Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Beatles to Bowie: the 60s exposed

National Portrait gallery, London, 2009.

Macca's 70 soon. All the Old Gods nearly are dead. Icons. Our instant access culture makes it hard for anything to register and have an impact like it used to. We've all seen it, done it, got the T-shirt. No more so than in the world of Rock. I mean, really, do you care about U2 playing Glastonbury, 2010? That's the best we got? Sad.

So, with thoughts like that in my noggin, I paid 11 quid to see this show. Swinging London and those wot won it. The Golden Age. Some slagged the notion of such frippery in so august a venue as the NPG. But they probably never liked music anyway.

Photography of all sorts has really started to become big money in the last 10 years. It's still cheaper than "proper" Art but it's also grown up into a Proper Art.  Today, with digital technology, the world of the image is everywhere. We're bombarded daily. Photography now has its own Old Masters and original prints are valuable. Cecil Beaton, anyone?

This exhibition is from a simpler time. Any images from that period resonate with a certain charm. Any new images from that period recapture the magic all over again. The subject matter is familiar but, for a Fan Boy like me, it's still a thrill to see, say, a Beatles picture that I hadn't seen before.

Through chronological galleries the years 1961 to 1969 are presented as a series of photos and ephemera. The world of Rock and Mass Media from its toddler beginnings to Young Adult. It's old now. But the camera sees all, then and now. To see Keith Richards in 1963, fresh-faced and genuinely happy, is to wonder at Life. The Beatles peeking from behind Brian Epstein's vermillion-red front door. Germaine Greer, haughty and hot, with her breasts out. Marc Bolan as a Mod. The Who in Wapping.

Some images are classics. Bailey's Beatles. Mankowitz's Stones and Hendrix. Still looking cool, effortless, knowing, free. The selling of The Dream. The fact these images were essentially designed to shift units doesn't detract from their beauty. As the Stones used to say in their press ads; "where art and commerce meet". A good example of this is the Beatles' "Twist & Shout" display. The joyous image of our Mop Tops leaping in the air, breaking on through to the other side of the 60s. The original contact sheet is there with the chalk marks around the selected shot. A simple snapshot decision that reverberates on a million record sleeves and in the collective memory.

Alongside the photography, the journey through the decade is illustrated with record sleeves, clothes, fanzines, sheet music, colour supplement features, tickets. A swirling mess of Groovy. Some looks kitsch, but pleasing. The quality of photographer in those days was high. They might have been hacks but they had talent. The early years were all fresh-meat-to-the-machine. This stuff sells newspapers!

By the mid 60s and Robert Whitaker's pictures of The Beatles there's more energy. You could try anything then because it was all still innovative and fun. The Shock of the New. You can feel the connection between the audience of the day and their heroes. Maybe not as equals, but certainly sharing the same thoughts and feelings of the age. We're all in this together.

Bands and fans grew up at the same time. The journey from Gerry & The Pacemakers to Jethro Tull only takes 5 years: from school to university. It's almost alarming to go from cheesy grins in matching suits to longhair and paisley in such a short space. Everyone today looks pretty much the same as they did 10 years ago.

The book's been written. The riffs, licks and chops played. Our modern world all started then. Our Mojo got working as we lived for Today and created The Future. The years lead up to Bowie. He's on the cusp of the Seventies. And Bowie IS the Seventies. The images here are of a One Hit Wonder planning his next move. The advert for Stylophone "as heard on David Bowie's Smash Hit!" doesn't bode well. Hey, who knew? 

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Michael Horovitz OBE

I've been corresponding with Michael Horovitz recently. An interesting man.
Fifty years ago, while an Oxbridge student in 1959, he founded New Departures, a magazine dedicated to new poetry. Kerouac's On The Road had just come out, CND marches were starting, Trad Jazz was the Alt. Rock of its day. Michael was the first man to publish extracts of William Burroughs.

As the Sixties got going he was one of the poets at the famous Albert Hall poetry event in 1965. He's captured for ever in Peter Whitehead's film of the event, Wholly Communion. 

Over the years he's put on various events - most of which lost money - but his phone book is a who's-who of the Sixties counter culture and beyond. The magazine continues sporadically and he appears on radio from time to time, famously delaying the 9 O'clock news on Radio4 one morning by 2 minutes because he just wouldn't shut up! James Naughtie of that show is a fan.

He has an army of goodwill behind him and can call on the services of an eclectic bunch of poets and performers to turn out and lend support. Over the years I've filmed him at numerous events, including at the Albert hall, where people like Joe Strummer, Julie Felix, Pete Townshend, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Adrian Mitchell and Paul McCartney have appeared. Michael would often turn up with a box of organic apples for people to munch and piles of back copies of his various poetry collections to sell. This is not a rich man. He is one of the last living links to the Beat Generation in this country. Allen Ginsberg was an acquaintance.

Sadly, in this 50th year of New Departures, Michael finds it hard to get arrested. A short collection of performances over the years was shown recently at the Portobello Film Festival - hey, I got a credit! - but the media in general couldn't care less. Not sexy enough.

He still lives in the same Notting Hill flat he's had for over 40 years, which would be worth a mint if it was, er, modernised. He was given an OBE for services to poetry a few years back, but he had to be nagged by his poet son, Adam, to accept it; "It'll help in your applications for funding!"

Like all the characters I've met from that period, he's charming, energetic and believes in life beyond just Tube/Work/Sleep. Guys like him helped write the Book: traces of what he did all those years ago filter through to things we take for granted today. Literary festivals; music and poetry; operating outside the mainstream; following your own path; folk revival; rock lyrics; underground publications; alternative night clubs with light shows and sound systems. He was there. Look him up on the web...

Michael Horovitz OBE

I've corresponding with Michael Horovitz recently. An interesting man.
Fifty years ago, while an Oxbridge student, he founded New Departures, a magazine dedicated to new poetry. Kerouac's On The Road had just come out, CND marches were starting, Trad Jazz was the Alt. Rock of its day. Michael was the first man to publish extracts of William Burroughs.
As the Sixties got going he was one of the poets at the famous Albert Hall poetry event in 1965. He's captured for ever in Peter Whitehead's film of the event, Wholly Communion. 
Over the years he's put on various events - most of which lost money - but his phone book is a who's-who of the Sixties counter culture and beyond

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been…

Ralph Metzner, October Gallery, London June 16th 2009

The October Gallery in London has been doing a series of talks on the nature of consciousness. Step forward, for one night only, Ralph Metzner. Who he? Well, now children…

Back in the 1950s all sorts of folk, including the CIA, were looking at drugs. LSD 25 was one of those drugs. Metzner, a graduate student at Harvard, helped Timothy Leary and Richard “Baba Ram Dass” Alpert in their studies into this new field. This is before it was illegal and a counter-culture developed. Why, it was even a fashionable thing in Hollywood and people like Cary Grant swore by it.

Leary urged the world to “tune in, turn on, drop out”. Metzner helped, tripping with the likes of Kesey, Cassady and Kerouac. But he’s no burnt out acid casualty. Far from it. His interest in the human brain and consciousness has been his life’s work and, indeed, he’s a respected academic.

Recently he’s published his own account of those heady daze, to give his side of the Tale of The Sixties. And so a small audience gathers at the October to see and hear a living link to those times. A primary source.

The evening was a gentle affair. We were shown a trailer for a documentary film about Leary and Alpert, based on home footage shot before Leary’s death. It looked lo-fi but fun. Then Metzner, a twinkly 70 year old, read a few passages from his book. Nothing heavy, just a few glimpses into what it was like to explore the inner mind back then.

The Q&A session after was too short but showed a healthy sense of humour and lack of concern for authority. They took LSD themselves to have a subjective understanding of what people went through otherwise, “it’s kinda boring taking notes for 6 hours of someone going “Wow!””. Harvard didn’t like their approach. Others, like Huxley, believed LSD was only for the cultural elite. Metzner agreed more with Leary’s egalitarian American classlessness: everyone should have the chance.

The talk ended with a quick slide show of the L’Omo tribe of Africa. Incredible painted faces and bodies, that seemed to fuse the human with plant. It captured the trippiness of a drug experience and the power of the mind to project and actualise thoughts, feelings and environment. Phew.

Ralph Metzner. A footnote in the alternative history of the Universe.


I like David Hockney. He's no nonsense, down-to-earth. The BBC had a great doc about him last night and for 48 hours they've made available some "phone art" to download.
Out of all the British Pop Artists (of which he was one, more by default than anything else) he was the most "Pop". Not in the Peter Blake sense (Beatles album cover etc) but in his attitude. He loved the newness and freedom of 1960s America. His Splash paintings could've been done today. He's wry and dry like Alan Bennett - a Northern thing - but not parochial.
In Peter Whitehead's 1960s film, "Tonite Let's All Make Love in London", Hockney sits with a pair of glasses on that spell the word "Zoom" while discussing art and life. His portrait of Ossie Clark is the nation's favourite (official). He regularly appears on radio slagging the anti-smoking laws by "mealy-mouthed do-gooders". He's not afraid of technology and just having a go at things. He's a bundle of fun. And honesty. Qualities sorely lacking in our public figures. Wacko Jacko? Pah. Hockney's a true artist.

Friday, 26 June 2009


I was always too much of a punky rocker to "get" Michael Jackson. Now, like Abba, I can dance at a party to a few tunes but it's no more than nursery songs. Inoffensive, sure. But I don't get this idea of him as King of Pop (a title he insisted upon). You want a Pop star? Marc Bolan, back in the day, worked for me fine. Jacko's videos were BIG and that helped spread the fame but, really, how many of the 70 million people who bought "Thriller" actually listen to it? It's entertaining enough but without the video would it have been so huge? So, cheesy pop in itself isn't a crime. Just doesn't rock my boat. And then there's all the kiddy fiddling, surgery, Scientology etc. Yeah, yeah, he had a shit childhood, but all that squeaky, high-voice whining on shows like Oprah hid the fact he was a 50 year old man. He knew what he was doing. I'm not saying he's Gary Glitter but there was something not quite right there...

Friday, 19 June 2009

Sixties Photo Exhibition

John “Hoppy” Hopkins, Idea Generation Gallery, London, June 2009.

Hoppy’s the biggest hippy you’ve never heard of. His is not the Daily Mail version of the Sixties with minis, Twiggy and World Cup ’66. He pretty much started the counter-culture in Sixties London. Now, he’d be called a social entrepreneur. Then, he was a face about town. Making things happen. He knew everybody. He set up Europe’s first underground newspaper (International Times) and psychedelic club (UFO). He gave out copies of a groovy address book: sheets of Gestetnered paper, stapled together with names of cool folk for like-minded souls, like a lo-fi Internet. He set up the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at Ally Pally, the UK’s own version of the Acid Tests. He was busted and sent to jail on the day Sgt Pepper was released. The judge called him, “a menace to Society”.

He also took photos that paid his way in the early days. Some are well known (Beatles, Stones, usual suspects) but others are street scenes, a drug deal, prostitutes, tattooist, bikers, CND demos, Jazzmen. The subculture, before it was called that.

His eye was great. Hoppy says it was all intuition and instinct. He’s a Cambridge physics and maths graduate so the tech-y bit was easy. The basics, like composition, are there too. It’s his ease with the snapshot moment that impresses. Shapes and faces look as fresh as when he hit the shutter. But also, timeless. Grey, dirty, bombed out, early Sixties London looks almost Victorian and strangely “now”. Perhaps it’s because we don’t normally see pictures like that from the Sixties. It wasn’t all a swirly-coloured Love-in.

Familiar places and faces you think you know appear different. They startle. Compared to the routinely rolled out stock images of the period, their unfamiliarity makes us see things anew. The Jazz pictures are glorious. Close-ups of Monk’s hands. Ornette Coleman blowing blissfully. (Coleman stayed with Hoppy on his first UK tour in 1965 and by coincidence is in town for Meltdown). The Stones at Ally Pally in 1964 look gorgeous: Brian Jones with his back to the crowd and light breaking through the huge circular window. Ringo staring blankly; John smoking a fag. Marriane smiling. Martin Luther King, close-up, thinking.

It’s all here. The Idea Generation have done a great job hanging and getting the word out. This collection and Hoppy’s archive are an untapped source of wonder. His version of events goes much deeper than received wisdom.

The Sixties will exert a much bigger pull as decades go by. Everything “normal’ today kicked off then. And, sadly, it’ll be a while before the sheer joy and innocence and innovation of that era roams the planet again, if ever. Until then, work like Hoppy’s gives us, and future generations, a beautiful glimpse into that Time and Place. Far out.