Ron Cobb, 1937–2020

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The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1959.

The death of American illustrator/cartoonist/designer Ron Cobb was announced yesterday. All the obituaries are concentrating on the designs he produced for Hollywood feature films so here’s an alternative view of a long and varied career.

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After Bathing At Baxter’s (1967) by Jefferson Airplane.

Cobb’s first album cover is his most famous, and probably his most familiar work outside his film designs, but there were a few more, some of which may be seen below. The San-Francisco-house-as-aircraft always reminds me of the car/plane hybrid piloted by Professor Pat Pending in the Wacky Races cartoons.

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Some Of Our Best Friends Are (1968) by Various Artists.

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Ecology symbol, October 1969.

Cobb’s copyright-free design for an ecology symbol was published in the Los Angeles Free Press in November, 1969. The “Freep” also ran Cobb’s cartoons, some of which were later collected in The Cobb Book (1975). Satire has a tendency to date very quickly but many of Cobb’s barbs are still relevant today.

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Undated cartoon.

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Doctor Druid’s Haunted Seance (1973).

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Keiichi Tanaami record covers

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After Bathing At Baxter’s (1968) by Jefferson Airplane (front).

More psychedelia, although Ernst Fuchs could be considered psychedelic to some degree, and I did give him a mention in the piece I wrote for Communication Arts earlier this year. Keiichi Tanaami is less well-known in the west than Tadanori Yokoo despite the pair being contemporaries. This is only a partial discography, there may be more to find as Tanaami’s cover work isn’t always credited properly on Discogs. The Jefferson Airplane and Monkees covers were done specially for the Japanese releases. In the case of the Airplane one I much prefer the cover to Ron Cobb’s literal drawing of an aircraft.

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After Bathing At Baxter’s (1968) by Jefferson Airplane (back).

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Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1968) by The Monkees.

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Psychedelic Sounds In Japan (1968) by The Mops.

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Psychedelia and Other Colours by Rob Chapman

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My mother thought well enough of The Beatles in the 1960s to buy two of their albums—Beatles For Sale and Help!—and she continued to enjoy the Fab Four’s songs up to the point when (in her words) “they went funny”, by which she meant the period after Rubber Soul when they dropped the beat stylings, picked up sitars and took to recording drums and guitars in reverse. They were also taking drugs, of course, hence the funniness, and this rapid evolution—from loveable moptops to freaked-out weirdos in a matter of months—is the subject of Rob Chapman’s huge study of psychedelia as a cultural phenomenon, the period from around mid-1965 to late 1969 when Western youth “went funny” en masse.

This isn’t an undocumented era but Chapman’s book provides an overdue counterweight to the American focus of earlier studies such as Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987). Psychedelic art evolved in San Francisco but it’s an irony of the form that many of the wildest, most typically psychedelic concert posters were promoting acts that were only marginally psychedelic in their sound or, in the case of the older jazz, soul and blues acts, weren’t psychedelic at all. Chapman is more interested in the multi-media light shows than the poster art, and he reaches back in his early chapters to the origin of the San Francisco light shows in the avant-garde art of the Modernist era (especially László Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator of the 1920s) and the art schools of the 1950s; he also traces the familiar journey of LSD from the Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland and the clinics of America to the front pages of newspapers and magazines. One of the most remarkable and unlikely aspects of psychedelia was the way in which a short-lived poly-cultural phenomenon maintained an aura of danger and illegality late into the 1960s even while psychedelic aesthetics were filtering into every facet of mainstream life: films, fashion, decor, advertising, even children’s television—all bloomed briefly with vivid colours and melting typography.

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Playboy gets hip to the trip, December 1967. Art by Wes Wilson.

Chapman touches on all of this but the bulk of his study is concerned with the music which was always the core of psychedelic culture, even if many of the artists involved were only following a trend (or, to be less charitable, jumping on a bandwagon). American groups are given their due, and Chapman has some smart things to say about the often neglected surf boom of the early 60s; as noted here last month, the first piece of popular music to use “LSD” in its title was LSD-25 (1960), a surf instrumental by The Gamblers. Surf bands and garage bands mutated into psychedelic groups but there was often little change in the overall sound beyond adding an effect or two to the instrumentation. Adulterated or processed sound is what I usually look for in psychedelic music, the psychedelic experience being one of distorted or exaggerated perception. Adulteration (or lack of it) is the most obvious factor that differentiates American psych from its British equivalent: White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane is a great song (its final line is fixed to every page of this blog) but is psychedelic only as a result of its lyrical context. Musically, the song is a simple rock bolero next to which Strawberry Fields Forever sounds like a broadcast from another planet.

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The Seed

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I was so overworked during the summer months that late in June I missed the 50th anniversary of the birth of the psychedelic poster, something of a regrettable oversight considering I had an article about psychedelic art in print throughout that month.

This weathered item from June 1965 is generally credited as the first example of a type of poster whose influence—diluted or not—would be global during the next few years, hence the nickname given to it by collectors: “The Seed”. George Hunter and Michael Ferguson were the artists, and the antiquated drawing style is partly an attempt to complement the persona of The Charlatans, a San Francisco group who adopted 19th-century clothing styles. The Seed may appear naive in light of all that was happening a year later but Hunter & Ferguson’s florid graphics were something new in 1965; the poster for the Jefferson Airplane’s first show at the Fillmore in February 1966 is more restrained in comparison, as were other concert posters from around the same time. The most surprising thing about The Seed as a cultural landmark is that it was promoting a series of concerts over the state border in Virginia City, Nevada, not San Francisco as you might expect.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Art that transcends
Fillmore sealife
San Francisco angels
Family Dog postcards

Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part Six

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The United States of America, 1968. Back, left–right: Joseph Byrd, Dorothy Moskowitz, Gordon Marron; front, left–right: Ed Bogas, Craig Woodson, Rand Forbes.

Concluding the psychedelic mega-mix based on Jon Savage’s list of “100 mind-expanding masterpieces” (see this post). The last of the six mixes is the third visit to the USA, and features songs from the years 1968 to 1969 arranged in chronological order. As before, the selections from the Savage 100 are in bold, and I’ve added notes about my additions or amendments.

The most notable deviation from Savage’s list in this final collection is the substitution of Lothar and the Hand People for two other groups combining psychedelic music with electronic sounds, Fifty Foot Hose and The United States Of America. Lothar and the Hand People were so named because of their use of theremins; they’re often described as electronic pioneers but I’ve never liked their music very much or thought it was as inventive as people claim. Fifty Foot Hose and The United States Of America are better on all levels, the self-titled USA album is a masterpiece that proved an inspiration for Portishead (listen to Half Day Closing) and Broadcast.

Savage ended his UK list with Can’t Find My Way Home, a song that captured the come-down feeling after the psych fireworks were over. The US list lacked an equivalent resolution, hence the choice of Wooden Ships; where Blind Faith’s lament is a personal one, Jefferson Airplane offer something more global, a pessimistic vision of the future that you can tie to all the other crashing dreams of 1969. It’s also a great song, and a fitting way to bring everything to a close.

US Psychedelia, Part Three by Feuilleton on Mixcloud

Radio news — Grateful Dead drug bust
The Grateful Dead — That’s It For The Other One
Nazz — Open My Eyes (The first single by a band with Todd Rundgren on guitar, and another song from the original Nuggets collection.)
Iron Butterfly — In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
Fifty Foot Hose — If Not This Time (One of several songs whose unusual chord progressions—some of them inspired by Schoenberg—set them apart from their contemporaries.)
Steppenwolf — Magic Carpet Ride
The Steve Miller Band — Song For Our Ancestors
The United States Of America — The Garden Of Earthly Delights (A paean to poisonous love with a title borrowed from Bosch.)
Tommy James And The Shondells — Crimson And Clover
White Lightning — William
Spirit — Dream Within A Dream
Skip Spence — War In Peace
The Youngbloods — Darkness, Darkness
Kak — Electric Sailor
Kaleidoscope (US) — Lie To Me (A last nod to the psychedelic sound from an album very aptly entitled Incredible!)
The Grateful Dead — Mountains Of The Moon
Jimi Hendrix — The Star Spangled Banner
Jefferson Airplane — Wooden Ships

Previously on { feuilleton }
Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part Five
Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part Four
Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part Three
Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part Two
Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part One
What Is A Happening?
My White Bicycle
Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake
Tomorrow Never Knows
The Dukes declare it’s 25 O’Clock!
A splendid time is guaranteed for all