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By Elisabeth Vincentelli. November 2004

QUEEN CRISTINA: Is the world (finally) ready for the wit and wisdom of new-wave icon Cristina

In his 2002 memoir, Strange: Punks and Drunks, Flicks and Kicks, British perfor-mer Richard Strange describes early-'80s new- wave singer Cristina as « elegant, intelligent, beautiful and the wittiest girl I have ever met. In a sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world, Cristina would have been Madonna. » Unfortunately, our world is desperately lacking in the sass department, and it didn't know what the hell to make of Cristina Monet. Far from becoming a threat to the similarly mono-named Madonna, she achieved merely cult status, retiring from music in 1984 after two brilliant, eccentric albums (an eponymous debut and Sleep It Off) in which she daringly juxtaposed disco and Kurt Weill, Van Morrison and Latin rhythms at a time when her New York peers thought punk-funk was bold. It has taken 20 years for these discs to come back into print, but thanks to the efforts of ZE Records, we can bask in Cristina's glory once again.

Now 45, Cristina remembers that her career got off to an inauspicious start, to say the least. On a year off from Harvard, she was a cub theater writer for The Village Voice when she started dating Oxford grad Michael Zilkha, who later became her husband. A wealthy heir to England's Mothercare retail empire, Zilkha was just starting ZE with Frenchman Michel Esteban. « One of the first things Michael wanted to do was a song called 'Disco Clone, » Cristina recalls. « This being 1978, he thought he would cash in on disco, but I thought it was so bad that it could be a Brechtian pastiche. It turned out to be an eccentric and funny record-insane, enthusiastic, impassioned, amateurish. » The single, which included guest vocalist Kevin Kline trying to seduce the breathy Cristina, was a modest success and encouraged ZE to forge ahead and release a full-length album by its first marquee name. The new reissue, retitled Doll in the Box, also includes the three singles that predated the album: « Disco Clone » plus poker-faced covers of the Beatles' « Drive My Car » and Peggy Lee's « Is That All There Is? » (Cristina improvised fittingly cutting new lyrics to the latter, leading its authors, Leiber and Stoller, to sue and get it withdrawn; the song became mythically unavailable-until now).

For the album, Zilkha paired his girlfriend with August Darnell, a brilliant songwriter and arranger who would go on to (mostly European) fame as Kid Creole. "I had all these ideas about using Latin beats, which I preferred to the lugubrious disco rhythm," Cristina explains. "I wanted to mix them with cinematic imagery to put a bit of histrionic pizzazz in disco, which I found very anodyne". Thanks to Zilkha's trust fund, Darnell and Cristina actually had a budget to match their Technicolor imagination, and even after a quarter century, the music on Doll in the Box continues to sparkle with humor and imagination. Cristina gleefully admits that « my singing is hopeless. One has to sympathize with the review that said, "If Jackie Kennedy had made a record, it would sound like this". But the flat, posh diction actually gives the record a wonderful deb-on-a-rampage edge. Overall, it's hard to disagree with the singer's description of the album as "a soap bubble all about Marilyn Monroe, nostalgic glamour and joie de vivre."

As good as that debut is, it pales in comparison to 1984's Sleep It Off. Produced by Don Was, it's a masterpiece, at once detached and engaging, witty and prickly. A certain acerbic stylization permeates the proceedings, as Cristina's lyrics dryly detail a world of urban decadence. « The cornerstone of what I do musically and lyrically is irony, » she says. « A really depressing lyric has a lot more power if it fights off a jaunty melody. » In « What's a Girl to Do, » which she holds up as her anthem, Cristina sings, « My life is in a turmoil / My thighs are black and blue / My sheets are stained, so is my brain / What's a girl to do? » with a low-throated mock peppiness that's equal parts Lotte Lenya and washed-out ingenue. « She could flip from sex kitten to a punky tone, » New York DJ-producer (and recent Cristina collaborator) Ursula 1000 gushes. "She did a singing-nonsinging thing that's almost like John Lydon's".

"I don't think Sleep It Off sounds dated, because it's so out there, » Cristina says. « It never fit in any frame, and it still doesn't." Unfortunately, the record was so ahead of its time that it flopped; defeated, the singer retired. "I believed the idea that Michael had bought me a career to such an extent that I felt sheepish and guilty, which I shouldn't have been," she says. « By that point I was a wife and a mother, and then we moved to Texas; I felt like Madame Bovary of the freeway." The following two decades were low-key. Cristina divorced Zilkha in 1990 and returned to New York, where she still lives. A nimble writer, she's contributed learned essays and reviews to publications such as London's Times Literary Supplement. She's also made demos for books on tape; these recordings marked the only times she had been in a studio between Sleep It Off and an October 2004 session in which she sang on a track called « Urgent Anxious" for a forthcoming Ursula 1000 album. Despite battling an MS-like ailment for the past three years, Cristina feels the time is ripe for her to resurface. « It's hard to plan a new album when you don't know if you will make it down to the end of the street from one day to the next", she says, then breaks into a wicked laugh. "But now that I am an old trout, it would be easier for me to make an appropriate record-you may have noticed that my lyrics don't exactly exude youthful optimism!"

Originally published in Time Out New York, Issue 476, November 11–17, 2004.

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01 • Jungle love  • 5:22Written by August Darnell

02  • Don't Be Greedy • 6:14
Written by August Darnell • Additional lyrics by Cristina

03 • Mamma Mia • 4:01
Written by August Darnell & Ron Rogers

04 • Interlude • 0:21
Written by Leiber Stoller • Variations on Is that all there is ?
conceived by Cristina & August Darnell

05 • La Poupée Qui Fait Non • 7:35
Written by Polnaref & Gerald

06 • Temporarily Yours • 5:33
Written by August Darnell

07 •  Blame It On Disco • 6:46
Written by August Darnell


08 • Is That All There Is ? Long version  • 5:41
Written by Leiber Stoller • Lyric variations by Cristina

09 • Disco Clone Single Version • 4:07
Written by Ronald Melrose
Arranged by Ben Lanz
Mixed by Chris Blackwell

Produced by Cristina, Michael Zilha & Bob Blank
Arranged by Ben Lanz

10 • Drive My Car Single Version • 3:18
Written by Lennon / McCartney
Arranged by Stony Browder
A Cristina/Zilkha/Darnell production  

11 • Ballad Of Immoral Manufacture *  • 8.11
Written by Ronald Melrose
* Formely Disco Clone
Arranged by Ben Lanzaroni
String & Horn Arrangements by Carlos Franzetti
Vocal Direction & additional lyrics by Cristina
Produced by Cristina, Michael Zilha & Bob Blank

12 • Drive my car  Drive My Car Long Version  • 4:48
Written by Lennon / McCartney
Arranged by Stony Browder
A Cristina/Zilkha/Darnell production


Recorded by Bob Blank
Assisted by Joe Arlotta & Buch Jones
at Blank tapes studios N.Y.C. From 05/1978 - 09/1979
Written & produced by August Darnell
Directed by Michael Zilkha & Cristina
Arranged & orchestred by Sugar Coated Andy Hernandez
Conceived and starring Cristina Monet
Thanks to Ron Rogers for the basic track on « Mama Mia »
Special thanks to Bob Blank for his invaluable input and assistance



Supporting cast
Cristina: Lead vocals
Bass: Carole Coleman
Drums: Mickey Martinez
Guitars: Duane "Reddy" Rongers
Keyboards: Bernard Haven

Guest appearances
Piano: Ralph Shuckett
Percussion: Milton Cardona

Gichy Dan's Beachwood N° 9
Christine Wiltshire
Kid Creole
Gilles Riberolles Male vocals on «  La poupée Qui Fait Non »


Disco Clone: Male vocal by Kevin Kline
Drive my car: Male vocals by Stony Browder (a.k.a. Dr. Buzzard)
A Cristina / Zilkha / Darnell production
Arranged by Stony Browder © 1980

Reissue co-ordinated by Michel Esteban
Remastered 2004 by Charlus de la Salle at South Factory
Original sound recording made by ZE Records ©1978 / 1980
This selection p & © ZE records 2004
Executive Producer Michael Zilkha


Original Art Cover: Tony Wright Art direction
Cover photo : Wayne Maser
Graphics : Richard Cramer
Digipack & Booklet art direction Michel Esteban

Special Thanks to Cristina & Michael Zilkha

IS THAT ALL THERE IS? : The Maddeningly Brief Career od Cristina

"In a sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world, Cristina would have been Madonna." Richard Strange

She had a keen mind, biting wit, and a model's beauty. Her career barely lasted a half-decade, yet she worked with movie star Kevin Klein, Grammy Award-winner Don Was (Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time), The Knack's Doug Fieger, sax radical James Chance, and August Darnell, a k a Kid Creole. Her legacy? Some brilliant singles, two albums, praise from Siouxsie, Blondie, and the fifth estate… and now, these reissues: Doll In A Box and Sleep It Off. 

Cristina Monet was destined for greatness before she ever cut a record. She attended Harvard (where she won the History and Literature prize in her sophomore year) and London's Central School of Drama. While working as an apprentice theater critic at the Village Voice, she met her future husband, fellow writer – and heir to the Mothercare fortune – Michael Zilkha. 

In 1978, Zilkha was keen on starting a record label that married punk with disco. Towards this end, he had purchased the publishing to « Disco Clone, » a ditty by a fellow Harvard undergrad thespian of Cristina's, Ronald Melrose. « When Michael bought 'Disco Clone,' I said, 'That is, without doubt, the worst song I have ever heard, » recalls Cristina. « It is so bad that the only way you could record it would be as Brechtian pastiche. » And Michael said, « Do you want to give it a shot? » 

With her dramatic training, Cristina – multi-tracked into a chorus of cooing clones – easily assumed the role of a Halston-clad disco bimbo. Finding a leering lothario to narrate the tale proved harder. « All the boys turned into pussycats in front of the microphone. » Finally, she approached Kevin Kline then on Broadway in On The Twentieth Century. « I nipped backstage and said, « How would you like to make some money ? ». He agreed. 

John Cale produced the track. (It would later be re-recorded by Cristina, Zilkha, and Bob Blank.) Island Records head honcho Chris Blackwell dug it. « Suddenly, I was a solo recording artist, on the newly-formed ZE Records/Island, » gasps Cristina. Surprise! « Disco Clone » would go through several incarnations (including « The Ballad of Immoral Manufacture »), prompting Blackwell to dub it « Island's most expensive failure, » but its charms didn't escape notice. Melody Maker called the disc « artfully dumb, » anointing it Single of the Week. 

For an encore, the chanteuse sunk her teeth into Peggy Lee's 1969 hit « Is That All There Is? » Arranged by Darnell, Cristina's rendition reflected her penchant for dark lyrics juxtaposed with jaunty music. When Blondie gave it the thumbs up on a BBC record-rating show, it seems poised to hit the charts… until songwriters Leiber and Stoller stepped in. 

Today, Cristina contends that her update, with its reflections on nightclubs full of « bored-looking bankers dancing with beautiful models » – « because nobody in the 1980s could get disillusioned by the circus at the age of twelve » – hewed closer to the Brechtian spirit of the original song than any straight cover. Still, the authors forced ZE to recall all unsold copies. « If I had been richer, I would have fought them on the basis that it was a parody, » says Zilkha. « But we didn't have the money, and they were threatening a lawsuit. » (Despite its scarcity, « Is That All There Is? » become a favorite of Siouxsie Sioux, who used it as exit music on The Creatures 1999 tour. It was also the most requested single on BBC1 for two years, and cited as one of the funniest records ever made by comedy team Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore). 

Darnell wrote and produced Cristina's eponymous 1980 LP, featuring the West Coast cult hit « Jungle Love. » Although she concedes that Darnell used Cristina's sophisticated disco-cum-big band arrangements, so well-suited to the budding Kid Creole and the Coconuts, as a platform to showcase his own strengths, she retains affection for it. It was the first cinematic, theatrical, nostalgic disco record, at a time when there wasn't a lot of humor in disco.  In a similar vein, the team also conjured up a swing rendition of the Beatles' « Drive My Car » (arranged by Darnell's brother, Stony Browder, alias Dr. Buzzard), with Cristina mimicking Marilyn Monroe to the last gasp. 

Before starting her next album, Cristina ventured to the Bahamas, for sessions with singer Robert Palmer acting as producer/arranger. « I spent most of my time at Compass Point cooking, cluttering up the studio with casserole dishes, » she cracks. Of the surviving recordings, which include « You Rented A Space, » she is especially fond of her deadpan reading of Prince's « When You Were Mine. » « It's got this decadent, Gidget-goes-trisexual vibe. » 

The singer fared better with her next collaborator, Don Was. « It's completely in keeping with the ZE philosophy to put two extremely disparate elements together, and see what happens, » says the producer. A 1981 Christmas single, « Things Fall Apart, » proved they clicked. It also revealed Cristina as a razor-sharp wordsmith. « I'd always written little, Dorothy Parker-esque pastiches, but at that point, I started to keep a notebook of lyrics. » Thus armed, she set out for the Motor City, to make her second album. 

ristina liked Was (Not Was): « Their music was extraordinary. » But were Was (Not Was) ready for Cristina? « We didn't have girls like her in Detroit, » recalls Was. « I went to dinner with her, and I remember feeling intellectually dwarfed. » They were assisted by an all-star cast, including Chance, Fieger, guitarist Barry Reynolds, and bassist Ben Brierley,  who proved the ideal vocal foil on another duet: « The Ballard of Immoral Earnings » from Threepenny Opera. 

« Adapting that song to something connected to rock and roll was not easy, » recalls Was. « I remember everyone really considering every note that was played, every single line. » Sleep It Off was months in the making. « I didn't work that hard with Bob Dylan, and he's my hero, » he adds proudly. Along with the ten tracks of the final album, the team also recorded « Smile » (later to resurface, sung by Fieger, on the Was (Not Was) LP, Born To Laugh At Tornadoes) and « Deb Behind Bars. » « That title is a bit camp, » says Cristina, « but I like it, because alliteratively, all those B's, jabbing at the ear, sound like bullets. » 

Sleep It Off was a masterpiece, from its unsettling Jean Paul Goude cover, to the haunting acoustic ballad « He Dines Out on Death. » In between, Cristina snarled the Sex Pistols-ish « Don't Mutilate My Mink » (« We should've given John Lydon a writing credit, » says Was), the electro-funk of « Ticket to the Tropics, » and a raucous romp through Van Morrison's « Blue Money. » Her rendition of « She Can't Say That Anymore » proved so sublime, hardly anyone realized it was a reinterpretation of 1980 country hit; « I found the song very evocative of screen doors, mosquitoes and sweat, Deep South depravity. » 

Zilkha thought « Mink » an ideal single; Cristina favored « What's A Girl To Do. » But Mercury Records, Cristina's new U.S. distributor, opted for « Tropics, » since it was a co-write with Fieger, who had scored a #1 with « My Sharona. » Alas, it didn't ignite the airwaves. « I still think that song is a hit, » contends Fieger; he recently submitted it to No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, as a candidate for inclusion on her solo album. 

« The one thing that pop music has lost lately is its sense of irony, » Cristina lamented when Sleep It Off dropped in 1984. « People either write dumb-funny novelty songs or dead-earnest serious songs. There's nothing around that combines elements of both. There's none of the real wit and self-humor of anyone from a Bertolt Brecht to a Cole Porter or an early Dylan. » On Sleep It Off, Cristina did. Yet while Rolling Stone gave the album a glowing, three-and-a-half star review, and The Face cited it in their year-end Top 20, it barely saw U.S. release. 

And then? Nothing. « I always had this guilt complex, that I was just a dilettante who'd fallen into music because of Michael's trust fund, » she confesses. « Then, at a point when I was very insecure, that point was driven home to me. » So she retired. Michael and Cristina divorced in 1990. Today, she divides her time between New York, London, and Paris. But recently, contemporary artists, including Ursula 1000 and Ladytron (who included « What's A Girl To Do » on their 2003 mix CD, Softcore Jukebox), have expressed interest in collaborations. "Yesterday's kitsch is tomorrow's antique," jokes Cristina, but the possibility of new recordings, she hints, is no laughing matter. 

20 years later, Sleep It Off's producer, Don Was, still holds Cristina in the highest esteem. "I didn't fully realize it at the time, but she achieved a certain artistic ideal. Sleep It Off is an incredibly honest representation of what she was about. Twenty years later, I've learned that that's what you want to do when you produce an album: Take a snapshot of somebody. Certainly, there were exaggerations – everyone is more complex than they can express in a three-minute song – but Sleep It Off is as accurate a portrait as Nick of Time". 

By Kurt B. Reighley

Track List
  • 1
    Jungle Love
  • 2
    Don't Be Greedy
  • 3
    Mamma Mia
  • 4
  • 5
    La Poupée Qui Fait Non
  • 6
    Temporarily Yours
  • 7
    Blame it On Disco
  • 8
    Is That All There Is? - Long Version
  • 9
    Disco Clone - Single Version
  • 10
    Drive My Car - Single Version
  • 11
    Ballad Of Immoral Manufacture
  • 12
    Drive My Car - Long Version