Spring 1991

The sound of the sleeves

The Art of Selling Songs: Graphics for the Music Business 1690-1990

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Spring/summer 1991

At the press view for the V&A’s “The Art of Selling Songs”, visitors were regaled by tapes of Boy George and by curator Kevin Edge, who told interviewers that “music is a commodity you have to have paper and ink to capture”. True enough, but instead of that exciting pursuit, “Selling Songs” projects the air of an academic elephant’s graveyard. Popular sound is a greedy, restless, completely voracious beast – it gobbles up raw materials and spits them out indiscriminately. It knows no rulers and never sleeps. The pact it makes with us as consumers concerns our intimate fears and dreams.

Its merchandising cons us constantly, dwelling on our fantasies and societal projections. It does this by melding sophistication to shameless, bottom-line blag – and “Selling Songs” should reek of this. We ought to detect the spirit of P.T. Barnum as well as that of Bill Graham; we ought to smell the snake-oil as well as the unwashed Sex Pistol. The absence of this facet is one of several ways “Selling Songs” defaults on history. But what is really missing is dazzle: the sex and hope and energy which are the life-blood of “pop”.

Popular music is one of Britain’s biggest and most influential earners. It generates thousands of hits, a Rolodex of imagery, and the world’s most assiduous music press. But that press remains, to this day, the only real guardian of its art, as well as its social history. Galleries’ dealings with the art of pop are almost always the work of dedicated, individual enthusiasts – fans who realise how music affects our ideas of what life means. Kevin Edge is one of this group. But their good intentions are often sabotaged by the object of their affections.

For music has two concomitant histories. One is commercial – a story about what sells and what gains the most publicity. From anecdotes to LP sleeves, that history remains accessible, self-promoting and keen to show itself off. Far more elusive is the music’s under-self: a chronology whose catalysts regularly go off the rails, suffer eclipse by imitation or otherwise disappear, taking with them stories, connections and, in this case, their artwork.

Barney Bubbles, the London-based designer who killed himself in 1983, is represented in “Selling Songs” by an Ian Dury songbook. Additional notes inform us that he shaped the image of Hawkwind. They also state that he “generated a large quantity of highly original graphics for other musicians, most notably Elvis Costello’s LP Armed Forces, 1979.” Apart from the qualifier that Armed Forces had help from French design team Bazooka, this is sadly inadequate, for before Jamie Reid, Glitterbest and Malcolm McLaren, there was Barney Bubbles at Stiff Records – putting the Pop Art back into pop.

Bubbles’s consistent inventiveness brought a new focus to music packaging, one which remains as much a part of punk’s heritage as bondage trousers. In Stiff, he helped create a model for stylish, independent success (for which see Manchester’s Factory Records or London’s later ZTT). He inspired countless youngsters and helped to change the look of the English music press – Bubble’s protégée Caramel Crunch art edited NME in the 1980s.

There are many unhappy, excluded ghosts like Bubbles which haunt “Selling Songs” and the exhibition looks random and almost arbitrarily chosen. (A Sir Michael Tippett libretto and a 1985 Marilyn sleeve are not appropriate keys to what designer Neville Brody means or how he managed to get there.) Critics around the world waste oceans of ink every week on pop’s iconography. Why reiterate their clichés – the “politics” of angry punk, the “apolitical” New Romantics, the retro-fixation of “scallydelia”? One should shed new light on such moments or tackle their deeper links – questions like: How have gay aesthetics affected pop imagery since the 1920s? What did the rise of the singles bag mean – or the disco 12”, or the promo “house bag”? Why do shop windows still remain pop’s major point-of-sale? How does the gothic impulse relate to adolescence, and what has that meant for Russell Mills and 4AD? There are, in fact, fascinating visual stories to be found in every corner of pop sales and packaging – and their illustration should pulse with some of the blood which is shed. Pop sales, after all, are a tangle of vested interests: sexual politics, corporate politics, youthful rebellion and the ruthless advancement of careers.

But this is not a display of spectacle, calculation, subversion or design history. Its content derives from the critical canon, Sunday-paper view of music, with all the middlebrow Eurocentricity that this implies. Thus its stronger pieces are ultimately predictable: Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper sleeve, Michael Cooper’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, Joseph Eula’s Supremes poster; Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols work. Fresher icons are simply absent Madonna’s sales history must be charted from a single poster, David Bowie’s through one concert ticket, Soul II Soul’s on a compact disc. And, except for one advertisement, the music press itself is forgotten.

Personal, apolitical, white-boy obsessions sell that press – that is what the V&A gives us. There is virtually nothing included from the world of jazz design, or the explosive, highly expressive orbit of soul sleeves in the 1970s. There is a nod of the head to club flyers, but why credit Akeem Eze and John Clynch and then label George Georgiou’s work as “anonymous”?

It’s fun, though, to grab an eyeful of such objects as player-piano rollers, Cruickshank songsheet caricatures and early singles bags. It would also be worth a visit merely to study the psychedelic posters loaned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the work of Wes Wilson and Victor Moscosco, fine examples of West Coast screenprints which later so influenced Warhol. But if you’re looking for the art from that era, don’t expect to find it here.

There really is no excuse for the unevenness of “Selling Songs”. Britain can boast more musophiles than anywhere on earth – and their knowledge is easily tapped. This isn’t some provincial gallery; this is our institution of record. So why label something “anonymous” instead of bothering to trace it? A high-concept show is great – but only if it delivers. Sadly, this one does not.

First published in Eye no. 3 vol. 1, 1991

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