An Interview with Paul Morley
by The Stone Twins
Paul Morley is a difficult man to categorise. According to his official biography notes, he was a writer for the New Musical Express between 1977 and 1983, and for the defining style-magazines of the 1980s: The Face, Blitz and i-D. In addition, he helped dream up Frankie Goes to Hollywood and also formed the group Art of Noise. He was one of the original presenters of BBC2’s ‘The Late Show’, and remains a respected broadcaster, essayist and cultural commentator. Yet, a trawl through his career, reveals that he also played the role of producer, A&R man, DJ, political radical, soundtrack composer, record company boss, remixer, anglo-surrealist, black comedian, sonic theorist and dada preacher (whatever that is).
Our first encounter with Morley’s talent was as fans of Frankie Goes to Hollywood: two 13 year olds hooked on the band’s heady mix of sexually suggestive lyricism and the smooth-as-silk electro-pop production of Trevor Horn. The tunes were, and still are, fantastic. We were also fascinated by the visually daring artwork, with its bizarre imagery and intriguing sleeve-notes. Years later, we learned that Paul Morley was behind all of this. Not only had he co-founded Frankie’s record label ‘ZTT’, but he co-designed the sleeves and devised the arresting and satirical print ads, the manifestos, the provocative videos, the merchandise including the famous “FRANKIE SAY...” t-shirt (based on Katharine Hamnett’s own slogan T-shirts). Nowadays, the contemporary advertising business is full of talk about ‘360-degree-campaigns’ or ‘integrated’ communications. But, long before the birth of such buzzwords, Paul Morley and ZTT were doing this.
In short, we believe that it’s due time to celebrate the wit, vision and plain weirdness of the whole ZTT marketing machine. We challenged Paul to reveal some particular insights into this pioneering and undervalued work. Paul Morley has been described by the New York Times as “a man who talks too much” - and so his answers reflect this. His fast, machine-gun delivery of words reveal insights with passion and energy. And above all, the style reflects his boundless and uncontained genius. It would be a shame to edit his response.
1) You co-founded ZTT with producer Trevor Horn (and his manager and wife Jill Sinclair) how did that come about? How did a music journalist with the NME team up with the kitsch frontman of Buggles?
I had interviewed Trevor a couple of times, once when he was a Buggle, when they made music that seemed half prog and a bit pop, and which seemed a little novelty off putting to me, and I wasn’t keen, and once when he had started producing, Dollar, ABC and Malcolm McLaren, these electronic distillations of various pop ideas – Dollar were a sort of slightly sinister combination of europap and a soft centred Kraftwerk, and considering how MOR they were, there was an oddness about them that I eventually realised was because they were Trevor Horn records, and he was beginning to explore the recording studio and invent new ways of producing and blending sound and rhythm – Trevor developed these techniques with ABC and had better material to work with, so the ABC music was like a northern/Sheffield pop fan love letter to American soul music filtered through modern studio technology and a perceptive appreciation of pop structure, all very tantalising… and then the McLaren music was further out again, a provisional anticipation of how sampling and music tourism was going to alter the pop landscape, a sort of pop response to Eno and Byrnes my life in the bush of ghosts, and suggested that in his own way Trevor was a kind of anglo surrealist, something I could relate to. The second time we talked we got on, and so when he was offered the chance to start a label, he asked me – for some reason I think to do with the fact that I questioned his motives, and pushed him to explain the point of great pop – to in his words “invent a label”. I loved the thought of inventing a label, and this was a time when pop labels were being invented, post punk labels like factory, new hormones, mute, fast, fetish, postcard, rough trade, 4AD, labels that had artistic sensibility, philosophical personality, and very individual looks – they were all a combination of sound and design, and the music on these labels was completed by how the records looked as objects, and you could tell from a design what the label stood for, and each label was separate from the other. I loved the idea of a record label being itself a kind of work of art, with a very definite set of ideals, based around a manifesto or two, and having written about music for a few years but always being interested in action and ideas and provocation, the invitation seemed perfect. I really did fancy and then fantasise the idea that I as an NME journalist interested in experimental pop music and the post-surreal history of 20th century art from Duchamp to Beuys would start up a very distinctive and somehow articulate and even argumentative record label inspired as much by Warhol’s Factory as Manchester’s Factory which had Trevor Horn as its house producer. In a way as I have said before I was writing a story about such a thing happening and then it sort of did happen, each event a chapter, each release a sentence, each campaign an illustration, each slogan a chapter heading. Other words and concepts and writers and dreamers that seemed important as I started thinking up the label:
The Hidden Persauders
2) Is it true that there was no standard spelling of ‘Zang Tumb Tuum’? How did this work for the Inland Revenue?
Well, it was my dream, to keep things literally fluid and moving, to represent progress and change, that the three words would on each record be spelt differently, as part of some long running far reaching pattern, and also just as a sign that the minds behind the project were constantly alive, never fixed, never settling down, that there was constant life and excitement… as with many of the ideas with the label a hint of a future that was a long way off, the web world, where things, ideally, can be changed and moved constantly, and in a way images and words and sentences and therefore meaning can constantly be shifting in front of your eyes and making new connections. I also planned it that it would also be something that would be abbreviated – just the initials, ZTT, as in CBS, EMI, RAK, RCA, WEA, a sort of surrealist echo, a subversion, of that kind of corporate anonymity – being a critic, a cultural commentator, there was much about the label that was intended as implicit and explicit criticism of the routine and tedious ways major record labels packaged, promoted and sold pop music, as if it was easily controlled product and not strangely captured fantasy. Minor delight – that every cheque would feature a different spelling of zang tuumn tumgn/. It was something that has continued with me to this day – the idea that much marketing, criticism, journalism somehow wants to get rid of mystery, and make everything easily understood and easy to put in a box. I wanted there to always be some sense of mystery, a sense of otherness, an avoidance of the plain and mundane. I’m very pleased to see, in this context, the way Autechre use their song titles, which I like to think makes some of zang tuum tuerms way with words and packaging a kind of ancestor – if zands truem true had continued by now it would be written in ways that would resemble autechre titles, z.xx tre^ ( ). It was an extreme attempt to challenge the way that language can pin things down, fix meaning into place, stop the flow of ideas, even though language itself is actually the start of all meaning – it is really the beginning and end of meaning, and I was determined, insanely, for the label never to settle down, and to project this sense that it was always on the move even down to the fact that it never had the same name from second to second. This idea never as such caught on and it is an interesting metaphor for how difficult it is to explore and display exotic but unsettling ideas in a commercial context that increasingly the pressure was on for me to not be so “whimsical.” The difference between the Z”a/g Tuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu/xx Tumb and the ZTT did point out the difference between the record label as uncompromising, delightful entertainment and the record label as organised business – a relationship between the exuberant and the everyday, representing the general tension in pop etc between art and commerce, that soon caused tension.
3) You describe your role at ZTT as head of the ‘Dream Department’. Can you explain?
I never thought of myself as having a job title nor a department that I was running, and started work at the label not really knowing what was expected of me nor what people working at record labels really did. What I did know, having the very specific standards and expectations of a critic, having a very personal view of pop history and where it was going next, was that I wanted to be in control of all aspects of a records release, from what the music was, what the groups looked like, what the sound was like, what the sleeve consisted of, what the record label looked like, what the promotional material featured, what the magazine adverts said, not knowing this essentially meant I was in fact doing a number of jobs. I didn’t feel at the time I was doing A&R, marketing, sleeve design, art direction, PR, video commissioning, I was just dreaming up the characters and style of a futuristic early 80s record label that intended to combine pop excitement with sophisticated bloody minded attention of detail and a belief that a record label was not as such a business but a kind of promise, and then a glorious reality, and then a spectacular memory. In hindsight, as people do still wonder what it was I did, not clear that in many ways I did all the things that didn’t involve invoices, cash flow, wages etc, I explained that I was a department head – but it was not a managing director, or a head of this, that or the other, or a vice president, I was the head of the dream department… in the sense that if Zsssg Trrrm T*** was a film I was the director, if it was a novel I was the author, if it was a logo I designed it… and it became a dream, in the sense that it didn’t quite make sense, there was very little logic to it all, and it ended up as something of a nightmare.
4) As mentioned above, the buzzword in modern advertising is ‘360-degree campaigns’ - yet you achieved this way back in 1984 with the promotion of FGTH. A campaign that infiltrated news channels, employed provocative videos, pressed endless remixes of the same song, created the ‘must-have’ fashion item (the FRANKIE SAY T-shirts), included the band’s appearance in Brian De Palma’s ‘Body Double’, etc… and then delivered ultimate chart success. How did this come about? Was there a Master-plan?
There was a plan, not necessarily a master plan, but in the end just the reality that for a while I was in control of the look, feel, atmosphere and story this unorthodox assembly of music, text, images, visuals was becoming… because I started out with various plans, ambitions, manifestos, intentions, ideologies, there was a definite structure to the campaign that became more pronounced the more successful things were – to some extent I was just writing ideas and some times those ideas, about the value of pop, about the history of progress, about the relationship between technology and creativity, between songs and audiences, between fantasy and reality, between past, present and future, would just become an article or an essay… here they became a kind of interruption, an actual pop culture event, and for a while I could keep introducing the ideas as if there was some relationship between my very personal ideas and the success of the group. The success of the group was mostly because Trevor Horn was producing the best commercial pop music of the day outside of Quincy Jones, but on the other hand my ideas about packaging, marketing, culture, image, language were for a while the perfect conceptual attachment. What I did drew a chaotic, or sometimes quite organised, level of attention to what the pop music was doing, and was the only kind of record industry hype that could have kept up with where Horn’s music was – somehow the ideas I had borrowed from great artistic exhibitionists and cultural soothsayers were the perfect match for the sound and music. And because the music was so powerful and successful, what I did, which became the marketing, caused a kind of ancillary commotion – a kind of virus, so that where Frankie went that did not need or use the music, there were ideas and teases and provocations coming out of what I did that helped maintain the pressure. One thing would lead to another, and my little ideas, about what a pop t-shirt was – why did it have to have a face on it, couldn’t it be a walking billboard – about the kind of information you put on a sleeve – why did it have to be so faceless and corporate, why couldn’t there be the pop equivalent of the great jazz and pop sleeve notes of the 60s – about a music paper full page ad – why couldn’t a pop group be advertised with as much sophistication as any consumer product, why can’t the language used to sell a group be alive with intelligence – about a video – why can’t it be an invitation to some kind of extraordinary party that usually people can’t get to - it all added up to what appeared to be a highly co-ordinated multi media assault on the senses. There was intentional structure, but never with the idea that it would actually succeed, nor indeed was the eventual structure that close to what was originally anticipated.
5) You could be described as a true-polymath, a Renaissance man - an individual who was pulling the strings of so much of ZTT’s artistic output. Could you briefly explain the extent of your creative contributions for the launch campaign and promotion of Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes’? In particular, the video-script (Reagan and Chernenko wrestle-match), sleeve-notes and print-ads (featuring the nuclear capability of the US and Russia) and the voice-over introductions on the various 12”s.
I started off by designing the sleeves, and as always I wanted there to be different ones for the seven and twelve inch records, the cassettes, and actually there were a few ads for the record in magazines like the Face and iD months before the record was released, because Trevor spent longer on it than we thought – but this actually worked after Relax being number 1 for a few weeks in setting up a level of expectation that made it seem like we were doing it all on purpose, and this level of expectation and indeed the kind of sleeves I was designing, with all the information and imagery about nuclear war, fed into the making of the record… and then I got Trevor to do a cover version of Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ for the record, which became more than a b-side, something that made the whole thing seem like a musical, and then we created various versions of the track for the fashion of the time, extended 12” mixes, and this was Trevor and me was the label at its best as I could supply Trevor with various carefully sourced material about war and fear that he could then feed into the track. The words we used about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack were the actual words that would be read out in the actual event of a nuclear attack – and I got the actual actor who read out for the government those words to read them out for us for the record. I only added one line – this is the last voice you will ever hear, which made all the boring nonsensical advice he was giving about what to do seem particularly chilling. Godley and Creme came in to make the video and the way I briefed them was to show them everything I had done and then say, continue in your way in the spirit of this. They could see the humour as well as the seriousness, and relished the opportunity to have fun with dark ideas. I think to some extent the whole Two Tribes event had a little more detail and meaning attached to the pop music because I was in charge of the sleeves, videos, marketing, promotion etc etc, and I wasn’t the usual person who would be in control of such a campaign. I was in a way an intellectual, or at least someone who read book, interested in the history of art, pop culture, technology, the turbulence of the 20th century etc, a cultural commentator interested in the way cultural events make their presence felt, and all of this made the few weeks Two Tribes was in the air – in 1984, which was an important year for me, because of Orwell – a sign of how rich, seductive and evocative pop music could be and how it is at it’s best when it is both in the charts but also fancying itself as doing something innovative with both sound and image.
6) After a quarter of a century, do you agree that the visually daring, iconic, engaging and sometimes plain weird album artwork of ZTT has been overlooked? Why is it that the graphic output of Factory Records (e.g. Peter Saville) or 4AD is universally acknowledged - and not that of ‘XL ZTT’? Did the commercial success and mainstream phenomenon of FGTH compromise the artistic integrity of the label?
Also I was strangely modest and even though on one hand I was boasting etc about my input I never really clearly credited myself as the auteur, the overseer, of the whole damned thing, I slipped myself in as the ZTT part of XL ZTT, and very quickly the slightly corrupt business side of the whole thing took over, obliterating the more surreal, sensitive, playful, idealistic and indeed weird side of the label - I thought of it as a glamorous, inventive independent label that curated a very unique pop art sensibility, but the business side just wanted a sort of functional production pop music company for Trevor, and it did indeed lack the integrity of the label as a contributor to the radical energy of Mute, Factory or 4AD. Also I think having been an NME critic and still being a writer there was that suspicion there is certainly in Britain of someone doing more than one thing was not a good thing - the dilettante problem, the annoyance that you wanted to do more than one thing, and the fact that I had a certain show off-y arrogance about it all, which was really just part of the show, but it did irritate people, and there was a general relief from both the record industry, who were a little anxious that one slightly crazed individual was showing them up, or last least pointing out how insipid they were at branding and selling themselves, and from the media when it all started to fall apart. Also I think that it was not really indie and not really major caused confusion, it was a sort of hybrid of pampering mainstream values and punishing avant garde impertinence.
7) As two 13 year-olds, we poured over the details of the sleeve artwork of FGTH for hours. Aside from the iconic visuals, we were intrigued by the numerous columns of copy (which become image themselves) and the citations from Nietzsche, Dostoievsky, Kierkegaard and other figures that we can’t pronounce... Who’s idea was this to mix extreme Pop with extreme avant-garde references?
The fact that even now it is not clear that it was obviously me who threw in all those references even to fans is a sign, which I actually quite like, that it all could still have been the ideas of Trevor Horn. But I think at the heart of everything I have done, as writer, broadcaster, documentary maker, theorist, record company fantasist, there has been this delight in mixing up the pop and the avant garde – I think it all goes back to what I was like as a thirteen year old, when I would be buying Bowie and T.Rex, and reading Mailer, Wolfe, Ballard, Pynchon, Joyce, philosophy, and also listening to Robert Wyatt, Miles Davis, Pink Floyd – I perversely found consolation in the avant garde, pleasure in serious, progressive writing, and fabulous madness in pop, and never saw a difference between one and the other… Marc Bolan led me to Dylan and then to Rimbaud and Baudelaire an then back to Patti Smith and Richard Hell, and I just carried on that idea that the imagination was brilliantly represented and reflected by all sorts of minds and attitudes, and that if you liked great pop you would like great imaginative writing/art/cinema/theatre… it seemed very natural therefore to put a reading list on the Frankie album with the idea that even if just one person got turned on by this reading list it would have been worth doing. And if we were going to sell Frankie clothes by mail order then why not point out by naming the socks and underwear after Baudelaire and Hemingway that there were great worlds of the mind to be discovered out there, and pop was just a part of it all.
8) Likewise, other ingenious and mysterious sleeve-notes play with the various formats. For example, on the vinyl version of Frankie’s ‘The Power of Love’, the name of the act and the song-title are omitted in favour of the copy ‘Thou Shall Not Bend’ (‘Thou Shall Not Steal’ is on the back)… Were such audacious acts down to the explosive success of FGTH or was it just you bending the rules, playing around in a Post-Modern media landscape?
Again – mystery, grace, avoidance of the obvious, discretion, resistance of the vulgar and banal, and the idea that nothing was what it seemed, even when it absolutely surely was what it seemed, i.e. a pop record, and that there was many different ways of presenting a song, a single, and indeed of twisting the idea of entertainment and pop music around the imagination. Also, by the time of the Power of Love, at the end of 1984, the group was the biggest pop act in the country, and I didn’t want to them just become ordinary and conventional, but I wanted to continue the ambitious, elusive spirit of the label regardless of its new position… and the spirit of the label was connected very directly to original thinking, and an acceptance that such commitment to original thinking in what was after all a commercial organisation was absurd yet potentially spectacular.
9) Were you involved with the spoken word introduction to one 12” version of Frankie’s ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’ - a quotation by Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘The Birth of the Tragedy’? Set against Trevor Horn’s bombastic production, the text is equally poppy and pretentious. The full quote is “In song and in dance I express myself as a member of a higher community. I have forgotten how to walk and speak. I am on the way toward flying into the air... dancing. My very gestures express enchantment. I feel myself a god. Supernatural sounds emanate from me. I walk about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods I saw walking in my dreams. I am no longer an artist, I have become a work of art.” Was this a boast about Frankie’s invincibility at this time? or was it just another example of mickey-taking? What did the members of FGTH think about all this?
It was a boast, it was a joke, it was a comment on Trevor’s prog side mixed with an acknowledgement of my interest in literary greatness and philosophy, it was deadly serious, it was the idea that the Buggle was now quoting Nietzsche, it was the fact it was out of copyright, it was the fact that the quote used words such as supernatural, enchanted, ecstasy, gods, art, it was the fact that it worked, it sounded alive and challenging, and at the same time ridiculous, it was a hint about how gorgeous and transcendent it might be inside the pleasure dome, it was the ultimate fulfilment of the idea I had when thinking of things where I wouldn’t want the question to be why are you doing that but why not, and also there is so much in pop and entertainment and art that doesn’t do this kind of thing, so, indeed, why not an occasional hint of the preposterously flamboyant.
10) What do you think about the current music industry? Are there any record-labels that are “magical, unpredictable, idealistic, poetic, profound, fluid and intense”? (your words to describe ZTT).
There are labels I like because they have their own identity and continue in difficult times the tradition of the record label that goes back via Factory, New Hormones and Mute to Island, Charisma, Atlantic, Chess… the Beggars stable of XL Recordings, 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade etc… I like Warp very much and Domino… I like Leaf… others that don’t leap to mind right now… they are not as tragi-comic, as vocal, as conceited, as self-conscious as ZTT, perhaps with good practical reason, and there is little sign of the kind of “me” at a record label packing so much pretence, precision and passion inside a marketing campaign, possibly because I proved that such a thing is ultimately futile or at least leads to a certain sort of madness, and certainly alienates many of the acts on the label, which is not exactly recommended. …I suppose the collapse of Factory and Za1 Tu2 Tu3 confirms that a record label with too much personality is not particularly efficient. On the other hand, the collapse as such of the record industry suggests a little more of that kind of personality, as opposed to the bland corporate type that took over in the 90s, and lashed out against the possibilities of new technology, might help a new model of the record label make it into the future.
11) Could you tell us what it was like to work with the young ‘Anton Corbijn’ (pre-U2 and Depeche Mode)? Was this an NME connection? Were you involved in his first video, Propaganda’s ‘Dr Mabuse’?
The very great Anton and I worked together in the NME days from Joy Division on. He was the first person I contacted when it became clear I was going to be able to art direct the label – he took photos of Frankie and Propaganda, and I asked him to do the Propaganda video, and I am very proud I was the first in London to ask him to do a video. He helped give the label something I was very keen on it having, something that was not connected to the American tradition, the cliché of the usual rock imagery, but that was rooted in the Europe of Cocteau, Fassbinder, Bergman, Kafka – and in fact because he was such an artist it gave the whole thing such a lift in terms of the visual impact, and helped me establish the combination of magic, intelligence and pop – and again, I loved the idea of having Anton as part of the zang tuum team, the fact that a Buggle’s label featured such dramatic, original and poetic photography. He basically contributed to the debut Propaganda album ‘A Secret Wish’ the cover image, the photography, and paintings for each track – a beautiful hint of all he would do later for the image and presence of U2 and Depeche Mode. If zxxx txxx tqqq had been alive by the 21st century then his Control film would have been the kind of thing I would have wanted to be doing. I think of it as in the spirit of a zzzztttttttt event. (I wrote a book ‘Words and Music’ that was about, among many other things, Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, and in a way the whole book was the sleeve notes I would have written on the record sleeves if the single had been, which it resembled, a Zxng Txum Txmb release.)
12) Your success in building a compelling and entertaining product story (FGTH), via different media channels, and achieving ultimate commercial success is something that most advertising agencies aspire to. Have you ever been approached to apply your magic to marketing a soft-drink?
I am still waiting for the call. I still feel that the ZTTFGTH moment is a kind of rehearsal for something that could be done, as if sometimes nearly done, with the standard post-modern web world product. The idea of the product having a consciousness, voice, a sensibility of its own, an awareness of history, and an awareness of its own position in history, and an ability to adapt to pulsating cultural circumstances as if it is itself in control of its own dynamic. In a way, if the mobile phone companies do want to enter the pop world as a sort of post-modern post internet record label, I would love to get the call, as Z%%% T//// T.com was a provisional hint of the world to come - I think of those informative, thoughtful sleeves as being like “acoustic” web sites.
13) Do you miss the energy and excitement of the early days of ZTT? A time when you fulfilled the idealistic dream of taking over the world with a Pop song... We’ve seen the past, talked the present, what is the future for Paul Morley?
To some extent Z!T!T? was something that could only be done from inside the naivety, arrogance and self-confidence of relative youth, and to some extent I’ve not totally lost all of that naivety, arrogance and self-confidence, and still feel, with my better essays, documentaries, interviews, profiles, radio programmes, music, books, biogs, etc, etc… that I am still adding to the perfect idea of the za.ng tu.um tu:mB catalogue as an arrangement of thinking, pleasure, communication and looking forward. (A television essay on Brian Eno broadcast on BBC4 in January, an essay on the life and death of Michael Jackson to be published by Faber in Loops in the spring, an essay written for the release of the new Autechre album ‘the Showing Off’… multi-media on line show I do for The Observer are definite additions to the catalogue.) The future, I still seem to be believing, is something that can yet be an astounding punchline to the things I did dream-working as ZangZ TumbT TuumT.