You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to view this site.

Test Pressing

Wally Badarou

Composer, musician, Compass Point All-Star

Let’s go back. Back to a time when studios had no midi systems, where were no sequencers and keyboards were played, not used to create three second loops. Digital technology was just about to appear, and snare drums would take ten years to recover. Music was built around skills: the capturing of a performance. Three takes and ‘next’. It would take a room, a vibe, a locked-down rhythm section, a keyboard player and guitarist with room to move, an engineer ready and a switched-on producer, full of great ideas. Add to this the vocal performance of an artist at the peak, or beginning, of their career and you have the recipe for something special. If it takes place on a tropical island, all the better.

For a certain period of time (and it was a long period) a studio in Compass Point in Nassau had that something special. The house band consisted of Sly & Robbie on drums and bass, Mikey Chung and Barry Reynolds on guitar, Sticky on the percussion and Wally Badarou on keys, rounded off with Steven Stanley, Alex Sadkin and the boss, Chris Blackwell, behind the desk. The Compass Point All Stars, as they were named, made incredible records. Grace Jones, Tom Tom Club, Gwen Guthrie, Lizzie Mercier Descloux, Robert Palmer and many others benefited from the coming together of these people and as time leaves more and more room to appreciate this music, you realise just how special it is.

Wally Badarou was key to this band, and we were lucky enough to track him down. As it’s the fiftieth anniversary of Island Records this year we decided to focus on the Compass Point era and those sessions in Nassau. Badarou’s soundtracks are well loved, his solo albums seminal, and it’s his playing with the Compass Point All Stars that is the topping on perhaps the ultimate melting pot in western music. The Muscle Shoals hit it from a soul angle, but the Compass Point All Stars got you from all sides. Wally took a large amount of time out to answer our questions and open the door on those early Grace Jones sessions. So back we go…

So Wally, how did you initially end up working at Compass Point?

Record producer & friend Daniel Vangarde (father of Thomas Bangalter, Daft Punk) knew Chris Blackwell as Island Records used to distribute The Gibson Brothers, one of Vangarde’s productions. Chris was looking for a keyboard player to join to the recording team he was putting together for a Grace Jones album. Daniel recommended me to Chris. We had a very brief phone conversation regarding schedule and fees. I landed in Nassau in early 1980, for what was to be just an album session initially, and ended up being a near-12 year experience.

What were your thoughts when Chris Blackwell first brought up the idea of the Compass Point All Stars?

All he was concerned about initially was to cast the right musicians for that specific Grace Jones album. Only when he heard the sound that was generated, he understood what he had, and thought of something that could last much longer than the initial project. We almost did two albums for Grace in the first period, ‘Warm Leatherette’ and ‘Nightclubbing’, the latter to be completed and released afterwards. The team was so productive that we also did several other single projects within the same period, like ‘Some Guys Have All The Luck’ by Junior Tucker. As we kept on coming back to Nassau to start and/or complete these and other projects, Chris eventually nicknamed us ‘The Compass Point All Stars’.

He immediately thought of it as a ‘band’. I was quick to observe that a real ‘band’ needed to stem out of a co-opting process, shaped around a clear leader. As it turned out, he was the Compass Point All Stars sole leader; which inevitably implied, in the long run, that things would not survive his complicated business life.

What were your first impressions of Sly and Robbie? What did they bring? And what worked about the combination of you and them?

I had heard of them initially, but hardly knew any of their work really before I met them. Barry and I were rather annoyed to be rushed to Nassau days before everyone else, so we weren’t in the mood for good impression at first, to be quite honest. At that time, I felt I had more important things to do in Paris, and Compass Point was to be just another job, that I was eager to be done with as soon as possible, and return to the day to day life of a busy Parisian session player. It took me a while to realise where I was, and who I was playing with. For the better actually, as we just went bluntly to business from minute one, Chris Blackwell included. Looking back, this probably helped in forging a long lasting friendship between all of us.

Sly & Robbie were to be the modern reggae core of the combination. Barry and I were to bring rock and electronic overtones to the picture. It all worked out well beyond expectations. Probably because we all brought much more than what was initially expected from us individually: Sly & Robbie, Mickey and Sticky were all open to new horizons already; Barry brought his unique mixture of powerful rock guitar and subtle writing skills; my natural eclecticism allowed me to create classical, jazz, funk and/or African textures and counterpoints wherever needed.

The studio was custom-built. Must have been pretty impressive. What was it like?

At first glance, it honestly did not seem that different from major studios I used to work in, in Paris or London. MCI boards and multi-tracks, JBL 4312 speakers and Auratone monitors were common in those days. Sure the rooms had their own sound, but so had quite a few facilities around the globe. Major studios always had their acoustics carefully designed by highly professional experts.

What was most impressive ironically was the over-relaxed atmosphere and nonchalant pace. The people made the difference. Despite numerous attempts to work in daytime, sessions wouldn’t start before sunset.

Wally Badarou

What made Compass Point so special? There seems to be a certain vibe to all the music that came out of the studio?

Chris Blackwell (above), period. He was the soul behind anything that went on down there. Even in his absence, people remembered where they were, and why they were there. But whenever he was around, just his presence was enough to propel anything to higher levels still; production, performance, maintenance, mood, anything. There was a solution to all problems suddenly. Things just had to “happen”, that was it. And most of the time, they did happen. Grievances and frustrations could not last, grander goals were at stake. He made us all deliver our best. The minute you entered the premises, you were impregnated with that quest for unconventional style and excellence.

How much was it to do with the fact that people were hanging out together?

The fact is, there was not much hanging out together really, specially in the begining. Alex, Barry and I would go to restaurants sometimes; Sly, Robbie, Mickey and Sticky had their own lives. Now and then Chris would invite us all at his house for dinner. But otherwise, if in the recording situation, incredible things happened, outside of the studio, we were quite estranged to each other. Only when musical outcome started to impact the outside world, we realised we could learn deeper from each other; then we got closer somehow, but never to the point of walking down the street as a band. We had our individual agenda and, as happy as we were to be delivering the music we did, once we stepped out of the studio, we were just eager to return to our solo business. We didn’t feel like staying on the island too long, as paradisian as it looked. Only Chris fully understood our potential, and dreamt of us gradually aiming at a real ‘band’ situation, sort of permanently based at Compass Point. This never really happened.

When you think of that place in your mind, what do you see?

A million pictures, far too many to express here. It’s not only what I see, but what I hear, what I smell, what I feel. It is all that went on between us, added to what went on with the incredible line-up of legendary icons we happened to meet and work with. It’s all of the things I discovered, misunderstood, experienced; all the things I’ve reached for from within “Studio W”, my all-computerized Synclavier-fitted personal room. It’s the tropical and salty humidity, as well as the conch chowder and curry chicken at ‘Traveller’s Rest’, our beloved restaurant nearby. It’s the kindness of the Bahamian people. It’s Chris Blackwell smile when we were ‘rocking’. It’s the rides aboard the blue CJ-5 Jeep Alex and I co-owned. It is all worth a full length motion picture (that I am attempting to write).

Where were the main places people went outside of the studios?

Well, you’re in Nassau Bahamas, so you name them: pool and beach in daytime, restaurants, casinos and clubs at night. Not my cup of tea really. Nor Sly, Robbie, Mickey or Sticky’s. It all sounded like paradise but, believe it or not, we seldomly took advantage of all that was at our disposal over there. Compass Point was quite remote from downtown Nassau so, apart from basic shopping around, a few restaurant in town, and the traditional ‘Junkanoo’ parade at New Year’s Eve, we hardly left our apartments. I was so absorbed by the myriads of things I wanted to achieve, I could rarely be seen near the beach or the pool for the first ten years of my stay there, despite many invitations from Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who frequently went sailing around the islands. Only when I was about to leave, in the early 90s, I finally had a taste of it.

Wally Badarou

Were you visiting any clubs at the time?

Not as band. I can only speak for myself so, as a matter of fact, I had stopped being the intense nightclubber I used to be in the 70s in Paris, with the advent of disco. That was intense back then, because in Paris, in between Donna Summer’s hits, one could enjoy George Benson’s ‘This Masquerade’ and Fela Kuti’s ‘Lady’ all in the same night, at the same club. I could not find that kind of variety in following decades. I went nightclubbing a couple times in Nassau during the 80s, unimpressed. I was quite unaware of the club scene in New York. Maybe for the better … because, from Grace Jones ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ to Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Padlock’, the music we were doing was not ‘forged’ towards the dance floor. We did what we did simply because we liked it.

I remember going to the Garage once, as well as the Palace in Paris. As old school as it may sound, they both looked huge to me, deprived from that sense of communion only smaller clubs can offer. Huge dance floor, huge bars, huge snare drums, huge everything and vibes diluted. They meant a totally different experience from what I used to enjoy.

Back to the Compass Point sessions – was one person acting as musical director, or were the arrangements worked out by the musicians together?

No musical director other than Chris Blackwell himself. Chris did not even ‘direct’ anything. One does not direct Sly & Robbie. As a synth programmer and player, I never was directed, neither at Compass Point, nor anywhere else in the world. I always came out with my own ideas, and so did everybody in Nassau. Arrangements were a constant interaction between us, to the last recording minute.

Could you describe how a session would come together? Can you give us an example?

Sessions for Grace Jones and Joe Cocker had a fairly simple schedule, since they were mostly based on covers: in the control room, Chris would make us all listen to the original (or demo) a couple times, while Sly and Robbie would be building ideas mentally. Then we would all go in the recording room. Sly & Robbie would try out their ideas while I would be quickly programming a sound, and Barry and Mickey were setting up their gear. By the time I was improvising something, the tape was already rolling, and there went the first take ! We would then give it two more trials, not more. Chris’ smile and body language were the verdict. If we had it, we had it. If not, too bad. We would call up the next song. That meant, Chris had quite a number of songs ready for treatment beforehand.

What was Steven Stanley like to work with in the studio?

Very active, and yet non-obtrusive during recording. His unbreakable enthusiasm was a booster. But nothing compare to mixing time. Then, he was the absolute king of the room. As soon as he had the riddim section cooking, he was non-stop dancing the rest of the time, and the console was both a musical instrument and a choreography partner to him. It ‘talked’ to him, they had conversations, and the speakers were never loud enough. Automation was still science-fiction dream, and we had a genuine real-time performance, that I wished someone had taped. Pure genius.

Do you still stay in touch and do you know where he is now?

We never really kept in touch and again, outside of the studio, there was very little communication. I sometimes get news by Tom Tom Club’s Chris and Tina. I know he is running his own studio, back in Jamaica.

Is he someone who is an unsung hero in the story?

Well I can only talk from within Europe. Here in France, he definitely is. But so was the whole of the Compass Point phenomenon anyway, at least up until recently. It took time for people to realise who was responsible for what they heard, and to connect projects between them.

Who else was instrumental at that time who’s been missed out of the history books?

I believe Alex Sadkin still did not receive due respect for his contribution. He was visionary in running near perfect mixes right from preparing for the first takes. Today’s total recall inherent to digital production makes it common practice. Talking about digital precision, Joe Cocker’s ‘Sheffield Steel’ album, despite its minimal success, still has very little to envy, compared to today’s digital productions.

Engineer Andy Lyden was not involved in the main Compass Point All Stars sound, yet he was my invaluable partner on my “Echoes” album. He did my percussion under “Mambo” (as sampled by Massive Attack in ‘Daydreaming’) resonate far beyond what I envisioned, just as he did on my contribution to “Countryman” soundtrack. He now lives in France.

Wives and friends played an important role too, and so did studio manager Loraine Fraiser. Keeping the studio technically up and running on a tropical island was also quite an achievement. I take this opportunity to praise the work of Paul Jarvis, Moses Cargill and Ozzie Bowe.

Quite a few legends contributed but were hardly quoted as being ‘Compass Point All Stars’: Robert Palmer, ex-Wailer Tyronne Downie and Bahamian bass player Kendall Stubbs (now of Bahamen “Who let the dogs out” fame), for example.

Did you actually live on the island when working at Compass Point or were you moving around and flying back for sessions?

I personally did both. I was a constant traveller anyway, working Level 42 in the U.K., film music in L.A., and other projects in Paris or New-York. So were Chris and Tina, for both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club agenda. Nevertheless, we were neighbours at the ‘Tip-Top’ condo Blackwell had built behind the studio. Alex did reside for a while. I never spent more than six months in row there. Steven and Andy were to reside on a more permanent basis. The rest of the team would come and go between sessions.

What was the first record you played on at Compass Point and what do you remember of the session?

Grace Jones ‘Warm Leatherette’, officially; with ‘Nightclubbing’ starters in reality. It all started unpretentiously, with the title song and a couple other tracks. Only when we cut ‘Private Life’, we realised something serious was in the making. Sly, Robbie, Sticky and Mickey’s ominous groove, Barry’s rock-solid pulse and hard-edged solo, Grace’s eerie combination of talked verses and sung choruses, it all triggered the melodic hook and the spacious swells I came up with. This was a very special night for all of us, as we suddenly realise each one of us key role in the sonic outcome; genuine mutual respect grew between ourselves ever since.

That experience paved the way to the more substantial ‘Nightclubbing’ album, making us more confident in what was setting us apart. Joe Cocker, Gwen Guthrie and others benefited from that momentum.

The Compass Point All Stars made me specialise in melodic hooks and counterpoints. Or perhaps vice-versa: it made more obvious what I had within. I’ve always been a melody man. My sounds always came from that quest. Given the right surrounding and groove, hooks like the hi-pitched intro to Grace’s “I’ve seen that face before” would come fast and easy to me.

It wasn’t just you guys working at Compass Point. Who else did you bump into? What accidental benefit did people like Iron Maiden or other non-funky Nassau people bring?

Befriended Paul and Linda McCartney, The Thompson Twins, ex-Kraftwerk member Emil Schult. Also met Ringo Starr, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Carly Simon, and quite a few movie people too, like Elia Kazan, 007 and ‘Thunderball’ author/producer Kevin McClory, ‘Spiderwoman’ Sonia Braga, Dennis Hopper.

The list goes on, of people who felt like either enjoying a bit of that unconventional chemistry, or simply vacationing in Blackwell’s land. Looking back, they made Compass Point the more legendary.

Was there anything specific about the technology you were using, or anything else you created or accidentally invented at this point?

I had my first go at an S.C.I. Prophet V during the first sessions. It was the dream machine I could hear on seminal albums by Hancock, Weather Report and the likes, so I asked for a rented one. Waiting for the rest of the team to arrive, I had more than sufficient time to study it, so I could be fast at getting just the sound I needed by the time Sly & Robbie were “ready to burn” later on. I was so fast and productive with that single machine, I eventually got nicknamed ‘Prophet’.

Funny enough, I never owned one: when I finally could afford it, I directly went for the Synclavier, a multi-fold groundbreaking monster at the time. That latter system made me one of the first tapeless producers ever. But again, as technically impressive as my fully computerized and speech-controllable ‘Studio-W’ room might have looked, I was not too concerned by technical achievements. Here I was with the best sampling machine in decades, and yet I always kept a very minimal sample library. What mattered to me was philosophy behind the architecture, the music it allowed me to create, yielding in my most favorite solo work, ‘Words of a Mountain’.

As technically sophisticated as we did sound sometimes, the Compass Point All Stars as such only had a very few pieces of gear to deal with otherwise, apart from Sly’s Simmons and Oberheim DMX drum-machine snippets. No extensive programming time allowed anyway: we’ve always focused on the performance, to keep the momentum going. The chemistry was augmented with Alex Sadkin, Steven Stanley or Andy Lyden’s interactions; the performance made the sound.

Wally Badarou

How did you feel about the way the Compass Point All Stars were used/favoured by disco, specifically Larry Levan and FK?

Or Bill Laswell. All good friends of mine. Yet, as clever and remarkable as remixes might have sounded from the day they were invented, they never matter to me much, as long as people could get the originals. Call it ego or self-respect, I believe any genuine musician still wants one’s performance released un-manipulated, and views the remix phenomenon as a flattering tribute to one’s original idea.

It may feel disturbing when the remix proves way more successful than the original, specially when the original was meant to compete in remix territory, i.e. the disco. This was hardly our case. But if ever existing, frustrations could only be short-lived: at the end of the day, the remix is still a tribute to the original idea, and the composer remains the winner on both accounts anyway.

When you were making ‘Echoes’, do you remember what other music you were listening to at the time?

Well I was listening to everything everybody was listening at that time but, quite honestly, I never wanted ‘Echoes’ to be inspired by any of the ongoing chart of the time. I really wanted it to be apart, driven by past memories rather. ‘Echoes’ were musical tales, based of forceful moments in my childhood, my teen days, my life in Africa, in Europe, everywhere and everything I had been. Hence the apparent ecclecticism throughout the album.

Are there other outtakes from ‘Echoes’? It would be amazing to hear alternative or extended versions of the tracks.

Not that many outakes, reason being that I only had 24 tracks and limited studio time to deal with. So, apart from ‘Endless Race’, everything had been carefully demoed beforehand. To tell you the truth, demos are even more interesting than outtakes, as one can hear were it all came from, stage by stage, discarded directions et all. One must remember: midi sequencers did not exist yet, total recall and automation were a rarity. Apart from the drum-machine, everything had to be manually played from scratch, for good. Hard decisions were to be made before entering the studio, unless you were a million-seller before.

Why such big gaps between your artist albums? ‘Echoes’ was released in 1983, with ‘Words Of A Mountain’ following in 1989.

Several reasons: I had a busy life sessioning all over the world, co-writing and producing Level 42 in the UK, film-scoring in L.A., finishing ‘Studio-W’ in Nassau, all the while re-immersing myself in symphonic works, for the new direction Chris Blackwell and I decided my next record should aim at was classical. Moreover, with what still looked like a symbolic succes for ‘Echoes’ back in those years, I lacked the self-confidence and thrive that would have urged me to deliver sooner. That been said, I am still not quick at following those two with a new one …

Going a little more general now – what made Island Records so special as a label?

To the risk of repeating myself, just one and only one person. It was all down to Chris’ visions and intuitions, and the Compass Point All Stars were just one in many. As an artist, you could only respect the way he could bet on something he really likes, regardless of the moods and the losses. He could make mistakes, huge ones sometimes. But you wanted to be part of it, because it never was business as usual. Think of it: who else could have had Bob Marley and U2, or Steve Winwood and Salif Keita under the same logo without looking like just another closed-department company? There was style and dedication behind everything he approached.

I know you are modest man when it comes to pin pointing certain eras but when you look back to that time of Compass Point what are you most proud of?

I honestly feel more privileged and honoured than proud. As I said, there I went, unaware of what I was to deal with. And before I could realise it, I had been part of quite a few pages. I never was striving for it, things just happened. Friends of mine keep on telling me it had to do with talents I unknowingly had too. Perhaps, but there we are: I was not aware of them, at least not to the extent they are nowadays.

We honestly thought that more important things were being achieved elsewhere, in the US, in the UK. This is no modesty, it is a fact. Like everybody, we had heroes; James Brown, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Sly & Family Stone, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report. The air was filled with ubiquitous smash hits by the Michael Jackson, Eurythmics, Lionel Ritchie, Kool & The Gang, etc, who seemed to leave little room for our ‘uniqueness’ back then.

As time goes by, it’s only now that all the Grace Jones legacy, augmented by Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’, and Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Night Nurse’, and Black Uhuru ‘Chill Out’, Gwen Guthrie, Ian Dury, etc, sort of build a long line of albums with legendary impact, that people started to inter-connect them with the Compass Point All Stars. But looking back, we did stick to the style that was ours, not because we were brave at resisting the mainstream, but because it was the only thing we knew how to do best collectively.

How is that history being taken forward?

That, only you-know-who knows. I can’t make plans regarding the Compass Point All Stars.

What are you doing over the coming year? About time for a new album perhaps? The world would be a better place Wally….

Don’t you worry. I am working on that.

What are you aware of that has been influenced by you?

Difficult to say, despite all the feeds an comments I get on my site, myspace and facebook walls. It really depends on what part of what I did we are talking about. For instance, Andy Lyden recently told me that, with Massive Attack rendering of ‘Mambo’ through ‘Daydreaming’, I had been (both him and I had been) like pioneering that trip-hop sound. Perhaps. But then, were we looking at achieving what I understand trip-hop has been trying to achieve ? Were we looking in the same direction? Does it matter if we weren’t? The same goes to how ‘Hi-Life’ seemingly influenced both zouk music of the french Antilles and African music at the same time. Influence is a whole phenomenon yet to be rationally investigated.

If you were to suggest someone listen – really listen – to one thing you did at Compass Point, what would it be and why?

As the Compass Point All Stars, ‘Private Life’. It is, like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ or Weather Report’s ‘Birdland’, without pretending to sum a whole career through just one song, yet the kind of piece that tells best what the artist really stood for, what set him/her fully apart, what makes his/her planet such a vibrant yet distinct world on its own. ‘Private Life’ had all the grits and the meat, the colors and the fragrance, the rawness and the sophistication the Compass Point All Stars were capable of, right from the early days.

Wally Badarou

If you were to suggest someone listen – really listen – to one thing you did at Compass Point, what would it be and why?

As the Compass Point All Stars, ‘Private Life’. It is, like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ or Weather Report’s ‘Birdland’, without pretending to sum a whole career through just one song, yet the kind of piece that tells best what the artist really stood for, what set him/her fully apart, what makes his/her planet such a vibrant yet distinct world on its own. ‘Private Life’ had all the grits and the meat, the colors and the fragrance, the rawness and the sophistication the Compass Point All Stars were capable of, right from the early days.

Finally, as I get older and move through music and genres I find myself being drawn to the music of classical composers such as Debussy and the like. If you had to give three pieces or albums of classical modern music to start me off what would they be?

I would start listening to:Holst ‘The Planets’Debussy ‘Images’Stravinsky ‘Petrushka’

Then I’d go on listening to Ravel ‘Daphnis & Chloe’ / ‘Tombeau de Couperin’Fauré ‘Dolly suite’ / ‘Pavane’Stravinsky ‘Firebird’ and ‘Rite of Spring’.

To further get a sense of how they all keep on influencing major film composers today, I would also give a listen to Benjamin Britten’s work. Then I would move to more contemporary composers like Bela Bartok, Gyorgy Ligeti and Arvo Part.

That’s it. Cheers Wally.

You are welcome.