I Saw Jefferson Airplane—and Santa Played Lead Guitar!

4 Feb

The Columbia Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition of classic height-of-hippiedom posters by the likes of Victor Moscoso and Bonnie MacLean. The designs are supposed to be promoting the psychedelic music of Moby Grape, The Grateful Dead and other luminaries of the tripped-out late-Sixties scene—so how come Edgar Allan Poe and Santa Claus make an appearance? We asked the eminent design historian and serial collector Mel Byars to explain.

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The trippy, elaborate design of the posters, which you collected and donated to the Columbia Museum, is at odds with the slick output of Madison Avenue in the same years—a countercultural West Coast riposte to East Coast consumerism. You were working in New York in the late Sixties. What did you make of these psychedelic designs at the time?

I didn’t and still don’t like rock music. I only listened to 30s and 40s music and didn’t know about the posters at the time. It was a West Coast, particularly San Francisco, phenomenon. Living in New York City at age 30 in 1968 and working for book publishers and advertising agencies, I was only interested in Swiss design. The idea of words in advertising or posters that people cannot read would have been absurd to me—just as today. The rock-music artists were drugged hippies. Only one was female, the wife of the Fillmore Auditorium’s Bill Graham. They were not selling anything. They were not propagandists. The images included are dotty, having no relationship whatsoever to the musicians—Edgar Allan Poe, Gloria Swanson, Santa Claus with horns, the Taj Mahal and Jesus.

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Does Sixties psychedelia have much importance for today’s designers?

I am trusting that those like me—teachers and historians—don’t decide what designers should think or what is important. At least I hope not. I only report. The importance for today’s designers is to think for themselves, watch TV news, read newspapers and, in fact, read. Most graphic design today and in the past is shit. Look at adverts in newspapers. Who is executing that stuff? Graphic designers will be well served to acquire an in-depth education in the humanities first.
As an aside about psychedelic posters, I had a dream a few days ago that made me aware that they are all positive—no matter how silly—nothing dark. Yet they were being created as the same time (late 60s) as the morass of youth protests in the US and Europe.

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As promotional tools, the posters could be said to fail in one very important respect. That is, the text is so hard to read it’s difficult to know what they’re advertising. Why is that, do you think?

The claim that they failed is your assertion. One of the two most prominent designers, Victor Moscoso, who studied with Josef Albers at Yale University, said he didn’t care if his posters were readable. (The other most prominent designer was Wes Wilson.) There are more peculiarities such as the poster for two- to three-day venues only; the designs are intricate in most examples, and the printing is complicated. But only a handful of printers produced the posters. If you think that the phenomenon of the unreadable died after the 60s and early 70s, you are forgetting April Greiman’s messy scrapbook aesthetic and David Carson’s intentionally unreadable work, such as his so-called deconstructivist pages for Ray Gun.

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You’re a serial collector. What else have you collected and where did it all begin? (Tell us about your childhood.)

Serial collectors are strange people. I don’t think that I and other obsessive collectors can explain ourselves.
About stuff: I don’t have much left except 100+ examples of Navajo blankets that I am wishing to grant to an as-yet-undetermined institution. (If there is a curator out there interested, speak up.) I have donated large numbers of design and anthropological objects to museums around the world—New York City, Prague, Paris, Israel—and the rock posters in my hometown, Columbia, South Carolina. The most rare, most interesting gift I have made—at least in my opinion—is probably a quipu to the Israel Museum of Art.
You ask about my childhood. I was bullied almost to death, being beaten up by school bullies at least once a week in a lower-class neighbourhood. Skinny. A loner. Angry. Lived with mother and aunt. A lovely black woman (I’m white) took care of me when my mother, a perfectionist, was at work as a secretary. Had one friend at a time, usually a loser like me. Father was a mess; he didn’t live with us but did live in the same town. Saw him fairly often. Was forced to go to Sunday church services—the most boring times of my life. Have been writing at least since 8th grade when I received a little trophy for a school-newspaper article. Highly influenced by Hollywood films that were, due to the times, absent of violence and sex. Good thing because I might have become a serial killer. Was normal in other ways, such as collecting insects, raising tropical fish, building models. And was abnormal in that I read and reread every page of the fifteen volumes of Compton’s Encyclopedia—must have cost my mother a lot of money. However, if a model kit was too advanced for my age and it didn’t turn out perfectly, I would smash it into a zillion pieces. Some of my mother’s friends told her that I needed to see a psychotherapist. I’m not sure that there were any in town—the same city to which I have retired now and the same city in which the museum to which I donated the rock posters is located, and the same city where there are now more than fifty psychotherapists. What goes around comes around.
Yet, memories are memories of memories. All change with time. I have discovered in my dotage that some proved to be inaccurate.

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You’re also the author of perhaps the most comprehensive design encyclopedia ever published (The Design Encyclopedia, published by MoMA and Laurence King Publishing). How long did it take you to write it, and what is the biggest lesson you learned from doing it?

This question from you is covert because you, Robert Shore, were the editor of the second edition and worked with me on it almost daily. It took eight years to write it. The first four were on the first edition (1994), about which few people know, and the publisher assigned the same title to the second edition as to the first edition. Thus, confusion has been created. The second edition took another four years; however, the seeds of the first were used as a foundation for the second. For the first edition, there was no significant internet available to help me appreciably with the research; therefore, much of it was garnered from books in a range of languages. Only an insane person like me with no advanced degree in the subject and no prior books published would attempt to write an encyclopedia. Laurence King, the publisher, has claimed that he recognized that I was nevertheless capable. It is possible that he used a divining stick or witching rod. I was fifty years old at the time. The second edition, ten years later, and which included the Museum of Modern Art as the publisher, is more thorough and accurate due to internet support and a group of fact-checkers, whose expertise and energy greatly varied.
I learned that writing nonfiction books will not make me rich; in fact, will make me poor. I learned that without a patient editor, like you, Robert Shore, it might not have been possible. I learned that serendipity plays a big role in everyone’s significant accomplishments: I was relatively free at the time of the second edition, lived in Paris with a garden (the garden helped), and was meagrely supported by money bequeathed to me by my stepfather. Possibly the biggest lesson I learned is that, because I become bored easily, I have quit a number of projects in midstream in my past—the cause of great but secretive shame, if one can be secretively shamed. The fact that I persisted with the first and second editions of the encyclopedia to their very end—and I emphasize “very end”—absolved me in my mind. And when, in the introduction to the second edition, Terence Riley, the head of MoMA’s design and architecture department, called me the Diderot of design, he closed the door on my quest. Being awarded the Besterman/McColvin Gold Medal for the best reference book was momentarily thrilling, but the excitement soon faded. And, by the way, I have lost the medal—cannot find it anywhere. Besides, what would I do with it? Certainly not wear it or place it on display.

“Psychedelic Design: Rock Posters from the Mel Byars Collection, 1966–1971” continues until 12 March
https://www.columbiamuseum.org/exhibitions/psychedelic-design

(From elephantmag.com)

#NationalMidlandsWeek FAQs

17 May

What is #NationalMidlandsWeek?
It’s a week of national thanksgiving for the Midlands and Midlanders.

Why should the nation give thanks for the Midlands?
Because everything good and useful about England, the UK, the EU, the world, the universe, etc, started in the Midlands. As a nation, as a species, we owe the Midlands and Midlanders more or less everything, and it’s time we started to express that more clearly.

What form will this national thanksgiving take?
Since everyone is invited—and in truth ought to be obliged—to participate, it seemed foolishly limiting to hold an event in, say, Mansfield Town Square (max. capacity: 345). So instead the Thanksgiving Service will be held in the ether, or over the airwaves. Just tune in to BBC Radio 4 at 13.45 every day—between the one o’clock news and The Archers—from Monday, 23 May to Friday, 27 May: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bthdr

What other events are planned?
None. But feel free to improvise your own.

What do you have planned for #NationalMidlandsWeek next year?
Nothing.

Elton John, Wonderful Crazy Night

5 Feb

‘This is a raucous rock n roll record,’ Elton John says of his 32nd studio album, explaining that it was put together in the same way as his 1970s classics Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Honky Château. ‘I don’t think I have ever made such an uptempo, energetic album. It just bangs away!’ That’s probably an exaggeration – although after 2013’s more intimate The Diving Board you could probably get away with comparing it to Motörhead. The title-track opener is a real honky-tonk party-starter of a tune, while Guilty Pleasure charges forward astride a positively raucous, shimmering rockabilly riff courtesy of returning guitarist Davey Johnstone, who is likewise on hand to provide In The Name Of You’s funky, recursive piano figure with moody chiaroscuro shadings. There’s no shortage of melodic hooks or stylistic surprises: Claw Hammer develops unpredictably from brooding beginnings into an open-hearted, almost do-si-doing chorus before drawing to a jazzy, brassy conclusion. Sir Elton is joined again in the control room by T-Bone Burnett, the producer who carried former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant deep into bluegrass territory on Raising Sand. Wonderful Crazy Night similarly draws deep lungfuls of rootsy country (and western) air. Regular co-writer Bernie Taupin’s lyrics contain references to mercy and amazing grace. The lovely, folksy ‘I’ve Got 2 Wings’ is a celebration of Elder Utah Smith, a preacher who wore a pair of wings and played a Gibson guitar to carry his listeners to higher ground. ‘Every breath is a prayer of some kind,’ sings Sir Elton on Blue Wonderful, while on The Open Chord he says he has had ‘the horns that the devil used to make me wear all day’ clipped off. If the music has a strong pulse, it’s also imbued with a deep sense of heartfelt, spiritual serenity.

Edited version published in Metro, 3 February 2016

Ocean Colour Scene – live review

25 Jan

Twenty years on from the giddy heights of Britpop, a lot of middle-aged men and women would (to use the lingo of the times) be mad for an Oasis reunion. The Gallagher brothers don’t seem minded to reunite, but never fear: Ocean Colour Scene are here to help you sing along like it’s 1996 all over again.

Beginning with the roaring Zeppelinesque riffology of The Riverboat Song and the Beatlesisms of The Day We Caught The Train, the Brummie boys performed their 20-year-old retro classic Moseley Shoals in full. It’s an album of many whoa-whoas and la-la-las, and the crowd sang along lustily with every single one of them.

The album-in-full format is great for nostalgic audiences, although it felt like a bit of a straitjacket for the band, who put out new music as recently as 2013. Only on tumultuous, moody closer Get Away did sharp-dressed guitarist Steve Cradock really let rip.

Shielded for the most part behind an acoustic guitar, singer Simon Fowler, sporting waistcoat and specs, initially had the air of a retiring university lecturer who looked mildly surprised to see that so many students had turned up to hear him. He bantered a bit between songs but the enthusiastic din meant most of what he said was inaudible.

After a short break, the band returned to play a further set of fan favourites, including anti-war hymn Profit In Peace. Performing Robin Hood solo, Fowler threw in a snatch of Live Forever – so there was a bit of Oasis after all.

Published in Metro, 25 January 2016

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One Direction at the O2, 24 Sept 2015

28 Sep

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George Ezra at Brixton Electric, 16/02/15

26 Feb

‘My name’s George Ezra, this is my lovely band and we’re going to play some songs for you.’ There’s a charming artlessness about the way the affable 21-year-old with a number-one album and four BRIT nominations to his name greets an expectant, packed-out Brixton Electric before launching into the roof-raising skiffle-stomp of Cassie O’. The night is won before he’s sung a note in that extraordinary baritone voice of his; cries of ‘Love you, George’ punctuate the subsequent pauses between songs. With his nice haircut, clean-cut demeanour and knack for writing undemanding, gentle-paced tunes your grandparents would approve of, Ezra is something of a throwback to the early days of pop: you can imagine him performing on a bill alongside The Beatles circa Love Me Do and Please Please Me. He certainly has a talent for writing happy-go-lucky youthful anthems pleasantly shadowed by the experience of first love (Blame It On Me). So far, so beigecore. As homages to Central European capitals go, Ezra’s biggest hit to date, Budapest, doesn’t compare to Ultravox’s Vienna, its breezy, almost yodelled chorus veering dangerously close to novelty-song territory. But there’s a darker side to George, as evidenced when he quits the delicate shuffle-sway of future wedding-reception standard Listen To The Man for the resonant off-kilter biblical menace of Spectacular Rival or the complex country blues of Did You Hear The Rain?, which begins with a mournful unaccompanied sung invocation before galloping off to a furious climax echoing with the refrain of ‘O Lucifer’s inside’. It’s on this sulphurous note that Ezra chooses to end his short set tonight, which suggests that he may already be plotting his transition from easy-listening pop troubadour to full-on rock star.

Abigail Reynolds: Cuts in Time

24 Feb

greenwich 71 50 copy ‘London is this dynamic, constantly shifting swirl of people and movement,’ explains Abigail Reynolds. ‘But the monuments don’t fundamentally change.’ It’s this simple but potent insight that endows Reynolds’s The Universal Now series with its quietly uncanny, subtly mythic quality. The works are created by splicing together photographs of the same London monument taken from the same place by different photographers at different times – often decades apart. ‘I think it’s quite a beautiful idea that there are these people who have stopped and placed this little circle of glass in the same spot in front of these monuments that we’re constantly passing by without really looking at them,’ says Reynolds, who grew up in London but is now based in Cornwall. ‘The buildings are the overt subject of The Universal Now but the real subject is time. We’re in this fluid river of time which is unstoppable but through photography you can have these frozen moments. When I started the series I was looking at the Lorenz Attractor and ideas about how time could be folded, about wormholes in time and how you could get loops and things could be folded back over one another.’ Alb Hall 48 85 She describes her temporary move from London to New Mexico some years ago as a formative experience in her practice. ‘Albuquerque is a place where there is only one moment. Stuff is built and it’s never demolished because it doesn’t rust, and because there’s other land you don’t pull it down, you just build on other bits of land.’ Exposure to the more expanded New Mexico architectural horizon triggered a recognition of the palimpsest-like quality of the London landscape. ‘I’d never previously really appreciated the intense layering that’s been going on in London since pre-Roman times. It was only after I’d lived in Albuquerque that I understood how I’d been living inside this extreme compression of time and detail in London.’ With its folds and careful layering, The Universal Now is a photographic-sculptural rendering of this temporal compression. Reynolds has a collection of 300 or 400 London guidebooks that serve as her principal source material. ‘I use a lot of photographs from the Fifties because they are very well crafted. They were taken by serious photographers at a moment when photography was really doing well. Cameras were very good and people took it seriously as a documentary medium. From the Thirties on, a lot of documenting was happening because there was an awareness that London, and Britain in general, was irreparably changing and it needed to be photographed pretty quickly. So there’s an urgency and a formal clarity in those photographs that I’ve always liked. ‘I’ve always looked for photographs that are formally strong because otherwise I can’t cut them together. All of the photographs of London I use were taken by photographers working to a clear commercial brief to photograph the monuments in the accepted way or in a way that’s objective. They’re not meant to be very personal musings on St Paul’s but rather THE image of St Paul’s that people instantly recognize. So I’m looking for photographs where the photographers will have stood in the same place, where the camera lens will have been in the exact same spot in space. Then they’ve printed those images at the same scale.’ The self-effacing nature of the source photographers’ style is important. ‘The fact these photographs are not strongly authored is useful to me,’ Reynolds says. An image bearing the clear visual signature of an Avedon or Cartier-Bresson would interfere with her process. ‘It would be like there’s another person in the room. I feel I just have more space to fabulate with [more anonymous photographs].’ Reynolds’s working method is rigorously precise. ‘Imagine a chessboard. Now, if you cut all the black squares into an X – you slice them all straight across – and you fold out the flaps you would exactly cover all the white squares. If you do that to two chessboards and merge them, you could have an entirely black chessboard, but if you folded the flaps the other way it would be entirely white. Both chessboards are present simultaneously.’ This simultaneity is key to the impact of The Universal Now. ‘In cutting and folding these images, I’m not privileging one moment over another because they’re both simultaneously present, and though as a viewer you can’t actually fold down the flaps, you can move in relation to the image and see what’s there, so in a way you are in two moments – your present moment of looking contains these two photographic moments. ‘Initially that can be quite confusing. You have to puzzle the folds out and work out what belongs to what, which really slows you down. For me that’s a way of prolonging the moment of looking, where you lose your sense of time. That’s why I want the works to be slow or puzzling – so that time expands a bit.’ Peter Pan 19+23+99 copy Take Peter Pan 1919 | 1999, 1923 | 1999 (2013), for instance. ‘The black and white images are taken from two editions of the same book. That’s why the page numbers differ, and the rounded-off corner is to the other side,’ Reynolds explains. ‘I returned to this image twice because I like the print very much. There’s something very strange about the tree in the background. It can’t be throwing that shadow to the side/in front of it, and there are two printing pops across the trunk like a ghost form. The grass that holds the statue does not seem to connect at all to this background, nor that to the right, which is carpeted in white flowers. It’s surely been worked on in the dark room pre-1919 very thoroughly by Mr Rischgitz [the photographer]. It feels redolent of the “faeries at the bottom of the garden” photographs from the 1900s, which is entirely suitable to Peter Pan. It might be that the photographer felt that the black column of the statue needed a black column continuing the tree ­– so there is a sense of doubling already in the original photographic print. The double/doppelgänger I extend in the cutting, which gives the viewer a shifting sense of the visible/invisible as different glimpses of Peter are offered in each part of the diptych. The cut form has three tiers because the original has three tiers – three lines of disconnected ‘ground’: grass, grass, shrubbery.’ Though her art practice is distinctly analogue, she describes her role in the language of the Digital Age. ‘I suppose I’m a content manager. It doesn’t interest me to take my own photographs. The focus for me is on a sort of recomposition. ‘We live in a world with enough stuff in it. I don’t feel like contributing to that pile of crap. I feel like sorting through the ruins and picking stuff up. I feel very akin to T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, picking through the rubble and reconstructing. I usually work with narratives that I already pretty much subscribe to, but where I want those narratives to become larger. I don’t deface images, I resuscitate them. Or at least that’s my intention. ‘The craft of photography is on the way out. Our interest at the moment is in the fluidity of photographs, how quickly they can be passed around. But with that increased speed there’s the loss of a certain formal beauty or clarity that’s just inevitable. In the same way if you want an image to move quickly down through the internet, it gets compressed and is kind of junk-y when you get it down the other end. That’s just the way it is. The whole thing is under a lot of pressure at the moment. I’m working on that closing margin of these ways of representing.’ Article taken from Elephant magazine, winter 2015. All images © Abigail Reynolds. http://www.abigailreynolds.com