The Art School of Rock

“The art schools from my time specialised in old-school teaching methods of brutalising your students with some wild thinking that was off the map.” — Pete Townshend

“The experience of just being at art school gave me a lot to draw on – Pulp’s most famous song [Common People] is about something that happened there – but on a deeper level I was taught to think about things in a non-lateral way.” — Jarvis Cocker

“I had no talent as an artist, no real interest in art. I really wanted to get into a band. And it seemed like all my favorite musicians had gone to art school. So I went to art school. I just figured my first day, I’d walk into the toilet and there’d be a bunch of guys with guitars, and we’d be all set.” – Mick Jones

Where would British pop music be without art schools? They’ve been the incubator for some of our best talent since the 1950s, the place where kids with creative inclinations can be in an environment with other outsiders and rebels who don’t fit into traditional higher education or want a job in a bank or office. Many of them end up picking up guitars instead of paintbrushes as a means of expression.

The list of pop/rock art school alumni includes John Lennon (Liverpool College of Art), Keith Richards (Sidcup Art School), Jimmy Page (Sutton Art College), John Cale (Goldsmiths), Pete Townshend, Freddie Mercury (Ealing Art College), Ray Davies, Adam Ant (Hornsey College of Art), Syd Barrett (Camberwell), Bryan Ferry (Newcastle College of Art), Brian Eno (Winchester College of Art), Malcolm McLaren (Croydon Art College), Ian Dury (Royal College of Art), Joe Strummer (Central School of Art & Design), Viv Albertine (Chelsea School of Art), Paul Simonon (Byam Shaw), Sade (St. Martin’s), and PJ Harvey (Yeovil Art College).

I went to one myself in the early 1980s. I had no thought of what sort of job or career I’d get out of it but I was, as the cliche went, “good at drawing” at school and didn’t fancy reading books for three years at a university, so art school it was.

To begin with I took a one-year Foundation Course which is designed to make you try everything before deciding what to study for your degree, so I dabbled in painting, sculpture, environmental art, printmaking, and even performance art (sadly my piece “The White Brick” wasn’t filmed for posterity). But going from my rather mundane secondary school art lessons to the radical, experimental atmosphere of an art school was a real challenge. My tutor was a hard-core conceptual artist who called my work “shit” at one point, and I was close to leaving the first term as I struggled to get to grips with some of the projects we were given. But I stuck with it and by the end it turned into one of most rewarding, transformative experiences of my life, as important to who I am as hearing The Jam for the first time.


A lot of my non-student friends thought I just drew pictures all day but art schools aren’t there to teach you how to draw. Instead they encourage creative thinking and rule-breaking expression. At least the good ones do. Even the graphic design degree course I took was more about teaching us to think originally than learning technical job skills, and we were hanging out with painters, sculptors, photographers, and video artists, so it was a very stimulating environment to be in. We got drunk a lot too, of course.

You can point to Pete Townshend smashing up his guitar, Bryan Ferry treating songs as collages, and the early visual style of The Clash as the direct result of their art school experiences, and there is a definite link between them and what makes British pop so distinctive: The synthesizing of influences, the emphasis on visual presentation, the conceptual cleverness, and the sense of playful, subversive adventure. At it’s very best it’s a fusion of avant-garde art theory and rock and roll.

Sadly I’m not sure how true any of this is anymore with higher education in the UK being more results-based now, and the introduction of student loans means that fewer kids are able to spend four years just pissing around being “creative” at art school without a proper job at the end of it. Maybe one reason British pop has lost its edge is that most of our new stars come from stage schools instead.

In case you’re wondering, I never started or joined a band at art school myself, but some of my mates did. They were called He’s Dead Jim and only played one gig, in the student canteen during an all-night sit-in. I did “play” keyboards for them during one garage rehearsal though, my technique very one-note and droney owing to the fact that I couldn’t actually play the instrument. But that never stopped Brian Eno, did it?

Download: Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts – Bee Gees (mp3)

Sleeve Talk


When I think of living rooms in the 1970s certain things always come to mind: brown shag carpet, G-Plan furniture, spider plants, an Alphonse Mucha poster on the wall, and on a shelf a copy of Motown Chartbusters Vol. Six with the bluebottle-spaceship cover painted by Roger Dean.

As a kid I thought that spaceship was fantastic — though I had no idea what it had to do with Motown — and was a big fan of Dean’s work along with other SF/Fantasy artists like Chris Foss and Patrick Woodroffe whose art adorned the covers of the SF novels I was reading. Before I started spending all my money on records I spent it on collections of their work like Dean’s book Views. My number one artistic wish at the time was to draw Marvel comics, but second would have been to paint like those guys.

Dean is best known for his Prog Rock album covers, particularly those for Yes so he might seem a strange choice of artist for Motown to commission, but the album came out in 1971 early in his career before he was too closely associated with Prog. He had already painted a couple of album covers for Afrobeat group Osibisa so he did have some previous with black music.


Looking at this and the Motown album I’m thinking George Clinton should have got Dean to do some Parliament/Funkadelic sleeves.

Though there was never a set style for the Chartbusters series, most volumes usually had art that was either abstract or generic and a bug-spaceship may not seem like the sort of imagery you’d associate with a soul record. Hiring Dean could have been another of Motown’s attempts to appear more tuned-in and hip to the long-haired generation. In the 60s they’d added psychedelic flourishes to records and released more socially-aware material, and Vol. Six came out the same year as What’s Going On? so this may have been a way of selling some more of that counterculture vibe.


Whatever their reasons they got a sleeve that is highly memorable and distinctive because it’s so unexpected, and I wish they’d given Dean the whole series to do. I also love how the back cover imagines a Motortown Review in the futuristic date of 2008 happening on a spaceship. Unfortunately we know the reality wasn’t quite so far-out.

Download: Nathan Jones – The Supremes (mp3)
Download: Indiana Wants Me – R. Dean Taylor (mp3)

Commercial Break


This ad is a classic example of turning rebellion into money, in this case using women’s lib to sell booze. These ads are never aimed at people who already are adventurous, rebellious rule-breakers, but instead they’re for people who want to be like that. The message is always the same: Drink this, eat that, wear this, listen to that band, and you will be a cool person. One of the good things about getting older is not caring too much about that anymore, which is why advertisers don’t care about my demographic either.

The “until I discovered Smirnoff” campaign was so famous it inspired jokes like “I thought Cunnilingus was an Irish airline until I discovered Smirnoff” but was stopped in 1975 when the British government passed a law against alcohol advertising that claimed drinking the product would lead to sexual or social success. This is a witty ad but it does unfortunately equate women’s liberation with being sexually available, especially once you’ve got a few vodkas inside you.

Smirnoff certainly wasn’t the first company to co-op youth or social movements for the purposes of capitalism but I wonder who was. Probably someone in the 1920s using the Bright Young Things to sell headache powders.

Let’s get funky.

Download: Liberation Conversation – Marlena Shaw (mp3)

Nanny Knows Best


It wasn’t just kids who got lectures from the government about the correct behaviour. In the post-war years they liked to nag at grown ups too via posters that gave advice and instruction on the correct personal habits that were required if we were going to work together to build the New Jerusalem of happy, healthy people.

Many of these have been collected in the new book Keep Britain Tidy And Other Posters from the Nanny State which is full of State-sponsored finger-wagging about personal hygiene, diet, fitness, smoking, litter, drinking and driving, and even when to take your holidays.


A lot of the posters are about health and hygiene as this was an era when most people only had one bath a week (I think we had two as kids), smoked like chimneys, cooked with lard, caught diseases like Tuberculosis, and a lot of homes still had outside toilets. There is even a poster in the book telling people to change their underwear more often. Life was grim back then kids, everything was covered in soot, even the people.


Though the tone of the posters is mostly benevolent they do occasionally take on a more sinister Big Brother vibe like the giant finger below, and that Watch Out! There’s a Thief About poster from the late 60s seems like the beginning of the paranoia about crime that I mentioned in the previous post, and the government taking a more sensationalist, scare-mongering approach which was seen in those scary public information films aimed at kids.


Nowadays this might all seem very Orwellian, but the British have a love/hate attitude towards this sort of authoritarian maternalism. We gave the much-loved BBC the cozy nickname “Auntie” because of its we-know-best elitism, and Maggie Thatcher built her career on lecturing voters about how we’d been naughty and immoral. But in the past I don’t think we ever took the government and civil servants seriously enough to feel threatened by them, they were just old duffers telling us to brush our teeth more often.

Download: Danger Signs – Penetration (mp3)

Sleeve Talk


If the sounds on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk threw a lot of people for a loop, the front cover was also a radical departure from Rumours. Gone was the ornate type and hippie-mystic imagery of the previous album, jettisoned in favour of a sharper-edged and more modern style.

Instead of a picture of the band there was this curious snapshot of a little dog snapping at someones ankles which could represent the often spiky tone of the record and the feral nature of some of its rhythms, or maybe the dog was meant to be a coked-up Lyndsey Buckingham attacking their audience expectations. I’ve no idea, but it’s a way more evocative image than a picture of an elephant would have been.

The cover’s speckled background, abstract shapes of colour, spaced-out type, and randomly-scattered layout was inspired by a style known as California New Wave, a very American version of Swiss New Wave design which developed in late 1970s and was most well-known in the work of April Greiman (below) and the cult arts magazine Wet.


Very cutting edge at the time, California New Wave was like the anarchic, torn-paper aesthetic of Punk design transferred to a warmer climate where the sky was bluer and the colours brighter — though the colour palette of Tusk was rather more earth-toned, a reflection of the album’s ethnic influences.

The sleeve was designed by the firm of Vigon/Nahas/Vigon (who also did the previous two Mac albums) and is quite the production as befits what was, at the time, the most expensive rock album ever recorded. Instead of a gatefold the two records were housed in double inner sleeves which made the process of taking them out to play as much of an anticipated event as its release was – nearly three years since their previous album! Normal now, but an eternity back then.


The four sleeves were illustrated with the dense, African-inspired collages of Peter Beard and more arty photography which added to the feeling that this was a record made in some abstract, druggy dream by a band who were a bit fractured.


That surreal group photo is very reminscent of this famous poster April Greiman designed for CalArts the year before in 1978 (see the whole thing here.)


The signature visual elements of California New Wave would eventually become very identified as 1980s design, and Fleetwood Mac would be one of the few 1970s AoR bands to make a successful transition to the new decade, unlike their peers The Eagles who put out an album the same year with a drab, funereal cover. Subsequent Mac sleeves were far more conventional and they were never as experimental again, but in 1979 they (or at least Lyndsey Buckingham) were looking forward musically and visually.

Download: Walk a Thin Line – Fleetwood Mac (mp3)

The Big Number Two


NOW ON SALE: The bumper second issue of Crying All The Way To The Chip Shop: The Magazine (really must come up with a better word than Blogazine). A massive 44 full-colour pages packed with pictures and writing pulled from the best of my blog posts in mostly updated, rewritten, and improved versions. Featuring…


Comics!


Pin-ups!


Teen angst!


London!


More pin-ups!

All this yummy graphic goodness can be yours for a mere $9.25 or $2.99 for a digital version (which is free if you buy a print copy).

See more and buy it here.

Download: Art For Art’s Sake – 10cc (mp3)

Coming Attractions


It’s taken way too long but I’ve finally produced a second issue of Crying All The Way To The Chip Shop: The Magazine.

Featuring more pages, more words, more pictures (and costing more money as a result I’m afraid), and more razzamatazz! than the first one, I hope you think it was worth the time and effort.

On sale soon!

Download: Papercuts – Broadcast (mp3)

Sleeve Talk


In case you don’t know (the type is tiny) this is the gorgeous cover of Astrud Gilberto’s 1969 album I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do, and if the job of a sleeve is to convey what an album sounds like then this does the job beautifully — it’s so evocative you can hear the record in your mind just by looking at the photo: low-key, intimate, and sad. You almost don’t even need to listen to the record, but that would be silly because it’s wonderful, what Astrud called “my fireplace album.”

Download: I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do – Astrud Gilberto (mp3)

The staring-at-the-camera pose is often used for emotionally-vulnerable albums like this, Phil Collins did it too but he isn’t as pretty as Astrud Gilberto and having a face like hers really helps with a sleeve like this. I imagine the designer didn’t want any type on it at all but the label insisted so he did it as small as he could get away with. A lot of the skill in being a designer is knowing what not to do, or doing nothing but hire the right photographer.

The “right” photographer in this case was Joel Brodsky who shot several very famous record sleeves including Astral Weeks, Kick Out The Jams, and The Doors, (plus that iconic portrait of Jim Morrison) so he has a hell of a portfolio, but his lesser-known work also includes another of my favourite sleeves:


This is another very evocative photo that tells a story but I’ve always had trouble figuring out exactly what it is. Her nakedness and cigarette suggest this is post-sex, but she also looks very pensive and lonely curled up on her own like that. Whatever’s going on, it’s a beautiful photo and her coffee-coloured skin and au naturel state are perfect for Callier’s laid-back, Jazzy-Folky Soul.

Download: Just As Long As We’re In Love – Terry Callier (mp3)

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com

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