❉ No-Wave queen Cristina’s short recording career is an embodiment of New York cool.
No Wave icon Cristina Monet-Palaci, who has died at the age 61 from COVID-19 complications, deserves to be remembered as far more than just another of music’s pandemic victims. Despite a short two album career there are few whose musical universe could encompass working with a member of The Velvet Underground, inadvertently helping start the career of Kid Creole & The Coconuts, a cover version so upsetting it was ordered destroyed by its songwriters, visuals by Grace Jones’ lover, an album made with future producers to the stars the Was brothers, and a duet with Kevin Kline. All of which is quite an achievement for a woman whose entire musical career could be rightly argued to have been done off the back of having a millionaire boyfriend to put out her records.
Monet was the daughter of a writer and illustrator and a French Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst who, after dropping out of Harvard, landed a job as a writer for The Village Voice. Immersing herself in the bohemian arts and music world of late 70’s downtown New York she met and began dating future husband Michael Zilkha. Zilkha was the heir to the Mothercare empire and along with friend Michael Esteban had set up ZE Records through which she recorded the label’s first release, Disco Clone, a witty spoof of disco produced by John Cale (presumably as a return favour for assisting in him setting up his SPY Records label) and featuring vocals from Christopher Guest’s brother Anthony Haden-Guest. A subsequent re-recording of the track replaced Guest’s vocals for far more convincing results with those of aspiring actor Kevin Kline.
In the wake of this Zilkha persuaded August Darnell (who would latterly become better know by alter-ego Kid Creole) to produce an album for Cristina and gave him his own record deal in return. The album eponymously entitled Cristina (later re-christened Doll In A Box) is essentially a proto-Kid Creole & The Coconuts record featuring Cristina’s distinctive mix of breathy singing and somewhat posh declamation.
Tracks such as Blame It On Disco and Jungle Love really wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Kid Creole’s debut album and it’s clear the pairing of Darnell and Cristina was perfect, thanks to both clearly sharing a very dry sense of humour. Their cover of Michel Polnareff’s La Poupée Qui Fait Non is a vintage Disco Not Disco treat with the kind of cowbells James Murphy would commit murder for.
It was bookend by two single only cover versions. The first was a breathy remake of The Beatles’ Drive My Car whilst the second was a very downtown New York re-imagining of the Leiber & Stoller song, made famous by Peggy Lee, Is That All That There Is. Released before the writers had heard it, the latter was ordered to be destroyed when they did as they were so disgusted by the version (which features a brilliantly funny uncredited rewrite). It finally appeared on the debut’s album’s 2004 reissue long after the death of both original writers and is, arguably the highlight of Cristina’s short recording career.
Cristina’s next recording was an original recorded especially for Ze Records’ Christmas album. The track, Things Fall Apart, has gone on to be her most recognised song.
Things… demonstrated her growing talent dryly sardonic lyrics which were put to excellent use on her second album, Sleep It Off, released in 1984. Produced by The Was brothers, behind the band Was Not Was whose first record also appeared on ZE, the musical styles are as much removed from her debut as the four year gap would suggest. This is an album with its foot well and truly in the ‘80s.
Despite including three covers (including a great reading of Bertolt Brecht’s Ballad Of Immoral Earnings which you sense she was born to sing) it’s the original songs which standout most. From the doom leaden bar room croon of He Dines Out On Death and the somewhat seedy Rage And Fascination (which sounds like its crying out for Marianne Faithful to cover it) to the bouncy synths of You Rented A Space, this is an album of variety and many pleasures.
Cristina plays the whole thing through the lens of a bored socialite (as she does to a lesser extent on her debut) and, especially considering her background and life, it’s hard to tell whether this is reality or just an act. Listening to the two most instantly appealing tracks it’s probably fair to conclude it’s a bit of both. The lyrically brilliant Don’t Mutilate My Mink and What’s A Girl To Do (which Cristina herself described as a personal anthem) are brilliant slices of ‘80s pop.
What marks them out is probably what stopped them turning into pop hits, they (like their creator) were probably just a little too clever, too knowing, for their own commercial good. Sleep It Off is a distinctive album from its cover (designed by Jean-Paul Goude and looking every bit as recognisable as the work he did for his muse, Grace Jones) to the songs within. Distinctive is the perfect description for an album which languishes in the realm of the cult because that is both its blessing, and its curse.
After that, that was it. Cristina and, now husband, Zilkha left New York and the music business. They divorced in 1990 and Cristina lived out the rest of her life writing the odd article but thoroughly out of public view. She left behind a small yet fascinating discography which feels, especially the early album and its singles, like a dispatch from the centre of a fascinating scene. A mix of art and culture, the rich and the street level, Cristina and all of Ze Records were New York cool and she was an embodiment of one strata running through the galleries and nightclubs of the time. Whether a persona or not, perhaps she is best summed up by these lines from her self-written, self-confessed anthem, What’s A Girl To Do:
I think I’ll quit while I’m behind,
Now that I’m twenty-two.
My sheets are stained so is my brain,
What’s a girl a do?
❉ Peter Robinson is a contributor to We Are Cult.