David Britton, 1945–2020

db.jpg

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”.

reverbstorm-covers.jpg

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.

wf2.jpg

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.

stormbringer.jpg

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.

lh.jpg

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

Notes from the Underground

hawkwind1.jpg

This time last year I was about to start working on the cover of Joe Banks’ Hawkwind book, and here it is at last, after a considerable delay. The special edition has been worth the wait since it comes with an additional 200-page volume, Sideways Through Time, containing the interviews that Joe used for his research. There’s also a set of cards with photos by Laurie Lewis from the session used for the cover of Space Ritual (we used some of the same photos on the book cover), and a print of the Moorcock/Cawthorn Hawklords comic strip from Frendz which further developed the group’s self-mythologising begun by the In Search Of Space “Hawklog”. And for people who pre-ordered the book last year then had to wait for months, there’s a bonus enamel pin based on the hawk design I supplied for the front board. I like badges, and I designed a few for Hawkwind in the past, but this is a better design and a nicer object than any of those I did in the 1980s.

hawkwind2.jpg

It’s a big book.

Now that the book is out I can show off the full cover wrap. As mentioned earlier, I followed Barney Bubbles’ preference for retro futurism by creating a cityscape based on the Deco-styled architecture that Frank R. Paul liked to use in his pulp illustrations. Some of the details refer obliquely to Hawkwind’s cover art or songs of the 1970s, so the speeding car can be taken as a reference to both Kerb Crawler and Death Trap, as well as the speeding Art Deco vehicle on the cover of Roadhawks. The flying saucers are a nod to those by Barney Bubbles on the inner sleeve of the Doremi album (and on one of his black-and-white posters from the same period), while the Philippe Druillet rocket refers to Barney’s own appropriation of a Druillet figure in his Hawk graphics. The combination of vehicles fleeing a burning city gives us the recurring theme in the group’s lyrics about the need to escape from a self-destructing society/planet. Welcome to the future.

Hawkwind: Days of the Underground is available now from Strange Attractor.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Hawkwind: Days of the Underground
The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve
Rock shirts
The Cosmic Grill
Void City
Hawk things
The Sonic Assassins
New things for July
Barney Bubbles: artist and designer

Hawkwind: Days of the Underground

hawkwind.jpg

As mentioned at the weekend, Joe Banks’ account of the first ten years of Hawkwind will be published by Strange Attractor Press later this year with a wraparound cover of my design. I never expected to be doing anything else for Hawkwind after moving on to other things in 1985, but it was the group’s first decade of music that fuelled the drawings which brought me to their attention, so this cover design brings everything full circle. The earliest of my Hawkwind drawings dates to 1979 which means this cover is also an anniversary piece.

The design combines Barney Bubbles’ Space Ritual template with elements of the art he created before and afterwards, notably the inner and outer sleeve of Doremi Fasol Latido, and the futuristic Art Deco of his tour poster for The “1999” Party. All the Bubbles Hawk-art up to and including Space Ritual is a blend of the ancient (Egypt, tribal motifs, characters that resemble pirates or barbarians), the previous century (Art Nouveau in particular), and the far future as depicted in comics and pulp magazines. I wanted to reflect this blend without being too imitative of the details, so the cover works a variation on Space Ritual, with a similar hieratic woman as the focus, and a margin of stylised flames separating the foreground from Laurie Lewis’s photos of the band (the latter are unused shots from the same session used for Space Ritual).

haberfield.jpg

Art by Bob Haberfield, 1970.

All the background elements run across the wrap but this hasn’t been revealed yet so you’ll have to wait a while to see the full design. The flames are based on Tibetan designs in a nod to the ancient side of the equation, as well as Bob Haberfield’s covers for the Moorcock novels published by Mayflower in the early 70s, many of which featured art derived from Tibetan Buddhism. (And one of the Mayflower Moorcocks, The Black Corridor, is the origin of the monologue of the same name on Space Ritual.) The full wrap shows a futuristic city whose Frank R. Paul-derived architecture is either on fire or menaced by a wall of encroaching flames. Many of Hawkwind’s songs of the period concern flight from cities or from the Earth itself—Born To Go, Time We Left (This World Today)—so the back cover also has a number of vehicles fleeing the scene: the radical escapism of the book’s subtitle in literal form. “Sign my release from this planet’s erosion,” as Nik Turner sings in Brainstorm.

Continue reading “Hawkwind: Days of the Underground”

James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art

cawthorn-cover.jpg

The past year would have been busier than usual with the amount of illustration work I had to deal with, but it was made even busier with my having to design this book at the same time. James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art was originally intended to be a modest memorial by Maureen Cawthorn Bell for her artist brother following his death in 2008, but the book grew into a heavyweight volume of 448 pages containing over 800 individual pieces of art: book covers, illustrations for magazines and fanzines, private pieces for friends and relatives, and many sketches or preliminary works, most of which have never seen print before.

cawthorn-coverspread.jpg

Given Jim Cawthorn’s long association with Michael Moorcock, as both friend and collaborator, the task of collating the artwork and editing the book went to Moorcock bibliographer John Davey, who also serves as the book’s publisher. John spent three years locating over 3000 pieces of artwork, large and small. Some of these pieces are now lodged with the Moorcock archives in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, while others may only be found in the pages of the many science fiction and fantasy fanzines that Jim illustrated, copies of which are stored at the British Library. From this body of material Maureen and John selected a core of representative work from Jim’s private as well as public life, although no-one at the outset of the project was expecting the final picture tally to be so high.

cawthorn-spread-01.jpg

My task as the book’s designer involved making the text presentable (easy) and corralling the artwork (not so easy, and I also had to either clean or colour-adjust every single piece). Maureen had divided the book into several sections, beginning with a lengthy biographical reminiscence. Following this was “Jim by Jim”, a selection of interviews, magazine pieces, some fiction, essays and book reviews. There was also a lengthy extract from Fantasy: 100 Best Novels (1988), a book credited to Jim and Michael Moorcock but, by Moorcock’s admission, mostly Jim’s work. Jim Cawthorn was very well-read, especially in the genres—he was old enough and interested enough to have read The Lord of the Rings when it was first published—and could also present his erudition engagingly for a reader, so the text section of Maureen’s book is far from indulgent.

cawthorn-spread-02.jpg

The book design isn’t as elaborate as some I’ve worked on but it didn’t need to be when the pictorial material is rich with what Moorcock calls “wizardry and wild romance”. Maureen wanted a particular picture of Moorcock’s Elric character on the cover so I took details and motifs from some of Jim’s many Elric illustrations to give the book a thematic thread and internal consistency. Cawthorn was present at the creation of Elric in the early 1960s; he not only provided Moorcock’s characters with their first illustrations but even helped plot one of the earliest stories, Kings in Darkness.

cawthorn-number.jpg

Page numbers are framed by the swords from the Elric stories.

Using motifs such as the sword silhouette and Elric head is something I frequently do with book designs but for this book I also went to the trouble of creating a one-off font for the drop capitals based on Jim’s hand-drawn lettering. Jim drew titles and other lettering throughout his career, so again this was a decision warranted by the book’s contents. The few times we met I never asked him about this but I’ve always thought his lettering designs were derived from the stylised titles that J. Allen St. John created for many of the early Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Jim spent most of his life drawing Burroughs’ characters, and was very familiar with the work of Burroughs’ original illustrators. I was hoping to find a title design of Jim’s that I could rework for the book’s title but none of the examples worked as well as I hoped. For this reason the title lettering is based on different styles from the John Carter novels that were Jim’s favourites among Burroughs’ works.

cawthorn-spread-03.jpg

Other features include a foreword by Alan Moore, an afterword by Michael Moorcock, a gallery of Jim’s Lord of the Rings drawings and character sketches from the early 1960s (which predate all others bar those by Tolkien himself), artwork for Hawkwind (including Dave Brock’s “Meliadus” T-shirt), and even a handful of photos from the set of The Land that Time Forgot (1975), the ER Burroughs-derived feature film scripted by Jim with Michael Moorcock. The page samples here are necessarily few given the size of the book.

cawthorn-spread-04.jpg

For the moment James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art is available exclusively from publishers Jayde Design at a special pre-publication price of £20. After publication on 6th August the price will rise to £35. Further page samples follow.

Continue reading “James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art”

The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve

blacksword7.jpg

A copy of the cover art that I attempted to colour-correct some years ago to compensate for the poor print reproduction.

This month I’m in Record Collector magazine talking in a sidebar feature about my work on the Hawkwind album The Chronicle of the Black Sword. The issue is Hawkwind-heavy, with a Nik Turner interview, a history of Flicknife Records (the label that released COTBS), and a retrospective feature on the Black Sword album which was released in December 1985. My words were slightly cut to fit the allotted space but I can run the full text here in which I describe my ambivalent feelings towards this particular cover.

blacksword8.jpg

The Black Sword album for me has always been a combination of pleasure and disappointment. I was very pleased initially to hear that Hawkwind were writing a concept based on the Elric books, a series I’d enjoyed for many years. Cover discussions were a little more detailed than usual since this design was sketched out beforehand then approved by the Dave Brock and co. Prior to this I’d been creating something vague after equally vague requests; communication back then was all done via post and call box as I didn’t own a phone.

This was the first album where I was able to create an integrated front and back cover design. A friend had recently found me a copy of George Bain’s Celtic Art: Its Methods of Construction (1951), a study of the creation of Celtic knotwork, and I was keen to use this somehow. Rather than do a cover that looked like a fantasy paperback the idea was to use the knotwork style to create something that was suitably Hawkish whilst also fitting the Elric theme. The front cover has some nods back to earlier Hawkart in the winged sphere—which goes back to Barney Bubbles and his obsession with Ancient Egypt—and the eye-in-a-triangle, a symbol which first appeared on the cover of the Hawklog booklet in the In Search of Space album, and which I scattered throughout many of my Hawkwind designs.

All the lettering on the album was hand-drawn (not very well in places) using letterforms based on Bain’s examples from the books of Kells and Lindisfarne. I drew the track listing onto the artwork for the back cover, a decision that later proved to be a bad one when the band decided to change the running order of the songs, hence the large purple square that spoils the design. My lack of any direct contact with the record company made problems like this inevitable; I was trying to do graphic design at a distance without having any communication at all with the printers responsible for the sleeve. Before digital design, the creation of an album cover could be a complicated business involving photo-mechanical transfers, knockout areas, overlays, typesetters and more; if you weren’t in direct contact with the printer (or somebody who was) then you simply had to hope for the best.

This process of design-at-a-distance led to the disaster with the cover printing, the front of which has an unwarranted blue cast that dulled the impact of the sleeve and, for me, ruined the whole thing. You can see how the cover should have looked by comparing the background colours of front and back; the front was also printed in its true colours on the back page of the 1985 tour programme. It was this, and the messy appearance of the lettering on the back, that pushed me further towards ending my involvement with Hawkwind and doing something of my own over which I’d have complete control.

blacksword1.jpg

The retrospective feature in the magazine includes a picture of the back cover of the tour programme (above) so those familiar with the album can see the difference in reproduction. The difference isn’t so noticeable on the copies posted here after I tried altering the tones of the cover. Over the years I’ve grown used to the blueness but the back cover remains blighted by its purple boxes.

Continue reading “The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve”