Wednesday 29 March 2017

Magritte for the masses - the cover art of the art cover, part 3. Includes substance abuse.

My chosen theme for an important Art exam is one of the finest examples of futuristic technology in existence.  It’s interactive, revolutionary, progressive.  I’ve picked something ultra-modern, a reflection of the fast-moving times we’re in. 

I’ve decided to portray a Space Invaders machine.   It is 1980, after all.  Space Invaders are taking over the world, or at least the pubs of the world.

And I’m going to draw it in oil pastels.

Only, trying to draw a stupid Space Invaders machine  in a stupid hot studio at college, with no previous experience of these stupid smudgy colour sticks I’ve bought is a bit like trying to paint the Sistine Chapel with lipstick.  We’re up against the clock too, this being an exam.  I keep having to leave the room to spray it with fixative which is a right pain, and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “getting a fix” – or perhaps not.   The fixative smells like hairspray mixed with nail varnish, Evostik and vodka.  It can kill 30,000 brain cells in one sniff, or something like that, and if we knew all about CFCs and the ozone layer it would be banned, but we don’t - at least not for another nine years or so.

Anyway, every time I go out into the college corridor to sniff the fixative, Kirk is already there, sniffing his.  Kirk is one of my best friends.  He is tall, skinny, geeky, excruciatingly shy, a Sci-Fi fan with a dry, caustic wit, and he looks a bit like a young Catweazel, if you can imagine that.  I swear he eats nothing but cream buns and he wears those Cornish Pasty shoes.  He is also super-talented, an incredible young artist.  On a large piece of card he is portraying a wonderfully bizarre view from a window, abstract and full of dreamlike atmosphere, and it is a masterpiece - skillfully, expertly rendered – in oil pastels.  Even after several sniffs of fixative spray I think we can safely say he still has a lot more brain cells than me.

When the exam is over, Kirk has produced a piece of art good enough to hang in the Louvre.  Me, I’ve produced a piece of shit not even good enough to hang in the loo.

 I scrape by with a ‘C’  in my ‘A’ Level Art for a stupid smudgy picture of a stupid arcade machine being played by my disembodied hands; the whole thing looks more like a patterned jumper knitted by Aunt Ada after the malfunctioning sausage machine incident of '74.  However,  I’m very happy to say that Kirk is awarded an ‘A’ for his magnum opus.  Not only is it a brilliant piece in its own right, but it’s also an homage to another fantastic artist, René Magritte.

As you may know from the first part of this series, Magritte is one of my favourites, so this is where the cover art theme comes in, as it turns out that there are an awful lot more examples of Magritte's inspiration than Kirk's 'A' Level Art triumph and a Jackson Browne album sleeve.

Such as this…

Styx: The Grand Illusion

...and this…

Roger Daltrey: One Of The Boys

...this too.

Funeral For A Friend: Casually Dressed And Deep In Conversation

Some are slightly less derivative, but still clearly inspired by Magritte...

Heart: Greatest Hits

Gary Numan: The Pleasure Principle

There are also the covers which simply use original Magritte artwork, like these

Gladys Knight & The Pips: Visions

Jeff Beck: Beck-Ola

Alan Hull & Radiator

How brilliant and influential is Magritte?!  Far too many examples to compare and contrast this time, I'm sure you'll agree.  Mind you, I wish I could see Kirk's 'A' Level picture again and show it to you here; I have no doubt that it could still be a favourite...

... a bit like this was in 1980:

Space Invaders game

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Rod or Renoir? The cover art of the art cover, part 2. Includes snogging.

I had my first, proper tongues-included kiss to Rod Stewart’s ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’.  It was with an identical twin and it was awful. Not that those two things are connected.  But they were both slobbery.

It  was Spring 1977, I was thirteen, liberally doused in Charlie perfume and wearing a cheesecloth blouse in pale blue to match my eyeshadow, unaware that my little white padded bra beneath it was illuminated like a neon sign in the ultraviolet lights of the local disco.  The twins – who seemed really old, I mean they must’ve been about fifteen -  flirted clumsily with my friend and me and then when Rod’s ballad came on one of them grabbed me and the next thing I knew we were doing that weird, awkward, rotating thing they call a slow dance. Halfway through he asked me if I’d ever kissed anyone before.  I told him I hadn’t.  What followed was a lot of mangling of lips, teeth and tongues and some unpleasant exchanges of dribble.  I’m just glad I'd taken both my dental braces out earlier that night or there could've been some serious injury involving wire and tonsils.  But I was off the starting blocks.

So whenever I hear that track I’m there again, uncomfortable and naïve, French kissing a boy I didn’t fancy one iota but feeling strangely proud for trying it, even if it left me slightly traumatised and in need of water, a bit like taking part in a chili eating contest.  I’d been practising it on the back of my hand for months, after all, so it was about time I tried it on something that moved and, mainly due to her 'beef chunks in jelly' halitosis, the cat was not really an option.

What I didn’t know about that song at the time was that before being released as a double A side with ’I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ and reaching No. 1 in the singles chart, it had appeared on Rod’s 1976 album ‘A Night On The Town’.

What I also didn’t realise at that time because my familiarity with impressionists did not extend beyond Mike Yarwood, was that the sleeve art for ‘A Night On The Town’ was a pastiche of a famous piece of art from 100 years earlier: ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Just like identical twins (oh the connections keep coming!), they were superficially alike but not exactly the same.

Now which one do you prefer?

Renoir’s beautiful depiction of Parisians dancing and feasting on a Sunday afternoon, an Impressionist masterpiece full of life and joy, with its richness of colour and the incredible sense of light, dappled through the trees, almost flickering off the canvas, and all those shapes and forms fitting together so well, so organically?

Or the same scene as painted by Mike Bryan, so self-consciously copied that the lines and brush strokes look rigid, that lovely fluid quality that Renoir achieved is sadly missing, the softness of the faces hardened, the figures flat, the illuminated hues of a balmy afternoon now duller and more like a morning in February?

And its pièce de résistance - grinning out at us from underneath an ill-advised straw boater (I know he just wants to fit in with 19th century Paris but the mullet is a giveaway, he’d make a crap time-traveller) is Rod himself - looking more like a schoolgirl from St Trinians than a raspy-voiced ladies' man.  

I'm not saying that I could have painted a copy any better, I couldn't - just that, like Morris Dancing and incest, some things in life are best left untried.

It's a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.

Still, it gives me an excuse to include a far superior version and great live performance of ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’ (written by Cat Stevens), sung by PP Arnold in 1967.  I do like this rendition and the good thing about it is that it helps me to disassociate the song from the snog.  Let's just say, the first kiss was not the deepest…

Sunday 12 March 2017

The cover art of the art cover

There’s a series of paintings by Magritte which I love: L’empire de Lumières (Empire of Light).   I love them because they’re impossible.

The sky tells you it’s daytime, but everything else shows it’s night.  At first it looks like some kind of twilight scene, but the sky is full of light and the light should go somewhere - it doesn't.  Instead the trees and ground are in darkness, the buildings illuminated only by a streetlamp.  Magritte’s art is full of the unexpected, of little visual tricks and playful combinations that don’t go together naturally.   I had no idea that I’d ever be saying the same thing about Jackson Browne.

But here it is – the cover art to Jackson’s album ‘Late For The Sky’.

Thanks to it being featured at  Rol’s very fine blog My Top Ten,  it was the first time I've taken notice of the sleeve which I must’ve flicked past in record shop racks many times before now.  But the picture is brilliantly inspired by the Magritte series, this time a photographic sky of vivid daytime blue with bright white clouds which could only be lit by strong sunshine so, like the painting,  everything else should be too - but no.  Clever, innit?  I still prefer Magritte, though. 

Anyway it got me thinking… about art and album covers and how there are others that also take their influence from well-known paintings.  One of them sprang to mind straight away.

Bow Wow Wow: 
See Jungle!  See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah.  City All Over! Go Ape Crazy!

It's still controversial because we're aware that Annabella Lwin was only 15 at the time of the photo shoot.   When asked in later years if she realised how 'shocking' the image was she replied that she didn't and that the difficult part for her was really just the act of sitting there naked in the middle of nowhere on a cold early morning with her clothed male band mates. The original Manet painting had also been thought of as offensive (though for different reasons) and was rejected by the official art exhibition (the Salon) in France at the time of its creation in the 1860s.  It wasn't the nudity itself that was the problem (hardly unusual in art!) but something about the context. 

Edouard Manet:
Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe 1863

However this wasn't the first time a painting of nude women in the outdoors with clothed men had been exhibited in France so it seems a bit hypocritical.  Manet was influenced by this one on display in the Louvre, painted over 300 years earlier.

It's not known whether this is by Giorgione or Titian
Fiestra Campestre,  1510

At Bow Wow Wow's peak anyone buying their records was already familiar with seeing photos of Annabella without many clothes on, and I don't remember this cover seeming as outrageous in 1981 as it probably would be now, although it still ruffled feathers - just as Malcolm McLaren intended it to.  The publicity worked - the album quickly made it to No. 1 in the charts - but a less happy outcome of that cover was a rift it caused between Annabella and her mum.

But I know I readily accepted it - as art, I suppose - at the time of its release, when I was just 17 myself.  I might have done the same as Annabella at 15 and I doubt I'd have ever thought of it as anything dark, especially with band mates - more just embarrassing, but also rebellious.  Perhaps the fact that it was an obvious pastiche of a painting made all the difference?  Also I can't help thinking about how the photo shoot must have felt in real terms, all waiting around for the right light and getting the technical details in order whilst hoping your, erm, goose pimples don't show, a bit like life modelling with a broken fan heater.

I've been looking at other album covers inspired by famous paintings too so I've some lined up for future posts (oh, another series!)  As in the thoroughly enjoyable one over at Charity Chic Music where we get to weigh up a wide selection of cover versions with their originals (the outcome for Bob Dylan was victorious but we've yet find how it’s all going to pan out for Bruce Springsteen) I found myself wanting to rate which one I preferred.  Most of the time it's the original painting but I'd have to give my points to Bow Wow Wow for this one - the lushness of the setting and Annabella's typically defiant expression take me right back to this great song (which I can't embed because Blogger won't let me - censorship all over again? - so here's a youtube link)

Bow Wow Wow: Chihuahua

And here's that fantastic clip of Annabella sticking it to the extremely condescending BA Robertson.

"All froth and flounce..."?  What a dickhead.

Wednesday 8 March 2017

'A trip into the world of real psychedelia and more' ?! #2

When introducing this new series last month I explained how some musical discoveries in my twenties excited me so much that I was inspired to make my own fanzine on the subject.  It was the 1980s and the garage, psych and beat music that obsessed me was mostly from the mid 1960s - but it was so fresh to my ears that it really felt like I was indulging in something new.

Much like blogging now, I wanted an outlet, a way to express and share my enthusiasm and the fanzine was the solution. Somehow I managed to write, illustrate and design six editions, by hand.

For this series I’m going to post some of the tracks I wrote about then, along with snippets of whatever it was I said.  As the strapline of my fanzine rather grandly announced, it's ‘A trip into the world of real psychedelia and more’.  

~ - ~

I remember wondering how to start.  So much to say!  And so excited I didn’t know how to say it!  So I started Issue 1 with some drawing instead – a doodly cover illustration with a woman with no top on…  they say sex sells.  For 15p, in this case. 

Armed with a selection of fine-tip Pilot pens, some magazines to cut up for collage and piles of records, I got going.  Issue 1 included quite a cross-section of reviews/summaries – including my favourites from the past such as the Eyes and the Action...

... alongside much loved contemporary bands with a retro sound, e.g. the Nomads and the Prisoners.

  Then I launched into a six-page article on the ‘Pebbles’ series of compilation albums featuring largely unknown US bands from twenty years back.  

Here’s some of what I had to say about them.

“The ‘Pebbles’ albums are a classic selection of American 60s punk.  They feature a mixture of incredible obscurities, psychy classics and novelty records that are just good for a laugh.  Some of the slightly better known tracks featured on them have since been covered by new groups such as the Lords Of The New Church, Plan 9 and the Cannibals and have thus reached a legendary status.  I’ve listed here most of the Pebbles LPs that I think are worth checking out if you can.  Most of them are stil available, though you’d probably have to pay over £7 each…”

£7 seemed an awful lot of money to pay for an album in 1986.

“…There are loads of similar compilations around – Acid Dreams, Acid Visions, Nuggets, Highs In The Mid-Sixties – to name but a few , but it’d take many long hours, several biros and yards of paper to review them all, so I’ll just stick to Pebbles for now!”

Err…  Biros…?   Paper…?  What are these things I speak of?

“… I think the reason there are so many more US compilations than UK ones is that so many bands over there were able to release one-off singles on really small labels, so a lot of stuff was getting heard.  Some records were the only ones to be released on a particular label.  The scene must have been similar to the indie scene that thrives over here now, and come to think of it, it’s amazing that half of the records ever survived as they must have been pressed in really small quantities!  Anyway, I’m really glad that someone managed to find them and compiled these albums for our enjoyment twenty years on…”

Weird to think that those twenty years are now… aargh! … fifty years on.

A great one to start off with!  Side 1 opens with a real classic – ‘Action Woman’ by the Litter.  Check out the Damned’s version of this too, on the Naz Nomad and the Nightmares album.  It has a catchy chorus, screaming guitar and just shoots straight into your bloodstream….”

Forgive me, I was young.  I know music doesn’t ‘shoot straight into your bloodstream’.  But still, it’s a great track, so here it is.

“… The side closes with the Haunted’s ‘1-2-5’ – a beaty little number that has also impressed a few new bands such as the Electric Roaches and the Fuzztones!  It was a major hit in the band’s home country, Canada, at the time of its release…”

I loved the Fuzztones but, weirdly, I don’t remember the Electric Roaches at all.  Never mind, here’s the original from the Haunted.

You know what, they still sound fucking great.

More snippets and songs next time!

Tuesday 7 March 2017

A view to a kill

As far as excuses go, I don’t think “The sparrowhawk ate my woodpigeon” is going to wash when I explain why I’m a bit behind on my work – but it’s what held me up yesterday.  I’d come in from my Shedio (shed/studio, out in the garden) to make a cuppa, got sidetracked checking emails, and when I went back to the kitchen to get my tea I witnessed some very gruesome bird-on-bird action through the window.

I’m glad I missed the initial attack - must’ve been pretty harrowing.  The woodpigeon is a big old bird and weighs about half as much again as a female sparrowhawk.  However, with her speed and stealth, the sparrowhawk had ambushed it and was already plucking out its feathers whilst pinning it to the ground, ready to eat.  Sadly, it was probably still alive.

Once the sparrowhawk started tucking in to its prey I realised I too was ambushed in a way –  trapped inside the house because going back to work in the Shedio would mean disturbing her and I didn’t want to.   My reasons being: a) until most of it had been eaten, the woodpigeon would be too big for the sparrowhawk to carry away in her claws to finish elsewhere so its death would’ve been futile and, frankly, what a waste of fresh meat  and, b) I didn’t really want the job of clearing up the crime scene.

So I decided to wait until the sparrowhawk had eaten the whole bloody thing even though it would take hours. 

Anyway, next time I glanced out the window the hawk was on the fence, empty-footed, cleaning her talons before  flying off.  Finally (but too late to get on with any more work, honest)  I could go outside.  It looked like there had been a small explosion in a feather duvet shop but, apart from that,no sign of any other pigeon remains.

When I looked out this morning, though, the sparrowhawk was there again.  And so was what was left of the woodpigeon, having its bones picked clean by the look of it.  I was surprised – seems the hawk must have left it hidden somewhere overnight and returned to retrieve it and finish it off today; I didn’t know they did that.  

The sparrowhawk and I both ate our breakfasts and by the time I’d finished so had she.  So I went outside to survey the scene, and this time I found a foot.  A whole woodpigeon foot, that was all. But be thankful I've spared you a photo.

Now, don’t be too put off, but I have a macabre fascination with this kind of thing and don’t find it gruesome at all.  Maybe because it’s all part of the way nature works.  Perhaps also because I when I was growing up my sister used to keep strange pickled things in her bedroom and I don’t mean onions.  She had a bat, fish eyeballs, a chicken’s foot – all to satisfy her interest in Biology.  Once we were on holiday, driving slowly along a quiet country road in Dorset, when my mum spotted something unusual just up ahead, motionless on the tarmac but looking like a snake.  Indeed, it was a large grass snake.  Dead, but perfectly preserved (no tyre marks).  

It’s only on recapping this story that I realise it may seem bizarre that we stopped , picked it up off the road and drove on with it in the car.  Then my mum and sister spent the next day traipsing round chemist shops in the Lyme Regis area in pursuit of formaldehyde.  And they got some.  So then we kept a  dead grass snake pickled in a jam jar of formaldehyde in the hotel room for the rest of the holiday (before it was given permanent residency on my sister's grim specimen shelf).

But I digress; the disembodied foot is still out there in the garden and I suspect it may have belonged to Limpy, who was a regular woodpigeon visitor, recognisable by (as you probably guessed) a limp.  Just now another woodpigeon has been sitting on the roof for an awfully long time, cooing and calling, probably for its mate, and no-one turned up. 

However, the sparrowhawk has feasted well.  It can’t be an easy life for this magnificent bird of prey, having to catch other birds on the wing – eating little else – this is a committed carnivore.  The female can survive for seven days without food apparently so hopefully a belly full of woodpigeon will keep her hunger at bay for another week.  If not she can always come back for the foot.

RIP Limpy (I think).
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