There’s a really strong visual theme to most of this month’s books, and there are some real treats in store too. Rock music has always been associated with powerful imagery, from the circus/carny type posters of the early rock’n’roll era and package tours, on through the radical style and culture upheavals of the 60’s, before punk generated a fresh influx of ideas and techniques. Now the Internet and graphics software have changed the game again.
Russ Bestley & Alex Ogg: The Art of Punk: The two books, “Art of Punk” and “Classic Rock Posters” – both bursting with a fantastic array of illustrations – complement each other really well, one telling the story in general, and the other examining the post-75 period in more detail. I’d have to say the “Art of Punk” is the best music/visuals book I’ve seen since Beth Lesser’s gorgeous ‘Dancehall’ a few years back. Put together by design lecturer Russ Bestley and all-round source of punk theory and analysis Alex Ogg, the book is a real visual treat, with over 900 illustrations.
There are chapters examining different aspects of the punk scene as it evolved and spread - Proto Punk, the Punk Explosion, New Wave and Post Punk, the DIY/Indie scene, Xerox culture, through to Anarchy, Oi! and Hardcore, concluding with a look at punk influences in contemporary art. In between there are interviews with many of the main players, including Mick Farren, John Holmstrom, Ramones’ visualist Arturo Vega, Peter Gravelle/Kodick, Malcolm Garrett and Jamie Reid.
As the book progresses, it really demonstrates the vitality that punk unleashed on a stagnating scene, and by taking a visual angle, it’s able to move beyond the music to a wider view of creativity in clothes, fanzines, political and anarchic activism. Some of the imagery here is familiar but essential – the Pistols’ ransom note lettering and brand imagery developed by Jamie Reid, for example – but there’s plenty that was designed to be ephemeral, used once and discarded. This stuff is easily lost, so books like this are important for collating the throwaway stuff. The influence of punk was totally outernational, and it’s great to see punk styles from all over the planet, and how it responded to different cultural settings.
The authors point out too how the DIY nature of much of the graphics here wasn’t some art-theory based approach, but a necessity at a time before all the scanners, desktop colour printers and photocopiers we have now were available. Even Day-Glo felt tips were a big new deal then!
As a result, a lot of the ‘zines and DIY single/album sleeves were b/w, leading to a stark and powerful style, whether stripped down – like a lot of the UK post-punk material from designers like Stiff records’ Barney Bubbles – or more elaborate, like the flyers from the US hardcore scene by artists like Ray Pettibon (a personal favourite), which drew a lot of their imagery from Hollywood film noir, 50’s trash TV, and sci fi pulp movies. By contrast, there are amusing sections on some of the mainstream music biz’s sillier attempts at colonizing the scene, like the coloured vinyl craze and Power Pop.
If you need any reminding of the inspiring diversity of punk, this book is essential, and shows that the graphics and imagery were just as important as the music, inseparable even. It’s a nostalgia free look at a scene that’s influencing art and design to this day and beyond.
Mick Farren & Dennis Loren: Classic Rock Posters - 60 Years of Posters & Flyers 1952-2012: Like it says on the tin, “Rock Posters” by all-purpose alt-culture warrior Mick Farren and designer/poster historian Dennis Loren covers a broader period time-wise and musically, concentrating on the poster medium, but also taking in fliers, adverts and handbills. Inevitably there’s overlap between the two books at times – like the interview with Mick Farren in “Art of Punk” – but very little duplication.
There are chapters on the main musical genres and art styles. It’s good to see the authors looking beyond rock to other forms like hip-hop, dance and the rave scene. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the high point of poster art came in the 60’s psychedelic period, with graphic and lettering artists and printers determined to push the boundaries as far as possible. The work of people like Martin Sharp, Mouse, Rik Griffin and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat is still a mind-bending contact-high in its use of colour and imagery. The following chapter on “Mainstream, Progressive and Metal” shows how the style was gradually diluted for mainstream consumption by the psych-lite styles of artists like Roger Dean and the Hipgnosis team.
The authors also make a strong case for that reviled decade, the Eighties, as a second golden age of poster art. Tough times like the Reagan/Thatcher era often inspire an intense response, as demonstrated here by the powerful graphic styles, logo and lettering by Crass and artist Dave King in the UK, and the punk/hardcore graphic style explosion in the US. Meanwhile artists on the metal scene extended their use of “Sword and Sorcery” style imagery. Elsewhere, especially in the US, artists ransacked trash culture imagery for inspiration in a similar way to the adaptation of Art Nouveau styles by 60’s poster artists.
The book brings us up to the present by looking at scenes like Grunge, Thrash, Goth and Indie – showing how the internet and the proliferation of graphics software and cheap scanners and printers have changed the game in a way that would have been unimaginable only a generation back – and concluding with an exploration of poster art in the digital age, and how it’s cross-fertilised with the ever-developing internet world.
These are two beautifully produced and generously illustrated books, with commentaries and interviews that lift them far above the coffee-table category. There’s a certain well known festival of commercialism just round the corner, so treat yourself – just don’t ask me to pick between them!
Paul Buck: Performance – A Biography of the Classic Sixties Film: I won’t even pretend to be impartial about anything to do with “Performance”, one of my Top three films ever since I first saw it in New York in 1970. I spent most of that night translating the various (mainly South) London accents for my US mates who were even more nonplussed by the Eurohip argot of Anita Pallenberg and Michelle Breton. That sense of place is one of the many powerful elements in the film, to the point of claustrophobia. James Fox’s character goes on the run, but is trapped in his own gangster underworld with nowhere to run. Equally, there’s a real sense of “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” as the door shuts to enclose us in Jagger/Turner’s sinister rock star playpen. It’s a perfect snapshot of the ‘69 vibe, where the times and the drugs were a-changing, leading to an increasingly paranoid and dislocated atmosphere.
Most previous writing about the film has tended to concentrate on cinematographer Nicholas Roeg’s role in the making of “Performance”. Film critics always love an “auteur theory”, so it’s then linked to Roeg films like “Don’t Look Now” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. He was indeed responsible for the visual side of the film – extraordinary enough in itself, with its dominant reds and blacks, visual puns and double-takes – but it was Donald Cammell who wrote the script and directed, inspired in many ways by his own life, which wasn’t too far removed from the Powis Square decadence of the film. Add a large helping of Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The South” (in particular) and the author’s general fixation with shifts of time and consciousness, plus some sex, magic, mysticism and the shape-shifting interplay between the Jagger and Fox characters, and you get a uniquely powerful and haunting film.
When Warner Bros commissioned it, they’d been expecting a groovy rock pic, graced by one of the biggest stars of the day (plus a Stones soundtrack to enhance the profits) to clean up in the wake of “Woodstock” and “Easy Rider” in the new counter-culture/youth market. Cammell managed to keep the company at arms’ length during the making of the film, which only enhanced their horror when presented with a story involving a sadistic gangster thug taking refuge with a fading rock star and his female entourage, with all manner of drug, sexual and mystical nuances in the mix too. In addition the soundtrack featured just one song with Mick Jagger, “Memo from Turner” – alongside a melange of country blues, seriously militant Black Power vibes from the Last Poets, and a mass of mesmeric bad-trip synth pulses and distortions courtesy of producer Jack Nitzsche. The company were predictably outraged, demanding cuts and re-writes which have led to a huge “Performance” subtext of variant edits and rumours of lost master tapes, all of which Paul Buck documents to intriguing effect.
To be honest, when I got the book I wondered about the word ‘biography’ in the title, but by the end it’s justified, as it tells of the film’s slow growth and troubled life. It’s an inside perspective of how it all came together, rather than a critic’s response to the finished product. At times some of the structure of the book is “Performance”-like in its time-shifts and distorted reflections, and it’s only right at the end that we learn that the author was friends with director Donald Cammell, and was part of the creative process of the film, writing what was meant to be a paperback version of the film, which sadly never appeared.
Some of the early chapters maybe dwell a little too long on familiar and oft-told aspects of the Stones in the Sixties story – the Redlands Bust, the decline and death of Brian Jones, the sexual competitiveness and politics within the group, for example – but it does help to set up the atmosphere around the film. It’s fascinating that the Turner character – often seen as an exaggerated version of Jagger himself – was in fact written as a combination of Brian Jones and Keith Richards
Paul Buck’s friendship with Cammell and involvement in the film mean that we get all kinds of fascinating details, like the stories of the different locations used to create the “Powis Square” mansion, or how designer/art dealer Christopher Gibbs was brought in to recreate Cecil Beaton’s Tangier pleasure dome for the interior shots.
“Performance” is one of the very few films I’ve never tired of watching over the years, but I’ve learnt plenty I didn’t know before from this intriguing book. In fact, know what? I might just give it another look tonight...
Rob Jovanovic: Nirvana - The Recording Sessions: There’s been no shortage of Nirvana books in the time since Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, and not surprisingly they’ve concentrated on the Tormented Artist life story of the singer and the group’s Icarus-like crash and burn. For a change this book takes a look at the actual making of Nirvana’s music, from Cobain’s home bedroom demos in ’82, through obscurities like Fecal Brain, to the “Nevermind” sessions and on through the controversies of Steve Albini’s production on “In Utero”.
Rob Jovanovic’s book is an updated version of the 2004 edition, and as he points out, there have been enough significant Nirvana releases since then – such as the excellent “Live at Reading” set, the “Sliver” compilation, box-set “With the Lights Out”, and the inevitable expanded versions of “Nevermind” and “Bleach”. Each recording session is listed with all the details you could want to know. In addition there’s a complete Nirvana gig list, discography, biographies of everyone involved, and details of the studios they used. It’s interesting to see just how different songs gestated and evolved – for example, “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “All Apologies” were written a good two years before making it on to “In Utero”.
There’s no denying that this book is aimed at serious Nirvana completist fans, rather than someone who gives “Nevermind” the occasional play, or that it’s more of a reference book to dip into than something to read from cover to cover. On the other hand, it’s good to see someone moving away from the usual media fixation with the “I Hate Myself and I Wanna Die” aspect of the group. It’s been very nicely produced too, with an easy-to-follow layout and plenty of b/w photographs.
Next month’s looking good already too – expect a retro journey to the days of Thin Lizzy, Procol Harum, and Led Zeppelin. If I can grow another pair of eyes I’d love to look at Pete Townshend and Neil Young’s attempts to “do a Keef” with their biographies too. See you then!
Reviews by Den Browne [Many thanks to Omnibus press]