Friday, 15 February 2019

Black And White In Colour


Talking about The Beatles (the "White Album") reminded me that the most striking thing (and, initially at least, the most disappointing thing) about that record was its stark cover design by Richard Hamilton, situated somewhere between a white-label bootleg and the minimalist sophistication of Habitat. Not least when compared with the baroque, eye-pleasing fairground that was its predecessor, Sgt. Pepper, designed by Peter Blake. As it happens, there had been a rival design for The Beatles (working title: "A Doll's House") which used a group portrait by my recent acquaintance, John Byrne. His painting did end up getting used on a later album, but its faux-naive, Rousseau-esque sentimentality would never have worked on the 1968 recording that finally emerged, I'm sure. In fact, its use on a retrospective, soft-focus compilation of Beatles Ballads released in 1980 merely serves to underline, particularly for that first generation of "boomers" that had already passed out of its youthful years, "here are the Beatles as you prefer to remember them". There are all sorts of clever meta-comments one could make about that all-white sleeve, in retrospect, but at the time it was simply a bit of a puzzle, compensated only slightly by the bonanza of colourful loose pictorial enclosures contained within.

It's hard, now, to appreciate how colour-starved Britain had been before the mid-1960s. In any documentary of the time, there's always a point when the archival footage changes from black-and-white to colour, I suppose around the time BBC TV began broadcasting in colour in 1967. We didn't actually live in monochrome until then, but it could feel like it, especially on Sunday afternoons. You only have to watch a few vintage clips of the Beatles or Stones being interviewed to see how badly the Old Monochrome Britain was struggling to understand the new, youthful, full-colour supplement that had appeared between its staid pages (at least, in its London edition), and how its tweedy avatars invariably tried to reduce things to a more easily accommodated and dismissed grey-scale [1]. I was amazed to discover, on a school exchange trip to the Rhineland, that in Germany 7" singles were released in full-colour photographic picture sleeves. At home, where so many of these sacred objects originated, even sure-fire hits like the latest Beatles single were still being released in the same dull wrapper as anything else, a generic, corporate-branded paper sleeve with two circular, label-sized holes cut in it. I suppose it was a typical expression of the kind of levelled-down, lowest-common-denominator "democracy" Britain reserves for the general populace.

Colour, after all, was expensive, which, for much longer than was probably necessary, outranked "attractive". We Brits do enjoy a bit of deprivation. Also, I suppose the shadow of wartime rationing was long: I was born in 1954, the year food rationing finally ended. Ironically, it seems to have been the unprecedented expense of the Sgt. Pepper cover that opened the door onto to an era of exuberantly inventive sleeve design. So that blank white packaging has to be seen in the context of what, by 1968, had been just a few years of new, eye-popping colour everywhere, from newspaper colour supplements to product packaging and clothes. Consumerism, and a little uptight hedonism had belatedly come to Britain. So, as an art statement a blank white album sleeve was a witty, smart, and post-modern gesture, but as a piece of consumer goods, it was little less than a puritanical reproach.


In my youth, LP sleeves mattered. For small-town kids like me and my friends, short of cash and cultural capital, the record racks that sat at the back of High Street shops like Boots or W.H. Smith offered a free creative education in art, photography, design, and typography, one square foot at a time. There was no such thing as a "record shop": the first LP I ever actually bought with my own money was from an electrical retailer, mainly selling TVs, radios, and toasters. As it happens, it was the studio half of Cream's Wheels of Fire, with its psychedelic silver sleeve by Martin Sharp, but I had already handled and pored over many, many more, admiring and absorbing their pictorial styles, the more excessive the better, along with all the small-print details of music I would never actually get to hear, often made in places I had never heard of, never mind expected to visit. So where the hell was Nashville? Or Detroit? Why did people keep going on about them? Like travel brochures to exotic destinations, or the copies of National Geographic in the dentist's waiting room, record sleeves were both documentary evidence of and invitations to a fuller, more colourful world that existed out there somewhere, if only you could break free of the gravitational pull of small-town life. Colour was breaking into ordinary lives, and with it came a huge, new challenge: did you dare to be different?

Too often, cultural history concentrates on the initiators, the pioneers, and the facilitators, who are never more that a numerically tiny elite. I suppose this is fair enough: later generations want to know about the tensions in the Abbey Road Studios during the making of the White Album, which Beatle contributed what to which track, when and why Ringo walked out, and so on. But, in the end, what was the result of all that closely-observed Sturm und Drang? A mass-entertainment product of very mixed quality, marketed and sold to the general public by the million. The individual numbering on the sleeve of the "first edition" of The Beatles was quite consciously an ironic – you might even say a snobbish – comment on that, by comparing the album to a limited-edition multiple [2]. So, on one level, the narrative of the 1960s – of which the Beatles are the type specimen – is how a handful of young, working-class kids could start out as seedy dance-hall entertainers, with no ambition greater than a tour of Mecca ballrooms, and end up regarded and revered as world-changing "artists". Which is, no doubt, a great story. But it's not the whole story. In fact, the real story is what happened next, in the 1970s. Which, of course, as far as the more daring young members of the general public were concerned, is when "the 1960s" really happened [3].


1. It was not only in Britain, of course. Perhaps the most hilarious example of this is Bob Dylan's 1965 interview, featured in Scorsese's documentary, No Direction Home:

Reporter:  How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers? That is, people who use their music, and use the songs to protest the, ah, social state in which we live today. The matter of war, the matter of crime, or whatever it might be.
Dylan: many??
Reporter:  Yes. How many?
Dylan:      Uh, I think there's about, uh ... 136.
Reporter: You say about 136, or do you mean exactly 136?
Dylan:      Uh, it's either 136 or 142.

2. It's also a bit of a con. Apparently, there were 12 pressing plants, all producing the same series of numbers in parallel.
3. Don't believe me? Look in your family photo album...


amolitor said...

The incomprehensible maze of design and typography on your student ID card delights me. I especially like the "No" preceding B1.

I wonder if anyone's taken a stab at a kind of people's history of culture? Akin to Howard Zinn's people's history of the USA.

Mike C. said...

It is pretty extraordinary -- I've always liked the Russian parallel text (this is 1971 we're taking about, unreconstructed Brezhnev-era USSR), as if you might just hitchhike into Soviet territory, like you might end up in Italy or Greece. Mind you, isn't "No." a standard abbreviation for "number" in the US? The best thing, of course, is my gormless 17-yr-old attempt at a super-cool expression.

Re, "people's history", I wouldn't be surprised, though I'm not aware of any particular titles. From a UK p-o-v there's a nice series of books by David Kynaston that cover the whole range of post-war social history, and there is a department at Birmingham University, the Centre For Contemporary Cultural Studies, that specialises in precisely that.


amolitor said...

"No" certainly does mean number, what caught my attention was the gloriously bizarre font choice!

Mike C. said...

Ah, of course! That would probably have been some readymade piece of type, but in completely the wrong typeface -- I can't now remember what printers call those.


Zouk Delors said...

Of course I had a card just like that, obtained at the same time and for the very same purpose, I believe. Just had a look for it but, sadly, it doesn't seem to be with the little collection of ID cards I've kept. I have got an NUS ID for the year 77-78, though. I wasn't even a student by then but had a friend in office. Happily for the country, neither he nor I went into public service.

Mike C. said...


I can't even remember what the point of them was! Did we get discounted travel or something? I've also got a Youth Hostel Association card somewhere: now that was useful.


Martyn Cornell said...

Spotted you in the school photo, an Mr Fuke was quite easy to pick out ... believe I saw Bruce, too.

Mike C. said...


Check the sandals... No wonder I never made prefect.