The Beatles

Just like Jacques Tati‘s car, I used to have a blog but it wasn’t  a good blog. Since I let Scott Gould verbally mug me about my lack of self-promotion I have this shiny new one that people actually read. There are several ideas distilling that I am keen to write but still bubbling. In the meantime I wanted to bring this story forward into the light.
 

My step-father, Ron, was Marketing Director at British Eagle airlines during my early school days. So when The Beatles flew with them I got to paint (yes, paint) “Beatles Fly” above the British Eagle logo, in matching type, on four bags. But I didn’t get taken to the airport to see them and I have lost the photo. My early introduction to the benefits of free work. See how I got over it and moved on? Anyway it was Klaus Voorman’s design for Revolver that proved to be the Damascean drawing for me. It was fab and it seemed distantly achievable even to a schoolboy with a short version of a Beatle haircut and dreams.

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Last summer saw lots of media coverage for the anniversary of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Just as their music was instantly ubiquitous, all their album graphics became iconic.  You can often gauge how much album art has been absorbed into popular culture by the number of parodies. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Simpsons, Booker T & the MG’s, Lego, and just about everybody else have paid homage to Abbey Road. Only spell-checker software, it seems, has not heard of The Beatles.

In 1984 Pan Books published Pete Brown’s account of his time with The Beatles. As Creative Director for Pan I wanted the cover to show the exact spot with the band now missing. The record label would not permit the re-touching of the original sleeve. So one Sunday morning it was off to St.John’s Wood with delightfully gentle photographer Peter Williams and a set of step ladders to shoot from scratch. With a very limited budget for models or props the were Hitchcock cameos by myself, Sandy Nightingale, Richard Moon, Creative Director of The British Council at the time, and his VW. We left the ‘For Sale’ sign in for Beatles’ fans to spot.

The zebra crossing itself is an international pilgrimage destination for fans of The Fab Four braving the London traffic to get that souvenir shot of themselves on location.

Visually, I am quite taken by the wit of the tank on The Beatles Bike that puts the motorbike in Abbey Road wherever it’s true location may be. A shame the airbrush artist went on to pepper (apologies) the machine with so many other references too. Smart tank idea though.

And, with all the lyrical wit of a McCartney bass-line, life threw up the location in a project this year. This time, as I rummaged through the archives for material for The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films. While using the hallowed recording studios, Director, Peter Jackson and Composer, Howard Shore stepped out to get their own snap. Then English Heritage got the studios listed. And I still love The Beatles music.

And in the end . . .

Michael Ondaatje

This week I overheard two boys, about 8 years old, at the magazines section of WHSmith. One asked the other if he read comics. “Back in the day.” was the reply.

Back in the day, this designer worked on the cover for Michael Ondaatje‘s early novel, Coming Through Slaughter. Michael is a very charming man who writes like an angel. This book is a ‘fictionalised’ account of the brief life of Buddy Bolden. Fictionalised because so little documentation remains. But – back in the day – in New Orleans, he played Jazz on the trumpet for the very first time. The Birth of Jazz. 
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Miles Davis & Coltrane move me but Jazz is not my first musical port of call. And I am sure that is my short-coming, not the music’s.

But this story makes the hairs on the neck stand up. He was called the first great jazz trumpet player. No recorded music. How tremendous does your impact have to have been for that colossal appellation to form your legend? Now that, for me, occasions use of the over-worked word ‘awesome’.

Ondatjee relates a tale of massive, high-impact collision. The explosion of a creative talent. The implosion of drink, drugs, excess, squalor and madness. His description of Bolden’s rampant trumpet outpouring, in a public town parade, at his musical peak, and at the same moment as the fissure to his final insanity.  This is one of those very rare times a writer truely does justice to the potent alchemy of music.

Not only are there no recordings and sparse documentation of this pyrotechnic talent, there is little visual record. One fire damaged glass plate. At the time it seemed to0 obvious to use it on the cover. Beautiful, on reflection but as a grabber maybe just another bunch of sepia negroes as entertainers. Once into the text, it holds a howl of melancholy. On the shelf, another poignant, but passive moment awaiting Ken Burns‘ genius for his trade-mark, slow-motion, re-ignition of the past.

This is probably the point where I should tell design students to sit up straight and learn what you do when you want someone’s image but do not have the subject available. Nah. All I can do is tell you what I did. On that day with that problem.

I fibbed a bit about me and Jazz. I love Louis Armstrong too. In fact I once speculated about my funeral music (as you do) and chose two tunes to bookend my experience of adult life. I fancied David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust‘ at the start and Louis Armstrong’s ‘Stardust‘ at the end. Then I forgot about it. Until just then.

I remembered that a signature visual for Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong was the way, during performance, he would mop the sweat from his face with his handkerchief. Some rascals suggest he kept cocaine in it to revive him during a particularly vigourous set. I doubt it. In fact, I expect that would produce a Woody Allen moment. But the point is that it totally obscured his face.

And I had it. My muse moment. A portrait of a man who was not there. A hope for a pause in performance of exhaustion, intensity and pain. I wanted a close-up study and often have a mischievous desire to commission out of genre. I took the idea to Robert Golden. At that time he was the man for food photography. A serious man, he now makes documentary film, I believe.

No drug dust. Maybe just a little Stardust. Back in the day.