For eight years the singer Cristina provided a crucial sardonic
hub for one of the most innovative record labels ever,
co-founded by her husband Michael Zilkha. Andy Polaris mourns her death and identifies her distinctive talent.
If Dorothy Parker had done disco pop she would have probably sounded a little like New York chanteuse Cristina channelling Betty Boop – dames who knew the vagaries of love and were eager to share their disappointments.
It was sad to note the death flicker across last week’s social media of Cristina Monet, one of the demi-monde of Eighties New York cool. Aged only 61, she passed due to complications with the Covid-19.
This was not a household name that was going to ring a lot of bells as her musical career was not widely known or appreciated outside of NY except the fashionable discos of Paris and London. She first came on my radar with the debut campy single Disco Clone, the first release on the emerging hip label ZE Records. This was set up in 1976 by her husband-to-be Michael Zilkha (heir to the Mothercare empire) and his partner Michael Esteban (owner of French label Rebel Records). Disco Clone followed the edgy clash between fashion, new wave and disco, a path also being explored by Amanda Lear and Grace Jones. That year I also purchased other ZE vinyl by James White and the Blacks Contort Yourself, Don Armando’s Rumba Band I’m An Indian Too (featuring Cory Daye) and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks AKA Lydia Lunch The Closet.
Her debut album Cristina was released in 1980 and secured her reputation as a glamorous metropolitan girl with enough sass to bridge the East Village art-house scene to the Manhattan sophisticats. A sexy and cynical cover version of the Beatles’ Baby You Can Drive My Car followed as a single along with La Poupée Qui Fait Non, that latter being delightful disco with a European twist. A rare video of the singer draped across a car performing the song in some anonymous studio is one of the few that have emerged over the years.
Hot on the heels came her highly satirical version of the Peggy Lee classic Is That All There Is? which epitomised her sardonic and world-weary style, delivering the genius lyrics penned by Leiber and Stoller. However the legendary songwriting team did not share the love and allegedly sued, forcing the song to be withdrawn – a shame because she was introducing it to a new younger audience. You can hear the influence of August Darnell aka Kid Creole and the Coconuts (by far the most globally successful ZE label-mates) on the Latin pop-infused album tracks Temporarily Yours and La Poupée Qui Fait Non.
The witty and confessional single Things Fall Apart remains a classic offbeat Christmas gem driven by a snarly rock guitar (apparently Siouxsie’s favourite Christmas song).
I said “We can’t afford the tree”, he said, “Love is free”
So we trimmed the cactus with my earrings
That we’d meant to pawn
There wasn’t any snow but there was rain
He licked me like a candy cane
And then one day he said, “I can’t stand in your way it’s wrong”,
“With what?” I asked, but he was gone.
(Coincidentally released on the label the same time as the better known Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses but sharing female perspective and a lack of usual yuletide saccharine.)
A second album on Mercury Sleep It Off was released in 1984 with the single Ticket to the Tropics and a cover of The Ballad of Immoral Earnings and a track entitled Don’t Mutilate My Mink. The album cover by Jean-Paul Goude used a cut-up artwork technique he later recreated with Grace Jones. Cristina’s lack of true commercial success and limited live performances outside NY relegated her to a niche audience. In 1984 she and her husband left NY, dropped out of the music scene and closed down ZE within the year. She continued writing criticism and her Instagram account confirms her love of art and travel with pictures of sojourns in Europe with family and friends.
However the dynamic label and its eclectic roster of artists (Alan Vega, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White, Lydia Lunch, Richard Strange, Was Not Was etc) left to the discerning ear one of the best and most enviable recording back catalogues in the business. Having studied at Harvard and dropping out, Cristina moved to centre stage in that brief empire and her contribution I imagine inspired others such as Madonna (in NY and part of that Eighties early club scene) and later Lady Miss Kier (Deelite) to a lesser extent. As a quirky queen of cerebral cool, Cristina served us cosmopolitan glamour to savour with our gimlet and a salty club soundtrack.
❏ In 2004 the ZE label was revived by Michael Esteban who reissued both Cristina’s albums with the debut renamed Doll in the Box to include five bonus tracks.