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)

Shiny Sleek Machine

Grace Jones’ classic 1981 album Nightclubbing has been given a well-deserved reissue with the usual deluxe treatment of unreleased tracks, remastering, remixes and all that lovely stuff.

There are two extended mixes of “Pull Up To The Bumper” on the reissue but not this one for some reason. I can’t remember where I got this from and there seems to be some confusion over its origin and availability. But wherever it came from it’s still brilliant, really bringing out the rubbery funkiness of the great Sly and Robbie rhythm section.

I danced to this on many nights back when it was a new record — Lord, what an amazing time for new music that was — and even though I knew it wasn’t really about parallel parking I’d never listened to the words close enough to realize just how filthy it really is.

Download: Pull Up To The Bumper (Larry Levan Garage Remix) – Grace Jones (mp3)

On The Beach

Here’s another gem I dug out of the old box o’ 12″ singles. Like the Soul Family Sensation record this is from 1990 and has a trippy, blissed-out vibe but is driven by a euphoric House beat. With its ocean sound effects and the lovely spoken-word sample of actor Rod McKuen whispering “I put a seashell to my ear and it all comes back” it’s all very sunkissed and Balearic, perfect for dancing on a beach with a thousand other people on Ecstasy all waving their hands in the air.

I never went to Ibiza but did once go to an insane all-night club in a warehouse outside Alicante where everyone seemed to be out of their heads on something or other and the music was brain-meltingly loud — it was quite an intense experience that didn’t end until the next morning. Some Spanish kids I knew took me there and I don’t think they went to bed the entire weekend I spent with them. I was only in my late 20s but they made me feel old with my quaint notion of things like getting some sleep. Crazy kids, those Spaniards.

A Man Called Adam were a British duo who I think are still making music in one form or another. I used to have their debut album The Apple but couldn’t tell you if it was any good or not as I don’t have it anymore — which I guess means it probably wasn’t.

Recorded from the vinyl so forgive any imperfections, I haven’t done that for a while.

Download: Barefoot In The Head (12″ version) – A Man Called Adam (mp3)

Something for the Weekend

I first heard this at the Lyceum soul nights I used to go to. I think Steve Walsh played it, and it was one of those very rare moments when a record literally makes you stop and think “What the fuck is this?” because I wasn’t sure what the hell I was hearing — some guys rapping/chanting over an electronic beat (Kraftwerk it turned out) — but whatever it was it sounded brilliant.

It was also the first time I saw anyone body-popping as there were two kids dancing near me like herky-jerky robots (this was before Jeffrey Daniels appeared on TOTP). When it was over I asked one of them what the record was called and he said “Planet something”, so the next day I went to my local Our Price and asked if they had some funky electronic record called “Planet something” and the man handed me the 12″ of “Planet Rock” — which I still have and it still sounds bloody amazing today.

New Monday

Another fabulous new track by Glass Candy who seem to be on a roll at the moment which bodes well for their long-promised next album whenever it appears.

This is from the After Dark 2 compilation of similarly throbbing and trippy Eurodiso put out by their label which also comes in mixed version that you can download for free — which you should do because it’s terrific.

New Monday

Disclosure have been getting rave reviews for their terrific debut album Settle and it’s mix of slinky electronic R&B and pumping dance beats. It’s quite the feat considering they’re two white English brothers from Reigate barely out of short trousers.

This track is a Garage/House number of the kind I used to dance to back in the days when I could make it through a whole extended 12″ single on a dancefloor without my knees and lungs begging for mercy. I believe the club kids nowadays call this sort of thing a “banger”.

Sleeve Talk (Redux)

As a sequel to last weeks post here’s another great Neville Brody sleeve from the early 1980s, this one featuring his own illustration. Good though it is, the record is even better and I would have bought it even if the sleeve had been covered in sick.

In case you didn’t know, Defunkt were an underground jazz-funk combo from NYC whom the NME once said were “to funk as the Sex Pistols were to rock”, and this extended version of “The Razor’s Edge” from 1982 is a sweaty, funktastic, nine-minute workout for your hips.

Download: The Razor’s Edge (12″ version) – Defunkt (mp3)

I Love Your Live Action

I was in two minds about going to see budding pop princess Charli XCX live at a tiny club in Boston on Saturday night. Not that I think there should be an age limit on enjoying modern pop music, but I did have a nagging doubt that maybe, maybe, someone of my advanced years shouldn’t really be at the concert of a 20-year-old member of the social media generation who makes videos that look like Instagrammed Tumblr blogs and sings lines like “You were old school, I was on the new shit” where “old school” probably means music made in the 1990s. Was I just being some ridiculous oldest swinger in town?

But I love her album so I went anyway and I’m very glad I did because she was tremendous and the crowd, while leaning very young (and gay), had a smattering of more, um, senior folk too, so I wasn’t alone.

The genre of synth-heavy dancepop she works in is more of a studio medium and isn’t exactly noted for live performance, but — damn, girlfriend — Charli didn’t just have the goods vocally but as a performer she was one of the most energetic and feisty I’ve seen in years. With her intensity and wild black hair I kept thinking of a young Siouxsie Sioux singing Britney Spears songs, and the way she was jumping around for the whole show I think she must have injected herself with pure Red Bull before she hit the stage. She really got the sold-out crowd going too and, being right at the front, I found myself in a minor mosh-pit of bouncing, dancing bodies which I think I really was too old for.

I don’t have any decent video of the show I went to but this clip from the night before in Montreal is pretty much the same as the gig I was at.

My only gripe is that her set was really short and she didn’t play an encore either which surprised me considering the wild response she was getting. But then I went outside after and there she was on the street mingling with the crowd and posing for photos. Maybe the encore is too much of a conventional, rockist gesture for der kidz now, and hanging out together after the show and sharing photos is the new thing. How should I know? I’m old.

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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