‘What’s the fucking use of a fucking poster if you can’t read a fucking word of the fucker?’ – a pithy critique overheard in the Union Bar on the occasion of the first display of my hot-off-the-press silkscreen print for ‘The Cyclops Event.’
This was announcing a 24 Hour Multi-Media Extravaganza with about the same degree of accuracy as Woodstock having been advertised as an Arts Festival.
Our little junket, the first of its kind to be held in the East of England, was scheduled for the very civilised surroundings of The Barn in the University Village; a venue about to be turned into a Psychedelic Wonderland.
My critic, obviously a hopelessly mature student of the non-Arts-oriented variety and one for whom the concept of Alternative Culture would forever remain a closed door, did – it must be admitted – have a point. The whole thing was about codes - all conceived with the express purpose of mystifying/alarming/repelling all those poor sods over 25, even if they did want to join in the fun and games we were so busily plotting.
This was our almost brand-spanking new University of East Anglia in the late 60’s and us weren’t about to share it with just anyone – least of all them.
Having spent my mid teens in the exceptionally non-alternative surroundings of the Thames Valley, sixth form life had suddenly taken on a new and subversive excitement with the first appearance of the striking black and white posters for the new R&B bands springing up like exotic fungi from the Art Schools and pubs of the Home Counties. These crude fly-posted silkscreens with their bold, punchy graphics, - for bands with such gloriously memorable names as Downliners Sect and Hogsnort Rupert & the Good Good Band - were just the hippest thing imaginable to a rising generation of would-be social deviants all busily trying to work out what hip actually meant.
A couple of years later, now a fledgling art student myself, the arrival of an envelope from Berkeley, University of California, would change more than I could ever have imagined. Sent by a briefly-made acquaintance from that summer’s hitchhike to Istanbul, it contained three silkscreened handbills from San Francisco for the soon-to-be-legendary Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, advertising - in swirling art nouveau arabesques and almost impenetrably convoluted lettering - concerts by Quicksilver Messenger Service, Lothar and the Hand People and the just-formed Jefferson Airplane.
My lifelong love–affair with ‘The Poster’ began that memorable day.
A year or so older but little the wiser, I returned from a punishing overland trip to Afghanistan to take up a deferred place at UEA. My ambitions for university life were by now fully formulated – primarily: get a great band together and design as many posters as possible whilst endeavouring to make time for a little Art History on the side; I shall draw a discreet veil over the rest. It was 1968.
To this day I don’t know what The School of Fine Art and Music had done to deserve me. They must have pondered much the same question over the next three years.
My first big discovery was that the Student Union had lots of money to spend – and, quite rightly I thought, were devoting large wads of it to booking big-name bands for concerts; concerts that needed posters.
I was their man, I announced, with a show of confidence as shaky as it was unproven. For want of another contender they bought it.
The way it worked was that I would be handed a gig list for the forthcoming term by a series of Social Secs’ who really should have known better, and then just left to get on with it; then, snatching what little time I could spare for the odd seminar and lecture whilst devoted to the main business of designing the posters in between rehearsals and ever-more gigs for my own newly-formed band, Totem.
The thing that made the arrangement a worthwhile proposition from everyone’s point of view was the outstanding quality of the silkscreen print-work from Norwich- based printers Breydon Davis.
The deal with the S.U. was simplicity itself: in lieu of payment I received, say, thirty copies of an edition of 250; the Union then put up about 75 and sold the rest –‘a nice little earner’ for them at seven and six or ten bob, as I recall. This fortunately being the golden age of poster-purchasing they went like hotcakes but, for the S.U. here was the rub. It became rapidly apparent that the posters were being nicked as soon as they were put up. Thus, the disconcerting sight of pre-slashed and multi-stapled posters became the norm.
So much for aesthetics; and they still got nicked!
The imagery and inspiration came from a multitude of sources – some a lot weirder than others. I fondly remember ‘researching’ for the now lost Edgar Broughton Band’s ‘Out, Demons, out!’ poster and making an appointment with the utterly bemused Dean of Norwich Cathedral in an attempt to get inside info’ on the business of Exorcism – and a bit of the text, if he’d be so kind. I came away with nothing. Some you win, some you lose…
In deference to the efforts of my often equally bemused tutors it must be said that the study of art history opened my eyes to hitherto undreamt vistas of plunderable raw material for the decades of design work that have followed. In fact, all those shameless ‘borrowings’ from admirably obscure sources have now been officially sanctioned under the very proper name of Post Modern Eclecticism – so that’s alright then.
Over the years that followed I was amazed to hear of the worldwide locations where these UEA posters had been spotted; notable amongst many others: a teahouse in Bali, a restaurant in Berlin, a bar in Buffalo, and even on the front cover of one of the raunchier editions of the already legendary ‘Oz’ magazine.
I always intended to check what effect The Poster Factor might have had upon UEA’s admission statistics. There would probably be a Doctorate in it.
Printed ephemera being by its very nature exceptionally ephemeral, very few of my original prints – except in photo-form - have survived house-moves, everyday domestic catastrophes and the depredations of sticky little fingers and playful paws, but in retrospect, I only now realise just how many seemed to disappear without trace within months of their publication. I have no visual record and only hazy recollections of stuff for T Rex, The Dubliners, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Rahsaan Roland Kirk; the list goes on…
One long-lost piece I especially regret was a hastily collaged design – in full-on Sergeant Pepper mode - for an even more hastily arranged Benefit concert.
There’s going to be a Show to see, a Benefit for Mr. B
with Elephants and Kangaroos and even Bands that play The Blues.’
- The ‘Mr B’ being Giles Bristow, proprietor of Bristow’s Bookshop
which, quite apart from its role as an exceptionally fine purveyor of just what it said on the label - had become the ‘Alternative’ epicentre of the Eastern counties; a Little Press library, a cellar venue for hugely popular poetry readings, a poster gallery, and basically the favourite hangout and info-centre for innumerable harmless folk of the Hairier Tendency. The fact that drugs in any shape or form were never, ever, permitted on the premises and that the eponymous proprietor, Giles, was known as a generous, tolerant and thoroughly decent man, had done nothing to prevent his breathtakingly malicious prosecution as ‘a purveyor of pornography.’
Having predictably failed to find The Drug Fiend’s Den that was the all-too transparent pretext for a mob-handed raid, Norwich Constabulary – to their eternal shame – embarked upon a devastating prosecution based upon their discovery of half a dozen American ‘underground’ comics by the now universally acclaimed artist Robert Crumb. In the aggressively hostile judicial climate of the early 70’s, sullied by textbook copies of this prosecution in London, Leeds and Brighton, the result was a foregone conclusion that ruined not only a thriving business but also the life of a well respected and much loved man.
We lived in ‘Interesting Times’ then, in which far too many people paid a high price for what, on the face of it, might have seemed little more than lives devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. An awful lot of us reckoned there was rather more to it, though.
Anyhow, I little dreamt that Forty- Something years on I would be revisiting those ‘Hazy Days’ in the form of a design commission for the memorable celebration of UEA’s 50th Anniversary
I blame the posters.
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