Friday, July 24, 2009

Poster Boy For The UK Underground

A frequent punishment for us 'fags' (new boys) at the 2nd division British public school I was made to attend was to get up at morning bell (7.20am) and run a couple of miles to another house across town. Wake up a crabby senior boy, get him to sign a chit, hoof it back, shower, and be ready for breakfast at 8am. If your transgression was bad enough, you might have to run to three different houses and if you didn't make it back in time for breakfast, you'd have do it again the following day and so on. Until you got it 'right'.

These were known as 'tish calls' because one had to visit a 'partition' in a dormitory where a boy was supposed to be able to sleep soundly without being molested. These sadistic penalties would be handed out by some little Hitler or senior creep (most likely a junior municipal politician or ambulance-chaser in-the-making) because one might have talked during prep or polished their shoes inadequately.

If a senior boy had a menial task that was 'beneath' him, all he had to do was yell "FAG!" and the first year lads (three of us) would have to sprint down the corridor toward the source. If you were the last to reach him, you got the job. It blew, and basically you just had to ride it out until it was your turn to terrorize some other poor kid four years hence. This was a school where you had to have your trouser pockets sewn up so you couldn't slouch around with your hands in them. Young gentlemen in the making, ha!
One day, I stole a copy of something a senior boy had left in an area forbidden to us lowly scum. It was called International Times, and I think it belonged to Martin Atkins. He was probably the coolest guy in the house at the time simply by virtue of possessing the Small Faces' 'Tin Soldier' in a picture sleeve. It didn't take much. I was deemed a miserable little toe-rag. My parents had sent me - a soccer player - to a school that played fucking rugby, a barbarian sport for thugs and thickos. Just about the only thing that offered me any solace was knowing I already had a better record collection than all of them put together, thanks to my uncle who worked for Decca. None of them had a test pressing of the first Them album or, for that matter, 'A' labels of The Rolling Stones' 'Come On' (given to me a week before it hit the streets), The Small Faces' 'I've Got Mine' or 'A Legal Matter' by The Who (as heard on "wonderful Radio London".

The Rolling Stones: 'Come On'
(Decca, 1963)
The Who: 'A Legal Matter'
(Brunswick, 1966)

The Small Faces: 'I've Got Mine'
Decca, 1965)

I was nearly 15, and up until now my preferred reading was Disc & Music Echo, The New Musical Express, Melody Maker, The Aquarist, Charles Buchan's Football Monthly, Ring Wrestling, Health & Efficiency and anything with the name Harrison Marks on the cover. But the International Times opened up a whole 'nother world. One that seemed far more exciting, and not only because it printed words like "fuck" and showed the odd pube (something H&E and the like saw fit to airbrush, leaving June Palmer, Jayne Tracey and Pamela Green not only 'bald' but sporting a gussett most unnatural. I knew that because Chloe, a choreographer for the Western Theatre Ballet, had shown me hers when I was 10. But that's another story.

We were seeing 'freaks' like Arthur Brown and The Pretty Things on Top Of The Pops or A Whole Scene Going, but the mainstream media had always looked down its nose at this stuff. Articles in The Sunday Times or Observer colour supplements on contemporary artists like Chris Burden or Otto Muehl always seemed condescending and derisive of their far out performance art 'events'.
And surely this awful 'music' would eventually go away and musicians would all fall in line, start playing proper instruments and get their hair cut. But here was a publication that encouraged freedom of expression in all forms, be it cultural or sexual and suddenly radical new ideas were being presented. In fact, the 'revolution' was encouraged! I hated school, didn't much like authority and started to feel a kinship with anything that kicked against boring oppressors. The oboe gave way to the saxophone. The only advantage of being an oboe-ist in a traditional orchestra layout (by my reckoning) is the glimpse of mature, white panty when the first 'cello positions her instrument at the start (and repositions at the end) of a piece.
School Orchestra, June '68

So my hair gradually crept over my collar. I was already as big a fan of the Mothers Of Invention as someone with barely any money stuck in the middle of Rutland could be and, in the classifieds in the back of the paper, there was an ad for a poster of a naked Frank Zappa sitting on the toilet.
Another depicted a large, pink blobby figure was pointing to smaller version of the same thing exclaiming "Sod Off!" I felt this was more appropriate for my 'study' wall (a 6' x 8' cell I shared with Edmunds, M where we stashed our tuckboxes, brewed our own ginger beer and might have glanced at the occasional biology or geography text book) than the wrestling posters currently adorning them.
So I sent off some money and hoped for the best. 2 weeks later a tube showed up and the Farleigh housemaster, Ian Pringle, immediately confiscated the Sod Off poster, probably to give to his son..or wife. Still, there was a catalogue included that contained other items on offer. I wanted them all. Gorgeous, multi-colour posters advertising concerts (Traffic at the Saville Theatre), bands (The Move, Tomorrow), 'happenings' (14 Hour Technicolour Dream, Legalize Pot Rally), clubs (UFO, Middle Earth), featuring works by Martin Sharp and something called Hapshash & The Coloured Coat.

Some were printed on silver or gold heavy-duty paper, others used day-glo ink and all were beautiful examples of ground-breaking,
psychedelic graphic design. I rustled some money together and ordered a Mr. Tambourine Man
and a Max Ernst poster
and they came - this time - with a letter inviting me to become an 'agent' for the company - Big O Posters. For every 10 posters I sold, I'd get one free (but not one involving a 5th colour or larger than 20" x 30"). My first job! And it lasted as long as it took to get enough posters to cover my share of our study wallspace. One of which was this beauty.
Had I been a couple of years older, I would have somehow inserted myself into this weird and wonderful new scene, but I got stuck doing 'O' Levels, learning to roll joints and trying to lose my virginity. Anyway, Mick Farren - whose name and abundant afro cropped up regularly during those times (not only as the vocalist for the first do-it-yourself indy band, The Social Deviants but occasional columnist/reviewer for IT) writes brilliantly and hilariously about what I missed in 'Give The Anarchist A Cigarette',
one of the most entertaining and enlightening books I've ever read. In fact, it was this book that gave me pause with the blog a few weeks ago. It just made me feel inadequate as a 'writer' and I needed to regain some confidence. Try and find it, it really is great.

Next thing I know, I'm failing all my exams, discovering sherry and Southern Comfort, stacking shelves at Tesco in Crouch End, snogging with and eventually getting Sonia the checkout girl next to the maraschino cherries in the warehouse upstairs and getting thrown out of the house by my mother after she discovered a lump of Lebanese Gold worth about 10/- or 50p as it was now known. Time was spent reading mags like Oz and Friendz, books by Burroughs, Thompson, Castaneda, comics like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, in fact, anything with Gilbert Shelton in it, Nasty Tales and grooving intently to The Deviants, the Pink Fairies, The Pretty Things, The Edgar Broughton Band and mighty space-groovers, Hawkwind. You might enjoy reading about some of them in Rich Deakin's Keep It Together!: Cosmic Boogie with The Deviants and The Pink Fairies and, as I've said before, I enjoyed getting turned on to new stuff by ace djs like Andy Dunkley, Jeff Dexter, Pete Drummond and John Peel.

All of this prepared me
nicely for my imminent start in the music business...making the tea.

In March 1994, Mick Farren, very kindly, sent me a copy of his 'The Lonesome Death Of Gene Vincent...and 44 Other Poems And Lyrics' for my "amusement".
It came with a note saying he and founding member of Blodwyn Pig, Jack Lancaster were working on "an electronic-music poetry project that we believe is a hell of a lot more sophisticated than a lot of what's going on in that field" and that when they had "some recordings that we're satisfied with, we may well come and bother you".

Unfortunately, they never did


Anonymous said...

Never heard of Chris Burden til you wrote this. Thanks (i think) for being such a formidable music and art historian.

(any db reference info always highly appreciated, as u know)

John Rosenfelder said...

uncle decca, big o posters, vicious upper classmates... all the makings of a great rock life!

on another post, i'm curious to hear brinsley forde's song and susannah hoffs singing yes.

Peter said...

Howard, good to see you've picked up the mighty pen once again . . . another fine read. I see Nick Kent is publishing his autobiography next year. Only a new tome by Nick Tosches would be more welcome than that, though I doubt either will come within a country mile of Farren's "Anarchist . . .". What really took me by surprise was Farren's generosity of spirit. I dunno why, but I always thought autobiographies were places to extract revenge, not so for Mr. Farren. Another of your favorite writers gave a good account of himself in yesterday's Guardian. Richard Williams' piece on the late Bobby Robson was a peach. It had me crying and laughing into my coffee. Find it here:

Last word: if you've not copped volume three of the Bo Diddley Masters on Hip-o Select, you need to do so pronto. Disc 2: "Congo". Why? 'Cos it's called Rock n Roll . .
Best, Peter

ht said...

thanks Peter...I have the Bo and have been working it slowly on the radio. I'll put Congo up at the weekend. I'll add another book to look forward to: the next Meltzer novel, which is now finished and ready to go. I'm looking forward to Nick's book, too. Esp. his recollection of the Vicious/100 Club incident.

lamf said...

I second the call for HT's return to scribedom. You got the tales, you got the prose you got the sass and the suss to put em together and make em entertaining. H, you share cos you care, and so do us mofo's! tpx

Anonymous said...

Where can I buy the "mister tambourine man" poster?