Crank book covers

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Cover art by Tony Roberts, 1974. A book I received as a present for Christmas, 1974. Also the first place I encountered the words “Popol Vuh”, before discovering the music of Florian Fricke and co. a few years later.

Yes, “crank” is a pejorative word but it’s used with some degree of affection, as in “harmless crank”. It’s also a convenient umbrella term for the books referred to in the weekend post which embrace diverse subjects, from lost continents and “earth energy” to ancient astronauts and flying saucers.

The prime crank decade was the 1970s, a period when publishers were falling over themselves to cash-in on the massive popularity of Erich von Däniken’s dubious investigations, while also catering to the by-products of the hippy era and the occult revival. Books by Charles Fort, Immanuel Velikovsky and James Churchward (the Mu series) all received reprints, with some appearing in paperback for the first time. The British editions of these books were published by imprints like Corgi, Panther and Sphere who were also publishing large quantities of science fiction, a situation that led to many crank titles being packaged as though they were fiction or fantasy. Sphere was in the vanguard, presenting a wide range of books with the same cover designs, cover artists and Novel Gothic typeface as their SF titles. A cynical move, no doubt, but it also makes the crank books seem more like fiction than their authors might have intended.

This post presents a selection of crank titles with cover art by SF artists but there are many more examples out there. (Watch the skies!) I’ve limited the selection to British publishers but the same syndrome was evident in American publishing, as documented at Absolute Elsewhere. And I’ve included a couple of books by sceptics John Sladek and Dr. Christopher Evans. These were intended to dismantle the claims of L. Ron Hubbard, Erich von Däniken and co. but were still packaged in paperback to resemble the books they were attacking. The major demolition of Von Däniken is Ronald Story’s The Space Gods Revealed but covers for that one have always been relatively restrained.

Missing from this list are three paintings by SF artist Peter Jones for books by Dr. Celia Green. The art may be seen in Jones’s Solar Wind collection but I couldn’t find any of the printed covers, which suggests they had a limited run if they were printed at all. These are odd for being typical fantasy imagery attached to serious studies of lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. Dr. Green is a philosopher and science researcher (she coined the term “out-of-body experience”) so she doesn’t belong on a crank list in any case. Also absent is the most popular British cover illustrator of the decade, Chris Foss, who would have been too busy working through his fiction commissions and creating designs for feature films.

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Cover art by Tony Roberts (?), 1974.

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Cover art by Bruce Pennington, 1974.

Evans was a computer scientist, an occasional contributor to New Worlds magazine, and also the model for the deranged Vaughan in JG Ballard’s Crash. Cults of Unreason investigates crank sects such as the flying-saucer worshippers of the Aetherius Society (hence the cover art), and the Scientologists who caused a stir in Britain in the 1960s when L. Ron Hubbard set up an outpost at East Grinstead.

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Cover art by Colin Hay, 1974.

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Cover art by Angus McKie, 1979.

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Motorway cities

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The process of updating the main website meant I had to check (and double-check, etc) every single page, so I’ve been looking at more of my old artwork than usual. This 7-inch single sleeve from 1983 made me belatedly realise that the wheel-less levitating car I put on the back of Joe Banks’ Hawkwind book has an ancestor here and on the cover of the third Friends and Relations compilation that Flicknife released in 1985. The continuity was accidental but Motorway City (the song) dates from the end of the period discussed in Joe’s book so it’s good to think that a vague reference to the Levitation era can be found on the cover art.

This odd drawing dates from 1980, a year when my life was in such turmoil I’m amazed I had time to do any drawing at all. I was 18 and had already burned my way through three dead-end jobs after leaving school the year before, by which point I was agreeing with Dave Brock’s Brainstorm ad lib on the Live Seventy Nine album, “I don’t want to be employed!” This attitude led to increasing rows with my mother which in turn led me to spend more time than usual in Blackpool library. Part of the inking on the drawing was done during one of these stress-free afternoons in the library reading room. I’d guess this was shortly after I’d met the group for the first time at their Preston concert on 20th October since most of the drawings I took with me were generic space art rather than pieces derived from Hawkwind songs. They’d played Motorway City that evening (the second song according to Setlist.fm) so I’m sure I would have made a point of showing it off. I say this is an odd drawing because I’ve no idea why I made it look so obviously like a single sleeve, but it’s possible that a single release of the song from the new Levitation album had been rumoured. Whatever the explanation, this was one of the first drawings I made using my new Rotring Rapidograph pen which I used throughout the ensuing decade; one advantage of the dead-end jobs was they at least gave you enough money to afford expensive German technology. A year later, looking through a friend’s copy of Centigrade 232 by Robert Calvert, I was amused to discover a poetic complaint about the tendency of fine-nibbed Rapidograph pens to become blocked with ink. You have to treat them with care and respect, Bob.

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The car on the Friends & Relations cover wasn’t intended to be a reference to the earlier vehicle but removing the wheels was the easiest way of indicating a futuristic scene without any other overt signifiers. A shame, then, that the TV in the foreground is a cathode-ray tube in a wooden case. (And while I’m being critical, the careless use of perspective makes the car much too long.) Both these vehicles look rather graceless, as did cars in general in the late 1970s/early 1980s when there was a trend for boxy design. I’m usually indifferent to the automotive world but I could at least have borrowed some of the carapace sleekness you see in paintings by Syd Mead or Peter Jones.

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The Friends & Relations album was reissued on CD in 2014 in one of the Atomhenge CD box sets: The Flicknife Years, 1981–1988. The set includes two other albums with covers of mine: Zones and Out And Intake. Zones was a compilation of recent live recordings and a few studio outtakes that includes the version of Motorway City released as a single, together with a Michael Moorcock song that’s unique to this album (and sung by the man himself), Running Through The Back Brain.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Reality you can rely on
Hardy art
Silver machines
Notes from the Underground
Hawkwind: Days of the Underground
The artists of Future Life
Science Fiction Monthly
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

Picturing Vermilion Sands

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First UK edition, 1971. Art by Brian Knight.

Vermilion Sands (1971) is a story collection by JG Ballard which maintains a cult reputation even while being overshadowed by its author’s more popular (and notorious) novels. Most of the stories were written in the 1960s, and a couple of the pieces are among Ballard’s earliest works, but where many of his other short stories can read like the work of a writer with bills to pay, the tales of Vermilion Sands are much closer to Ballard’s core interests, filled with symbolic resonance and literary allusion.

Vermilion Sands, the place, is a near-future resort with a desert climate and an unspecified location, where the Côte d’Azur meets Southern California but the ocean is a sea of sand. The inhabitants are the idle midde-class types who populate all of Ballard’s work, and each story has a different artistic or cultural theme. Ballard was more receptive to visual art, especially painting, than many authors, particularly the SF writers of his generation for whom art was less interesting than science and technology. There is science and technology in these stories (some of the latter is now inevitably dated) but it doesn’t dominate the proceedings. The stories derive less from scientific speculation than from Ballard’s desire to create a future he would have been happy to inhabit himself, an alternative to the grim dystopias which proliferate in science fiction. The background furnishings also reflect the author’s ideal, owing much to the Surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, a pair of artists whose works are often referenced in Ballard’s fiction. Given all of this you’d expect that cover artists might have risen to the challenge more than they have. What follows is a look at the more notable attempts to depict Vermilion Sands or its population, only a few of which are covers for the book itself.

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