David Britton, 1945–2020

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Mister Rock’n’roll, 1969.

David Britton, author, artist and publisher, died on 29th December. I wrote this for the Savoy Books news announcement:

My closest artistic collaborator from 1989 to 1999, and a close friend for longer than this: capricious, determined, fearless, funny, generous and inspirational. No David Britton, no Lord Horror; no Lord Horror, no Reverbstorm. He changed my life.

He’d been increasingly ill for several years so this came as less of a surprise to those of us close to him than to others. Dave and I used to talk at least once a week, and on the last occasion he’d sounded worse than usual. Those talks were episodes in a conversation about art that ran for over 30 years, beginning in the mid-1980s at the counter of the Savoy bookshop in Peter Street, Manchester, continuing in the Savoy offices with co-publisher and collaborator Michael Butterworth, and resuming on the phone; art in all its forms and in any medium, with no attention paid to categories of “high” and “low”.

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Reverbstorm, the Lord Horror comic series that we created throughout the 1990s, was the product of those conversations, and was also produced mostly through conversation, working by instinct without a script. The series, which was compiled into definitive book form in 2012, is testament to a pooled breadth of interest, encompassing/quoting/appropriating/reworking Pointillist, Cubist and Expressionist painting, Modernist poetry, pop songs, Sondheim musicals, Finnegans Wake, Tom Phillips’ Humument, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan comics, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, voodoo chants, Piranesi, King Kong, Bauhaus graphic design, Hugh Ferriss architecture, and illustration of all kinds, from fairy tales to cosmic horror via Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke; there’s even ballet in the mix if you look closely. Dave always liked the idea of Lord Horror leaping and pirouetting like a dancer. More than anything, Reverbstorm is rock’n’roll, and this is partly what the title refers to: a thundering rhythm.

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Britton art from Weird Fantasy #2, 1971. This is the drawing that caught the attention of William Burroughs when Britton and Butterworth visited Burroughs in New York City in 1979.

The term “rock’n’roll” always requires qualification when considering the Britton oeuvre, he used it with regularity while remaining bitterly aware that the original charge of the words had been degraded by over-use, reduced to a caricature by too many mediocre music acts and lazy journalists. I chided him a couple of times that his use of the term was functionally meaningless, a synonym for “my favourite things”. But the application was always a serious one, a label for any work that he found sufficiently thrilling, wild, original, excessive, anarchic, flamboyant, boundary-breaking or confrontational. Little Richard, Larry Williams, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley were Dave’s kind of rock’n’roll, as were Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, PJ Proby, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan. No surprise there, but Burne Hogarth was also rock’n’roll, although Hogarth would no doubt have disputed this. Another favourite artist, James Cawthorn, was given the label because Dave had discovered Cawthorn’s work when his teenage rock’n’roll obsession was at its height; two forms of art were permanently bound together, with sword & sorcery recast as the literary equivalent of a delinquent musical idiom. Dave’s other artist collaborator, Kris Guidio, was rock’n’roll for having served time as a peerless portraitist of The Cramps. LaVern Baker was rock’n’roll, as was CL Moore. Aubrey Beardsley was rock’n’roll and Harry Clarke was rock’n’roll; William Burroughs and William Hope Hodgson were rock’n’roll, so were Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison. Francis Bacon and Paula Rego were rock’n’roll; Alan Clarke was rock’n’roll and so was David Lynch. The quest for more of this rare commodity was relentless and unceasing. Many of our conversations were little more than enthusiastic discussions of shared favourites, or recommendations to watch/read/listen to something new.

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The first Savoy publication from 1976—Cawthorn adapting Moorcock’s apocalyptic Elric novel—was a declaration of intent: maximum rock’n’roll.

The photo at the head of this post is one that Dave had reused in recent years, one of the few portraits he seemed to like. It first appeared inside his debut publication, Weird Fantasy #1, a genre fanzine that was also enough of an underground publication to receive a passing mention in Oz magazine. The picture is emblematic of the Britton character, dressed in a manner at odds with the north Manchester surroundings he grew up in, and where he was still stuck at the time, a world of back-to-back housing and squalid ginnels. Rock’n’roll in all its forms was the great escape from a world of severely limited horizons and circumscribed lives, where all you could look forward to after a few years of poor education was a job in the local mill or factory. People who dismiss the gaudier forms of entertainment as “escapist” are usually middle class and blessed with comforts and opportunities that reinforce their condescensions; people who never had to consider a life so lacking in promise that a song heard on the radio, a vinyl record, a comic book, a paperback found on a market stall, might be the key to a wider world, an affirmation that there was more than the brick walls of your immediate environment, and there could be even more than this. “Escapist” suggests a hiding away but it also means breaking free. In later years Dave maintained a sporadic correspondence with Alan Moore; they never met but were mutually supportive, thanks in part to a shared background as bright boys from working-class backwaters with no encouragement to try and transform their lives through their escapist enthusiasms. Alan maintained an affection for his background, but Dave seldom spoke of his without a shudder, as though he’d evaded a fate worse than death. One thing he retained from north Manchester was an ebulliently vulgar sense of humour. He agreed with Picasso that good taste is the enemy of creativity.

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David Britton’s first novel wasn’t one he considered his best but it remains the most notorious thanks to the conscientious literary assessments of the Greater Manchester police.

I’ll miss Dave’s infectious humour, just as I’ll miss the conversations that so often provoked it, the quest for better art, some new kind of kick, more rock’n’roll. I’ll miss being able to show him something I know he’ll enjoy. He always liked quotations so I’ll end this with a lengthy one from Walter Pater, the aesthetic theorist whose ideas energised the Decadents and the founders of The Savoy, the magazine from which Savoy Books took its name. It summarises Dave’s attitude to life even if he’d never discuss things in such a grandiloquent manner:

…we are all condamnes, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnes a mort avec des sursis indefinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Previously on { feuilleton }
James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
A Reverbstorm jukebox
Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

The Layering

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In Alan Moore’s recent novel, Jerusalem, the ghosts of Northampton travel to different ages of the town by pulling up the concentrated layers of time which they peel back like the pages of a book. The passage of time as an accumulation of layers was materially evident in 18th-century Rome even before geology became an established science. Piranesi’s most popular series of prints, the Vedute di Roma, show how centuries of wind-blown dust and soil had raised the level of the city several feet above its ancient ruins. Before antiquarians began to remove the soil the city was a place of curious juxtapositions, with truncated Corinthian columns growing from the earth, surrounded by—or even forming part of the structure of—the rougher buildings where contemporary Roman citizens were living or sheltering their livestock.

Layers of time and history are the subject of the new compilation from A Year In The Country:

The album explores the way that places are literally layered with history, and is an audio slicing through the layers of time. It journeys amongst the stories and characters of these layers, including, amongst other aspects, the structures built, events which took place and different era’s technologies and belief systems.

Such layering can go far back into pre-recorded history. Much of the earth is thought to have once been underwater, and it is likely that the majority of cities, towns and villages are built in former ocean areas. Current land masses have come to be formed, in part, through a layering of past marine, other life and plants, which in turn are then quarried or mined, subsequently being used to create the infrastructure of contemporary civilisation, and creating something of a cyclical, time-out-of-joint nature to the layers of time.

Track list:
1) A Year In The Country — Cross Sections Of Time
2) Circle/Temple — The Hollow Stream Buried
3) The Heartwood Institute — Beneath The City Streets
4) Sproatly Smith — Chapel Still Stands
5) Field Lines Cartographer — Layers Of Belief
6) Howlround — A Heart Shaped Forest
7) Folclore Impressionista — The Problem Of Symmetry
8) Handspan — At The End Of The Aerial Flight
9) Widow’s Weeds — Gilmerton Cove
10) Listening Center — Wattle And Daub Office Blocks
11) Vic Mars — Once There Were Houses
12) Pulselovers — Brodsworth
13) Grey Frequency — Tigguo Cobauc

As with some of the earlier releases in this series, the accompanying notes are essential to flesh out the substance of the instrumentals; so The Hollow Stream Buried follows Coil in charting the lost rivers of London, Tigguo Cobauc deals with the labyrinth of caves under the city of Nottingham, Chapel Still Stands concerns a place of worship marooned inside an industrial estate, and so on. Without a description, Howlround’s evocation of a Cumbrian landmark might be another example of stone-tape clairaudience. The tape distortions, however, turn out to be the tape feedback playing itself; if there are any ghosts here their origin is presumably rural, not mineral. Handspan combine a traditional tune from the North-East of England with outdoor percussion, a piece whose jauntiness is undermined (somewhat literally) by thoughts of the collieries of Northumberland and the “aerial flight” itself, the cable conveyor at Blackhall Rocks that makes such a memorable backdrop to the final scenes of Get Carter (1971). Relying on notes in this manner may seem like a flawed approach but it’s the nature of all programme music to be accompanied by some kind of description. Several of the more ambient pieces aren’t too far removed from Brian Eno’s On Land, an album that also concerns itself with place and memory, and which contains its own lengthy contextualising note. Delve beneath the layers here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Quietened Journey
Echoes And Reverberations
The Watchers
The Corn Mother
The Quietened Mechanisms
The Shildam Hall Tapes
Audio Albion
A Year In The Country: the book
All The Merry Year Round
The Quietened Cosmologists
Undercurrents
From The Furthest Signals
The Restless Field
The Marks Upon The Land
The Forest / The Wald
The Quietened Bunker
Fractures

The hundred-year Voyage

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Today’s post at Wormwoodiana reminds me that David Lindsay’s unique novel of philosophical fantasy, A Voyage to Arcturus, was published a hundred years ago today. I designed a lavish reprint for Savoy Books in 2002, an edition which unfortunately used the re-edited text from earlier reprints instead of going to the original publication. This wasn’t done for lack of a first edition, it was more out of ignorance—nobody bothered to look into the history of the text—as well as convenience; Savoy’s earlier reprinting of Anthony Skene’s Monsieur Zenith the Albino had involved many weeks of text preparation, scanning pages from a photocopy of Skene’s very scarce novel, then running the copy through rudimentary OCR software and proofing the result. In Savoy’s slight defence, the reprint of Arcturus did correct a couple of typos that everyone else had missed.

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I still think the best feature of my design was the selection of Jean Delville’s remarkable Symbolist painting, The Treasures of Satan (1895), a picture used with the permission of the Brussels Museum of Fine Art. (They supplied us with a print of the painting together with a photo of Delville’s Angel of Splendour (1894) for the back cover.) With the exception of Bob Pepper’s artwork for the 1968 Ballantine paperback, previous reprints of the novel seldom reflected the contents on their covers. I’m no longer happy with the type layout on the rest of the dust-jacket, however, although the front cover looks okay. The Savoy edition included an introduction by Alan Moore, an afterword by Colin Wilson, a collection of philosophical aphorisms by David Lindsay, plus a couple of photos of the author which I don’t think had been published before. Despite its flaws, the book was well-received. The paper was heavier stock than is generally used for hardback fiction which made for a heavy and expensive volume but the edition still sold out.

Penguin are reprinting the novel next year in an edition which continues the tradition of unsuitable cover art. According to Lindsay site The Violet Apple the figure on the cover is from an illustration for a Dostoevsky novella, so what is it doing on Lindsay’s book? Cover art aside, the novel is in a class of its own, and very highly recommended.

Previously on { feuilleton}
The art of Bob Pepper
Masonic fonts and the designer’s dark materials

The Blake Video

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More from the website update. One of the pages buried in the site is an appendix to my design for Angel Passage, a William Blake-themed CD by Alan Moore and Tim Perkins that was released on Steven Severin’s Re: label in 2001. In addition to designing the CD I also created a video accompaniment for the sole performance of the piece at the Purcell Room in London in February of that year. The old web page showed screen shots of the video, and very small ones at that, so as well as updating the page itself I’ve replaced the thumbnails with the original shots.

The video was created in a rush five days before the performance, and only finished the night before I departed for London, so was rather lazily done in places. I’d just taken delivery of a new G4 Power Mac without which I wouldn’t have been able to do any video editing at all. Raw material was artwork scanned from books plus a stack of VHS tapes, including a TV documentary about Blake that provided a few relevant shots of contemporary London. Another essential component was a borrowed video player that could play both VHS and MiniDV cassettes, as well as connect to the computer. The assembled footage was recorded to a MiniDV master cassette which I still have somewhere although I’ve no idea whether it’s still viewable, and have no way to watch it in any case. Those MiniDV players had a tendency to mysteriously render their tapes unplayable which I think may have happened to my tape when I came to try and archive it after the performance. This is fitting in a way, Alan was always adamant that the music-based readings he was doing at this time were one-off events, and the video was only intended to augment the reading, not be watched away from the performance. Copies of the CD still circulate so the work hasn’t vanished altogether. Alan and Tim collaborated on three readings in this series, together with two earlier outings, The Birth Caul and (with David J) The Moon And Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre Of Marvels. We’re overdue a reissue of the entire Moon and Serpent discography.

Previously on { feuilleton }
William Blake in Manchester

Weekend links 480

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Tadanori Yokoo (1974) by Tadanori Yokoo and Will van Sambeek. A poster from the Colourful Japan exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

• The first decade of space-rock pioneers Hawkwind is explored by Joe Banks in Hawkwind: Days of the Underground — Radical Escapism in the Age Of Paranoia, coming soon from Strange Attractor Press. I created the wraparound cover for this one, and will be talking about it here in a later post. Those interested in the book should note that the special edition hardback will include an extra book, plus a print and postcards. Limited to 500 copies so don’t wait around.

• “What we look for in our formative years can be very different from the demands we make later as analytical adults, and it was certainly more important to me that representations of gayness were complex or colourful than that they were positive, whatever that meant.” Ryan Gilbey on 50 years of Midnight Cowboy.

• Mixes of the week: Through A Landscape Of Mirrors Vol. II – France I by David Colohan, and As Imperceptibly As Grief The Summer Lapsed Away by Haunted Air.

If we imagine the material world about us having a concealed component of the fictional and the fantastic, visions buried in its stones and mortar waiting for their revelation, then we may suppose that 18th-century Lambeth was a teeming hub of such imaginal biodiversity. Bedlam alone could account for this ethereal population boom, but then nearby was the Hercules Buildings residence of William Blake, which can have only added to the sublime infestation.

Alan Moore on the visionary art of William Blake

• At the Internet Archive: Ten issues of Ed Pinsent’s The Sound Projector Music Magazine (1996–2002), with bonus Krautrock Kompendium.

• “Like many dictators Franco considered himself an artist.” Jonathan Meades on how fascism disfigured the face of Spain.

Occulting Disk is a new album from the master of unnerving doomscapes, Deathprod, which will be released in October.

• Making MAD: Chris Mautner on the beginning and end of MAD magazine.

John Margolies’ photographs of roadside America.

Fair Sapphire by Meadowsilver.

Jarboe‘s favourite music.

Theme from Midnight Cowboy (1969) by John Barry | Astral Cowboy (1969) by Curt Boettcher | Dayvan Cowboy (2005) by Boards Of Canada