The Art of British Rock
50 Years of Rock Posters, Flyers, and Handbills
Mike Evans, with Paul Palmer-Edwards
London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2010, 212 pages, £25
Reviewed by Claude Chastagner
Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier III
Is this a coffee table book? Yes indeed. Is it nevertheless worth reviewing it for Cercles? Undoubtedly. The Art of British Rock is of course a beautiful book: more than 350, lavish colour reproductions (posters, flyers, handbills, and occasional record covers), from the iconic to the more obscure, printed on thick paper, innovative lettering, striking layout… But it is also an informative book on what is part and parcel of rock culture: the visual dimension, both in its commercial and expressive functions (“An expression of individuality has music as its rallying cry, and any accompanying visual presentation as its standard bearer”, Malcolm Garrett ). As Richard Evans stresses, “Rock’n’roll is about brands” , hence the need for commercial designers to help sell the records and the concerts (incidentally, many of the rock illustrators branched out into magazine designing, starting with the underground press beacons, OZ and IT). One of the most iconic rock covers on the topic (not reproduced in the book) must be the one designed by Hipgnosis for XTC’s album XTC’s GO 2 (Virgin, 1978), whose witty and ironic text, white on black, sums it all up beautifully:
This is a RECORD COVER. This writing is the DESIGN upon the cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record. We hope to draw your attention to it and encourage you to pick it up. When you have done that maybe you'll be persuaded to listen to the music - in this case XTC's Go 2 album. Then we want you to BUY it. The idea being that the more of you that buy this record the more money Virgin Records, the manager Ian Reid and XTC themselves will make. To the aforementioned this is known as PLEASURE. A good cover DESIGN is one that attracts more buyers and gives more pleasure. This writing is trying to pull you in much like an eye-catching picture. It is designed to get you to READ IT. This is called luring the VICTIM, and you are the VICTIM. But if you have a free mind you should STOP READING NOW! because all we are attempting to do is to get you to read on. Yet this is a DOUBLE BIND because if you indeed stop you'll be doing what we tell you, and if you read on you'll be doing what we've wanted all along. And the more you read on the more you're falling for this simple device of telling you exactly how a good commercial design works. They're TRICKS and this is the worst TRICK of all since it's describing the TRICK whilst trying to TRICK you, and if you've read this far then you're TRICKED but you wouldn't have known this unless you'd read this far. At least we're telling you directly instead of seducing you with a beautiful or haunting visual that may never tell you. We're letting you know that you ought to buy this record because in essence it's a PRODUCT and PRODUCTS are to be consumed and you are a consumer and this is a good PRODUCT. We could have written the band's name in special lettering so that it stood out and you'd see it before you'd read any of this writing and possibly have bought it anyway. What we are really suggesting is that you are FOOLISH to buy or not buy an album merely as a consequence of the design on its cover. This is a con because if you agree then you'll probably like this writing - which is the cover design - and hence the album inside. But we've just warned you against that. The con is a con. A good cover design could be considered as one that gets you to buy the record, but that never actually happens to YOU because YOU know it's just a design for the cover. And this is the RECORD COVER.
The authors of The Art of British Rock have drawn together the images generated by the entire spectrum of British rock music, from the early pre-Beatles days to the latest developments, including the most contemporary images linked to electronic music and indie guitar bands, questioning in the process the future of graphic design in the era of digital download.
The volume is arranged chronologically, around eight key moments: 1. The rock’n’roll era: crude, custom designed posters for provincial ballrooms concerts, or jazz club gigs, that have now become collectors’ items; 2. Ready, Steady, Mod, which depicts the first sensational intrusions of pop art into rock advertising; 3. Draw the dream, devoted to the psychedelic explosion, with many artefacts inspired by Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley (of whom Paul McCartney was an early collector), which says a lot about the strong presence of a nostalgic streak in a musical form which so often emphasises its “modernity”; 4. Prog rock and glam rock; 5. Punk and new wave do-it-yourself ethos, highlighting the influence of Constructivism, Dadaism and Bauhaus (the ubiquitous Jamie Reid, and beyond); 6. Brit rock to Brit pop, characterised by a return into the mainstream; 7. Club, dance, and rave, whose graphic universe, like the music itself, owes so much to computer technology, sampling, etc.; 8. And finally, a lengthy part devoted to contemporary images (many culled from 2009 and 2010).
Besides, the book includes a number of features on internationally acclaimed agencies, or artists, which provide precious information on the essential visual dimension of rock music, too often taken for granted or ignored by the rock audience. These features include: the Hapshash and the Coloured Coat team, Alan Aldridge, the Hipgnosis agency, Roger Dean, Barney Bubbles, Hugh Gilmour (the master of hard rock), Malcolm Garrett, Vaughan Oliver, and Peter Saville (of Joy Division fame). There are also a couple of boxes devoted to pop art, the underground press, and button badges. The book ends with a section on festival posters, and a last one, entitled cross-currents, which details the influence of American graphic artists working for the UK rock scene.
The Art of British Rock offers moreover a journey into the history of rock music, recalling the names of anonymous artists, one-hit wonders, as well as famous stars, whose humble beginnings in obscure clubs become much more tangible through the advertising ephemera devoted to them. This beautiful book is also an excellent means to explore the fascinating evolution of rock music’s imagery, the way it furthered the development of groundbreaking styles, but also how it plundered the past, and how it provided a commercial outlet for graphic artists whose unusual, innovative ideas had been rejected by mainstream agencies. It also recalls how rock’n’roll art opened up new dimensions for the artistically uneducated rock music fan, a category to which the present reviewer once belonged.
Obviously, such a book is of particular relevance regarding the British context, in which art and music have so intimately been connected from the beginning. Not just because numerous artists designed record sleeves (Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake), or because many musicians (such as Stuart Sutcliffe, original member of the Beatles, or Pete Townshend of the Who) worked with famous artists, from Eduardo Paolozzi to Gustav Metzger, but because a substantial number of British teenagers considered “lost” by the traditional school system, were sent, in the last resort, to art schools, where they were taught, sometimes by famous masters, how to make a living with their hands. It is in this context that many of them decided to try their luck at music. The ensuing long list of rock stars springing from art schools has been well documented by Simon Frith and Howard Horne in their seminal book Art into Pop (Methuen, 1987), of which The Art of British Rock is, so to speak, the perfect visual complement, the first of its kind.
Cercles © 2011