No Wave singer Cristina, AKA Cristina Monet-Palaci, was a Franco-American Harvard drop-out, lingerie model and writer for the Village Voice when she recorded her legendarily cynical version of the Peggy Lee standard “Is That All There Is?” in 1980. The witty, sardonic remake was produced by August Darnell (better known in his guise as Kid Creole) and released on ZE Records, the label run by her boyfriend/later husband Michael Zilkha.
On “Is That All There Is?” Cristina emotes like a world-weary debutante on a coke jag. One reviewer wrote “If Jackie Kennedy had made a record, it would sound like this.” True, but a slightly more decadent Jackie O… this is not middling boredom on display, this is ennui deluxe!
Celebrated songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were so furious when the original lyrics of their 1969 Grammy-winner: “Then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in the world. We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes. We were so very much in love” became “And then I met the most wonderful boy in Manhattan. We used to walk by the river, and he beat me black and blue and I loved it. I could kill for that guy,” that they had an injunction against the recording that lasted for 24 years.
This 12” record used to be so difficult to find that when you could locate it, it would sell for $100 bucks. It was practically a requirement for serious record collectors to have a copy. Despite the relative scarcity of the vinyl, the song became a cult hit in New York clubs and was a signature tune played frequently during Rodney Bingenheimer’s early 80s “Rodney on the Roq” radio shows. To this day, it is apparently still the record holder of the top requested song title on BBC Radio 1.
In 1979, a year before Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” and three years before Missing Persons released “Words,” the gorgeous teenaged Belgian singer Lio racked up a multi-million-selling hit record with the infectious “New Wave” pop smash, “Banana Split.”
Give it one listen and you’ll probably think it sucks, but give it two spins and it’ll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day, if not for the rest of your life. I’ve always had a soft spot for this record in the same way that I still love Betty Boo...
The iconic 80s star was no one-hit wonder and she has a super cool musical pedigree: Soon after “Banana Split” (which came out when she was just 17) Lio—just Lio, like Cher—went on to work with Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks and later worked with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. She was signed in America to famed “mutant disco” underground label, ZE Records (Lio was married to Michel Esteban, one of the labels founders, who also produced Lizzy Mercier Descloux).
Lio has acted in films directed by the likes of Catherine Breillat, Diane Kurys, Chantal Akerman and Claude Lelouch. She has been a judge on the French American Idol-type show Nouvelle Star since 2008 and in 2011, she became a judge/coach on The Voice Belgique.
When “Banana Split” was remixed in the 90s, famed French photographers Pierre et Gilles did the cover image.
Legendary post-punk performer James Chance (aka James White, aka James Black, best known for the classic “Contort Yourself”) features on a fetching new tie print by Vivienne Westwood.
If you are a fan of late 70s No-Wave skronk AND snazzy ties, then this is may be of interest (here’s looking at you Richard!) However, to purchase this tie you’re going to have to hunt for it, as it is not featured on the Westwood website’s “Men’s Accessories: Ties” page.
And while we are on the subject, here’s a clip of the re-formed Contortions playing live in Poland in 2008:
Are there any readers of Dangerous Minds in France? If you do live there, then I would recommend getting your hands on the next edition of the well known rock magazine Les Inrockuptibles, which comes with a free cover mount CD featuring the best of the renowned post-punk and mutant disco label ZE Records.
ZE has been a longtime favourite label of mine, since I first started getting deeper into collecting disco and realised not all of the genre was dripping cheese with a boner for a chart placing. The releases were smart, weird, original, sleazy, camp, funny and funky as hell. The records came in a distinctive sleeve featuring the label’s iconic logo and a graphic featuring a New York City taxi cab. You didn’t even have to listen to tell that they were dripping in the atmosphere of that place and that time - hell, it may not even have been real, it may just have been the disco/punk New York of my imagination, but it sure did sound great.
Founded in New York in 1979 by British entrepreneur Michael Zilkha and the French publisher Michel Esteban (hence the name), ZE specialised in releasing both “Mutant Disco” for the uptown set, and more downtown experimental sound of “No Wave”, both co-existing side by side in a way that kinda made perfect sense. What united them was an attitude born of not giving a fuck. ZE acts spanned the gamut, from the noise-fests of Mars to the ground-breaking Lydia Lunch, from the proto electro of Suicide to the more rock output of Alan Vega, from the twisted dance punk of James White & Blacks to the sassy boy-baiting of The Waitresses, from the new wave Euro pop of Lio and Garcons to the veteran Velvet drone-meister John Cale, from the geeky freak funk of Was (Not Was) to the dancefloor experiments of Bill Laswell and Material.
My favourite ZE associated act is one August Darnell, better known by his stage name of Kid Creole. He worked with many different acts and under a variety of different names, including Cristina, Coati Mundi, Gichy Dan, Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band and Aural Exciters, not to mention being the driving force behind two other seminal disco acts, Machine and Dr Buzzard’s Original Savanah Band. He brought to the music a heavy influence of golden era jazz and Cab Calloway. And it wasn’t just a a sly wink to the past - beneath his sometimes quite strange arrangements lurked classic Broadway songwriting chops and killer one liners (check “Darrio” below). I feel August Darnell has been overlooked in the history of popular music, and I hope to cover him more in depth in the future.
We have already covered a couple of ZE Records acts in the past few months here on Dangerous Minds, namely Cristina and Lizzy Mercier Descloux. it seems only right now to introduce the label to people who may not have heard of it, and/or to remind others who have of just how good it is. As I have mentioned before, it is worth signing up to the label’s mailing list to keep abreast of what they are up to (the next release is a remastered re-issue of John Cale’s Sabotage/Live LP recorded at CBGB’s in 1979 and featuring the Animal Justice EP). To sign up, visit the label’s official website. The entire ZE catalog (with info on how to obtain what is available) is on Discogs. This is the Les Inrockuptibles cover mount CD streamed from the ZE Records Soundcloud page - a pretty good summation of the label’s vast and influential output:
Lizzy Mercier Descloux was a multi-talented French recording artist who made waves in the New York underground in the 1980s. Perhaps best known for her early 80s no wave-meets-funk output, she found more commercial success later in the decade with a world music inspired sound. The girlfriend and sometime business partner of the entrepreneur Michel Esteban, she was signed to his uber-hip ZE Records, also home to Was (Not Was), Kid Creole & The Coconuts, James White, Suicide and many more. She released three albums and a bunch of singles for the label, before moving on to CBS in 1984.
Unfortunately Lizzy Mercier Descloux passed away in 2004. Since then the re-established ZE Records have been doing a cracking job at re-releasing her older material. Her sound was distinctive - sometimes abrasive, sometimes energetic and always exciting. Now ZE are giving away a twelve track compilation of the best of Descloux’s work called From Heaven With Love, available for the next seven days only from the official ZE website. The only catch is that you sign up to the record label’s mailing list, but really you should consider doing that anyway as their catalog and roster of acts is immense. This is a taster of what is on the comp:
Lizzy Mercier Descloux - “Wawa”
Lizzy Mercier Descloux - “Hard-Boiled Babe” (what a beat!!)
Lizzy Mercier Descloux - “Slipped Disc”
To download the 12 track From Heaven With Love compilation, go here.