Inside Compass Point, one of the most magical studios in pop music
Lizzy Mercier Descloux had one of those late 1970s careers that would make a modern-day musical hipster shriek with envy. At 18, fresh from Paris, she hung out in the Bowery in New York, collaborated with luminaries like Patti Smith, recorded for the great post-punk ZE label and stole Richard Hell’s heart.
In 1980, Descloux came to the attention of Chris Blackwell, the founder of one of the more influential imprints in popular music history. Through his Island Records label, Blackwell brought reggae to turntables in North America and Europe, then went on to discover the likes of U2 and Talking Heads. He enjoyed a run of success sans pareil; if he had any defining qualities, it was a restless musical curiosity and an ear for idiosyncratic talent. Unlike any musical impresario before or after him, Blackwell put together a furiously eclectic roster: everything from Bob Marley to the Cranberries, Burning Spear to Roxy Music.
But there are smaller stories in the Blackwell oeuvre, one of which is tidily summed up by Funky Nassau: The Compass Point Story 1980-1986, a new compilation put out by Strut Records. The release includes Descloux’s Sun Is Shining, in which she quotes Bob Marley ("Sun is shining," she sings, "weather is sweet, yeah") in a stilted Euro deadpan. Funky Nassau fills in the musical details of a little-known adventure the Island boss undertook in the Bahamas, with a studio he called Compass Point. The studio is precisely where Descloux recorded her little-known but well-regarded album Mambo Nassau (1980).
The weather was certainly sweet in Nassau, located as it is on the northern end of the Bahamian archipelago on the island of New Providence. One wonders whether Blackwell chose New Providence for its name — the studio he built seemed like a divine summation of his life’s work. The icy, reggae-tinged no wave of Descloux’s efforts aptly describes Compass Point’s three-way conversation between disco, reggae and no wave, the predominant dance floor influences of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
The history of popular music is, among other things, a history of magical buildings. There is Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins cut early records. There is the Beatles’ Abbey Road, as well as Motown’s Studio A and dub pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry’s Black Ark studio. Blackwell had long wanted just such a studio, where a distinctive sound could emerge based on the perfect combination of session players, engineers, equipment and atmosphere, all guided by a label boss’s omniscient hand.
The talent that Blackwell assembled at Compass Point comprised a high priesthood of reggae: Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Peter Tosh’s great rhythm section; keyboardist Wally Badarau, who played with Hugh Masekela and had a huge record with M’s Pop Muzik; and reggae veterans Mickey Chung and Uziah "Stickey" Thompson. Alex Sadkin, who had worked with Neil Young and Bob Marley, was the co-producer and engineer; his vastly talented understudy, the Jamaican Steven Stanley, cut some wonderful records in Studio B.
Compass Point had the advantage of being in what was essentially a musician’s gulag with banana trees; there was little to do but make music. In the early years, the Rolling Stones cut some of the tracks on Tattoo You here, followed by Dire Straits and their zillion-selling Communique. But Jamaican model and musician Grace Jones was responsible for the studio’s first real project. She was a Compass Point touchstone, a distinctive individual influenced by – but by no means bound to – both reggae and no wave. Her image graced the studio’s walls.
Compass Point had the advantage of being in what was essentially a musician’s gulag with banana trees; there was little to do but make music.
Her single My Jamaican Guy is, appropriately, the opening salvo on the Funky Nassau compilation. In her definitive 12’’ version of the song, all of the studio’s strengths are immediately apparent. There’s that rhythm section: sharp, detailed, a succession of small, great ideas that remind one of current super-producers (like the Neptunes’ work with hip-hop outfit Clipse or Timbaland’s early collaborations). The Compass Point band, known as the Compass Point All Stars, wasn’t properly minimalist but exhibited an economy – and an appreciation for musical space – that is rare, especially where time and money aren’t a problem. (As they certainly weren’t at Compass Point.)
Blackwell understood the fundamentals of a great dance-floor filler and expected as much from his house studio. His demand for a crisp, futuristic sonic palette broke the songs up into a succession of elements. It was all there: funk, dub, disco, no wave – perfect for the club, the fashion runway, the warehouse party. The Tom Tom Club – initially a side project for disaffected Talking Heads members drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth – turned into the Compass Point All Stars’ finest moment as a unit: Genius of Love. Represented on Funky Nassau by its 12’’ version, the song is a brilliant, self-referential dance track. It was the ethos of the New York underground, if not precisely its soundtrack.
Talking Heads proper follow with Born Under Punches, recorded under great strain after Brian Eno fled both David Byrne and Nassau, thus abandoning his production duties. The song still manages to sound avant-garde 27 years after it was recorded – indeed, Compass Point had a mandate of experimentation. But it’s no match for the ineffably odd Spasticus Autisticus, which arose out of collaborations between Ian Dury, Chaz Jankel and Steven Stanley. Although experimental and garish, even this track managed to be a club filler and a Top-40 hit in the United States. (It was partially banned in Britain.)
Compilations like Funky Nassau are revelatory because they place old releases in context, alongside their musical peers. But one of the principal pleasures of Funky Nassau is also a drawback: the difficulty in securing the rights for some of the bigger tracks has led to the inclusion of B-sides, white labels and dubs. Gwen Guthrie’s classic song Padlock, for example, is present in a remix by disco godfather Larry Levan. Not only does the average punter have nowhere else to hear these rarities, but their absence also undercuts the record’s mission: to show the consistent, world-beating quality of the music streaming from this island redoubt.
Nonetheless, the point is properly made: Compass Point was a special, special place and forms part of a vital musical legacy. Along with Funky Nassau’s formidable liner notes (a hallmark of Strut compilations), the listener needs no further primer on this heady scene. The weather was sweet, yeah — but so was the music.
Funky Nassau: The Compass Point Story 1980-1986 is in stores now.
Richard Poplak is a writer based in Toronto.
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