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• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

Tomita album covers

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Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974); art direction; Joseph J. Stelmach; artwork: David B. Hecht.

The Japanese composer Isao Tomita died last week so I’ve been listening to some of his early recordings, and thinking—as usual—about their cover designs. Tomita was by far the best of the many electronic musicians in the 1970s who took advantage of the huge success of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach (1968) to create their own versions of classical music with Moog and other synthesisers. If this makes Tomita sound like an opportunist (and his 1972 collection of electronic pop covers was titled Switched On Hit & Rock), he quickly developed his own approach to electronic composition which ranged from quirky humour to his own brand of cosmic pictorialism. The latter was very different from the equally cosmic meanderings of Tangerine Dream which seldom strayed too far from the rock world. Tomita had a genius for taking very familiar pieces of classical music which he fashioned into synthesizer soundtracks for imaginary science-fiction films. (He also produced actual scores for a number of Japanese films but few, if any, of these were released outside Japan.) This approach is shown to great effect on The Bermuda Triangle (1979), an album that in the UK was subtitled “A Musical Fantasy Of Science Fiction”, and which filters Prokofiev and Sibelius through a library of paranormal paperbacks, with references to UFOs, undersea pyramids, Agharta, the Hollow Earth and the Tunguska Event.

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Pictures At An Exhibition (1975); artwork: bas-relief by Gene Szafran. The first appearance of the logo that became a fixture of Tomita’s albums. No designer is credited but I’d guess it was the work of Joseph J. Stelmach. The logo typeface is Sinaloa.

As for the covers, Tomita’s recordings may have been classical music but RCA targeted the albums at a rock audience so there’s no sign of the venerable composers heads that appear continually on the sleeves of orchestral recordings. The examples here are almost all the Western releases which—surprisingly—tended to have better covers than the Japanese originals. This is also a partial selection, favouring Tomita’s own releases (no soundtracks), and mostly the early albums. The later albums aren’t as impressive, and many of them were only released in Japan.

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Firebird (1975). No design or art credit. I’d not noticed before that the logo evolves by degrees, here gaining some extensions.

Lastly, I’ll dedicate this post to my old friend Nik Green who died in March. Nik was a session musician of some note, and the first person I knew who owned a synthesizer (an ARP Odyssey); he was also a great Tomita enthusiast who shared Tomita’s sense of humour, and relished the quirkier moments on many of these albums. I can’t listen to the opening of the Mars section of Tomita’s The Planets without remembering Nik shouting “Moog horns!” when a synthetic fanfare interrupts the sounds of a spacecraft lift-off.

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Weekend links 308

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Frank Herbert’s Dune receives a new cover design by Alex Trochut together with other notable works of science fiction and fantasy for a new series from Penguin.

• “…poet, scholar and biographer Sandeep Parmar…has raised the possibility that a long poem by Hope Mirrlees, titled Paris and published by the Hogarth Press in 1919, was a strong influence on The Waste Land.” Alfred Corn on new TS Eliot scholarship.

• “[Evolution's] strain of body horror brings to mind an ethereal HP Lovecraft mixed with David Cronenberg.” Rachel Bowles talks to the film’s director, Lucile Hadzihalilovic.

• Library music “is a sonic world of ‘weird beats, odd instrumentations, albums full of dark jazzy interludes or bizarre garage rock.’” Adrian Shaughnessy on innovation in banality.

Italy, which EM Forster called “the beautiful country where they say ‘yes’”, became another resort, especially the island of Capri, where a French poet staged a ceremonial flogging of his teenage Italian lover before the boy departed to do his military service and became the subject of a novel by his compatriot Roger Peyrefitte. In the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Forster observed the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”, and the Australian novelist Patrick White met a local man who became his lifelong companion. For decades, the novelists Paul and Jane Bowles presided in Tangier, which Jack Kerouac was to call a “sinister international hive of queens”. William Burroughs arrived in 1954 with a teenage Spaniard named Kiki who, Woods writes, “was, famously, the boy who would blow smoke into his pubic hair and say ‘Abracadabra’ as his hardening cock emerged from the cloud”. Tangier was to figure in Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch as a phantasmagoric, rubbery walled sex market called the Interzone.

Caleb Crain reviewing Homintern by Gregory Woods

• Beardsley biographer Matthew Sturgis reviews Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné, a two-volume collection edited by Linda Gertner Zatlin.

• “He was the Bresson of Birkenhead.” Andrew Collins reviews the forthcoming collection of BBC dramas directed by Alan Clarke.

• “The postwar Hollywood western was more content to let strangeness be strange,” says Michael Newton.

• “Bosch’s work has always caused trouble for interpreters and critics,” says Morgan Meis.

Misplaced New York: a project by Anton Repponen and Jon Earle.

Wyrd Daze, Lvl2 Issue 6, is out, and as before is a free download.

Lessons we can learn from Robert Altman’s 3 Women.

• Mix of the week: FACT Mix 548 by Peder Mannerfelt.

Paris 1971 (1971) by Suzanne Ciani | Paris II (1987) by Jon Hassell | Dreaming Of Paris (2013) by Van Dyke Parks

 


Essex House book covers

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I’ve known the name of American publisher Essex House for many years but the books they published, all of which appeared in a frenzy of activity from 1968 to 1969, have never been easy to find in the UK. The company is chiefly of note today for having three original Philip José Farmer novels on their list, all works of fantasy with the erotic side more dominant than in Farmer’s previous work. Erotic fiction with a generic slant was the Essex House speciality, and while the Farmer covers have appeared here before, I’d not seen any other Essex House covers until the discovery of this page which collects 38 of the 42 published titles.

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It’s immediately evident looking down the list that the (uncredited) designer managed to forge a distinctive identity for the books at a time when any cover would suffice if the written material was sufficiently pornographic. Many of the covers borrow (or mutate) pre-existing artworks, while others emulate the watered-down psychedelic style that by the late 60s was visible everywhere in the US and much of Europe. These aren’t all great pieces of design but the graphics on erotic titles in the 60s either played safe by favouring text-only covers or sported technically crude emulations of paperback illustration. (For an example of just how technically crude, see this post about some of the many gay pulps on sale in the US.)

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Essex House may not have been around for long but they seemed to be attempting something different, at least where the covers were concerned. I’ve only read the Farmer books so I can’t vouch for the other titles but the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction writes that

…about half the 42 titles published by Essex House were sf/fantasy; they included novels by Philip José Farmer, Richard E Geis, David Meltzer (perhaps the most distinguished), Michael Perkins and Hank Stine…of which a number were ambitious, some literary, and most somewhat joyless—even emetic—and redolent of 1960s radicalism.

Pornography as a tool of radical politics had a brief vogue in the late 60s and early 70s, something that’s particularly evident in the underground magazines of the period. The results may be “joyless” to some but then I find a lot of the alleged classics of science fiction joyless so it’s all a matter of taste. There was no equivalent of Essex House in the UK but in the 1970s France had the Chute Libre imprint which not only published all of the Essex House Farmer titles but did so with a collection of equally striking (or “joyless”) cover designs.

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Artwork is a solarised version of Le Bout du monde (1949) by Leonor Fini.

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Weekend links 307

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Demon (2014) from the Witch Series by Camille Chew.

• Released next month, Machines Of Desire is the first album of new music by Peter Baumann since Strangers In The Night in 1983. Baumann’s first two solo albums, Romance 76 (1976) and Trans Harmonic Nights (1979), are exceptional works of analogue electronica that frequently outmatch his former colleagues in Tangerine Dream. Both albums have been unavailable for over 20 years so it’s good to know that Cherry Red are reissuing them at the end of May (see here and here).

• RIP Jenny Diski whose death from cancer wasn’t a surprise when she’d been writing about her condition for many months. Linked here in 2013 was this pre-diagnosis meditation on death that takes in Nabokov, Beckett and Francis Bacon (philosopher, not artist). “Jenny offered a living example of how, sometimes, compassion can be born of misanthropy,” says Justin EH Smith. The LRB’s archive of Diski writings is currently free to all.

Murder by Remote Control, a graphic novel by artist Paul Kirchner and writer Janwillem van de Wetering that “resembles a Raymond Chandler-esque noir ‘whodunnit,’ viewed through the psychotropic lens of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky”.

Inspired by Gore Vidal’s 1968 satirical novel, Myra Breckinridge which was denounced as obscene by conservatives, [Boyd] McDonald embarked on a radically, offensive publication, one that avoided the sexless influence of middle class gay mores that sought to whitewash the homosexual experience in order to present a more palatable image of assimilated gays to the general society. This political strategy was successful in achieving gay marriage and more tolerance, but, in the opinion of McDonald, came at a cost. Straight to Hell was in fact the first queer zine. Utilizing erotic photos, interviews and news, McDonald saw it as a “newsletter for us,” the small group of deviates who were its earliest subscribers.

Walter Holland reviewing True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell by William E. Jones

• “HP Lovecraft’s…fascination with all things tentacular and aquatic is unmistakably imprinted on Evolution“, a new film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Watch the trailer.

• At Dangerous Minds: Broken, the notorious Nine Inch Nails video collection with “snuff movie” interludes by Peter Christopherson, is available online (again).

BEAK> (Geoff Barrow & Billy Fuller) make “claustrophobic, hypnotic music, drawing…on krautrock, post-punk and Interstellar-Overdrive psychedelia”.

• Mixes of the week: Bacchus Beltane 3 : The Age of Abrasax by The Ephemeral Man, and Secret Thirteen Mix 183 by December.

Tease by Jan Rattia, photographs of male strippers on display at ClampArt, NYC.

Wu Zei (2010), a sea-monster sculpture by Huang Yong Ping.

• “I was born weird,” says Robert Crumb.

Sacred Revelation by Susanna

Broken Head (1978) by Eno, Moebius & Roedelius | Broken Horse (1984) by Rain Parade | Broken Harbours (Part 1) (2001) by Stars Of The Lid

 


Leather Cthulhu unleashed

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The beautiful leatherbound Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales is officially published this Friday but the books are in Barnes & Noble stores already, and my complimentary copies arrived this week. Photos don’t do justice to the volumes in this series of classic reprints, you really need to hold one to see how well made they are. The leather is smooth and flawlessly printed—I was worried that I might have pushed the limits with some of the details in my cover design but every line and edge is where it should be. The pages of this particular volume are edged with gold, an effect applied to some of the books I’ve designed for Savoy but an uncommon thing in today’s book world.

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As I mentioned earlier, this edition also features endpapers showing details of my R’lyeh spread from The Call of Cthulhu, plus a poster of my Cthulhu Rising piece from 2004. Which leads to an important note for purchasers: the temporary glue that fixes the poster to the back endpapers, and the ad sheet (see below) to the back cover was stronger than intended so care needs to be taken when detaching these items from the book. I’ve been told that a warning about this will be added to the next batch of books, and the glue (which is that clear stuff used to fix things to magazine covers) will also be changed.

A couple more photos and a list of contents follow below. I’ve worked on a lot of books over the years but this one is up there with the very best; Lovecraft’s finest fiction in a single gorgeous volume, and all for $20.

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Penda's Fen by David Rudkin