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

Lockdown elevation

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The post this week included a poster print by Toby Melville-Brown, an artistic response to the lockdown of April and May. Toby has a colourful graphic style that favours architectural views in the mode of Archigram and other futurists, past and present; at the end of February I featured one of his invented book covers (below) in a weekend post. The title of the cover—Notes from a Troubled Rock—seemed darkly humorous at a time of political turmoil and a growing pandemic. Four months on it reads like a summary of 2020.

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The lockdown poster, Life Indoors: A Cross-Section, is more positive, a cutaway elevation of a high-rise block, with each apartment showing the response of a real person or group of people to the viral situation. To fill out the rooms Toby sent an email to 175 households asking for a photographic reflection of lockdown life. I’m in one of the rooms but if you want to know where you’ll have to buy a copy of the poster which is available here. All profits go to Refuge, a charity supporting those at risk from domestic violence. When I first moved to Manchester I spent four years in a Brutalist flatblock that would have had JG Ballard’s wealthy high-rise denizens fleeing for the suburbs. Toby’s elevation looks like a better place to be.

(And I’ve just been informed that the poster sale will end at midnight [UK time] on Friday 12th June.)

Weekend links 395

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Love is a Martyrdom (1965) by Stephanie Godwin. See Joscelyn Godwin’s Flickr pages for more.

David Shire’s synthesizer score for Apocalypse Now was the first music recorded for the film but was abandoned when Shire was fired due to other commitments. 39 years later, his score has been released by La-La Land Records.

Moon Safari by “French band” Air was released in the UK on January 16th, 1998. Jeremy Allen looks back at an album that was more successful here than elsewhere.

• On the occasion of the US publication of Iain Sinclair’s The Last London, Geoff Nicholson presents an A to Z of the author and his works.

This is the story of how two artists fell in love with each other, with Kelmscott Manor, and with William Morris, the poet, craftsman, and socialist who had made it his home. As Kelmscott’s first tenants afer the Morris family, Edward and Stephani Scott-Snell rented the historic Oxfordshire house throughout the Second World War. There they created an aesthetic and erotic paradise based on a fantasy land called ‘Thessyros’, and produced a body of figurative painting unique for its time. Much of this was done under the influence of a legally-obtained drug they called ‘Starlight’, making many of their paintings  early examples of psychedelic art.

The Starlight Years is a book by Joscelyn Godwin about his artist-parents and their strange relationship

• Mixes of the week: FACT mix 634 by Minor Science, Secret Thirteen Mix 243 by Moa Pillar, and XLR8R Podcast 524 by Burnt Friedman.

• At The Smart Set: Marian Calabro pays a visit to the Brussels apartment where René and Georgette Magritte lived from 1930 to 1954.

Hormone Lemonade, a new album by Cavern Of Anti-Matter, will be released in March. The Quietus has a preview.

• At the Internet Archive: QZAP, the Queer Zine Archive Project; 551 downloadable publications from 1974 to 2015.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Briefly recounting Tim Buckley‘s short, inconvenient stylistic trajectory.

• Musician and bookseller Richard Bishop recommends a handful of rare occult volumes.

• At Kickstarter: Arsgang, a short psychological horror film by Harry Edmundson-Cornell.

• “A Sloppy Machine, Like Me”: Michael Grasso on the history of video synthesizers.

• At Flashbak: 27 Snapshots of Manchester in the 1960s.

• At Strange Flowers: 18 books for 2018.

Love Is Strange (1956) by Mickey & Sylvia | Love Is Peace (1970) by Amon Düül | Love Is The Drug (1980) by Grace Jones

Psychotronic Video

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I was going to wait until the weekend to mention this but it’s too good to be lodged in a collection of links. Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1983) has long been one of my favourite film books, a collection of reviews by Weldon and friends written for Weldon’s NYC fanzine, Psychotronic TV. “Psychotronic” was Weldon’s umbrella label for the low-budget fare that would usually be avoided by other reviewers: “horror, exploitation, action, science fiction, and movies that used to play in drive-ins or inner city grindhouses.” A small handful of actors were considered psychotronic enough (on account of their appearing in many psychotronic films) that Weldon claimed their presence in any film made it psychotronic even if it contained no overt genre or exploitation content. So the Encyclopedia lists Fellini’s 8 1/2, for example, simply because Barbara Steele appears in it. Likewise, Casablanca is psychotronic because of Peter Lorre. As I recall, the other psychotronic actors were John Carradine (“the greatest PSYCHOTRONIC star of all time”), Vincent Price and Boris Karloff.

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The trouble with books of film reviews is that the passage of time makes them increasingly subject to omissions, so I was delighted when Weldon launched Psychotronic Video magazine in 1989. Not only was this a continuation of the encyclopedia’s film listings it was also filled with related features: interviews with character actors, cult figures and interesting stars; a regular music column which mostly covered the kinds of bands who would watch psychotronic films; a regular obituary feature; and pages crammed with bizarre and curious graphics: film ephemera, ads from old magazines, headers by comic artist Drew Friedman, and mermaid drawings by Weldon’s girlfriend, Mia. One of my favourite features, which ran from the first issue, concerned Weldon’s obsession with The Rivingtons’ Papa Oom Mow Mow and The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird, an ideé fixe which had Weldon cataloguing as many cover versions or film inclusions of the songs as he could find.

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Psychotronic Video ran for 41 issues until folding in 2006. I bought the first 23 or so then lapsed after the one comic shop selling it in Manchester was closed down by the IRA bombing of the city centre in 1996. Back issues are increasingly scarce (and not always cheap) so it’s good to find all 41 issues at the Internet Archive together with 10 issues of the even more scarce Psychotronic TV. The quality isn’t perfect—some of the scanned pages are subject to blurring—but I can now see what was in the rest of the magazines, and finally get to read the Timothy Carey interview in the one issue I missed, no. 6. Many of the actors interviewed with enthusiasm by Psychotronic Video have since died so the magazine is even more valuable for its insights into careers ignored by other publications.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Bikers and witches: Psychomania
The Cramps at the Haçienda

Weekend links 374

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Le Chasseur by Lupe Vasconcelos who was profiled this week at Unquiet Things, and whose work may also be seen at the Ars Necronomica art show in Providence, RI, until the end of the month.

• “After a morning’s writing, Stevenson would entertain himself with music, particularly the flageolet, which he played so badly ‘people fled from the sound’.” Peter Moore reviewing Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa by Joseph Farrell.

• Jon Hassell’s 1981 album, Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two, will be reissued next month.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 228 by Arma Agharta, FACT Mix 614 by Do Make Say Think.

Yet, entertaining as all this is, in a macabre key, the dead are hard to think about—and, in many ways, to read about. Unlike animals, which Lévi-Strauss declared were not only good to eat but bon à penser, too, I found that I averted my eyes, so to speak, several times as I was reading this book. Not because of the infinite and irreversible sadness of mortality, or because of the grue, the fetor, the decay, the pervasive morbidity—though Laqueur’s gallows humour about scientific successes in the calcination of corpses can be a bit strong—but because the dead present an enigma that can’t be grasped: they are always there in mind, they come back in dreams, live in memory, and if they don’t, if they’re forgotten as so many millions of them must be, that is even more disturbing, somehow reprehensible. The disappeared are the unquietest ghosts. Simone Weil writes that the Iliad is a poem that shows how “force…turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” But Laqueur is surely right to inquire why that thing, the “disenchanted corpse…bereft, vulnerable, abject”, is a very different kind of thing from the cushion I am sitting on or even my iPad (which keeps giving signs of a mind of its own). I have always liked Mme du Deffand’s comment, when asked if she believed in ghosts. A philosopher and a free thinker, she even so replied: “Non, mais j’en ai peur.” (“No, but I am frightened of them.”)

Marina Warner reviewing The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas Laqueur

New Worlds magazine at the Internet Archive. Not a complete run but it’s a start.

Brigit Katz on breakthroughs in the scientific search to replicate psilocybin.

• The relaunched (and slightly renamed) Manchester Digital Music Archive.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Robert Altman Day (restored/expanded).

• RM Rhodes presents the art of Philippe Druillet.

Fragile Self

Dream Lover (1964) by The Paris Sisters | Dream Street (1966) by Henry Mancini | Dream Letter (1969) by Tim Buckley