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Hipgnotic Appeal

13 May

Why is that cow staring at me? The album cover designs of Hipgnosis have an enduring, surreal charm.

The town I grew up in didn’t have an art gallery but it did have a record store. When I went there—as I did for many years every Saturday—I went to look as much as I did to listen.

Though you were there ostensibly to find music, you did most of your searching with your eyes—and fingers. Record stores were a non-exclusive and particularly intimate kind of art gallery: you were invited to riffle through the collection and actually touch the artworks. They weren’t fragile and, produced in unlimited editions, they weren’t expensive, so you could even take them home with you if you chose.

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Pink Floyd, Atom Heart Mother (1970). Photography: S. Thorgerson. © Pink Floyd Music Ltd.

It was there that I first encountered Magritte and Man Ray, not to mention Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton. Or at least I encountered their shadows, refracted darkly through the surreal, idiosyncratic lens of Hipgnosis, sleeve designers to 10CC, Peter Gabriel and—most famously—Pink Floyd. (Their name was given to them indirectly by original Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, whom founder members Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgersen met as youngsters in Cambridge.)

Hipgnosis were fun-loving, good-time cousins to the Pictures Generation, allusive, appropriative, offering intriguing, subversive reflections on the broader art and media landscape. Their text-only design for XTC’s Go 2 (“This is a RECORD Cover. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record…”) is meta avant la lettre.

They didn’t do band portraits, and they didn’t necessarily need to listen to the music before coming up with a sleeve to contain and help sell its vinyl incarnation: ideas rejected for one project would reappear elsewhere.

The best of the work reproduced in Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue is the product of a highly privileged kind of patron-client relationship. The most characterful sleeves often came out of explicitly not working too closely with bands’ own ideas. Paul McCartney, who has always fancied himself as a bit of a painter, liked to develop his thoughts before contacting his designers, so Hipgnosis’s work for the ex-Beatle isn’t their best. It isn’t their worst either. This is a complete catalogue so there’s no hiding place for the more cringe-inducing work such as Roy Harper’s awful, literal Lifemask: as Powell’s text makes clear, Harper was to blame for that one.

A lot of ideas began with wordplay, not all of it great: the naked light bulb adorning the cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s first album is 1% perspiration, 0% inspiration; the phallic taps poking out from the shower scene on the sleeve of UFO’s Force It (a visual pun on the US “faucet”) aren’t much better.

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10cc, How Dare You! (1976). Cover design: Hipgnosis/G. Hardie. Photography: A. Powell. © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd.

But then there’s the mise en abyme of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother’s mystifying cow portrait (the eyes just follow you around the room), the arty conceptualism of Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. As budgets grew, so did the ambition; this was the age of prog rock excess. For The Nice’s Elegy the team headed off into the Sahara with 120 inflatable red balls. The cover of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door emerged from weeks of research and laborious, exacting set-building.

That said, one of my favourite album covers, not by Hipgnosis, lacks both image and clever text: it’s just a simple black square. (Malevich was a big influence on AC/DC.)

Hipgnosis’s heyday extended from 1967 (when rock went Pop and Peter Blake designed the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to 1982 and the advent of the CD, with the diminished canvas it offered cover designers. The upside was the simultaneous arrival of MTV—Powell and pals moved seamlessly into video.

Vinyl has made a renaissance of late, as have record stores. But as part of that return the 12-inch has acquired an unfortunate Benjaminian “aura”. Venerated and precious, with its physical properties trumpeted (180g! first pressing!), the twenty-first-century vinyl album is at least halfway to enjoying the status of an art object. By contrast, what’s so beguiling about the work here is its indeterminate status, somewhere between marketing campaign and art; its occasional accidental surplus of value, throwaway with a glint of gold; its very occasional unplanned sublimity.

“Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue” by Aubrey Powell is published by Thames & Hudson, £24.95.

Damien Floyd / Pink Hirst

13 May

Many people have said many things about Damien Hirst’s new show in Venice. But no one has compared it to the Pink Floyd exhibition in London—until now.

I should be in Venice. Mostly because I always wanted to be a gondolier and there’s really only one place to realize that particular dream. But I should also be in La Serenissima because there’s some sort of art event going on there at the moment and, having failed to pursue the punting and taken a wrong turn into journalism instead, I ought to be working up an opinion. I need to think something about it.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So Venice is where I should be, knocking back the bellinis and pressing “Publish” on my pre-written hatchet job on Damien Hirst’s new faux-archaeological exhibit, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which is filling up palazzi and puntas with its billion cubic metres of peerless vacuity. “As I toured the exhibit,” I wrote in advance of actually visiting the show, which I won’t now be visiting, “I was struck by the recurrent motifs drawn from theme parks and Disney and found myself asking: Doesn’t the now distinctly middle-aged Mr Hirst know that great biblical line about putting away childish things? I’m not saying that a grown-up should deny all knowledge of Mickey Mouse but after a certain age you shouldn’t still be thinking of him as your best friend either. The most flattering thing I can say about the show is that Michael Jackson would have loved it.” Alas, since I haven’t visited the exhibit and won’t be doing so—though I’ve seen the TV footage and looked at all the images and read the press release, and Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable surely first took life and finds its most complete and satisfactory expression as a press release—it would be unethical of me to publish the review. Thus my immortal judgment is lost to history.

So I’m not in Venice, I’m in London, and compensating myself with a visit to The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Like Hirst’s, this is essentially an overblown archaeological show, gargantuan to the point that it contains, according to the press release at least, a larger-than-life installation of Battersea Power Station. How big is that! Or how big would that be, were it true. (It’s just careless wording.)

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Animals cover © Pink Floyd Music Ltd

There are similarities of scale and theme, then, between Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable and Their Mortal Remains. But there is also a crucial difference: the former is a fiction while the latter is archaeology of the real, documenting something that actually happened, full of genuine artefacts salvaged from a long-forgotten and now barely believable time—the Prog Rock Era, to give it its proper geological designation. If Floyd conceptualist-in-chief Roger Waters shares with Hirst a love of the Big (and not always terribly profound) Idea, his most overblown concepts have always been made to rub shoulders with reality. What has emerged has been not just Big Ideas but Big Ideas tested and changed by Actual Work and Lived Experience. There’s grit in the grandiose. From one perspective the album Animals can be seen as an auterish Orwellian fable but as a finished work it’s the result of intense musical and visual collaboration; a Big Idea given ultimate and altered form through the experience of its making; that’s not a sense you much get from Hirst’s new work.

As told here, the story of Animals also takes in the breathtaking climb rate of an escaped inflatable pig called Algie, a missing marksman and a helicopter despatched in hot pursuit, and a telephone call from a Kentish farmer complaining the porcine balloon was bothering his cows.

To ensure that it isn’t mistaken for a mere nostalgia show for old rockers, Their Mortal Remains kicks off with a little aesthetic context. There’s a slightly vainglorious mention of a 1966 Aubrey Beardsley show—which was held at the V&A, don’t you know—as an influence on the psychedelic visual style of time; on an adjacent wall a screen carries clips from Jonathan Miller’s unsettlingly trippy TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland from the same year. This is not so much Swinging London as Swirling London. Walking through the first rooms feels a bit like being sucked through a psychedelic rabbit hole that’s been decorated with consciousness-altering Op Art panache by Bridget Riley.

At the outset Pink Floyd were in with the in crowd, although the show charts a change in taste with the rise of punk and the band’s swift exit out of the door marked “Not cool, man”. There’s Johnny Rotten scrawling “I Hate” on his Pink Floyd T-shirt (before later admitting to quite liking them) and a slightly gratuitous—some might even say pretty vacant—display of Never Mind the Bollocks’s guerilla graphics, offered by way of contrast to the brand of surrealism practised by design agency Hipgnosis on Pink Floyd’s behalf. And anyway, Animals—the one with the pig floating over Battersea Power Station on the cover—is a great punk album. Don’t argue.

Some have suggested that, by comparison with the Bowie show a few years back, Their Mortal Remains lacks personality because Pink Floyd as a band lacked a leading personality. It’s true that their only real “frontman”, Syd Barrett, suffered a drug-related psychosis and retired from the spotlight straight after the band released their 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (the title is drawn from The Wind in the Willows). But actually the personality of the show—and of the band—comes out of that very anonymity and the band’s related desire to generate rock’n’roll spectacle by other means. Aided by Bluetooth technology, the exhibition inventively re-creates the band’s early experimentation with temporary architecture, inflatable sculptures and their collaboration with illustrator Gerald Scarfe.

Thankfully, there’s also plenty of pig documentation.

‘The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains’ runs from 13 May until 1 October. vam.ac.uk

First published on elephantmag.com

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

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.

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Album review: Bob Dylan, 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (Metro)

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Album review: Bob Dylan, 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (Metro)