Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Oozin’ and cruisin’ along!

In the immediate post-war years, the term rocket became the perfect metaphor for branding consultants and ad-men. Troubling associations with the slaughter of civilians in the war just ended were soon forgotten in the Cold War era as the rocket became a symbol of peace; a defence against the Soviet menace. In the late 1940s Oldsmobile launched the Rocket 88 in an advertising campaign that took full advantage of all the associations with dynamism, energy and velocity. The big red beast at the top is a Rock Island Rocket streamline diesel passenger train. The pride of the Rock Island Railroad (immortalised in song by Leadbelly), it was a product of the late Machine Age when introduced in 1937.

The publicity for the Rocket 88 was especially rich in futurist rhetoric with Whirlaway Hydra-Matic Drive and high-compression Rocket power constantly invoked. One example features the Futuramic Oldsmobile as a companion to a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house to drive home the comparison with forward thinking and cutting edge design. It seems to have been an effective strategy because the campaign persisted for several years.

Meanwhile in Memphis in March 1951, Sam Phillips (whose Sun Records was as yet, unborn) recorded Jackie Brenston, accompanied by Ike Turner, performing Rocket 88 that in later years became a much-touted contender for the rather pointless accolade of “first ever Rock ‘n’ Roll record”. Brenston wrote the lyrics as an extended exercise in double-entendre and grafted them on to a tune known as Cadillac Boogie (recorded by Joe Liggins). The song begins thus:

You may have heard of jalopies,
You heard the noise they make,
Let me introduce you to my Rocket 88.
Yes it's great, just won't wait,
Everybody likes my Rocket 88.

And concludes with the immortal invitation to go Oozin’ and cruisin’ along! The finished record was released by Chess in Chicago and went on to top the Rhythm ‘n’ Blues chart in the summer of 1951. There’s much more about this song in one of my favourite books, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Nick Tosches; a book to be cherished as much for its linguistic extravagance as for the content.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Joseph Spence

These two dapper gentlemen are Joseph Spence (left) and Raymond Pinder, photographed in Nassau in 1978 by Guy Droussart. Joseph Spence (1910-1984) was a Bahamian guitarist and vocalist whose career took him from the island of Andros to New York and California, where in his fifties, he performed his simple repertoire of sacred and folk songs to enthusiastic audiences. Raymond Pinder was Spence’s brother-in-law and fellow vocalist. Sam Charters, famous folklorist was the first to record Spence on his own back porch in 1958 and an album was released on the Folkways label in 1959. His eccentric and relaxed vocals and a hypnotic but melodious acoustic guitar style produced heartfelt and beguilingly unaffected music. An improvised, semi-coherent chuntering growl from Spence is an almost constant accompaniment and his vocals slide in and out of the background. Lyrics were diced and chopped and re-sequenced, while the rhythm was supplied by energetic foot tapping. The end of each tune was marked by a sequence of crashing chords and a brief explosion of joviality and a little gentle repartee with his fellow performers.

The Folkways recordings attracted the interest of Californian musician Ry Cooder who included songs by Spence on several albums. Others were quick to respond to the freshness and distinctive quality including the Grateful Dead for whom the song I Bid You Goodnight became something of a signature. Most of Spence’s available recordings were made in and around his home on Andros and have a corresponding rural feel to them. Andros is the largest island in the Bahamas but has a small population of less than 8,000. Nowhere on the island is more than 20 miles from the sea and song lyrics reflect this with an abundance of maritime imagery. The lack of tourist development helped greatly to keep local traditions alive and the sense of uncomplicated lives, lived at an unhurried pace, pervades Bahamian music.

The special flavour of Bahamian music is due to a number of factors. The African population tended to be more tribally homogenous than elsewhere in the Caribbean leading to unique musical forms. Another factor was the influx of loyalist settlers from the Carolinas, accompanied by their slave populations who brought another distinctive musical tradition. Alan Lomax made the first field recordings in 1935, when Spence was a young man of 25, and was followed at intervals by other musicologists with the result that there is much raw material for the researcher to examine. Lomax’s recordings are still available on the Rounder label.

The 10th. anniversary of Spence’s death in 1994 was commemorated with the release of a tribute album, Out on the Rolling Sea, on Green Linnet Records. A wonderfully diverse range of performers interpreted selected items from the Spence discography with flair and sensitivity. The Nassau Guardian published a lengthy account of Spence and his music to mark the 20th. anniversary of his death in 2004. March 18th. 2009 was the 25th. anniversary and it shouldn’t pass without some recognition of this remarkable musician and the modest but enduring contribution he made to the richness of our musical heritage.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Harry Hudson Rodmell

This robust maritime image, boldly simplified in sach-plakat style and printed in three colours, is the work of marine and poster artist, Harry Hudson Rodmell (1896-1984). He worked for many of the great shipping lines in the 1920s and 1930s producing poster designs in the idiom of the day but, as befits an artist born and raised in Hull, he was always happiest describing the cold and turbulent waters of the North Sea. After the Second World War demand for poster artists declined rapidly and he pursued a career as a teacher and painter of maritime subjects. All his working life was spent in the city of his birth which may explain why he is not as well known as some of his contemporaries. The poster below comes from a memorial exhibition at the Town Docks Museum in Hull in 1984.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Watch America go buy!

Outdoor advertising, American style, is a guilty pleasure. It brings colour and form, on a vast scale, to the landscape. In Britain, it’s mainly confined to urban areas but in the USA it will pursue you along every freeway and highway, expanding in size to fill the vast open spaces. To those who place a high value on the unspoilt landscape, it’s an abomination and its suppression has been the object of many campaigning pressure groups. In its directness and simplicity it’s an expression of the confidence of capitalism – the almost messianic belief that all sales resistance can be overcome by unrelenting repetition of a clear message.

These images come from Fortune magazine in the 1940s and 1950s and show industry advertising its products to advertisers. It’s all about visibility and conquering the darkness so that the message can be absorbed at all hours of the day and night. Scotchlite Reflective Sheeting will double sales power. As they say in their ad, ordinary signs LOAF ALL NIGHT! , illuminated signs COST ALL NIGHT! , but reflectorized signs SELL ALL NIGHT on BORROWED LIGHT! Neon Products Inc fights back by invoking the science of increasing sales with illuminated signs at point of sale. The company is offering a complete dealer identification service with ... signs that make your other advertising dollars pay off better by blazing forth: “Here is where it’s sold!”

Despite the damage this activity does to the environment it has an insidious way of bypassing our reservations by the artful deployment of colour and light on an often overwhelming scale. There can be something of a vicious circle in operation when the landscape quality has been degraded by the proliferation of advertising, the only visual element left for our appreciation is the advertising itself. There are many fine examples to be admired at Visual Telling of Stories by following this link. A fascinating piece of period film from 1942 can be seen here, courtesy of the Prelinger Archive. It’s a blunt and uncompromising account of poster advertising in the city of Chicago narrated with an unnerving air of authority. Science is the key to advertising efficiency and the populace is considered exclusively as an audience for advertising. Buses, trolley cars and elevated trains become vehicles for manoeuvring the public to places where they’ll be exposed to the message.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Heaven and Hell

L’Enfer was a night club on the boulevard de Clichy where your drinks were served by staff dressed as devils. Next door (just visible on the left of this image) was a cabaret called Le Ciel where the waitresses were dressed as angels. Both businesses were operated by the same proprietor and were well calculated to cater to the appetite for novelty and decadence in fin-de-siècle Paris. Entrance to L’Enfer was by way of a monstrous gaping jaw and the facade was embellished with sculptural representations of devils and souls in torment. A fiery furnace glowed in the centre and an unfortunate sinner can be seen pitching headlong into an eternity of suffering. It can be assumed that the spectacle would have been intensely offensive to bourgeois sensibilities in the same way that the sex shops that have replaced them today continue to do so. Whether future generations will look back on today’s sex shops with a sigh of nostalgia remains to be seen.

The wonderfully sharp eyed observer of human folly, Edward Burra was an habitué of the boulevard de Clichy in 1931 where he found the subject for one of his finest paintings, Minuit Chanson. Cab Calloway was a special favourite of Burra and his recording of Minnie the Moocher was first released in 1931 so it’s just possible that it could have been heard playing in the hallowed precincts of Minuit Chanson. All of which brings us to the singular figure of Betty Boop who memorably shared the screen with Calloway in a Max Fleischer animated film that can be seen here. Note how the sequence in the spirit world features a landscape populated with vast sets of Satanic jaws just like those that decorated L’Enfer.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Past and Present: Brittany

Morbihan in southern Brittany has one of the greatest concentrations of megaliths to be found anywhere. There are so many that you get used to spotting them in unlikely surroundings – adjacent to a filling station, next to a modern house, in the middle of a forest or on the cliff tops of the Quiberon peninsula. This fine dolmen is located at the point where two roads diverge in the middle of the tiny village of Crucuno. It was recorded about 100 years ago by this postcard photographer. A century is a very small time in the life of a megalith so we should not be surprised that so little has changed when it was photographed again in March 2008. The entrance has been altered and the render removed from the wall of the neighbouring house, otherwise all is as it was. We get used to seeing these structures surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of landscaped open space but in my view, they lose none of their mystery when they’re encountered in the midst of modern development. If anything, the sense of incongruity is enhanced.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Bibendum en famille

This is a scene to warm the heart. An exuberant celebration of family values to inspire the hedonists of the French Riviera to forgo their licentious ways in favour of the simple pleasures of domesticity. The slightly flaccid family Bibendum gesture expansively to the adoring crowd from their precarious position on the roof of an oversized motor car, drawn by a team of patient horses. The carnival in Nice continues to thrive to the present day and has expanded to an entire fortnight of events. Bibendum continues to dedicate his existence to marketing Michelin tires and his story has been told in detail in a number of books. So great is his hold on our collective imagination that there are even those who confess that they have surrendered to his warm embrace in their dreams. A final bonus is a postcard view of the great Michelin factory in Clermont-Ferrand.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 26, Wrigley’s Spearmint

The Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum electric spectacular sign, largest of its kind in the world, extends a full block from 44th to 45th Street on the east side of Broadway, towers ten stories high, and represents a million dollar investment. The electrical current required for this colossal animated display would serve a city of ten thousand. It contains 1,084 feet of neon tubing, almost 70 miles of insulated wire and 29,508 lamp receptacles.

I have no affection for chewing gum, an obnoxious substance and a prime example of a business that passes on the social and environmental costs associated with the product, to the public purse. However, we can put that all aside and enjoy this gargantuan display of neon lighting constructed by Artkraft-Strauss of Lima, Ohio, installed in Times Square in 1936 and equivalent in height to a ten storey building. The aquatic spectacle makes a wonderful subject for a linen postcard from the late 1930s. All competing signage, visible in contemporary photographs, has been either eliminated or toned down by the retoucher to enable the Wrigley sign undisputed command of the image. The end came in 1942 when it was switched off for the last time as a wartime economy measure. The card fits comfortably into the category of Postcards of the Night which formed the subject of a fascinating book published in 2003, illustrated with some superb examples from the genre. The story of illuminated signs in Times Square can be read by following this link.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Albertopolis – a postcard tour

This is by way of a footnote to my posting dated April 30th. 2008. These postcards of the Albert Memorial form a tribute to this gilded Gothic Revival confection with its riotous ecclesiastical ornamentation. There are two cards that show some of the outlying sculptural groups, one of which offers a rare postcard opportunity to admire an exposed female breast, albeit one carved in stone.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Giorgio de Chirico, La fabrique des rêves

It is said that both André Breton and Yves Tanguy first encountered the paintings of de Chirico through the windows of a bus. Not the same bus. Breton became the proud owner of several de Chirico paintings that he continued to value throughout his life. But when de Chirico turned his back on his metaphysical paintings after 1918, his return to a reinvented classical tradition was resoundingly denounced by Breton with all the ferocity (which was considerable) at his disposal. And therein lies the problem with de Chirico. His early Paris paintings stand in the highest critical regard but there is no agreement on the merit of the paintings that occupied his attention during the last 60 years of his very long life. Three years after de Chirico’s death, in 1982, the Museum of Modern Art, New York put together a major exhibition that included no more than a handful of work from the years 1920 to 1935 and nothing whatsoever from the remaining forty plus years of his life. The bitterness of Breton’s reaction seemed to reverberate through the succeeding decades.

So fixed was the orthodox view of de Chirico as a lost talent that a re-evaluation on the part of revisionist critics and historians was inevitable. This process began in de Chirico’s last decades and climaxed in the 1980s when there was great critical enthusiasm for bad painting. The late work of Philip Guston and a European outbreak of mostly German and Italian painting of remarkable clumsiness and lack of finesse created a climate in which de Chirico’s adoption of deliberately heavy-handed technique, combined with vapid drawing seemed utterly in tune with the times. I don’t recall any outright condemnation of de Chirico’s early work from enthusiasts for the late work but there was an implication that a serious interest in the early work was a symptom of an unhealthy mind.

This spring, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris has an exhibition entitled, Giorgio de Chirico, La fabrique des rêves showing until May 24th. It provides a complete survey of de Chirico’s work and there is no avoiding the paintings produced in the years he fell out of favour. There’s enough late work to get a clear view of how the artist transformed himself from avant-garde favourite into a reactionary, technique obsessed, Renaissance caricaturist. At the same time his great facility for enigmatic imagery was never totally submerged and in among the late dross are some truly arresting images, especially in the Bains mysterieux series and the sun and moon series (derived from the 1930s illustrations for an edition of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes) from the late 1960s. In part, the steady decline in quality owed a lot the artist’s curmudgeonly nature, possessed of an irresistible urge to bite the hand that feeds. This impulse led him to initially renounce his early work and then systematically devalue it by making copious replicas of his more marketable work, frequently, but not always, inscribed with misleading dates.

I suppose that if I had the good fortune to earn the praise of André Breton for making a decisive contribution to the birth of Surrealism, I might be tempted to take my foot off the pedal and just enjoy the moment. The pressure to carry on producing innovative imagery would have been immense and it’s quite understandable if de Chirico simply didn’t feel up to it. If you factor in an awkward personality in which radical and reactionary impulses were held in uncomfortable co-existence then it makes sense that de Chirico might suppress one or the other, and in the event it was the reactionary impulse that won out. I certainly can’t accept the proposition that the post 1920 work is of equal quality to the work that preceded it but it should be accepted that his talent for creepy and unsettling imagery didn’t completely evaporate and some interesting work was to be seen in the latter half of the exhibition alongside some truly egregious exercises in the art of painting badly. The genius of de Chirico resided in his ability to create a new landscape vocabulary that overturned most of our assumptions about the subject and fundamentally disorientated the spectator with the application of simple but potent strategies. De Chirico discovered new poetic values in such things as sculpted figures (where human tissue is replaced by stone), smoke from factory chimneys and passing steam trains, the long shadows of late afternoon sun, diminutive human figures surrounded by vast, hot and dusty, tilting picture planes, all enclosed by interminable arcades with conflicting vanishing points. It was the marriage of the antique (the Renaissance piazza) and the contemporary (symbols of the Age of Industry) and created a strange and haunting resonance with the landscape of our dreams.