when the men who found it are, respectively, the heir to the Mothercare fortune and a boutique owner from Paris? You get ZE – a sleek modern designation taken from the surnames of Michael Zilkha (the Mothercare one) and Michael Esteban (the French one). You get a label that could accommodate a pair of ageing art terrorists purveying extreme synthesised noise, a conglomerate of brainiac electro-funkers featuring an ex-member of the MC5 on guitar, a glamorous young woman singing a breathy paean to a "disco clone", a no-wave punk into free jazz and James Brown, and a group of self-styled "tropical gangsters" influenced as much by Cab Calloway as the Clash.

ZE, founded in New York 30 years ago, is commemorated this month with the ZE 30 compilation, released by Strut on Monday, which features the likes of Was (Not Was), Cristina, James Chance/James White, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. The label was an extraordinary one, born of a period of creative fertility in New York. It caught that moment when white underground musicians began dabbling with dance, when disco itself was being supplanted by hip-hop and electro, when black and white pop were cross-pollinating furiously and the art and music scenes were feeding off and into each other. Mutant Disco, as the title of the label's fabulous 1981 compilation put it, offered the soundtrack to this brave, colourful new era.

Of course, ZE was arty as hell, and it soon became a magnet for all manner of musicians, artists, film-makers and chi-chi cognoscenti, all of which helped make it seem like a Motown-style hit factory for New York's downtown demimonde, with a dash of Andy Warhol's Factory.

"That's 100% correct," says August Darnell, the real name of flamboyant alter ego Kid Creole, a sort of disco Duke Ellington who knew the CBGBs crew as well as the denizens of Studio 54, and who became ZE's in-house producer. "We would all hang out together in the ZE offices above Carnegie Hall. You couldn't get two people more different than Alan Vega [of Suicide] and me, but we would all laugh together and dine together. It was a family affair and I, for one, will never experience its like again.

"It was where Studio 54 met the Mudd club. It should never have happened, but it did – the disco people usually looked down on the punks, but because of my obsession with eclecticism and Michael Zilkha's vision, those two worlds could co-exist."

Darnell believes ZE blazed a trail for a postmodern pick'n'mix approach to music – in his Kid Creole guise he would incorporate elements from every 20th-century era from swing to disco into his songs. "It was a vision of the future where past and present combined," he says. "ZE was all about eclecticism. It was like a fairytale, the kind of thing you'd see in a movie but you would never imagine would do anything but remain in the dreams of its creators."

But ZE – with a little help from distributors Island – was real, and tracks such as Wheel Me Out by Was (Not Was), Contort Yourself by James White & the Blacks, Rebop Electronic by Marie et les Garçons and Maladie D'Amour by Kid Creole and the Coconuts remain classics of their kind. "That music reached everywhere – I get royalty statements from countries you wouldn't believe," says Darnell. "I was treated like a deity in Britain. People in America would say, 'What did you do to get that sort of coverage?' I just said, 'I put out some crazy music and it found a following.'"

Darnell can hear ZE's influence today – every time he hears a playfully deranged mix-up of punk and funk, he smiles. "Zany is the word that springs to mind. Michael [Zilkha] didn't expect it to have that influence. It's astonishing. But then, Berry Gordy probably never dreamed they'd become icons generations later."

Contributor

Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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