A Subtle Discolation Of The Norm
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – OCTOBER 2015
Originally diametrically opposed, the worlds of disco and rock spectacularly collided in the middle of the seventies and while the likes of Roxy Music, David Bowie, Joy Division and The Pop Group were establishing the beginnings of the art rock/post-punk movements in the UK, the beginnings of what was to become ‘mutant disco’ were starting to form in the New York and Paris underground.
Parisian art graduate, Michel Antoine Gaston Esteban is the consistent thread that runs through both city’s musical developments at that crucial time. Concluding a Kerouac-style cross-USA trip in New York, Esteban soon found his way into the right circles, acquainting himself with two key figures in the city’s emerging punk rock scene, singer/songwriter and visual artist Patti Smith, and the prolific Welsh producer, Jon Cale who had carved his name into New York’s illustrious musical history via his seminal studio work with The Velvet Underground.
Having seen the melting pot of ideas on offer at places like the CBGB club, Esteban returned to Paris and set up the magazine Rock News, documenting the latest sonic developments in New York, Paris and London. Having attended many of the early punk gigs in the UK, he worked with their then manager, Malcolm McLaren to bring the Sex Pistols over to Paris in 1976. He had already begun to publish poetry, both from Patti Smith and his then girlfriend Lizzy Mercier Descloux.
However come 1977, publishing no longer satiated Esteban’s appetite so he created Rebel Records, whilst also assisting Cale with his New York based, SPY label. Michel brought some demos from forward thinking, Lyon-based outfit Marie et les Garçons to Cale, who subsequently invited them over to New York to record Re Bop Electronic. As with Afrika Bambaataa’s use of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, this was another instance of a European-New York hybrid at the cusp of a monumental shift in music’s development.
Around this time Cale introduced Esteban to eccentric Oxford-graduate, entrepreneur and fellow journalist, Michael Zilkha. By putting their two last names together, Michel and Michael created ZE in 1978. With Cristina’s sublime subversion of a genre, the Jon Cale produced, Disco Clone at one end and a raw slice of punk rock, The Reasons’ Hard Day At The Office at the other, ZE announced their presence with a bang in their first year.
By 1979 everything was ready to fall into place for the label. The writing force of Ron Rogers appeared on the scene, gifting Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band a #1 US Disco hit with Deputy Of Love, whilst over thirty-five years later inspiring Sweet Tooth T’s second and Super Weird Substance’s seventh release, Cowboys And Gangsters / Deputy Of Love, a mash-up with a lesser known, song of his, recorded by Gichy Dan.
It was Rogers’ south-Bronx childhood friend, Thomas August Darnell Browder who was to have an even more profound effect upon ZE. Already with a #1 US Dance chart hit under his belt with the big band styled disco group, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, August Darnell was able to come into his own at ZE, working as an in-house producer, whilst simultaneously fronting a posse of tropical gangsters, releasing idiosyncratic dancefloor gold under the elite-mocking satirical guise of Kid Creole & The Coconuts. Flirting with every extremity of New York’s sonic melting pot, the tropical gangsters became the label’s flagship act but the roster grew increasingly strong with sax-wielding new wave maniac James Chance/James White and disco (not disco) aficionados, Was (Not Was).
With many of the releases heading straight for the Paradise Garage’s state of the art system via dance culture maestro, Larry Levan, it’s fair to say ZE was the embodiment of New York’s vibrant underbelly at the time. “The sound of New York after dark, when the freaks come out.” After Esteban’s then girlfriend, fashion editor, Anna Wintour introduced him to Chris Blackwell, ZE were signed to Island, gifting a label ready to burst with creativity the world platform it desires.
Reminiscent of the power The Beatles had during their Apple Corp heyday, for the next few years ZE were basically able to call the shots on music’s development at the time whilst exercising their power and taking mainstream audiences on surreal journeys. At the same time as this, ZE acted as a unifying force in New York, drawing together a number of sparse creative pockets; the Lower East Side street art scene, no wave punk rock, the increasingly underground post-disco and boogie and the ready to explode Brooklyn hip hop scene. At the time John Peel described them as “the best independent record label in the world.”
The 1981 Mutant Disco compilation brought together ZE’s kaleidoscopic sound and sent inspiration across the world. Enjoying his tenure at Wigan Pier and Manchester’s Legend at the time, the record struck a chord with a young DJ Greg Wilson, the comp’s subtitle A Subtle Discolation Of The Norm, reverberating in his Super Weird Substance’s label ethos; It’s A Strange World, Let’s Keep It Like That.
ZE enjoyed huge success and influence up until a personal dispute between Michael and Michel resulted in Esteban leaving New York, with the label ending two years later. Michel set the label back up in 2003 and has since reissued remastered versions of ZE classics, opening up the label to a younger audience looking back at a crucial time of cultural development.
In no particular order, here are 10 choice ZE cuts…
ARTWORK ADAPTED BY SOPHIE CLARK