Back in New York in 1978, Michael Zikha and Michael Esteban decided to set up their own record label, ZE Records. Using the initials of their surnames, to name of their new and nascent label, an innovative and influential label was born. During the label’s short lifetime, they released an eclectic selection of music, music which spanned the musical genres, including post-punk, post-disco, dance rock and disco pop. Fourteen of these tracks can be found on a compilation released by Strut in 2009, ZE Records Story 1979-2009. This includes some of the label’s most memorable tracks released during its five year history, including tracks from Was (Not Was), Kid Creole and The Coconuts, Casino Music and Sympho State. However, before I tell you about this music, I’ll tell you about the history of ZE Records.

After studying first art in Paris, then at New York’s School of Visual Arts, Michael Esteban immersed himself in music and art. After returning to Paris from New York, Michael opened a shop specializing in music merchandise Harry Cover, which sold merchandise from both the UK and US. Then, quickly, members of the Parisian music scene gravitated towards his shop, with new wave bands using his basement as rehearsal space. His next venture was publishing Rock News, which documented the birth of punk in New York and London. Then in 1977, Michael published a trio books, two by Patti Smith, Witt and The Night, plus Lizzy Mercer’s debut Desiderata. Later that year, Michael would branch out to music, his first foray into the music industry, which would lead to him meeting future business partner Michael Zikha.

Michael Esteban’s first foray into music came with Marie et les Garcons, when he signed the group. To produce them, Michael approached John Cale, formerly of Velvet Underground. John who’d been introduced to Michael by Patti Smith, decided to head to New York to produce the album. Once there, John decided to found a record label with Jane Friedman, and asked Michael to help. After this, John introduced Michael Esteban to Michael Zikha. Their friendship established, the two Michael’s then decided to for a record company SPY. This was ostensibly to release singles produced by John Cale, but SPY would also release singles by Harry Toledo, Model Citizens and legendary music critic Lester Bangs. However, after founding SPY, Michael Esteban to Michael Zikha left SPY to form what would become an influential and innovative label ZE Records.

Once ZE Records was established in 1978, the label set about releasing an eclectic selection of music, music that crossed the musical genres. This included new wave, post-punk, post-disco, dance rock and disco pop that ZE Records released. Another title given to ZE Records music was Mutant Disco, which was the title of one of the labels early compilations, that become a successful compilation series. Island Records’ Chris Blackwell spawned another name for the music, no-wave. Regardless of the name of the genre of music ZE Records were releasing, the label quickly established an eclectic roster of artists that were a mixture of old and new artists.

Among ZE Records new artists were Was Not Was, Kid Creole and The Coconuts, Christina, The Waitresses, Casino Music and Sympho State. However, ZE Records weren’t just concentrating on new artists, with John Cale and Suicide among the older, more established artists. Quickly, the label’s music was being played at New York’s biggest, hippest clubs, including The Paradise Garage, the spiritual home of garage music. Although ZE Records were releasing some influential and innovative music, the label would prove to be relatively short-lived.

Between 1981 and 1982, ZE Records was at its creative and commercial zenith. Then in 1982 the label suffered a blow when one of the its founders, Michael Esteban left New York. Whether this lead to the decline in the label’s popularity and success is merely speculation, but two years later, in 1984, the label closed down. Although ZE Records was founded in 1978, and was only releasing music between 1979 and 1984, some of that music proved to be innovative, influential and memorable. You’ll realize this when I tell you about some of the music on ZE Records Story 1979-2009. 

My first choice from ZE Records Story 1979-2009 is Was (Not Was’) Tell Me That I’m Dreaming. It’s the 12” Remix that features on the compilation, released in 1981 and co-written by Don and David Was. Ken Collier remixed this track, which was from the 1981 eponymous album Was (Not Was). Opening with a combination of drums and percussion, the funkiest of bass lines and guitars enter. Sweet female backing vocalists enter, before the lead vocal enters. By now, the track is fusing elements of Latin, funk and soul as the tempo reaches 118 beats per minute. Add to this a myriad of samples and sound effects, that augment the vocal, and this alternative eighties soundscape is still revealing it charms and surprises. While the track is perfect for the dance-floor, and would still work today, there’s a few left-field elements that make this such an intriguing, compelling and quite wonderful track.

Deputy Of Love by Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band featuring Fonda Rae was an offshoot of The Original Savannah Band, and features founder Augustus Darnell and Andy Hernadez. This was one of many projects the pair were involved in, that were released on ZE Records. Featuring the vocal of disco diva Fonda Rae, this is another quality track from the future King Creole. With a tempo that’s nearly 127 disco heaven, a frantic piano solo opens the track, before percussion, rhythm section and blazing horns enter. As if this isn’t enough, cascading strings signal the arrival of Fonda’s vocal. Her vocal is emotive and impassioned as the arrangement reveals it hidden secrets and treasures that are a joy to behold. It’s quite definitely a track that should be filed under disco, with the track’s five and a half minutes some of the best on the ZE Records Story 1979-2009 by far.

Another of ZE Records biggest artists and successes was Augustus Darnell in the shape of Kid Creole and The Coconuts. Here, Larry Levan’s mix of Something Wrong In Paradise is chosen, and is another of the dance-floor highlights on the ZE Records Story 1979-2009. Taken from the 1983 album Doppelganger, a moody, meandering bass line opens the track, before quickly, it’s all change. Out goes the darkness, with Kid Creole ushering in his uplifting, feel-good sound. This sees a combination of the rhythm section, guitars and percussion augmented by The Coconuts. At near breakneck speed, the arrangement unfolds, before Kid Creole enters. His vocal is thoughtful and considered, a contrast to the carnival atmosphere of the arrangement. Behind him, The Coconuts deliver some joyous backing vocalists, while blazing horns combine with rest of the arrangement. For neigh on five minutes, Kid Creole and The Coconuts provide us with an uptempo, joyous, carnival atmosphere laden with his feel-good sound and vibe.

Sympho State’s You Know What I Like is easily, one of the highlights of the ZE Records Story 1979-2009 compilation. It’s blessed with a timeless sound and arrangement, which isn’t the case with other tracks, which sound “of their time,” Not this track though, mind you with Leroy Burgess co-writing and singing the vocal, you’d expect this to be a great track. Released in 1979, this track was the B-side of Fever but has much more in common with the classic disco sound than other tracks. Opening with the rhythm section, rasping horns and the lushest of swirling strings, Leroy’s vocal enters, accompanied by a sensuous, female vocal. Meanwhile, the arrangement is the most polished on the compilation, with a real classy, slick sound. From there, a myriad of sweeping strings, rasping horns, sensual vocals and quick pounding drums drive the track along, mixing disco and boogie as the track heads to its dramatic ending. So good is this track, it’s almost worth buying the compilation for it.

Material With Nona Hendryx’s Bustin’ Out (Seize The Beat Version) is quite different from my previous choices, with this electro track fusing, funk with rock guitars and crunchy beats. Released in 1981, the crunchy beats and fat bass line are joined by rocky sounding guitars, while electro sound is much more prevalent when the guitars drop out. Then when Nona’s vocal enters it’s powerful and sassy, while the arrangement is constantly punctuated with those rocky guitars, while the crunchy beats are key to the track’s sound. Later, dark keyboards enter, as this powerful, slightly foreboding sonic experiment takes shape. A welcome addition is the percussion that provides a brief respite from the powerful, foreboding sound. Replacing the percussion are stabs of synths as the track welcomes the latest addition in its eight and a half minute musical journey. Although quite different from my previous choices, this an accomplished, quality track, made all the better by Nona’s powerful, passionate vocal

Aural Exciters’ Maladie D’amour is my final choice from the ZE Records Story 1979-2009. It’s a track from the 1979 Spooks In Space album, co-written by Augustus Darnell, the mastermind behind Kid Creole and The Coconuts and Elbow Bones and The Racketeers. With disco luminaries like Fonda Rae and Tanya Garnder’s vocals appearing on the track, this is another quality dance-floor friendly track, albeit with a twist. After all, where else could you hear a tuba accompanying the sweetest of female vocals as a mid-tempo dance track unfold? Add to this a mixture of punchy horns, lush strings, flourishes of piano and the tightest of rhythm section, and the rest of the arrangement has a much more traditional sound. All of this from a group named after a piece of studio equipment, is combined to make a track that’s not only dance-floor friendly, but catchy, full of hooks and featuring the sweetest of vocals.

Although ZE Records only released music for five short years, they released some influential, innovative and memorable music, some of which can be found on the ZE Records Story 1979-2009. While the music ZE Records released was truly eclectic, some of that music still sounds good some thirty years later. That can’t be said for other labels, whose music sounds dated. Still, tracks by Was (Not Was), Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band featuring Fonda Rae, Kid Creole and The Coconuts, Sympho State and Aural Exciters demonstrate the quality of music ZE records were releasing between 1979 and 1984. In my opinion, and others, ZE Records released their best music between 1981 and 1982, some of the music from 1979 is just as good. Whether Michael Esteban’s leaving New York contributed to the music and label’s decline and ultimate closure in 1984, is open to speculation. Opinions will differ whether this is indeed the case, and there are many examples that can be cited of quality music released between 1982 and the label’s closure in 1984. However, at least ZE Records has its place in music history, fondly remembered for many of its releases and the Mutant Disco compilations. For people who are newcomers to ZE Records, then Strut’s 2009 release the ZE Records Story 1979-2009 is the ideal primer to the label’s music. From there, the newcomer can go on to explore more of the label’s music, including Zevolution: ZE Records Re-edited, another Strut compilation released in 2009, which is the ideal companion to ZE Records Story 1979-2009. After this, there’s the Mutant Disco compilations and various albums released by ZE Records’ artists. However, a good starting point for anyone yet to discover the music of ZE Records, then ZE Records Story 1979-2009 is the ideal place to start. Standout Tracks: Was (Not Was) Tell Me That I’m Dreaming, Kid Creole and The Coconut Something’s Wrong In Paradise, Sympho State You Know What I Like and Aural Exciters Maladie D’amour.



  1. jaynegron

    Great LP….”BUSTIN OUT” is my fave!!!!!!
    Great Review!!!

    • Hi Jay,

      Thanks for your comments, I really enjoyed review the ZE Records Story 1979-2009, there’s so much great music on it. I’ll try and review ZE Records Re-edited soon. Thanks for your comments.

      Best Wishes,

  2. jaynegron

    Great Review….my fave is “BUSTIN OUT” with NONA HENDRIX

    • Hi Jay,

      The Nona Hendrix track is a great track and there was so much great music released by ZE Records. Sadly, much of that hasn’t made it onto CD over here. Hopefully, Strut will maybe rectify that soon. Here’s hoping. Thanks for your comments.

      Best Wishes,

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