Street Sounds Electro

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I spent much of the summer of 1983 playing games on a very primitive ZX Spectrum computer while listening to the first couple of Street Sounds Electro compilations. Those mix albums were among the best releases that year and remain highly sought after, seeing as they’ve never been reissued on CD.

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The musical reputation of the compilations has overshadowed the sleeve design which was very distinctive for the time and undoubtedly a factor in their success. The vertical ELECTRO type was inspired by Neville Brody’s design for The Face which had turned the magazine’s title through ninety degrees the year before. Also very Brodyish was the use of photocopier-processed graphics and narrow typography although it should be pointed out that Brody hand-drew nearly all his headlines which left his imitators searching through type catalogues for approximations. The sleeve designs are credited to “Red Ranch for Carver’s” about whom I can find no information whatever. Things came full-circle when The Face ran a feature on the electro scene in 1984 giving Brody the opportunity to do a cover with his own variant on the sleeve layouts.

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Essential Electro 9-album box, HBOX 1 (1984).

One of the big attractions of these albums for me was the new directions they were opening up for electronic music. Outside the mainstream pop world electronica in the early Eighties meant either the polite fare of Tangerine Dream or the dreary sludge of minor industrial acts such as Portion Control. Cabaret Voltaire were still vital in the early 1980s: their thundering Crackdown single (with sleeve design by Neville Brody) was remixed for its 12-inch incarnation by dance producer John Luongo while electro producer John Robie (whose production is featured on Electro 1) remixed their Yashar single for Factory Records. But nothing matched the excitement of a bunch of NYC kids lifting Kraftwerk riffs and playing in a very unselfconscious manner with new and relatively cheap equipment, especially the Roland TR-808 drum machine which provides the backbone for many of these recordings.

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Occultism for kids

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My battered 1973 Gollancz hardback. Cover illustration by David Smee.

It may be all Harry Potter starter homes crowding the imaginative landscape these days but the lush fields of the early Seventies bred a peculiar brand of wizardry and wild romance, something I was reminded of recently by reviews of a new compilation of psychedelic singles (yes, another one), Real Life—Permanent Dreams on the Castle Communication label. Mention of a curio from the heady days of 1970, Tarot by Andrew Bown, summoned vague memories of a childrens’ television series, Ace of Wands, for which Tarot was the theme song. You can see the title sequence here and this clip compilation features the whole song plus trippy lyrics (“Velvet roofs, tattooed skies, patterns made from words…”). The wonderfully facetious TV Cream describes the series thus:

ACE OF WANDS (1970–72), THAMES TELEVISION. Jim-Morrison-alike boy magician Tarot (MICHAEL MACKENZIE) has adventures through history, for which read cheap studio set representing pyramid, cheap studio set representing Stonehenge and so on. DR WHO-style menace on a budget. Fought enemies such as Madame Midnight, Mr Stabs and Mama Doc, aided by an owl called Ozymandias (played by FRED THE OWL). Tarot cards and tarot phenomena abounded, much worthy roustabouts ensued. Prog-heavy title theme babbling – “Jet white dove/Snow black snake/Time has turned his face/From the edge of mystery” – singularly failed to assault the charts.

ace_of_wands.jpgI’ve mentioned before how magic and occultism were more popular at this time than they’ve probably ever been, and this flush of popularity, much of it coming from underground culture, managed to work its way into children’s television in a diluted form. Ace of Wands is easily the most baroque example of this, mixing the bell-bottom trendiness of Jason King with pulp plots given a psychedelic twist (hallucinogenic gases anyone?). Also from 1970 and far more down-to-earth (and, it should be said, more fun for kids) was Catweazle, written by Richard Carpenter and starring Geoffrey Bayldon. TV Cream has the details again:

CATWEAZLE (1970–71), LWT. Hairy tinker who can’t speak but who’s really an 11th Century magician (and who’s really GEOFFREY BAYLDON) tries to escape from some pissed off Norman soliders, jumps in a pond to hide and finds himself transported to Children’s Film Foundation-era Britain. Luckily there’s a posh (as always) boy on hand to explain all our modern day shit to him.

catweazle.jpgCatweazle quickly became the most popular kids’ progamme of its day and part of its attraction was the way in which Bayldon’s Norman time-traveller mistranslated modern technology as magic. So the telephone became a device called the “telling bone”, electricity was “electrickery” and so on. I had the first Catweazle annual which was an odd mixture of comic strips, text stories and articles about stage magicians with a smattering of genuine occult history.

Best of all for this Seventies kid was my favourite reading on the frequently dull Jackanory (“Ramshackle reading-is-fun relic wherein a Famous Person would sit on a chair with a pretend book and ponderously recount the contents of your local mobile library” says TV Cream) which one week had Ursula K Le Guin‘s A Wizard of Earthsea as its featured book. Try as I might, I’ve been unable to find the name of the actor who read this (black clothes, medieval chair) but I was knocked out by it. Years later the Earthsea cycle is still the only work of Le Guin’s I’ve been able to read, her science fiction seemed boring by comparison.

The inflated success of Harry Potter has had people casting about for JK Rowling’s influences over the past few years. A Wizard of Earthsea was first published in 1968 and also concerns a school of wizards, as do several other pre-HP novels. Rowling has acknowledged this although that acknowledgement hasn’t been loud or regular enough to appease a grouchy Le Guin. The Earthsea books are a lot shorter than the Potter door-stops and the first book at least is rather more sophisticated, reading equally well as a fantasy adventure for children and as a Jungian fable for adults with hints of Buddhist or Taoist philosophy. The characters are also notable for not being the Caucasians that most fantasy characters usually are, one of many details a recent TV adaptation (which Le Guin condemned) managed to ignore. It’s worth noting that JK Rowling is part of my generation (I’m 45, she’s 42) so she would have watched all this Seventies stuff herself. One of the reasons fantasy readers and writers (as opposed to snooty broadsheet critics) are often disappointed by the Potter juggernaut is that it could have been so much more considering the wealth of precedent that it draws upon. But then books rarely achieve this scale of popularity without being conservative and undemanding, Rowling’s work is merely the most recent example of this.

Le Guin spoiled the impact of her excellent first Earthsea book with several sequels of diminishing interest. A new animated film from Japan, Gedo Senki or Tales from Earthsea, based on the later works is released in the UK this month. The great British director Michael Powell had plans for an Earthsea adaptation scripted by Le Guin when he was director in residence at Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in 1980. Powell was great with fantasy (watch his Thief of Bagdad) so it’s a shame that nothing came of this. Ace of Wands is on DVD now and so is Catweazle. I can’t vouch for the former having much value beyond pure nostalgia but there’s plenty of clips from the latter at YouTube. Proceed with caution.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Bob Pepper
Of Moons and Serpents
Austin Osman Spare

The art of Bob Pepper

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Forever Changes (1967) by Love.
Art by Bob Pepper, design by William S. Harvey.

Following yesterday’s post about Philip K Dick covers (and Erik Davis’s appraisal of the DAW cover), I decided to check out Bob Pepper’s work a bit more and it quickly became obvious I should have joined the dots with this particular artist years ago. Pepper’s work not only decorates one of the recognisable record sleeves of the late Sixties (above), he was working shortly afterwards as an illustrator on the celebrated series of fantasy reprints edited by Lin Carter for Ballantine books. Pepper’s connections with Elektra Records also saw him provide sleeve art for some of the eclectic releases on their Nonesuch label. What’s surprising to me now is the realisation that I’d been seeing his work for years in a variety of places and never noticed it was the same artist. Better late than never, I suppose.

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Four more Dick covers for a series of six published in 1982 to coincide with the release of Blade Runner. As with the cover for A Scanner Darkly (in the earlier post) these paintings are all portraits.

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A Voyage to Arcturus (1968) by David Lindsay.

It was the success of the publication of The Lord of the Rings in America which inspired Betty Ballantine to publish a line of fantasy classics in the late Sixties. The series began its run in 1969 and continued until 1974. Lin Carter was commissioned as editor and given free reign to choose any title he thought might be suitable with the result that many of the books in the series—obscurities such as Lud-in-the-mist by Hope Mirrlees—received their first paperback publication. Carter also reprinted personal favourites which frequently shifted from fantasy to outright horror, such as the titles from HP Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. The range and scope of this line is what makes the series so notable today and the books have become highly-collectable as a result. Many artists were involved in producing the distinctive cover designs and Pepper’s illustrations were featured on the covers for Mervyn Peake, Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell, among others. Unfortunately the various pages devoted to these books aren’t very good at showing the paintings to their best advantage. For a long time Pepper’s cover for A Voyage to Arcturus was one of the few editions available that managed to show a scene from the book, rather than a generic sword-wielding barbarian.

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The Wild Bull (1968) by Morton Subotnick.

Nonesuch Records was Elektra’s subsidiary classical music label which not only produced classical recordings but also recordings from around the world in their Explorer series, and a range of original works of contemporary electronic music. I’m not positive that the sleeve above is a Pepper painting but it certainly looks like it. This is another surprise since I’ve had Morton Subnotnick‘s album on a reissue CD for years (with different artwork). The George Crumb recording below is Pepper’s work and I’ve had the original vinyl of that one for several years. The similarity between that sleeve and the one for Love is striking.

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Flesh (1969) by Philip José Farmer.

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Golden Rain – Balinese Gamelan Music – Ketjak: The Ramayana Monkey Dance (1969) by Various Artists.
Art by Bob Pepper, design by William S. Harvey.

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Ancient Voices of Children (1971) by George Crumb.
Art by Bob Pepper, design by Robert W. Zingmark.

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Driftglass (1971) by Samuel R. Delany.

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Debussy’s Greatest Hits (1972).

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Concerto For Harpsichord And Five Instruments by Manuel De Falla (no date).

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Ellison Wonderland (1974) by Harlan Ellison.

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Fiestas of Peru: Music of the High Andes (1975) by Various Artists.
Art by Bob Pepper, design by Jo Ann Gruber.

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Flower Dance: Japanese Folk Melodies (no date) by Kofu Kikusui, The Noday Family, Nakagawa & Oishi.
Art by Bob Pepper, direction by William S. Harvey, design by Elaine Gongora.

Pepper is retired now but produced artwork for Dark Tower, a fantasy boardgame, in 1981. The game still has its enthusiasts, and this site features a short interview with the artist.

Update: more about the Ballantine covers.

Update 2: a large scan of the George Crumb cover art.

Update 3: More album and book covers added.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive
The book covers archive
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton}
Philip K Dick book covers
Masonic fonts and the designer’s dark materials

Philip K Dick book covers

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650 Philip K Dick covers here although no thumbnails for ease of browsing. Interesting seeing how many publishers have tried to bracket Dick as a typical science fiction writer when many of his books are marginal sf at best. Then there’s the curiosity of the translated title, Substance Mort for A Scanner Darkly being one example.

Update: Odd coincidence dept. (well, it’s PKD, right?), having posted the above last night I find today that Dick enthusiast Erik Davis is discussing the DAW cover (above, right) over at Total Dick Head. Thanks to this we discover that the artist is Bob Pepper who produced the classic cover art for Love’s Forever Changes album.

Update 2: Henri alerts us to his own PKD site which also includes even more cover scans (and thumbnails this time), including those from French editions.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive