The Caribbean Getaway Where the '80s Were Recorded

Desmond Dekker & Robert Palmer (1978). Photo by: Echoes / Redferns

Chris Blackwell had a simple, humble mission when he founded Island Records in 1959: to help bring the music of his home country, Jamaica, to a larger audience abroad. In the label's early years, Island was a vehicle to deliver ska and rocksteady records to English listeners, scoring early hits with songs like Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop" and eventually making an international star out of Bob Marley in the 1970s.

By the late '70s, Island had grown into a small empire. Still independent, Island had built an impressive, now-legendary pool of talent that included the likes of King Crimson, Spencer Davis Group, Free, Nick Drake, Roxy Music, and Cat Stevens, in addition to reggae artists such as Marley, Toots and the Maytals, and Junior Murvin. Blackwell had also opened two London studios—including Basing Street Studios, a converted church—but as he neared the end of his second decade at Island's helm, he sought to do the opposite of his first mission: He wanted to bring music back to the Caribbean.

In 1977, he saw that vision come to fruition with the construction of Compass Point Studios in Nassau, The Bahamas—christened, Lee "Scratch" Perry once apocryphally observed, with the blood of a freshly killed chicken spat from Blackwell's own mouth (a Jamaican custom, as Blackwell supposedly explained). The studio itself offered no sight so horrific. One part state-of-the-art studio to one part tropical getaway, relaxation and comfort was a built-in feature of the studio's environment. Outside of the intensity of a city environment, it allowed artists to escape everyday stresses and chaos while they were recording. Later on, Blackwell even opened up an adjacent property as a proper resort, reinforcing the idea of Compass Point as a getaway.

A 1979 MCI 2" 24-track machine, similar to Compass Point's. Photo by Greenville University.

"The idea was, get all of these folks together, put them in a very relaxed tropical setting, with a brand-new, state-of-the-art studio but with nothing else around it," says journalist David Katz in an interview with Public Radio International's The World. "In some ways it's the polar opposite of what one encounters in Kingston, Jamaica. … As soon as you step out of the studio, it's total chaos. You know, endless distractions and quite a volatile atmosphere. Well Compass Point was exactly the opposite. You step outside the studio, there's nothing but tranquillity."

Technologically, Compass Point's setup adhered to the state-of-the-art studio standards of the late '70s and early '80s, outfitted with an MCI 2-inch 24-track tape machine and mixing desk—the preferred console for producers like Brian Eno who had made use of the facilities. Yet aside from its equipment, according to a 2008 article in The Independent, there was "nothing remarkable about the studio itself. What gave it something special was the paradise-like setting, its 'restful' location and the relaxed atmosphere."

Blackwell himself had a relaxed approach to production when he brought artists into the studio. As The B-52s' Kate Pierson observes in the documentary, Keep On Running: 50 Years of Island Records, during the recording of the Athens, Georgia band's debut album, Blackwell put his feet up on the mixing desk, "lit up a fat one," and let the band do its work.

Much like Muscle Shoals had its Rhythm Section and Stax had Booker T & the M.G.'s, Compass Point had its own house band of ringers that brought their own unique blend of funk and staccato reggae rhythm to its recordings: The Compass Point All Stars. Anchored by drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, whose credits can be found on hundreds of records, the All Stars also included at various points French keyboardist Wally Badarou, guitarists Barry Reynolds and Mikey Chung, percussionist Uziah "Sticky" Thompson, and later Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club.

The first two-thirds of Jones' famed Compass Point Trilogy: Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing.

An early microcosm of these combined elements, and the All Stars' chemistry in particular, came during the recording of two iconic Grace Jones albums, 1980's Warm Leatherette and 1981's Nightclubbing, which were birthed from the same sessions. Simultaneously inspired by Black Uhuru and David Bowie alike, the musicians found their muse in a glamorous, deeply funky approach to reggae and pop. It took some time to fully get situated; at first, Badarou—having arrived at the studio facilities weeks earlier than the rest of the band—wasn't entirely impressed with the material at first listen.

It didn't take long for the musicians to get locked into the music. They put an oversized picture of Jones up on the studio wall to have her be present even when she wasn't in the room, as a kind of paper muse. Once they got going they moved swiftly and without any need for belaboring each detail. If they didn't nail a song by the third take, they'd simply move on. But they also came prepared—armed with both chops and ideas.

Desmond Dekker & Robert Palmer (1978) at the Compass Point Studios console. Photo by: Echoes / Redferns.

"We loved dance music, we'd listen to everything, because we were always working and wanting the reggae we did to move a bit forward, so anything that we could drag to it, we would bring that—as ideas, or as musicians coming to play with us," Dunbar said in an interview with FACT Magazine.

The chemistry and prowess of the Compass Point All-Stars, combined with the interaction of artists outside the islands, is what resulted in the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle magic that made it onto the records made there.

"Assemble a core of session players that could rival the all-time great session players of studios like Stax or Motown, and get them together and let them jam and see what came out of it," Katz said. "And then bring down other artists that had no connection to the Caribbean, and have them interact with these musicians."

In addition to the raw talent attached to Compass Point, its in-house engineer Alex Sadkin earned a reputation for his meticulous techniques. He would spend as long as four solid hours setting up Sly Dunbar's drums in order to capture every frequency.

Compass Point's earned reputation as a kind of Muscle Shoals of the Caribbean led to it becoming one of the most in-demand studios of the 1980s. In addition to being the place where Grace Jones' iconic albums were captured on tape, it served as the venue for AC/DC's Back In Black, Talking Heads' Remain in Light, Iron Maiden's Piece of Mind, Black Uhuru's Red, and Gregory Isaacs' Night Nurse.

Eventually, demand had risen so high that the overbooked studio had necessitated construction of a Studio B in order to house the number of projects slated for recording.

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Sadkin died in a motorcycle accident in 1987, sadly, and that same year Blackwell grew increasingly distracted by Island Records' financial follies, including its ill-fated attempt at expanding into film, Island Pictures. The label's cashflow problems led to its inability to pay royalties it owed to U2 in the sum of $5 million due to the success of The Joshua Tree (which, it should be noted, were eventually paid back with interest). By 1989 he eventually sold Island Records to Polygram for the equivalent of $300 million. As this was happening, cocaine trafficking had risen throughout the Caribbean, and New Providence—the island where Compass Point was located—became a major hub. The rise in crime in the area ultimately made it a less desirable destination.

Blackwell was able to keep Compass Point open and running for another two decades, however, thanks to his hiring of Terry and Sherrie Manning, who had previously worked at Stax Records and Ardent Studios, as well as EMI's Abbey Road. And for a time, Compass Point enjoyed a second, prolific wave, becoming the venue for a new series of recordings by the likes of Björk, Lenny Kravitz, and Shakira. However, by the late '00s, it once again ran into problems with personal safety and "an atmosphere that we knew to be threatening," as a post on the studio's official website read. The idyllic atmosphere Blackwell sought to create with his studio escape essentially nullified, in 2010, Compass Point closed permanently.

Compass Point may have eventually reached its end after 30 years, but where only a shuttered structure remains, a legacy in innovation and musical freedom lives on. It's in the polyrhythmic grooves of Talking Heads' Remain in Light, in the global funk of Lizzy Mercier Descloux's Funky Nassau, and in the genre-bending riddims of Grace Jones' Nightclubbing.

"There was a plan for all those albums we recorded there [in Compass Point]," Dunbar told FACT. "Which was Chris Blackwell's plan."

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