Archive for September, 2009

4. PERILUS INTERRUPTUS

September 25, 2009

This week ‘Graphic Design as an Extreme Sport’ takes a literal turn as I found myself watching THE PERILS headlining Brighton’s WHITEAIR Extreme Sports Festival. So we move briefly from the past to the present …. and maybe include a couple of designs!!

I mentioned THE PERILS in the Intro as my current music obsession. They have all the essential ingredients to be hugely successful – talented, great songs and attitude, exhuberant, sexy and consumately professional. The music industry has, as we will see, changed dramatically but it’s good to know there are still musicians out there who are inspirational and exciting.

Ten years ago bands and artists performed to sell their music. Now as the download phenomena gains pace and online companies like SPOTIFY stream music for free, bands rely on merchandising sales for income. With two colleagues we recently foundedunemployables2

with the idea to provide great merchandising so bands can survive by selling items at gigs and online – to keep them afloat before a record deal is offered. As in any business you have to be ahead of the game – complacency is guaranteed to stifle creativity. Jo said ‘Let’s do condoms for THE PERILS’, so we did in matchbook style packaging …

matchbook condom

My blog was interrupted again (funny how telling stories seems to breed more of them). I sat outside a bar in Brighton writing, a glass of red wine for each hand on the table, and bought a BIG ISSUE off a young fragile-looking guy who was clearly nervous and embarrassed. He moved to the next table and one of a group of middle-aged tourists said ‘Fuck off you fucking waster’. I should have kept out of it but sometimes you just can’t. ‘Excuse me’ I said, ‘that’s incredibly out of order. You can’t speak to people like that.’ The guy stood up and lurched drunkenly towards me, threatening to spread my face across the pavement and suggesting I have sex with myself. I ignored him but a constant barrage of expletives was by now being screamed into my ear. I looked up at him. His face was crimson, his eyeballs seemed to bob up and down like those joke ones on springs and his fists were punching the air with lunatic abandon. ‘Sorry, did you say something?’ I said. ‘I wasn’t listening.’ Probably not the best thing to say but he was really pissing me off by then. I didn’t consider him dangerous – he was too drunk. I reckoned I could easily move out of his way if he did try to punch me ­– or just leg it if necessary. Anyway – help was at hand. In a genius move, an Australian guy I’d spoken to briefly a little earlier stood up and stuck his mobile phone in front of the drunk’s face. ‘See what it says on the phone,’ he said. ‘999. Do you want to call the police or should I? Why don’t you just go away.’ Confused by this brilliant self-defence tactic the guy backed down, collected his tribe together and they loped off down the street.

I guess sometimes you can’t just sit back and ignore injustice. Whether it’s somebody being bullied or whether it’s working with Sir Bob on LIVE AID and LIVE8, injustice is injustice.

So … what have we learnt about ‘Graphic Design As An Extreme Sport’? Much more than you think I’d suggest. You have already learnt (or at least acknowledged) a few pertinent observations from the colourful cast of characters who have inhabited the stories so far …

DESIGN COURSE SUMMARY – ONE

1. Enjoy your life, and whatever it is that provides opportunity to be creative.

2. Make friends with your enemies.

3. No matter how potentially successful a venture might be, we always need talented people around us to ‘oil the machine’.

4. ‘If you really want to do something, there are always people out there who know more than you and are willing to help.’

5. Always imagine what could go wrong. It usually does – so prepare for that eventuality.

6. ‘ No Matter How Hard You Hit It, A Banana Will Never Sound Like A Drum.’

7. Be ahead of the game.

Not bad for a start. Mastering a craft is one thing but it needs the heartbeat of experience to give it depth.

Next? Back to that club in Covent Garden. Anyone remember BIDDIE and EVE?
Was anyone there when BOY GEORGE was the cloakroom attendant? Did anyone see MICK JAGGER refused admission? Anyone know the club?

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3. Transformer

September 16, 2009

I’ll get to Ms Woodlawn shortly but I remembered another story (there are so many) about Christopher Hunter relevant to our guide. It re-introduces those local gangsters.

The club’s success was phenomenal and Christopher knew that sooner or later the success would come to the attention of a few who could well offer ‘protection’ in exchange for a percentage of profits. Chris, of course, was spending far more money than the thousands he was taking every night and it was inconceivable to him that he would give in to threats and extortion and part with hard-earned cash. The threats never came and neither did the gangsters. Christopher quite simply out-manoeuvred them.

Twice a year the club closed and starting with a magnificent lunch and ending with one of his many show-biz friends performing a private cabaret, a group of specially invited guests were seduced by Christopher’s charms and his unrivalled talent to deliver extravagance on a level rarely experienced. Chefs and somelliers were imported for the day and they produced a banquet fit for royalty. A team of a dozen of the prettiest boys and girls who worked at CC were invited for a special training session in the morning. They were told which guests to pay particular attention to, which to be careful of, which end of the ballroom they danced at, how to flirt outrageously without giving offence and how they could ensure, should serious sexual advances be made, they remained totally in control of the situation. (There were, it has to be said, times when the occasional dalliance took place but strict rules were applied, condoms provided and total privacy was guaranteed in Christopher’s luxurious loft apartment above the stage.) He really did think of everything. ‘In potentially embarrassing situations, my dears, always imagine what could go wrong. It usually does – so prepare for that eventuality.’

Where was I – oh yes, the gangsters. The reason Christopher was never confronted by any of them was because, for those two days a year he was the supremely stylish host to a highly influential group of law-abiding citizens – the police!

The concept of a supper-club was a revelation to London. CC’s reputation(!) spread like a forest fire. Twice a night there was dinner and an extraordinary cabaret – performances by the very best artists from the outrageous New York underground club-circuit. I was now involved – every two or three weeks – designing and building sets for the acts. I spent a whole week, under the supreme guidance of Christian Tooms (I know!), Christopher’s partner, working on a set for someone I couldn’t wait to meet.

Doo, doo, doo, doo-doo-doo,
Doo, doo, doo, doo-doo-doo,
Doo, doo, doo, doo-doo-doo,
Doo, doo, doo, doo-doo-doo,

(Know who Holly Woodlawn is yet?)

Two days before the show opened I was painting the set when I was approached by a very attractive Puerto Rican boy wearing a baggy t-shirt and frayed jeans. ‘I’m Holly’ he said. ‘I’ve come to rehearse for my show.” The song began immediately to play in my head – ‘Doo, doo, doo, doo-doo-doo, (Ok – enough!).

‘Holly came from Miami FLA
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.’

Holly Woodlawn was one the inner circle – along with Joe Dallesandro, Ultra-Violet, Billy Name, Edie Sedgwick, Candy Darling and Paul Morrisey amongst many others – of the Warhol ‘Factory’ in New York, and often appeared in his films. Warhol has always been a hero of mine and I was envious of those who witnessed a revolution in modern art. I have a quote from AW by my computer. It’s a constant reminder – ‘ No Matter How Hard You Hit It, A Banana Will Never Sound Like A Drum.’

Holly and I hit it off immediately. The Holly I met that first day was soft, sensitive, fragile – beautiful in so many ways. When I met Holly Woodlawn the stage Diva two days later I was in shock for hours! Unrecognisable as the good-looking Puerto-Rican boy, Holly Woodlawn was a devastatingly attractive woman, a fiery seductress dressed to kill and who could slice anyone in half with one lash of her tongue. This was not a drag-queen or a female impersonator – this was gender transformation. (The drummer of the session musicians hired to back Holly didn’t know until the last show that Holly was a man!)

At some point during that first week of Holly’s residence at CC, I was summoned to her dressing room. Believe me there was absolutely no choice but to accept. She Who Was A He fluttered her eyelashes, pouted trembling lips and draped her arms seductively around my neck. ‘Honey’ she said in a voice which insisted knees collapse, ­ ‘We’re going OUT, to show this little town how to have fun.”  How could I refuse? Exactly. That song played and replayed over and over in my head and resonated for the whole of Holly’s stay in London as we went out on numerous occasions. Each time was a joy – outrageous, hilarious, touching and always sublimely honest.

One evening, during visits to a variety of gay clubs and bars (remember when there used to be VARIETY?) I was drinking Chardonnay with Holly (Darling Andie – I should be the Queen of Chardonnay.’) when we were approached by a leather queen. He asked Holly for a dance. He wore the full uniform – leather jacket, leather trousers and chaps, leather hat (probably leather hair!) and biker boots as well as sporting a preciously trimmed moustache, piercings, key-rings and severely cropped hair. (This WAS the late-70’s.) Holly stood up, straightened her red satin shoulderless evening gown and pulled long and hard on the cigarette which hovered over a foot away from her mouth in a movie-star type cigarette-holder. ‘Honey,’ she said, placing one bejewelled hand on his shoulder and slowly eyeing up and down this cliched vision in black leather, ‘I love to dance, I just don’t want to DIE right now.’ and sat down again.

Wicked perhaps – but as I said, always sublimely honest.

We’re moving on from Country Cousin to another club I worked at which completely changed the London music scene. We’ll meet Holly again later – different places and very different times. Can you imagine how Holly Woodlawn and Metallica are linked?

Dream on ….

2. CHRISTOPHER HUNTER

September 9, 2009

Actually, perhaps designing my first album sleeve may be a little premature in terms of how my design experience developed into an extreme sport. We need to go a little further back …

After living in the Himalayas for 2 years (that’s a whole other story) I arrived in London in the glorious summer of 1976 with two dozen paintings I’d carried back overland from India. Seriously culture-shocked and barefoot still, I moved in with friends who lived on the borders of Chelsea and Fulham. It was, and still is, a community I love.

Then it was full of drug dealers and gangsters, terraced houses, children playing in the streets and a crew of local characters with more stories to tell than the Ancient Greeks. It’s still pretty much the same though it’s probably the kids in the street selling drugs, some of the terraced houses are inhabited by a more sophisticated breed of gangster and the characters are even more extreme, though often too ‘out of it’ to tell their stories.

I noticed a couple of weeks after I’d moved into the Lots Road area and made friends with the gangsters (obviously, you would wouldn’t you?) that a new club was opening inside what is still The Furniture Cave on Kings road. (The club is now the appallingly suburban Crazy Larry’s.)

There was a sign outside the entrance to the club which said ‘COUNTRY COUSIN, Supper Club, Restaurant and Gallery’. I nipped home to collect a few paintings. ‘Give it a go’ I thought. I met the owner – a wonderful and (I realised later) very well-connected restauranteur called Christopher Hunter. He’s probably the only true anarchist I’ve ever met. He did whatever he liked (you really don’t want to know) and his friends who filled the club were the likes of Danny La Rue, Freddie Mercury and Shirley Bassey. ‘Darling’ he said ‘I love your paintings. I need an exhibition when we open. The walls are yours’.

To give you an idea of why I loved Christopher so much is easily explained through one incident. I arrived at the club one morning and Christopher was sitting alone in an ocean of empty tables, his head buried in his hands. ‘Why Chris, what on Earth’s the matter?’ I said. ‘Dear boy,’ he said, taking both my hands in his, ‘some awful awful news. My bank account’s in credit. I’m spending my own money!’ I looked at him and he was genuinely devastated. ‘Come on,’ he said ‘we’re going out to buy a red convertible Mercedes sports car.’ And we did.

What is this to do with design you might well ask. As the stories keep coming, you’ll see, you’ll see.

Being the place it was, Country Cousin needed staff who could deal with the arrogant rich, could flatter the famous, humour the terminally drunk and, at all times, be themselves. They were an amazingly flamboyant and intelligent bunch – confident, beautiful and irrepressibly energetic. They enjoyed themselves hugely and their good humour was infectious. That was Christopher’s skill. No matter how potentially successful his ventures might be, he knew he needed to oil the machine with talented individuals as important as his personal vision of The Great Life.

I practically lived at CC for nearly two years and quite early on Chris asked me if I would join the Country Cousin Family as it’s resident designer. ‘Chris,’ I said, ‘I have no experience at all in design. I wouldn’t know how to start’. He laughed at me. ‘Darling, darling,’ he said, ‘If you really want to do it, there are people out there who will show you how. Learn, dear boy, learn.’

Where next? Probably meeting the astonishing diva – Holly Woodlawn

5th September 2009. Serendipity.

As I sat writing this blog at a Fulham riverside pub, a white-haired older gentleman approached me. He wore a wide-lapelled very smart pin-striped suit, a pink silk tie and the same colour handkerchief blossoming out of his top pocket. ‘What are you writing?’ he said. ‘About Chelsea and Fulham in the 70’s’ I said. He sat down and told me about his past, living in the Fulham area. He was 78. ‘My friends used to call me Al Capone’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Now because of the alcohol I consume – they call me Alka Seltzer’.

Intro

September 2, 2009

From the first opportunity I had to design an album sleeve, with no knowledge of graphics whatsoever, I instinctively knew it would be an extreme and exciting experience. Thirty years on, the extremes and the challenges thankfully remain.

Many things have changed; the music industry, the introduction of computers and digital recordings, the means to communicate ideas over vast distances in the blink of an e-mail, even the relevance of sleeve design in the music download age.

Some over-riding positive factors remain however; the search for innovation and challenge, impossible deadlines, and most importantly of all – the joyous idiosyncracies of the musicians I work for and the characters who inhabit their world.

I have never felt the need to promote or encourage a particular style in graphics – only a need to communicate with musicians to find a solution which satifies my appetite for experimentation and their very real need to be represented visually in a way which complements their music and their talent. I suppose what I have always worked for is to be comfortable with compromise.

Compromise is too often a dirty word for designers and musicians alike but, by definition it’s a worthy objective. “To yield to reach agreement’, ‘to resolve difficulties’, to ‘give and take’. What better aim can there be in anything we do? There need be nothing negative about compromise – it can provide astonishing results beyond individual egos – solutions unimagined by designer or musician. Pretentious twaddle? Not on your life. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the ingrediants to create it have always been surprising, exciting and fun.

Behind the designs are numerous stories. There have always been stories. Whether they are about the Thompson Twins, Metallica, Def Leppard, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, the Geezers Of Nazereth (who? – just listen), Tori Amos, The Rolling Stones, or my current obsession – The Perils, the stories are the thing which provide insight into how the design process works.


I have reached a point where experience and the joy of how I have achieved a satisfying degree of success should be shared. It’s a strange, hilarious and entertaining  journey, but without doubt it’s an affirmation of the only thing that matters – enjoy your life, and whatever it is that provides opportunity to be creative.

Should we start at the beginning? I think so …. Remember Sector 27 …. I doubt it.