The Oxfordshire village of Aston Tirrold has an unusual distinction. Despite its last-recorded population being only 373, it features in two extraordinary heavyweight tomes, the Domesday Book (1086) and The Island Book of Records (2023).
Ironically, given that this remote place owes its prominence in the latter volume to a group called Traffic, the roads leading to the cottage central to their origins in the 1960s petered out into a mud track which forced passengers in the occasional car that ventured there to get out and walk.
Neil Storey, formerly the head of press at Island Records, took on the Herculean task of editing Volume One of The Island Book of Records (and the five – yes, five – to follow), covering the period from 1959 to 1968.
Weirdly, the boy who would become the completist’s completist stumbled upon the cottage while Traffic – newly formed by Steve Winwood after his departure from the Spencer Davis Group – were writing and rehearsing there. It happened in June ’68 when he was undertaking a task for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme on the Berkshire Downs (Aston Tirrold changed counties in 1974).
A purple vehicle sped past. Storey, already a music obsessive, recognised the passengers as Winwood and band-mates Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood and Dave Mason. His companions scoffed, but soon they found the cottage, the car – and a van emblazoned with the Celtic Wheel logo Storey recognised from Traffic’s glorious, sitar-driven debut single Paper Sun.
Nearly six decades later, after working with Winwood, U2, Bob Marley and myriad others at Island, before managing Nigel Kennedy, he is chronicling the history of the remarkable independent label in a format which allows space for evocative storytelling and lavish illustrations.
Each book in the series will be a foot square, ensuring that LP sleeves, which were a major part of Island’s allure for teenaged record-buyers like me, can be reproduced in their actual size. Adding to the sense of a trip down Memory Mudtrack, the 392 pages, stylishly designed by Jayne Gould, are brimming with adverts for gigs and tours from the music press; contemporary and archive interviews split into soundbite size (‘the voices of those who were there’, as Storey puts it); posters, ticket stubs and other memorabilia; plus comprehensive discographies.
Some may suggest it all sounds somewhat niche, especially at the £85 price-tag which the publishers, Manchester University Press, have placed on each volume. But Island, which remained independent until its founder, Chris Blackwell, sold up in 1989, was no ordinary label. In more senses than one it helped to define the 1960s.
In an era when big record companies such as Columbia (who had Cliff Richard & The Shadows) and Parlophone (The Beatles until they launched Apple) were part of huge corporations (in the latter cases, EMI, who eventually started their own rival label, Harvest), Island championed artists and bands who did not necessarily fit a template predicated on chart success.
As Storey demonstrates, the so-called underground music with which its exquisite pale pink labels became synonymous – think Traffic, Free, Jethro Tull, Spooky Tooth, the Fairport Convention of Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, the original Nirvana and John Martyn – was not the first music Island gave these islands.
Blackwell, a British-born Harrovian of Jamaican heritage, decided ‘after one too many rums’, as one family friend notes in a clipping, to record an album by a Bermudian jazz pianist. Lance Hayward (mis-spelled Haywood on the original LP sleeve) was in residence at Jamaica’s Half Moon Hotel, where Blackwell was working as a water-ski instructor. Island were up and running.
With the label owner selling singles out of the boot of his Mini Cooper, Island championed strands of Caribbean music, including calypso, steel bands, jump-up, rocksteady, blue beat and ska, the idiom that delivered Millie Small’s money-spinning UK and worldwide hit, My Boy Lollipop, in 1964. So it was a natural home for reggae during the ’70s and beyond.
Simultaneously, via New York’s Sue label, which Island distributed in Britain, it introduced R&B and soul through artists such as Inez and Charlie Foxx (whose Mockingbird would be covered by James Taylor and Carly Simon) and the funky organist Jimmy McGriff.
Notwithstanding this rich legacy, Storey hails Traffic, ‘and, in particular, Steve Winwood’, as the ‘first cornerstone of Island Records’. The pivotal role of the cottage at Aston Tirrold – into which they moved in Spring 1967, ‘getting it together in the country’ as one music paper characterised it – is told in incredible detail, involving a knight of the realm, a racehorse owner, a gamekeeper, a ghost and the local pub.
We learn that Winwood’s inspiration for Traffic were Motown’s Junior Walker’s All Stars. ‘The original line-up was the same,’ he told the author. ‘Organ, saxophone, guitar and drums.’ The title of their debut LP, Mr Fantasy, was the name of their roadie’s Alsatian. And, surprisingly to me, Capaldi claimed they ‘didn’t care much for all that psychedelic artwork’ (the second album, their best in my opinion with the timeless Mason classic Feelin’ Alright? the stand-out, featured a simple group portrait).
It wasn’t all cool ‘head’ bands, though. An entertaining coda to the first volume is the tale of the bawdy LPs Island released on its aptly named Surprise label to keep the wolf from the door as it backed a succession of non-mainstream acts. These included two best-selling albums of rugby songs by the Jock Strapp Ensemble, another titled The Affair about the Profumo scandal, and the Bob Freedman Orchestra’s Music To Strip By.
Over the decade ahead Island would bring us Nick Drake, Marley and the Wailers, Traffic reunions minus Mason, Richard and Linda Thompson, Ronnie Lane, Roxy Music, the B-52s, the must-have, budget-price samplers which started with You Can All Join In, and much more. Volume Two will deal with 1969-70 and Neil Storey is warning/promising it already stands at 440 pages. Better still, its cover will be pink.
In the meantime, if you love records and music ephemera, retain an interest in Traffic et al and the alternative culture the label came to represent – and have room for 6lb 7oz of nostalgia – I enthusiastically recommend The Island Book of Records.