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Designed to Kill: 8 Essentials of ZE Records

James Chance

By the end of the ’70s, disco was turning rockier (think Prince, or Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”) new wave was turning dancier (think the B-52’s, or Ian Dury’s “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”) and both genres were realizing they had a lot in common. Meanwhile, they also were finding a kinship with no-wave noise, avant-garde jazz, salsa, calypso, boogie-woogie bathhouse bugles, and this new rap music stuff sneaking downtown from the Bronx. Nowhere were these genres feeling each other out as deeply as in New York, where by 1979 clubs like Hurrah were supporting a growing trend that biz types called “dance-oriented rock” (or “DOR”), at least for a few months.

Nobody facilitated this melting pot as creatively as British-born retail heir Michael Zilkha and French-born retailer and graphic artist Michel Esteban, two entrepreneurs with publishing-heavy resumes who jointly formed ZE Records in 1978. Through the early ’80s, an astoundingly fertile period for club-pop hybrids across the board, there was no more consistently forward-looking, entertaining, and just plain eccentric concern connecting these dots —even if the label was a bit too open to having different acts record the same song, or to campily reviving Tin Pan Alley standards, or to letting labelheads’ significant others make albums.

Like all great independent imprints, ZE took chances on oddballs nobody else would. And on the dance floor, at least, it had hits. These have been compiled in countless sequences over the decades, and their influence still echoes through contemporary music—from M.I.A. to Buraka Som Sistema, LCD Soundsystem, Electric Six, Ke$ha, Scissor Sisters, K-Pop, and New Orleans sissy bounce. But for the root source, you certainly could do worse than beginning with the eight albums below.

Don Armando’s 2nd Ave Rhumba Band
Don Armando’s 2nd Ave Rhumba Band (ZE, 1979)

Think of this as the missing link between Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (the lush, ’40s-swing/disco ensemble who hit big interpreting Paul Whiteman and Eartha Kitt and namedropping future Sony exec Tommy Mottola in “Whispering/Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon,” off their essential 1976 debut album) and Kid Creole and the Coconuts (see below). Zilkha and lead Coconut August Darnell are credited as “executive producers,” but the real movers and shakers were apparently Savannah Band syncopation visionary Don Armando Bonilla himself (“guiding light, macho vocals, and percussion”), zoot-suited and vibes-playing Nuyorican producer “Sugar-Coated” Andy Hernandez, a.k.a. Coati Mundi, and around-the-way-girl lead voice Fonda Rae. The music is ridiculously infectious Latin disco, with tongue spectacularly in cheek. Themes range from romantic advice (“Compliment Your Leading Lady,” “How to Handle a Woman”) to western movies (the No. 1 dance hit “Deputy of Love” and “I’m an Indian Too,” a politically incorrect 1946 Irving Berlin showstopper that Ethel Merman had sung in Annie Get Your Gun, and which clearly inspired Fonda’s feathers and headdress on the LP cover). Plus, “Going To A Showdown” is to this crew what “(There’s Gonna Be) A Showdown” was to the New York Dolls.

James White and the Blacks
Off White (ZE, 1979)

One way for a no-waver to sell out: Alto-sax sadist James Chance — whose mission in the Contortions was to be Albert Ayler, James Brown, and Iggy Stooge at the same time — goes disco. The music isn’t nearly as wound-tight claustrophobic as the Contortions’ tracks on 1978’s No New York compilation, and the consensus that Buy The Contortions (also 1979, also ZE) is a stronger album is probably correct as well; it’s certainly a more rock album. But from the bondage-porn panting in “Stained Sheets” to yet another Irving Berlin/Ethel Merman cover (“Tropical Heat Wave,” sultry if not as high-temperature as its name) to August Darnell’s definitive six-minute uptown humanization of “Contort Yourself” (its drumbeat appropriated decades later by the Rapture), Off White is easily Chance’s most ZE-sounding album. And with guitars credited to Jody Harris, Robert Quine, Lydia Lunch, and future Bush Tetra Pat Place, it’s no-wave enough.

Lydia Lunch
Queen of Siam (ZE, 1980)

Another way for a no-waver to sell out. Funny — these days, when it comes to ZE’s breathily detached and decadent cabaret-hipster ice-princesses, Michael Zilhka’s then-girlfriend Cristina and Michel Esteban’s then-girlfriend Lizzy Mercier Descloux seem to get namechecked fairly often (maybe it has something to do with trip-hop or electroclash, which ZE both presaged). But you hardly ever hear anybody mention Lydia Lunch’s way-more-propulsive beatnik pogo “Atomic Bongos,” which was actually something of a Bow Wow Wow-ish novelty standby on new-wave radio shows at the time. It’s easily the best thing here, and the rest of her big-band, goth-kitsch, torch-dirge shtick understandably irritated people who’d taken her guitar mauling in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks seriously. But Lunch and Robert Quine both get solo time anyway, and from pitch-challenged covers of Billie Holiday’s suicidal “Gloomy Sunday” and Atlanta Rhythm Section-via-Classics IV’s “Spooky” to orchestral arrangements from Billy Ver Planck of Flintstones theme fame, there’s actually a sense of play in this performance art.

Kid Creole & the Coconuts
Off the Coast of Me (ZE, 1980)

There are those who believe that, in terms of sheer lyrical sophistication and out-and-out wordsmithery, nobody else in the ’80s matched August Darnell, a mixed-race former high school English teacher born in Montreal who’d written his Master’s thesis on Richard Wright and Harlem Renaissance authors. Some say he didn’t hit full stride until he started conceiving his albums as full-blown conceptual musical-theater revues (starting with 1981’s island-hopping Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places); one might also argue that a retrospective like the Berlin label Strut’s wide-ranging (and very ZE-heavy) 2008 Going Places: The August Darnell Years is the easiest place to familiarize yourself with the dapper fellow. But the pan-tropical new wave Off the Coast of Me — Kid Creole’s first album, even though Darnell kept his face off the cover for contractual reasons — still sounds fresh start-to-finish three decades later. Mister Softee” is an even better erectile dysfunction song than Elastica’s “Stutter,” if not Freda Payne’s “Band Of Gold”; “Darrio” is probably the only song ever about shunning Studio 54 to dance to the B-52s and James White at punk-rock clubs. And if you’re bothered by however many layers of irony it took to cover World War II German love-lied “Lili Marlene,” the addition on the album’s 2003 Rainman Records reissue of “There But for the Grace of God Go I”—a hit for Darnell in its 1979 Machine version, and an even better song about suburban white flight than Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out”—makes up for it.

Was (Not Was)
Was (Not Was) (ZE/Island, 1981)

When Was (Not Was) are remembered at all nowadays, it’s usually for the big-shot producer-of-big-names that Don Was later turned into, or for their Top 10 late-’80s MTV goof “Walk The Dinosaur.” Once in a while people mention their second album, 1983’s Born to Laugh at Tornadoes, which featured Ozzy Osbourne, Mel Torme, Mitch Ryder, and Doug Fieger of the Knack. But for some reason, their debut seems to have fallen through the cracks, a shame given that it’s one of the strangest and most supersonic dystopian free-jazz metal-guitar art-funk albums in human history. Clearly inspired by P-Funk, from whom they recruited Larry Fratangelo to bang percussion and Bride Of Funkenstein Sheila Horne to sing backup, the Wases (a piano-and-saxing jazz critic and bass/Moog/clavinet/vibing jazz sideman who met each other growing up in suburban Detroit in the ’60s) put together one powerful potpourri of a lineup: Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, MC5er Wayne Kramer on guitar, Harry Bowens from the O’Jays on vocals, soul singer Sweet Pea Atkinson (whose 1982 album Don’t Walk Away is an even more lost ZE masterpiece), and on and on. They sampled Reagan in “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” years before almost anybody knew what sampling was, and the incredible film-noir night-creature rap reportage of “Out Come the Freaks” gave them a legit local midnight-funk hit in Detroit. For most everywhere else, though, it was just too weird. And repackagings over the decades (notably ZE’s own Out Come the Freaks and Microwerks’ Pick Of The Litter 1980-2010) haven’t changed that much.

The Waitresses
I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts EP (ZE/Polydor, 1982)

Upper Industrial Midwesterners like Was (Not Was) and Milwaukee-born James Chance (hey, who says ZE was Gotham-centric?), this Akron bunch put out their landmark “I Know What Boys Like”/”No Guilt” single on ZE in 1981: The A-side you know; the B-side you should, especially if you think Liz Phair’s “Divorce Song” invented the idea of clever young women talk-singing super-cynical breakup songs in flat heartland accents. Those both wound up on Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful, but the most budget-conscious place to hear Patty Donahue and crew is still probably this mini-album, which has (1) “Christmas Rapping,” an eventually perennial radio reliable that’s obviously the best holiday song ever about modern-day urban-boho single people who forget cranberries; (2) “Square Pegs,” the theme for CBS’s cult-beloved one-season proto-Freaks and Geeks high-school show of the same name (lyric sheet: “We’re really busy so make up your own words”); and (3) “I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts,” so prog-twisted that Chris Butler had done it first in Tin Huey; (4) Two other good songs. Most if not all of these feature saxophones, something else ZE clearly liked.

Various Artists
Seize the Beat: Dance ZE Dance (ZE/Island, 1981)

ZE’s catalog has been repackaged, digitally and physically, in more shapes and sizes, than any reasonable person could keep track of — several increasingly unwieldy volumes of a compilation called Mutant Disco, eventually combined into the four-disc Mutant Disco Box and updated by 21st Century DJs into 20 Mutant Disco Uptown Edits (itself only the tip of the ZE edit iceberg); a couple volumes of ZEtrospective; a 14-track set known as ZE 30: ZE Records 1979-2009 or ZE Records Story 1979-2009 depending on your time zone; probably more. You can’t go wrong with most of them. But for sheer replayability into eternity, none of those has matched this original, deceptively modest, American sampler of six maxi-singles. Briefly: the best and most expansive track of ex-Labelle tough gal Nona Hendryx’s entire long solo career (“Bustin’ Out” with harmolodic New York jazz-punks Material making a funk move that’d soon reel in a young Whitney Houston); Was (Not Was)’s weirdest and probably best track ever (“Wheel Me Out,” pure Motor City beat-science that would go on to inspire Detroit techno originators); the best and most hilarious track ever from Coati Mundi (“Que Pasa/Me No Pop I,” one of the first Spanglish rap records). Plus, Don Armando’s hit “Deputy Of Love,” fellow August Darnell sideman Gichy Dan’s likewise Western-themed “Cowboys And Gangsters,” and Cristina’s cutesie-poo come-on cover of the Beatles’ “Drive My Car.”

Various Artists
A Christmas Record (ZE/Island, 1981)

And finally, unless your prison nametag reads “Phil Spector,” you almost definitely haven’t put together a more useful compilation to end year after year with than this one. The unifying theme is Christmas in the big city, so there’s the Waitresses, of course; Cristina’s “Things Fall Apart,” co-written by the Was bros, hangs some even sleazier trust-fund-slumming tinsel on a lousy 12 months (she trims the cactus with the earrings they’ve yet to pawn, then her boyfriend licks her like a candy cane). Was (Not Was)’s doubly bummed-out “Christmastime in the Motor City” documents Yuletide poverty and unemployment; tracks from both Alan Vega and his duo Suicide (whose ZE-released, Ric Ocasek-produced 1980 second album just missed this survey) communicate a different sort of seasonal depression. And not everything’s downbeat — the celebratory Material/Nona Hendryx collaboration “It’s A Holiday” may well be the blueprint for then-NYC DOR hopeful Madonna’s “Holiday”; August Darnell’s sublime “Christmas on Riverside Drive” might make even New York-haters salivate for the subway. And while later reissues shuffle selections and add inferior substitutes, the original set list did the job best. Finale: sometime critic Davitt Sigerson’s throat-lumpingly unironic and (for ZE) uncharacteristically singer-songwriterly “It’s a Big Country,” a Christmas card from a New York couple to an aunt in Oklahoma, an uncle in Beverly Hills, sheep-raising cousins in Montana, and a growing niece down in Virginia. If you’re not careful, you will cry.