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A Map Reference, Two Virginia Plains & A Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style

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Last week, on his Monday night show on Radio Scotland, Vic Galloway interviewed Wire’s Colin Newman and Graham Lewis. They spoke about supporting Roxy Music in 1979 and how it would have been a far more exciting prospect had it been the Eno era band. ‘That would have been something worth seeing,’ Newman commented.

A wee bit of an understatement I think.

Wire and Roxy’s former electronics maestro had a number of connections, from the days when the student Colin Newman cadged lifts to Watford College of Art from Eno, who was employed as a part time lecturer there at the time, through to Eno expressing an interest in producing Wire. A fascinating what if?

Issued by EMI’s Harvest subsidiary in October 1979 and named NME Single of the Week, here is a live version on German TV’s Rockpalast of Map Ref 41°N 93°W, these co-ordinates referring to the location of the supposed geographic centre of the U.S.A, Centerville in Iowa.

1972 was a year that saw my interest in music move up a gear or two. It was a good time to be ten even if, sadly, my young tastes hadn’t yet stretched to albums like Ege Bamyasi, Superfly, Pink Moon, Neu! or #1 Record.

Believe me, though, I was more than happy with the conveyor belt of amazing singles being released by the likes of T.Rex, Bowie, Slade and Mott.

When Virginia Plain entered the British charts early that August, it joined Starman, All the Young Dudes and Hawkwind’s Silver Machine. Number 1 was Alice Cooper with School’s Out.

Many people have called Virginia Plain one of the best debut singles of all time but you can ditch the word ‘debut’ and the claim is still valid. Three minutes of thrillingly inventive experimental pop with surreal lyrics that still make little sense to me, although I know now that Robert E. Lee was Roxy’s lawyer and that Baby Jane Holzer was a Warhol superstar.

In other words they make more sense to me than those Wire lyrics on the subject of cartography.

I also learned somewhere along the line that the song’s title comes directly from a painting that Bryan Ferry produced while studying art in Newcastle – where his tutor was Richard Hamilton, a man who could lay claim to being the inventor of Pop Art.

Many critics have mentioned Andy Warhol as an influence on this particular Ferry painting but although around this time he was pally with guys like Mark Lancaster, who’d been introduced to Warhol by Hamilton and seen The Velvet Underground perform as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia happenings in New York, I reckon David Hockney’s work from the early 1960s such as his Tea paintings are more likely to have been on Ferry’s mind when he got busy with his paint brushes. Loosely sketched human figure (check), product packaging (check) and hand drawn lettering (check).

Here’s Virginia Plain and A Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style:

Virginia_Plain_&_Tea_Painting_in_an_Illusionistic_Style

To hear the Wire interview if you live in Britain (you have 22 days left to listen): https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b582s3

Bryan Ferry plays the Kelvingrove Bandstand in Glasgow on Tuesday 31 July. I think I’ll save myself the 77 quid price tag on the tickets though.

For more on Bryan Ferry: http://bryanferry.com/

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The Independent Group & The Independent Group

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Bryan Ferry: This is Tomorrow (Polydor)

This week I’ve been reading Alastair Sooke’s Pop Art: A Colourful History which includes a long chapter on the rise of British Pop Art.

Sooke is a critic who has been known to take a slagging but I’m especially enjoying reading about Peter Blake, who will always be best remembered as the co-creator of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but who has also designed album sleeves for Paul Weller, Pentangle, The Who and the John Peel tribute album Right Time, Wrong Speed, as well as producing paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures that have found their way into the collections of many of the world’s finest galleries.

It’s fascinating to read about the young artist who in the post-war years looked across the Atlantic with envy. Britain was drab and dreary in comparison, a nation of rationing, a single TV channel and beige wallpaper while for many young people America represented glamour – a world of colour, Coca Cola, fast food and Hollywood.

Even in London it proved impossible for him to find a pair of jeans. He bought some work overalls made with a material that resembled denim, cut off the top off and created his own makeshift version.

Of one of his paintings of the time, he says: ‘Self-Portrait with Badges was about the unusualness of wearing jeans and trainers – people only wore trainers then for sport. And the idea of an adult with a lot of badges didn’t exist. People would have thought I was mad.’

People only wearing trainers for sport? Changed days, eh?

Some see Blake as the Godfather of Pop Art with his paintings of film stars, pin-ups, wrestlers, tattooed women – a far from common sight at the time – and, of course, pop artists of another kind like Elvis and Bo Diddley.

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Sooke contrasts Blake’s work with that of the informal artistic gathering of artists, architects and theorists that became known as the Independent Group. They can also be seen as forerunners of Pop. Formed at the ICA in London, like Blake, the IG were also mesmerized by the shiny new world represented by the USA, especially in their case automobiles, movies, comics and science fiction magazines.

Unlike Blake though, the IG took a stringent, intellectual view of these phenomena, they wanted to analyse the relationship between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, while Blake simply wanted to enjoy.

‘When are you getting to Bryan Ferry?’ I hear some of you asking.

Soon. Honestly.

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Just as Blake will be remembered for an iconic album cover, the Independent Group will likely remain collectively best known for a seminal 1956 exhibition that they staged at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

The theme of the collaborative show was the ‘modern’ way of living and the most imaginative representation of this was a collage by prominent member Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? featured in the catalogue and some promotional posters (that’s it above left, next to a photo of an installation Hamilton helped create for the exhibition). The name of the show was This Is Tomorrow – yes, the inspiration for the first single from Bryan Ferry’s fourth solo album, In Your Mind.

Many decades before he got into the whole hobnobbing with toffs scene and raising his son to be immensely proud of killing foxes, Ferry had been a promising art student and was taught at Newcastle Uni’s art department by Hamilton, who like Blake went on to design an album cover for The Beatles, in his case, The White Album.

Actually Ferry had taken the name of the debut Roxy Music single, Virginia Plain, from one of his own Pop Art influenced watercolours of his student days under Hamilton and the older artist went on to influence Ferry in his music career, which Ferry has been happy to acknowledge: ‘Certainly some of the early songs were very collage like – where I’d actually throw different styles of music into the same song,’ he told Michael Bracewell in the book Re-Make/Re-Model. The title of his next album, 1978’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, was borrowed from a conceptual artwork by Marcel Duchamp, a piece Hamilton recreated for a Duchamp retrospective during the 1960s at the Tate.

Hamilton, incidentally, didn’t like being labelled as a Pop Artist and he didn’t approve of the This is Tomorrow title for the exhibition either, telling Bracewell: ‘Nobody can say what tomorrow’s going to be like – let’s concentrate on today.’

A good point maybe but let’s actually concentrate instead for a few minutes at least on a track from January 1977. With Chris ‘Motorbikin’ Spedding on guitar and Roxy’s Paul Thompson on drums, this is Bryan Ferry with This is Tomorrow:


For more on Bryan Ferry, click here. For more on Richard Hamilton, here’s a segment from a Channel 4 documentary that also features Ferry.

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In Glasgow, The Independent Group was the name given to the collection of musicians that worked with Paul Quinn on his work for the reactivated Postcard label.

Was Quinn, or label boss Alan Horne, inspired by the name of the London based art grouping?

I suspect so but I’m guessing.

Sacrilege I know but I’ve never been that keen on Quinn’s voice, although I did absolutely adore Will I Ever Be Inside of You? where he was aided and abetted by the exquisite, celestial vocals of Jane Marie O’Brien.

From 1994, this is Paul Quinn and the Independent Group with Will I Ever Be Inside of You?:

 
Footnote:

Some years ago I went along to see Hamilton’s show, Protest Pictures, at Inverleith House in Edinburgh, a space where I’ve also seen work by artists of the calibre of Douglas Gordon, Lucy McKenzie, Cy Twombly and Jim Lambie. Inverleith House is a fantastic place to see contemporary art but one which, sadly, will no longer do so after tomorrow. Which is a shame.