Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is that all there is to a disco?: ZE records, and Mutant Disco

The romance between Cristina Monet and Michael Zilkha was certainly a fruitful one. The circumstances under which the pair met play out like an excerpt from an Ivy League undergrad's self absorbed first novel. She was a London Central School of Drama graduate and a Harvard drop out, and he was an Oxford graduate. They were both junior theater reporters at the Village Voice. Of all things, Cristina fell in love with Michael over Balzac.

"He was writing this article on Harold Robbins at the time, and I recall he said to me ' Harold Robbins is the eighth grade Balzac of an eighth grade age.' I'd been in love with Balzac since I was 10 years old, and here was a man who loved his work as much as me." (From Helen Fitgerald's article Funny Girl, published in Melody Maker in 1984)

Whether or not Zilkha's comment means a thing to us, it sure meant a lot to Cristina. A great love soon blossomed between these precocious young things

It also probably helped that both came from well educated, privileged backgrounds. He was the heir to the Mothercare fortune (a popular UK shop for maternity attire), and she was the daughter of a well respected Freudian psycho-analyst and a playwright.

Zilkha, who had inherited the entrepreneur bug in addition to millions of dollars was just beginning to found ZE records with Michel Esteban. Esteban was a french man who ran a Paris publication called Rock News with his lover Lizzy Mercier Descloux, and also owned a punk attire store called Harry Cover. John Cale introduced the two men at a party, and they bonded over their love for New York bands such as Television and The Talking Heads. They were both also fans of Disco music and funk. ZE (Zilkha, Esteban) was formed to release records by artists whose music touched on both of these genres, and more.

Cristina Monet had no real intentions of becoming a singer, but when a song called "Disco Clone" came to her attention, she was inspired to make a record of it. It was written by a mutual friend of her and Zilkha whom she knew from Harvard. She thought the lyrics were laughably awful, and suggested that it be recorded as a Brechtian satire, which is exactly what happened.

Christina, in full costume

Lyrical content-wise, the song is about the decadent sexuality associated with disco music, and how on the dance floor everyone turns into an anonymous sex object. It became a cult hit, and was the first recording ever released under the ZE records name.

This first single encompassed the sound that is most commonly associated with ZE records. It satirizes the pop genre of disco, and the comodification associated with it, from within. Like any good post-modern parody, it critiques, but also celebrates what it is critiquing.

After an instrumental introduction that sounds akin to many of the Giorgio Moroder and Bobby Orlando productions of the era, there is a sinister male spoken word part voiced by none other than actor Kevin Kline. We are then thwarted into Cristina's breathy-voiced Marilyn Monroe-esque refrain:

I'm a disco clone Just a disco clone And if you like the way I shake it And you think you want to make it There's 50 just like me, oh-oh Now nobody has to spend the night alone.

Kline's spoken word section later goes on to say:

I don't know the name of the girl I brought home
But the face is familiar
She's a disco clone.

The song became enough of a cult dance hit, that Cristina became the first ZE records star, and soon cut a debut album, produced by none other than August Darnell, who soon became Kid Creole, another ZE star. Together, they made made songs that mostly consisted of disco beats drenched in irony, and other up tempo pop songs full of bitter wit, that could not necessarily be classified as disco.

Most famously, Cristina recorded this updated version of the Peggy Lee sung Leiber/Stoller song, "Is That All There Is?" Try to ignore the smiley face and just listen to the song.

Although the composers granted Zilkha permission to have Cristina record a version of the song beforehand, when they heard the results, they were livid and forced ZE to withdraw the single.

The objection mostly stemmed from the lyrical changes Cristina made. For one thing, the following verse was of offense:

And then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in Manhattan
We'd take long walks by the river and he'd beat me black and blue and I loved it.

They also objected the the substitution of "luudes" (referring to Qualuudes) for "booze" at one point in the song.

While these additions along with a few others made this rendition of the song much more sinister than the already cynical original, Cristina thought of herself as updating its themes for the 1980s mentality. The unimpressed tone of the original version she felt spoke to the mindset of the 1980s jet set.

This obsession with the 1980s mindset would be a dominant theme in Cristina's work along with the work of her ZE counterparts such as Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Mars, and the Waitresses to name a few.

"The whole album is about coping with sex and money and power plays in the 1980's," she says. "In the sixties people survived on political idealism. In the seventies there was this obsession with 'lifestyle' - women's lib or a new religion, sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, or a macrobiotic diet. Something was always THE ANSWER. In the eighties people are into power and money and narcissism because they don't know what else to believe in. I don't think the album has a cynical take on this. I guess I just believe that whatever's going on, trying to exist is a pretty trying business. Life knocks you down, all you can do is get back up, brush yourself off, cry a little, laugh a little and keep going."

These comments were made regarding her second album, Sleep it Off. This album saw Cristina expanding on the Brechtian archetype of a debaucherous society girl that she began to develop with her earlier recordings.


Like Cristina, August Darnell's Kid Creole was a Brechtian archetype in his own right.

Darnell formed the group in 1980, which was around the same time that hip hop was blossoming in the South Bronx, which was the area of New York that Darnell grew up in.

Although Kid Creole and the Coconuts could not really be called hip-hop, some of the themes of the songs reflect the issues dealt with in early, and even current rap music.

The notion of boasting is a central theme is this song

And in this one

As you can see from Darnell's performance method, Kid Creole is a highly stylized caricature. He is the over-sexed, cocky, stylish mulatto, who capitalizes on his role as a sexual fetish object for bored white women.

Although August Darnell was married to a white woman (one of the Coconuts), his Kid Creole persona, like Cristina's recording persona, was a massive hyperbole. These fabricated personas reflected the mirror that society provided, rather than some essential interior essence.

On the ILM (I love music) thread focused on Kid Creole that I discussed in an earlier blog post, someone used the term meta-narrative to discuss Kid Creole (the context was the defense of a musical he was starring in that many posters thought to be low quality). Although the use of this term was mocked by other posters, it is one that is very relevant to ZE artists, particularly Kid Creole and Cristina.

Both were pretty much a musical embodiment of post-modern theory, in that their songs and whole package image served as a reciprocal wink to a an informed, knowing audience.


I chose to study this topic mostly because of my love of the recording artists who released records on ZE. I realize it is an odd point in the post to say this, but I felt the need to give an extensive background on the topic before going into some personal gush fest about my love for the music. I will say, however, that after I first heard Cristina's "Is That All There Is?" I listened to it on repeat for days.

It should be noted that in 2004, ZE, which had been shut down for many years, re-launched and re-issued many albums put out by the original ZE records, including much of the work produced by the artists discussed in this blog post. Before then, this music was very hard to find, and was the sort of fare that vinyl hunters dreamed about. With the re-issues, a new generation of ZE fans was produced. I was one of these fans.

When something is re-issued, particularly with music, there is a lot of speculation as to why it needed to be re-issued at that particular time. One has to wonder why they are so sure there will be an audience for the reissue.

In the early 2000s, some key cultural phenomenons occured that could indicate why this music was suddenly relevant again. For one thing, the short lived, yet amusing Dance Punk genre became popular. This genre was associated with the DFA label and artists on such as The Rapture, !!!, and Out Hud. The idea of Dance Punk is evocative of ZE records, because the attitude of ZE records dance artists could be considered more in line with the punk attitude than the disco attitude, and because many avant garde rock groups, such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks also released on ZE. Also, many of the Dance Punk artists were directly influenced by ZE artists.

Also around this time, Robert Lanham published the satirical Hipster handbook. Although the nature of the subject matter led to many of the references in the book aging poorly, the book made the word hipster more of a household name than it ever had been. Although the book reads like it is making fun of hipsters, it had the unintended effect of putting hipsterdom in the mainstream. Soon it seemed like everyone was a hipster.

The DFA label, at least around 2002-2004, was probably the record label most often associated with hipsterdom. As a result, people wanted to know what the artists making music on the label were influenced by. James Murphy, who was one of DFA's founders, and a well known DJ, who loved vintage disco, was a fan of some of the ZE artists.

Looking at message boards from around the era of ZE's mutant disco comp re-issue (2004), it is clear that there is a good deal of confusion as to what the music sounds like.

One poster, who seemed to think Mutant Disco was a combination of disco and rock wrote this:

hey all you rock heads who like rock band disco check it theres also this rock band who plays funk and raps theyre called the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS so yall can just stop listening to funk and rap too, thank you soul jazz!!

-- trife (simon_tr), Saturday, 21 June 2003 19:38 (4 years ago) Link

The rest of the thread consists of a lot of name calling, and circular discussions about "mainstream" vs "indie" music. Check it out if you like

In any event, whether these artists knew it or not at the time, their output is still the kind of material that can spur a heated debate, even if it is a trivial and immature one.

I think its important to remember, however, that the artists on ZE records, and many of the consumers who bought ZE products were just as likely to dance to Cristina as they were to dance to Donna Summer.

-samantha cornwell

works cited

Friday, November 9, 2007

Kid Creole and the Coconuts thread

A link to this thread is posted in the previous entry. I'll summarize the highlights:

It seems as though people in this thread are mostly concerned with finding Kid Creole's music. The first posting is from someone who is seeking guidance on what kid creole albums he should buy:
"I've had "Stool Pigeon" in my head for going on three days now (intermittantly interrupted by that new Madonna and the theme from "Green Acres"). Is there a superior comp? An essential LP? And what song was it Michael Jackson sang on?-- James Blount (James Blount), Friday, 4 October 2002 01:02 (5 years ago)"

it seems like this user has a small amount of exposure to the music, but is not an expert. There is a quest for more material present in this post and others.

The next poster says that they've never owned an album by the band, but thinks they are awesome because of what he (or she) saw of them in the film Downtown 81. Other posters refer to downloading their music and finding it in bargain bins. Many express a desire for a good compilation of their work.

Other posters comment on how they have been sampled by De La Soul and the Avalanches.

At one point, a link is posted to a site for the show Oh What a NIght, which stars Kid Creole.

Many users seem depressed about the show, since it is a disco Juke Box musical. This leads to a debate as to whether or not the show is different "meta-contentwise" from what Kid Creole has always been doing.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Posting a link for reference

this is just a reference point for now. i'll post on this soon

Field notes/ Lizzy Mercier Descloux

The following are observations regarding a ilx thread from around the time of Lizzy's death.

here is a link to the thread for those who are curious

Around the time of Lizzy Mercier Descloux's death, there were a whole slew of reissues on ZE records of her discography. AMG also released a greatest hits compilation around this time.

Many of the comments center around debates over which Lizzy album is best. Many people seem to like Mambo Nassau a lot, and another album called Fire.

There also seems to be a group of commenters who listened to her albums and tried to like them, but couldn't. These people don't give too much background in terms of which other artists they listen to, or whether they are fans of other ZE records artists, but this is interesting to me. What makes someone try to like something? Does it have to do with criticism, or cultural cache? how do the two interrelate? Many of the commenters who expressed dislike of what they had heard so far from her were still eager to hear more.

At one point someone cited her as having recorded a version of the song "La Poupee qui fait non", which was pointed out by a later poster as having been by Cristina. This mistake is humorous, but understandable since both Lizzy and Cristina were dance music performers with french heritage to some degree, who were married to (seperate) ZE founders, and put out albums on ZE.

One poster refers to her as his favorite of the "white-people-who-make-records-about-Africa" genre, which points to questions of cultural appropriation in her music.

Another user says he "Def. could see this being more known in the current NYC electroclash/nowave/disco/fashionbullshit climate,". This is a pretty cynical analysis, but it raises the question of the relevance of this music to a more contemporary music culture. This is an issues that could be looked at regarding nearly all artists who released records on ZE.

It seems as though there is still an active number of Lizzy MD fans out there. information about a memorial service for her was posted

High Society

It seems as though many of the artists connected to ZE records felt ( or still feel) a connection to high society. This seperates many of them from their punk rock peers who were making music at the same time. While the idea of an in-crowd is something that is a big part of punk, as well as many other subcultures, the ZE records network seems to be made up of people who have a strong connection to the bourgeois intellectual class.

The following is the text from the wedding announcement of Cristina (Monet-Palaci) and Michael Zilkha:


Mrs. Robert E. Simon Jr. of New York and Glen Head, L.I. and Dr. Jacques Palaci of Paris have announced engagement of their daughter, Cristina Monet-Palaci, to Michael Zilkha, son of hte Lady Lever of London and Manchester, England, and Selim K. Zilkha of New York.

The wedding is planned for next spring.

The future bride is a lyricist and singer. She attended Harvard University. Her mother, Dorothy Monet, is a film writer and the author of "Squandering," which was published in 1972 by Holt Rinehart & Winston. Her father is a psychoanalyst in Paris. Her stepfather is founder and developer of Reston, Va., and former president of the Carnegie Hall Corporation.

Mr. Zilkha, president of Ze Records in New York, is an alumnus of Oxford University. His father is founder and former chairman of Mothercare, a retail chain of children's and mothers' apparel in England. His stepfather is Lord Lever."

While this text fails to mention that Cristina dropped out of Harvard, it lets us know that she comes from a familial background that involves people deeply imbeded in cultural criticism and psychoanalysis. Cristina's music reflects these intellectual traditions, but places them into the context of popular music production. Through her stepfather, she has a connection to industry, as well as architecture and design.

Zilkha has a strong connection to industry himself. He is the the son of an entrepreneur, and the stepson of Lord Lever, which connects him to industry and British nobility.

The backgrounds that Cristina and Zilkha come from indicate a strong connection to the elite intellectual and bourgeois classes. Zilkha is using the business skills that he got from his experience with family business and from his education to play a curatorial role. Cristina used her music as an outlet to address and criticize the capitalist society that she found herself immersed in.

The relationship to capitalism is key. Like many of their peers, Cristina and Zilkha did not disavow capitalism. Their approach to it was to criticize it from within.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

External sources thus far...

also, the film Downtown 81 , which stars Jean-Michel Basquiat, is a good artifiact because it features performances by Kid Creole and the Coconuts and James White and the Blacks.

Monday, September 24, 2007

My topic: ZE records, and the New York Underground in the late 70s and early 80s

ZE records was a label started by Michel Esteban and Michael Zilkha in 1978. Both were foreigners, who moved to New York City. They founded their label the year after punk "broke", although most of the artists on ZE would not have necessarily identified themselves as part of that movement. These artists include Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Was (Not Was), Cristina, Lydia Lunch, Mars, James Chance, and many others. The music recorded varied in form; at times you got postmodern takes on Disco music, and at other times you got guitar heavy, distortion drenched music that was arguably more punk rock itself. Even if it didn't fit into these two categories, the music usually took on a very compelling form. Many of the musicians were also very involved in the contemporary art scene at the time. Jean Michel-Basquiat and Vincent Gallo were in a band together (Grayling), that played shows with many of the bands under the ZE records umbrella.

I'm interested in this particular subculture and era because it combined the anti-establishment mentality of punk rock, with the excessive exuberance and multi-cultural inclusiveness of disco. In fact, I'd say that traces of punk, disco, and hip-hop were all present in this subculture to varying degrees. What was happening in New York's underground at that time is in my opinion similar to a lot of trends we see in music these days, although on a more underground scale.

In any event, here are some videos so you can get a flavor.

Kid Creole and the Coconuts

James Chance and The Contortions

Teenage Jesus and the Jerks

Alan Vega