Phil Brett

Phil Brett

Phil Brett is a primary school teacher who has written a future fiction/crime novel, Comrades Come Rally, and is at this moment writing a sequel. He lives in London.

Wearing Civil Rights militancy on record sleeves
Wednesday, 31 January 2018 10:53

Wearing Civil Rights militancy on record sleeves

Published in Music

To mark the anniversary of the birthday of Rosa Parks, Phil Brett examines the impact of Civil Rights militancy on the sleeves of soul and funk albums.

In Wearing Their Politics on Their Sleeves we looked at how the growing Civil Rights Movement in the USA had influenced the design of jazz album sleeves, here we shall do likewise for their nephews and nieces - soul and funk albums.

PB A supremes                                 

Perhaps surprisingly, soul music took a while to reflect the social upheavals occurring in America. Berry Gordy's Motown Records strictly avoided politics, focusing on the traditional staple of love and romance. Their record sleeves, like their rock 'n' roll siblings, would be in the main, brightly covered affairs with the artist central to the design, usually smiling, with arms outstretched. But their wider impact should not be underestimated. The Civil Rights Movement had opened up a space for black music to gain a larger audience, but the musicians themselves, even with such successful labels as Motown or Stax, still faced a segregated world, just like the black members of their audiences. They might share desks at the Stax Records HQ in Memphis, but they couldn't share lunch counters outside. One should remember that it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court stopped laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the USA.

Groups such as Diana Ross and the Supremes were not political in the implicit sense, but often the context of culture is important. Where Did Our Love Go reached number 1 in 1964 (following Motown's first top spot - Mary Wells' My Guy). This, in a country where in some states you would go to prison for 12 months, if your love led to marriage, and you were black and he was white. Motown was young black America asserting itself. Reaching number one, crossing racial  lines, it was - whatever Gordy might want - a cultural act of assertion and subversion, to a bloody great tune.

On the album sleeve, the three women have the style, sophistication and class Motown strived for. To America, in 1964, rife with racism, with a good percentage of white Americans seeing black people as little more than savages, this sent a powerful message.


The struggle impacted across numerous different cultural lines. In less than a decade, politics were implicitly finding themselves into the music. The seminal albums of What's Going On (1971) by Marvin Gaye and Innervisions (1973) by Stevie Wonder set the standard. The American dream was becoming recognised as a nightmare for many.

PB B flag      PB C curtis m

There's a Riot Goin' On (1971) by Sly and Family Stone and Back to the World (1973) by Curtis Mayfield

Both the albums pictured above use the Stars and Stripes to question what exactly there is to be patriotic about. Indeed, is it possible to be highly critical of one's country and still be patriotic? The Sly album is only the flag, but the blue is now black and the stars are suns. There was no mention of either the title or the band (although the label insisted on a sticker). If John Berg's sleeve design is rather opaque, then Mayfield's is a little more obvious, with images of children and hustlers, jet bombers and the White House. Jerry Wollkowitz, who made the montage, is asking us what kind of world is the Vietnam veteran in the title track returning to?

PB D Bar keys                                   

Montage has often been used to make social comment. The Bar-Keys Do You See What I See? (1972) used images from United States culture, making it look like a grotesque circus. And in doing so, like the Curtis Mayfield album, matched the lyrics of its title track. From the early days of merely plonking the singer on the cover, artists were now seeking to reflect an image or a message. The sleeve had become more than something to keep the record safe and clean - it could also convey ideas.                             

 PB E Outlaw                                 

Some weren't that subtle. Gene McDaniels had been a crooner in the early sixties, but after the assassination of Martin Luther King exiled himself to Denmark for a year. Mass action can change millions of people's ideas and McDaniels is but one example. He came back, wanting to be known as Eugene McDaniels. A change of name brought a whole change of lyrics, including writing Compared to What (the live recording of which, by Les McCann and Eddie Harris is possibly one of the greatest ever songs recorded). His first album on his return was Outlaw (1970) with the cover screaming urban guerrilla, a counter-culture at war with the establishment.

PB F Madhouse

The sleeve of Serve 'em (1972) by Madhouse also pulls no punches, with its satirical cartoon clearly showing the huge and mutual mistrust between President Nixon and the black community.

  PB H the quays         PB G philadelphia                     

The wind of change even reached the more polished Philly sound, shown by these two 1973 albums show graphically. Both were made under the art direction of Ed Lee. The O'Jays album has a painting of a slave ship, illustrating the title track. To quote the Greatest Covers of All Time: "It was enough to make even the most myopic of white music fans take note that something was changing". This was released six years before the publication of Alex Haley's Roots. Not that the artist, James Barkley, was famed as a militant, he was better known as a children's book illustrator.

Bart Forbes, the artist for the MFSB album, was also not known for being a leading light in the counter-culture. His art was usually not so much strident graphics as a popular illustrator for Sports Illustrated, and was more used to drawing baseball stars than this kind of nightmarish drawing, including demonstrators, swastikas, skeletal soldiers, an atomic bomb cloud and the Klu Klux Klan. Interestingly, both artists had also designed U.S postage stamps! If militancy was affecting such previously soul pop groups such as the O'Jays and MFSB, not to mention illustrators such as Forbes and Barkley, then the mainstream had certainly shifted leftwards.

    PB I Fred Wesley                          

The heavyweight cardboard sleeve of this James Brown spin-off band also depicts the negative history of the African American experience, tracing the relatively recent barbarity of slavery and its continuing impact on black lives. Both the title, Damn Right I am Somebody (1973) and the music demanded change. On the back it says, "Think that you are somebody, and you'll be somebody. Positive Thinking. Positive Thinking. Positive Thinking".

 PB J Funkadelic                                

Positivity jumps out of you from Funkadelic's Uncle Jam Wants You (1979). Here the message remains serious but has a humorous twist, with George Clinton adopting a pose made famous by Black Panther Huey Newton in his iconic 1967 photograph. Referencing Black Power, still something feared by the white establishment in 1979, but doing so in platform white boots! Clinton's various projects (Funkadelic and Parliament for example) were full of glitter and showmanship, but with glorious funk, and very often with serious themes. Rather like Sun Ra in the jazz world, it seemed convenient to escape the world in order to comment on it. Diem M. Jones, who took this photograph, was also the designer who worked with Clinton and was integral to the music, putting Clinton's ideas into visual reality.  

 PB K Isaac Hayes                             

Here's another example of the singer adopting a powerful leader pose. Moses had always been an important figure in the Black American struggle, with his connotations of leading a people from captivity into freedom. The Isaac Hayes album Black Moses (1971) had a gatefold sleeve featuring the singer, full length, arms spread.

PB L The impressions                                                

The photographer used for Black Moses was Joel Brodsky, someone with an impressive pedigree of covers including Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and the Doors' debut album. He was also responsible for the Impressions' Finally Got Myself Together (1973) album showing the band out on the streets. Racism in the USA went far beyond segregation in the South. The brutal fact was that in the richest country in the world, there were urban ghettos of severe poverty throughout the country. Soul and funk musicians began to use ghetto imagery to make the point that even with the removal of segregation laws, black people still suffered chronic discrimination - something we see today with hip-hop and rap music.

PB M the fatback band                                     

On the cover of Keep on Steppin' (1973) by the Fatback Band there is a young girl dancing in front of a wall which has the band name and album title written in graffiti. It is simple but effective, and in the music writer Lloyd Bradley's view is "Probably the greatest album cover ever..... this typifies a trend in 1970s funk, whereby the sleeve represents the music rather than the band." 

PB N a taste of honey                                            

Sadly, women on many soul and funk albums, as with rock albums, have often featured on album covers merely as semi-pornography. The 1978 self-titled Taste of Honey debut is rather different. On the cover are bassist Janice Marie Johnson and guitarist Carlita Dorhan, with their instruments. This was at the time when punk and post-punk female musicians were trying to kick down the doors of male dominated rock (see No-one's Little Girl). Johnson and Dorhan, may be wearing elegant dresses rather than leather jackets and torn jeans, but there is no doubt from their look and camera angle that they are no mere adornments. These are two black female musicians asserting their confidence in both their musical ability and who they are. By the late seventies militant funk was being replaced by disco, but the struggle had had a widespread affect. The emphasis might be on dance, but this album cover also radiates pride.

Waves of political struggle are like tsunamis against the ruling class and their prevailing ideas, and they also send ripples also across the world of popular culture. Anti-Vietnam protests, the Civil Rights movement and the women's movements shook the American establishment. It also  helped create not only great music, but alongside it, marvellously evocative album art.

PB Rosaparks

Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King in the background

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy
Wednesday, 28 February 2018 11:57

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy

Published in Fiction

Phil Brett tells the story of when Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joseph McCarthy.                              

Sixty five years ago, on March 26th 1953, Dashiell Hammett, the famous novelist who was responsible for popularising the hard-boiled private eye novel, faced Senator Joseph McCarthy. For a brief moment in the confrontation, there took place an exchange concerning the possibility of communism in the United States. What led to that frankly surreal moment shows both what the American state will do to protect its rule, and the power which it fears.

 PB 2 Maltese Falcon                      

By 1953, Hammett was internationally known for his novels such as The Maltese Falcon, which had set the template of the cynical hard-drinking detective (See Murder, Mavericks and Marxism for my socialist look at the growth of crime fiction). His writing inspired legions of others, including such luminaries as Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Many of his stories had been made into Hollywood movies. The 1941 film of the Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, usually appears in best movie lists, and the book figures in literary equivalents. But it wasn't because McCarthy disliked film noir that Hammett was having to defend himself. To find the reason, we perhaps should travel back to the start of the twentieth century.

By then, the United States had grown to a position where it could rival Britain and Germany. Huge corporations were now creating huge wealth, but only for those at the top. With the ever greater demands of profit, came ever greater exploitation. Workers fought back and unionisation grew, but the American federation of trade unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was ill-equipped to lead it, being virtually all male, all white and all skilled. Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States writes that "Racism was practical for the AFL. The exclusion of women and foreigners was also practical." Theirs was a business unionism, set up to help big business whilst earning fantastic salaries for the officials; divide and rule worked for them. But not for the movement. Mass strikes, such as the 1907 general strike of over ten thousand black and white workers on the New Orleans levees, terrified the bosses. Socialists and anarchists found their ideas gaining an audience. A new union, The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies) was created to cross racial, gender and sectional lines. It grew massively. The ruling class responded as they always had, and would continue to do, by unleashing terrible violence. Strikers were regularly fired on, such as in 1916 Everett, Washington, when two hundred armed thugs opened fire, leaving five Wobblies dead. It was far from being a one off.

   PB 3 IWW                               

A year later, IWW organiser Frank Little, was kidnapped by vigilantes, tortured and hanged. Strong evidence suggests that the vigilantes were in fact members of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. A member of the Pinkertons at the time was one Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Lillian Hellman, playwright and writer, comrade and partner of his for thirty years, later claimed that Hammett himself had been personally approached to be part of the gang. Her claim has been questioned, but whatever the truth of it, there is no doubt that Little's murder appalled him, and as a Pinkerton he would have witnessed the strike-breaking, infiltration, blackmail and murder which, despite their name, was pretty much the main work of the agency. Seeing at first hand how the state would subcontract out terror made Hammett begin to question the values which he had been brought up with.

 PB 4 newspaper on IWW                                

By the twenties, the IWW had been destroyed, with many activists dead or in prison, and the Socialist Party was falling apart. In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan had grown to 4.5 million. It looked as if the American ruling class had won, and reaction was on the march. Racism and terror had long been popular mechanisms of oppression, but now there was something new in their tool box of terror - anti-communism. The first Red Scare was launched as a reaction of to the 1917 Russian Revolution, with the state mobilising against the threat. The press joined in, howling against anyone who even vaguely threatened the 'American way of life'.  President Woodrow Wilson forced Congress to pass the 1918 Sedition Act, primarily aimed against anarchists. Similar to what we see today, with Donald Trump calling anyone he perceives to be an opponent a snow flake, back then, there was little concern to differentiate between communists, socialists, anarchists, liberals or merely decent human beings. They all were 'reds'.

However, the struggle continued, with mass strikes. Marcus Garvey's message of black pride reached large audiences and the NAACP bravely battled for justice. In 1919, the American Communist Party (CP) was formed. The 1930s depression saw times get even harder, with more workers growing disillusioned with capitalism. The CP had grown to 55,000 by the end of the decade.

Hammett might have left the Pinkertons, but he was using the experience of detection in his writing. His first story was published in the magazine The Smart Set in 1929. The first of his five novels was Red Harvest (1929), which was followed by The Dain Curse (1929), the Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931) and the Thin Man (1934). They brought fame and wealth. However, the effect wasn't to draw him towards capitalism, but quite the opposite.

The 1930s saw him involved in civil rights and anti-fascist activity, joining the American Labor Party and in 1937, the Communist Party. In the main, his support was financial, and lending his name to campaigns. Not that his politics can especially be seen in his writing - there is a constant theme of a corrupt society in them, with many of the cops on the take, but little more than that.

But neither the lack of overt literary socialism, nor the fact that he had served in both world wars, was going to save him from the watchful eye of the red scaremongers. Over time, legislation had been steadily passed against the left. In March 1947 president Truman signed Executive Order 9835 to check the "Americanism" of public employees. It was the legislation which the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) would use. Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, says, ""The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." And the crook was certainly cheap here, with Senator McCarthy achieving his moment in history, by conducting several HUAC investigations.

Again, as with today's resident of the White House and purveyor of gaudy Twitter patter, stars in the movie industry were useful targets (see also Peter Frost's article I am Spartacus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo). This was partly because there was anxiety that any liberalism in the arts might help raise awkward questions about society (see my If We Stop Fighting The World Will Die for an example of how political messages appear in the most mainstream of films). But it was also because the stars' fame could be used to spread the fear - if the state was willing and able to go for the great and good, then the local activist was an easy target. In wielding such power, the ruling class showed their fear, by trying to instil it in others.

    PB 5 HB and LB              

Some fought back, including in 1947, a high profile, (and in the history of lobbying, possibly the best-dressed ever) delegation, led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In the same year, Hammett was elected the president of the Civil Rights Congress (CVC) whose role was to fund defences for those arrested for political offences.                                      

Four years later, he was brought before the United Sates attorney for the southern district of New York to disclose who had been aided. Hammett refused. As a result, he was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt. The magazine Hollywood Life caught the OTT hysteria, calling Hammett, "one of the most dangerous (if not THE) influential communists in America".

Then in 1953, he was dragged in front of the HUAC. This time it was to face the charge that 'pro-communist' books had made their way into overseas libraries run by the State Department. Three hundred copies of his books had been found on the shelves of seventy three of its libraries. Fearing that American capital would collapse from Sam Spade's sardonic wit, Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joe McCarthy.

For most of the hearing, Hammett, like so many others who appeared before the HUAC, pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions in case they might incriminate him. There is a tradition of socialists using political trials as a platform to argue their cause. Why Hammett and others didn't do this is not clear. Perhaps, the reason is hinted at when one of the Committee questions him as to why he is appearing "before the bar of public opinion". He replies that it was not the 'bar of public opinion' which had sent him to prison for six months - the implication being that it was the state, doing so for political reasons. By the fifties, the left had suffered a series of defeats and confidence was low: taking the Fifth was seen as the only viable tactic. Certainly, Hammett didn't lack moral courage. He'd shown that in the 1947 trial and the fact that he had publicly supported campaigns associated with the CP throughout the Red Scare.

But then McCarthy asked, "Do you believe that the communist system is better than the system in use in this country?" Hammett didn't this time take the Fifth but instead answered, "Well, regardless of what I thought of communism in Russia today, it is doubtful if, you know, any one sort of thing - one is better for one country, and one is better for the other country."

McCarthy, then asked, "You seem to distinguish between Russian communism and American communism. While I cannot see any distinction, I will assume there is for the purpose of the questioning. Would you think that American communism would be a good system to adopt in this country?" Hammett took the Fifth, but then to perhaps McCarthy's surprise, he added that it was a question which could not be answered by a yes or no. McCarthy asked why. "You see," Hammett answered, "I don't understand. Theoretical communism is no form of government. You know, there is no government. And I actually don't know, and I couldn't without - even in the end, I doubt it if I can give a definite answer."

Sensing a chance to trap him, the senator asked if he favoured the adoption of communism in the United States. Hammett didn't take the Fifth but answered no. It wasn't the answer that McCarthy had expected. Hammett explained, "For one thing, it would seem to me impractical, if most people didn't want it."

Maybe McCarthy should have read some of the books he was so intent on banning. If he had, then he might have understood that to achieve communism, Marxists believe that a transitional socialist state is required, you did not jump straight to a communist state. So Hammett was, strictly speaking, not denying his politics. McCarthy just simply did not understand them. In any case, the agent of change was the mass of the working class. The masses in 1953 USA were not in a pre-revolutionary state, so Hammett was being practical. Hammett's testimony couldn't be said to have been a stirring defence of socialism, but he hadn't implicated anybody else, nor fundamentally denied his politics.

The session ended with McCarthy returning to the ostensible reason for his appearance, the stocking of 'communist literature' in state libraries. He asked the author, "If you were in charge of that programme to fight communism, would you purchase the works of some 75 communist authors?" Hammett, replied with a putdown which Sam Spade would have been proud of, "If I were fighting communism, I don't think I would do it by giving people any books at all."

Despite his careful replies, he had done enough to provoke further action against him. He was blacklisted and the FBI spent a lot of time and effort in trying to charge him for tax fraud. Perhaps nothing more was done because Hammett was a sick man, who would not publish anything major again. He become a virtual recluse, living with Hellman until his death in 1961. Even then, he had beaten McCarthy, outliving the senator by four years.

There is no doubt that the American ruling class faced a serious threat to its power in the first half of the twentieth century. It defended itself with brutal violence, intimidation and blacklisting - nothing less than state-sponsored terrorism. The left was smashed.  Sixty five years later, with Trump as president, it could be easy to think that McCarthy had won. However, within a decade, the sixties would see a re-emergence of radicalism, with women's, black, gay and anti-Vietnam movements changing American society forever. Even today, with the Uncut, Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns, not to mention campaigns against Trump, people still fight for radical ideas in the States. McCarthy would have been apoplectic at the sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans flocking to support Bernie Sanders, a politician proud to call himself a socialist.

The root of Senator Joe McCarthy's fear is still here. And let us also remember that McCarthy's name is now despised, synonymous with witch hunts, whilst Hammett is famous for the creation of a literary genre. Perhaps the words of Sam Spade, his most famous creation, also spoke for him: "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble."

Hollywood Ten

Beyond the boundaries: A review of the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale
Sunday, 29 October 2017 21:50

Beyond the boundaries: A review of the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett takes us on a tour of an exhibition at the Venice Biennale which explores the challenges which emigrants and immigrants face.

Away from the main sites of this year's Venice Biennale Arte (See Dennis Broe for a review of the festival) is the Diaspora Pavilion. It’s housed in a former palace, built on the proceeds of mercantile trade and theft – often two words for the same activity, of course. Cornered by two canals, and dripping faded grandeur, the building is an appropriate setting for the exhibition by 19 artists exploring elements of the diasphoric experience. Independent of the concept of national pavilions in the main festival, these are experiences of people far from their original homelands, of narratives transcending national boundaries.

This is the first time there has been a Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The main driving idea behind it is the gross under-representation of black and minority artists (BME) – even the lack of referencing the lives of BME people, in the world of art. (For a brief look at the conservatism of this art world, see my  Art for, and by the Many, not the Few).

In the wider world, the whole question of how people fit in, where they can live and where they're from, has become a toxic political issue.  Electoral successes by right wing (and shamefully, many social democratic) parties have been built on the back of scapegoating immigrants for the effect of austerity. With sick irony, it has transcended the national boundaries, with anti-immigration policies crossing the national boundaries which the racists want to strengthen.


 Tragically, another reason for the pavilion's topicality is the death of Khadija Saye, the British Gambian artist who was killed in the Grenfell fire, whose work features in the exhibition. Her wet tin-plate pictures reference the rituals we use to cope with trauma.

Her pictures are as much about the process of production, as the final piece of art. Titled, "Dwelling: in this space we breathe", they have taken on a further powerful message, that the space, that she and other working class (and mainly BME)  people lived, lacked even the basic human right of safety - of adequate fire safety procedures. In 2017, the poor, the black and minority ethnic, indeed, anyone seen by the ruling class definition as being of 'us' are shunted out of sight.

PB3.jpg PB4

Being written out of history is also the theme of Barbara Walker's large in situ drawings of black soldiers in World War I. Appearing to be not finished, their bodies seem to fade into the white plaster. Like the role of BME troops in both world wars, they have been whitewashed out of existence.


Forming the bedrock of the exhibition, arguably of the very concept of Diaspora, is transportation, sometimes voluntarily, but often forced, either by economic necessity or to escape war and famine. Or as millions suffered, by forced transportation - slavery (it has been estimated that 1.5 million slaves died in the passage). The legacy of which still affects the world with its sickness. Karl Marx, in Capital, and later Eric Williams, in his classic, Capitalism and Slavery, argued that the barbaric trade was not only responsible for the dominance of the British Empire but the birth of racism to justify it.

On the ground floor of the pavilion hang ships by Hew Locke. On and surrounding the ships are cut-outs of Portuguese mercenaries made by 16th century Benin sculptors. Hanging by them are figures of contemporary soldiers, and I was reminded that just as Venice gained its power by control of the Mediterranean, so today the EU patrol the same sea, blocking immigrants who are risking their lives for relative safety. The ships may face a gold curtain but they are flanked by armed force.


Above this, on the first floor, stand large figures by Sokari Douglas Camp CBE, showing the stages of slavery in Sierra Leone, from indigenous, to slave, to post-liberation era figures. They stand proud, dominating the floor, indeed, almost the whole exhibition. Nigerian born, but living and working in the Elephant & Castle, Camp is one of the better known artists being shown, with her large metal sculptures appearing in such diverse places as St Paul’s and the American Museum of Natural History. I will happily say that I am a fan.


This exhibition though, is not solely about the crimes committed against people of colour but also of their resistance. Sometimes it is by arms, as shown by Kimathi Donkor's painting of Toussaint L'Ouverture leading the slave rebellion for Haiti's independence. Its structure echoes Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps, which heralded the demise of the Venetian republic. Donkor, known for his dramatic figurative art of key moments of black history, whether the subject is the murder of Stephen Lawrence or Nanny of the Maroons leading slave rebellions in Jamaica, has a direct style, which never tries to over-complicate.


There is also the theme of immigrants’ struggles to get their ideas, knowledge and skills accepted into western society, whilst retaining their identity. Yinka Shonibare MBE's wonderful installation of a library, looking so traditionally English, with its wooden bookshelves, has books by first and second generation immigrants, while others are by people who have opposed immigration. All are covered in traditional African designs. Whether the authors in the library acknowledge it or not, no society is pure, comprising a mix of cultures - complementing, intertwining and sometimes conflicting.

Looking at it, perhaps the Chinua Achebe quote is apt, "People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories". Shonibare's work explores the concept of identity and the interrelationship of the histories of Africa and Europe. His most public work in doing this was the large Nelson's Ship in a Bottle on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. This installation, I think is just as successful, and like the whole pavilion makes me hope that the exhibition will travel to the UK so people who don't have the funds to visit Venice can enjoy it.


It has never been easy for immigrants to survive. The major struggle has been that of survival. Whether from the Diaspora in renaissance Venice, the eighteenth century Britain or today's Europe. Many were, and are, pushed to the margins of society, as seen in the photographs of street sellers of African descent, selling handbags to tourists on the Venetian sea front, by Dave Lewis.


People might be economically marginalised, but that doesn't mean that their beliefs and traditions are. Directly or indirectly, they're alive in their hearts and minds. A part of the cultural mix which creates us. Such is an element of Michael Forbes' installations where African iconography mix with western figures. Cultural and national references sit by each other, crossing national boundaries, as does the Diaspora. Sometimes they combine to create new beliefs or narratives, at other times they exist in parallel. The tension of different cultural heritages runs through this pavilion. As Salman Rushdie said, "Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools".


But it would be wrong to think of the exhibition as worthy and heavy. Yes, it is thought provoking, powerful at times, with far more than has been mentioned here including some great video and audio art, but it is also vibrant and playful. Nicola Green's Bate Bola prints mix Rio's Carnival, Venice's mask ball and English Tudor clowns do have something to say about the cross pollination of cultures, but it also brought a broad smile to my face.

Leaving the pavilion, heading back into the labyrinth of Venice's alleyways, hoping not to get too lost (again), I felt that the exhibition had educated, intrigued, moved – and yes, entertained me.


Neoliberalism and Austerity
Monday, 07 August 2017 17:53

Art for and by the many, not the few

Published in Cultural Commentary

Phil Brett shows how art has often been about power and prestige, argues that art should be not only for but by the many.

The history of Western art has been dominated by artworks created for and by the few. Paintings and sculpture have been associated with power and privilege. In the twenty first century, liberal capitalist democracies may have tinkered around with that fact, but essentially it is still true. 

Leon Trotsky wrote, "Every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art." This can be seen throughout history, from ancient times to the present leaders have liked to have statues, friezes and buildings to show their own glory. Rulers have always loved having their images captured for eternity. There are many examples, like Titian painting the Hapsburgs, oor Henry VIII appointing Hans Holbein the Younger, as the English King's Painter, whose iconic 1536 portrait depicts a powerful and athletic king. Even today, the paintings of Prime Ministers line the staircase of 10 Downing Street, and if the reigning monarch's portrait is being painted, it always makes the 10 o'clock news. Though, with no disrespect for the artists involved, we're not talking Holbeins or Titians here.

Battles have often been a popular subject for the rulers to use art as propaganda. They meant pain and agony for the poor folk actually involved in the fighting, but victory in them gave the rulers added authority and legitimacy. Two examples will suffice: Maria de'Medici commissioning Pieter Paul Rubens to paint a series of paintings depicting her dead husband's (French king Henry IV) victorious battles. In World War I, the Government wanted painters such as Paul Nash and Percy Wyndham Lewis to promote the cause of Britain. Whether their stunning depictions on the horror of trench warfare do so, is open for debate, because good art often exposes the truth and questions dominant ideologies - something the ruling class find troubling.

Even with religious painting, power and prestige are there. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may be a stunning tribute to the glory of God, but it was also for the glory of Pope Julius II. Sometimes, the link is far from subtle. The Medici family were an example of a new class of people, powerful financiers, who used art to help the status of Florence (and themselves). In many paintings they had themselves painted in. In Sandro Botticelli's 1475 painting, Adoration of the Magi, the Medici family are actually the Magi. Keen takers of selfies should take note, that's quite a high bar to beat.

PB sandro

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi.

It hasn't always been monarchs and God. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Gainsborough painted the landed gentry, keen to show off their fine clothes, homes and grounds, demonstrating their position and class power for all to see.

Governments of the twentieth century were aware of the power of art. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led to many artists, such as Chagall and Malevich flocking to its support. Many in the early Soviet regime embraced the avant-garde (October 1917 - the spark for great art). However, it did not see its role as to pitch one school against another. Both Lenin and Trotsky argued for the relative autonomy of art and artists, although in practice there was significant state sponsorship, support and influence over art and culture. A fundamental change occurred in the late Twenties and Thirties, with the art of ‘socialist realism’, designed to promote the Soviet model of socialism. In an ironic twist, in the late 1940s, the CIA promoted and funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions - unknown to the artists themselves - to show just how free and exciting the USA was compared to Soviet Russia.

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Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

In the private sector, profit joined prestige and power in the mix, leading to the rise of the collector/dealer. The names of Frick, Guggenheim and Sainsbury are familiar names of galleries. There are others such as Benjamin Altman, with his collection in the New York Metropolitan and Joseph Duveen, who made a fortune from art. Controversies about tax avoidance or the authenticity of paintings he sold did not stop him becoming a Lord and having a gallery named after him in Tate Britain.

This group of people may not have their names on the credits on the paintings we see, but they were very influential in modern art. With eyes and wallets focussed on the market, they helped the growth of isms, serving as brand names to help the sales. One such dealer was Ernest Gambert, the influential art dealer for the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti nicknamed him 'Gamble-art' for his interference and keenness for the artists to paint in the Pre-Raphaelite style.  He once argued with John Everett Millais that the horse’s head was too large in his 1857 painting A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford.

Picasso's paintings from his Blue Period stayed in his studio for years because influential art dealer Ambrose Vollard dismissed them as being unsuitable for the wealthy buyers, with their depictions of beggars and street urchins. The few may have got slightly larger than in Holbein's time, but it was still only a tiny minority who could see, let alone own, such art. Ownership conferred status and privilege - and of course profit to the dealer.

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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

The art world started to balloon in size, after the war. In 1955, Fortune magazine advised its readers to look to art as an investment, suggesting  De Kooning, Pollack and Rothko as good to start with, being between $500 and $3500 each (they're worth a whole lot more now). Today, the art market (not including the illegal sector, which Interpol have in their top five financial crimes) has been estimated as worth a cool $63.8 billion. In 2015, the UK accounted for 21% of this (behind the USA with 43% and ahead of China with 19%). A growth which has given people like Charles Saatchi enormous influence (and a few bob too).

Alongside the private collections, and following the Enlightenment, public museums began to emerge. The rich would have a monopoly of owning art but the common folk could be allowed limited access to gaze gratefully at masterpieces. As the art critic John Berger said: "Anyone who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity".

Museums may have grown very popular but there is still a separation of art and the majority. How many times have we heard people say, "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like"? Is that not an obvious defensive comment of a (usually) working class person, isolated from art and made to feel inferior to it?

But one might say, are not art galleries more popular than ever?  In the 2017 list of Britain's most popular twenty attractions for the previous year, the National Gallery was at number 2; the Tate Modern at number 3; the National Portrait Gallery at number 11, with the Scottish National Gallery ay number 18. That's a total of 15.59 million visitors, without even considering adding the Royal Academy or Tate Britain or the hundreds of other private and public galleries. That's a lot of people straining to see the pictures.

However, all is not as egalitarian as it seems. There has been much criticism that the artworks on show are from a small (often white and male) clique. For black artists it was for a long time impossible to be shown. Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party Minister of Culture said, "The ghetto is the gallery for the revolutionary artist". Graffiti artists continue that tradition.


The Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist artists who confronted the sexism of the art world, estimated in 1989 that 5% of the Metropolitan Museum were by women whilst 85% of the nudes were women.

Curators might argue that there have been some attempts to address this, but the fact is that the people running them are still from a narrow social base. Look at the patrons of the Royal Academy and you'll see lord and ladies, with the common person occasionally represented by the likes of Stephen Fry.

The influence of the private art world ,with such figures as Saatchi in public galleries should not be underestimated. With the costs of art rocketing, most of the public galleries cannot compete, they feel that they have do deals with the private world. The Tate receives 70% of funding from non-Governmental sources. Public galleries have found one way to compensate this by getting sponsorship from big business. The Victoria and Albert exhibition of You Say You Want a Revolution included sponsors such as Levis, and the Royal Academy show Abstract Expressionism boasted the sponsor: 'BNP Paribas: The bank for a changing world'.

If that isn't ironic enough, then consider that one of the major sponsors of the Royal Academy's Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 was the Blavatnik Foundation. Its founder, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, may not be that well know, but he perhaps should be. In 2015 he was named as Britain's richest man, worth an estimated £17.1 billion. It is perhaps a brief look at his history: 1978, he emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. He built an international conglomerate, which entered the commercial stratosphere, when it made billions after the collapse of the Soviet Union from the petrochemicals and oil industries. Considering that many people were unhappy at the political impartiality of the exhibition - see Great Art, Shame about the Curating - one can legitimately ask how much influence, direct or otherwise, did the foundation have on the exhibition. See also Corruption of Art and Culture.

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Poster advertising V. and A. exhibition - and its sponsors

So why do these multinationals get involved? The answer is from our old friends, power and prestige. Those attendance figures of galleries means that they are now goldmines for tourism. Bilbao used the Guggenheim Gallery, opening in 1997, to regenerate the area. It worked. One survey found 80% of the visitors at the airport had arrived to visit it. Big money then, which cannot but affect the direction of the museum - not only the acquisition policy but its display. In 2011, a BBC Freedom of Information request found that the Tate only shows 20% of its permanent collection. To be fair, that contrasts well with the international average of 5%. The removal of art has been termed, "deaccessioning". It is estimated that MoMA has thirty Picasso paintings 'deaccessioned'. Galleries are as much like banks, storing valuable assets, as museums to entertain, educate and interest people.

Curators wield considerable influence on cultural and art policy. So John Berger's view that, "as a professional group, their character is patronising, snobbish and lazy" should cause us to worry. Certainly, Royal Academy show on the art of Russian Revolution with its lack of historical and indeed artistic understanding, would give some credence to such an accusation. The concern being that, even in the twenty first century, curators, gallery directors and critics all seem to come from a very narrow social base.

In recent months, articles in the Guardian, the Morning Star, and various other professional periodicals as well as in the social media, have discussed the whole issue of the running and funding of arts. The Government body with overall responsibility for the arts is the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who in turn fund and oversee Arts Council England (ACE). ACE gets its funding partly directly from the Government and partly from the National Lottery. This is public money and there has been a concern that essentially it is still art for a few, by a few – but with the many paying for it.

Laura Barton, feature writer of the Guardian, raised concerns that 85% of ACE funding for music goes to classical and opera. A growing number of people have attacked the National Portfolio (basically the list of organisations which ACE funds) as being London-centric, biased against the working class, being too focussed on middle class taste and not diverse enough, e.g. in terms of gender and ethnic background. The balance between community and premier league art establishments leans towards the latter. ACE is institutionally biased towards the middle classes who see arts management as a good career path. Worries have been expressed just how transparent the decision process is, with the issue of a £2 million grant being given to as yet unformed theatre company, whose director appears to have links to senior figures of ACE.

With the Government policy of austerity, money (for some areas) is tight. So such uses of public money are legitimate ones to raise and socialists should do so. However, the Tories use this as cover to attack the very status of art. In the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto did have a few words about the importance of art but set beside the fact that in the last five years money spent on the arts has been cut by £165million, they don't really amount to much.

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Simon Wren-Lewis: Neoliberalism and Austerity

Tom Watson rightly states that, "Lottery money is plugging holes where Government funding has been cut". Tories will argue that hospitals and schools matter more than galleries (whilst cutting these in any case). Of course, money can be found when they want to: £7 billion for the Parliament refurbishment or £370 million for Buckingham Palace, for example. What they really mean is that art is for them, not us – for the few, not the many.

Here’s John Berger again: "the fundamental division between the initiated and the uninitiated, the loving and the indifferent, the minority and the majority has remained as rigid as ever." This is especially true in education. In primary schools, especially in working class areas, a major concern are the SATs results, which in turn lead to league tables. Failure to meet the school's targets set could lead to failing OFSTED and thus academisation. Fundamentally, even with some tokenistic nods towards child happiness and creativity, Government policy is all about reading, writing and maths (and mechanical versions of them at that). The squeeze is being put on the arts.

The same is true in secondary schools, with the focus on the EBacc, when students achieve Grade C or above in English, maths, history or geography, a science and a language. If budgets are tight because of education cuts, the curriculum is narrowed, with subjects dropped, and the arts get squeezed out of the curriculum. Ditto in further education and university.  And of course, with tuition fees, the chances for working class students to attend university or art college are narrowing. Whatever the Tory manifesto might say, the policy is that we proles just don't understand, or need to understand, the arts.

As a result the social base of the artists is narrowing. To an extent the artist, certainly the successful one, has always come from a particular stratum of society. One of Britain's greatest artists, Turner, faced snobbery from his fellow Royal Academians because of his lowly birth. Damien Hirst is from a working class background but he is now in a very different world. His latest exhibition, in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is impressive. I was lucky enough to visit it and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I note that it cost Hirst personally £50 million to create it; not many artists could do that! 

All gloomy then? Well, not quite. It is heartening that Jeremy Corbyn has launched a comprehensive arts policy, with a number of excellent initiatives which includes introducing an £160 million arts pupil premium, which would "support cultural activities in schools". Scholarships would be introduced. They would also "consider demands of those working to maintain our public museums to challenge corporate influence".  The policy also promises to 'consider' including an art element in EBacc.


Labour Policy for Art:

The policy is a good starting point art moving away  from the few to the many. I think that any Corbyn Government should be bold. There does not have to be a choice between galleries or schools, museums or hospitals. Whatever indicator you use, Britain is always in the top ten wealthiest countries in the world. Britain can afford galleries and schools, museums and hospitals.

The choice in reality is tax cuts for the rich, or galleries, hospitals, and schools for the many. A Corbyn government can challenge the notion of art as a luxury just a for a few. He has committed to scrapping tuition fees - good. But there should also be a commitment to scrapping SATS, EBacc and league tables, to create a freedom to learn. Pump funding into education so the widest possible curriculum is offered, from the nursery to university and evening classes. Be totally upfront that art is important, it can enrich and change lives.

Labour could involve the public in decision making more. Not just in making ACE more transparent but also why not make regeneration projects, really that, regeneration and not just social cleansing? In areas such as the North East, housing could be built, with input from local residents, deciding on what they need and want. There are plenty of vacant industrial buildings - why not renovate them alongside the new homes and use the stored art collections of the Tate, RA, National and Imperial War Museum (which has over 200,000 paintings, most, yep, hidden away!) to create new wonderful galleries? Let's 'accession' them! After all, they are ours. Ask people what sort of gallery they would like. New schools and hospitals? Get local artists and community groups to decorate them. That is what an art policy for a Government should be: to fund, facilitate and support. It does not need to be prescriptive, we don't need instructions.

That would be a great start, it would be an arts policy which could help transform this country, creating a place for people to live in. I am a revolutionary socialist, and believe that people's creativity will only be allowed to fully blossom in a class-less society. Whilst we live in a capitalist society we shall still have the haves and have nots – those with power and those without. It is difficult to be creative when you are working long hours, paying the bills and looking after the kids. In a socialist society, in the words of Trotsky, "The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

In other words - art for, and by, the many.

The world was theirs to win: revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy
Sunday, 19 February 2017 22:23

The world was theirs to win: revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett enjoys the art at the RA exhibition, but not the simplistic and misleading commentary.

Remember the fuss over the art of Hans Holbein the Younger because he painted during the time of an autocratic ruler who had a fondness for decapitating his wives? No, of course not, there wasn’t any. But there have been such murmurings about the Royal Academy’s exhibition on the art of the 1917 Russian Revolution, in The Guardian amongst other places. With liberals tut-tutting, I was intrigued as to what the Royal Academy itself would make of it.

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Tyshler: Formal Construction of Red

The Russian Revolution was a moment in history when working people seized power in attempt to end oppression and exploitation. In doing so, a wealth of artistic creativity - visual, ceramic, musical and cinematic - was unleashed. The RA has included a lot of it here: there are masterpieces from amongst others, Kandinsky, Malevich and Chagall, as well as films from Eisenstein and designs for workers’ homes in the exhibition. It shows the breadth of the art produced, whether it is the abstractions of Alexander Tyshel or the more figurative paintings of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin or art designed for everyday use.

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Pedrov-Vodkin: Self-portrait

At the heart of the exhibition are two rooms, ‘Brave New World’ being the first, which vibrate with energy, with artists such as Lyubov Popova, whose Space-Force Construction (1921), swirls like a cyclone around the centre and almost appears to escape the canvas and whirl you around. It is a piece which you can stand in front of and lose yourself. It is stunning. Similarly, Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Crest (detail) (1917) takes your breath away. Energy combines with freedom to involve you emotionally. For me, I look at it and my brain tries to identify literal images, are there buildings, figures or faces? But as I look, I’m drawn in and simply enjoy the spectacle.

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Malevich: Woman with a Rake

This and the next room, devoted to Kazimir Malevich, are a reflection of the revolution at its high point. The air is one of optimism and euphoria. The world was theirs to win. Previous to the revolution Malevich had been experimenting with geometric shapes, the revolution gave him fresh impetus. Even later his shift to figurative based painting, such as Woman with a Rake (1932) has shape at its heart. She looks like a jigsaw, an essential part of the world which she lives in. Likewise, Torso (Prototype of a New Image) (1929-32) isn’t in the tradition of figural representation, it is an attempt to create a new one. A direction he took further with his peasants’ series of paintings.

Marc Chagall was for a time Commissar for the arts in Vitebsk and has two fantastic paintings here. The largest is Prominade (1917-1918) which is a huge canvas with the artist holding hands with his wife Bella, who is floating in the air. Ostensibly about their love but it also captures the freedom that the revolution promised.

There is no doubt that the art exhibited is absolutely fantastic, you can’t help but wonder at the amazing imagination on show. The problem lies in the commentary which accompanies it.

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Popova: Space-Force Construction

In the first room you are not introduced to the autocratic horror or Tsarism, or the hopes of the revolutionary masses but to the theme of ‘Salute the Leader’ where we are told, the “icons of Lenin replaced those of Christ”.

Rooms follow called ‘Man and Machine’ and the aforementioned, ‘Brave New World’, repeating the clichéd narrative arc of the dictator Lenin leading inevitably to the dictator Stalin, with his gulags. The historical context given is not much deeper than that. There is only passing mention of the massive, devastating, Civil War, let alone the invading western armies, which are never mentioned!

The exhibition blames the famine and poverty of those years on the Bolsheviks, not the attempts of the ruling classes of France and Britain to destabilise the fledgling workers’ state. We are told in ‘The Fate of the Peasants’ room that the peasants were “robbed of individuality” by the Bolsheviks. Presumably, the curators believe that the life of the peasant in Tsarist Russia was one of idyllic charm: writing poetry, whilst painting the fine countryside which they were of course not forced to work on, ploughing the fields just for the utter joy of it.

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Wassily Kandinsky 

This narrative does have a problem though of trying to explain why so many artists, many of whom are now seen as giants of the arts, were drawn to the revolution, producing works of brilliance. Especially as we are repeatedly told that Lenin was not that interested in art and that at best, art was “tolerated” by the Bolsheviks.

This is nonsense, as Christine Lindey in Art and the Bolshevik Revolution writes on this site. Anatoliy Lunacharsky for example, was a poet and an art critic and became the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, responsible for education and culture. Leon Trotsky, leader of the Red Army, was so interested in art that not only did he write about it extensively but included artists on the civil war trains. (Which is perhaps why he barely gets a mention, except for appearing on a rather fine cup by Mikhail Adamovich).

Trotsky’s view that “art must make its own way and by its own means” is ignored because it does not fit the view that the Bolsheviks considered art as being purely for propaganda – so Martin Sixsmith tells us on the audio tape. Yes, the very Martin Sixsmith who was Tony Blair’s Director of Communication and who suggested ‘burying bad news’ on September 11th. I wasn’t sure whether the RA was enjoying some ironic humour here. I’m guessing not. The whole tone of the commentary throughout the exhibition programme is simplistic, misleading or simply wrong, viewing the artists as being at best skilled but naive dreamers who eventually see the error of their ways.

The exhibition ends with images of some of the many who died in the purges. The only explanation offered here for their deaths is that it was destined to be like that. Revealingly, there was no equivalent in the first room concerning the slaughter of the First World War, or of the Tsarist pogroms. As a socialist from the Trotskyist tradition, I believe that the Russian Revolution was attacked, isolated, subverted and besieged by Western capitalist powers, with the finest cadre killed in the Civil War, which led to a counter-revolution.

Now, I did not particularly expect that view to be expressed here, but I think it is fair enough to have expected some well-informed commentary and debate, as to what drew so many artists to the cause and what made many grow disillusioned. There should be a more fair-minded presentation of the different accounts of what happened to alter the trajectory of the revolution – and if the RA want to raise the gulags, then the reasons for their appearance should be presented. I was prepared to cut the Royal Academy some slack and not expect a detailed discussion of the workers’ revolution from a socialist perspective – it is after all, the Royal Academy, a bastion of the art establishment - but I did expect a somewhat more sophisticated take on what inspired so many great artists, than the banal line promoted here.


Kazimir Malevich

The sheer exuberance and optimism of people fighting for a new world can be clearly be seen in the art on display, but is ignored by the gallery. Also ignored is the interesting questions of the place of art in a society in crisis, its duty – or otherwise – to play a role in it and how the avant-garde can connect with the masses. Questions which could have easily fallen into the remit of the RA, without the need for the curators to be card-carrying Marxists.

So with all those reservations, is it worth a trip? Yes, the art is magnificent – rich in ideas, vibrancy and beauty. I would give the audio commentary a miss and ignore the curatorship of the exhibition. The art stands out as a beacon of hope, with rooms alive with young artists, giddy with the freedom that October 1917 created. That it was created in a cauldron of revolution is a fact that the RA cannot understand. Like many liberal critics, it can see the greatness of the art but not the politics behind it. In the final room, we are told that Stalin took great interest in literature and art, because it was an area where he could not suppress the ideas contained within. Whatever the Royal Academy might think or attempt, they cannot either.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is on the at the Royal Academy until 17th April

Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:39

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels at the V and A

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett finds an intoxicatingly high level of class struggle in the latest V and A exhibition.

Rock music is ageing and whilst not dead, does appear to be becoming a museum piece with a growing a number of major exhibitions of rock musicians and bands. Elvis, The Stones and Pink Floyd have all recently got the treatment. The Victoria and Albert Museum effectively kicked off the trend with their David Bowie Is exhibition back in 2013. Rock has clearly moved on from ‘hope I die before I get old’ to ‘do I get a discount on museum entry?’ And so in another glorious incongruity, the latest theme is on the relationship of rebellion and music, in the grand setting of the V & A.

V and A count me out

Curated by many of the same team who did the Bowie exhibition, it is similar in set-up. Given head-phones, you move through the rooms with appropriate music providing the aural soundscape. So I walked up the corridor and into the first room with The Who’s Magic Bus in my ears. The exhibition sets out to show how society fundamentally changed in the years 1966 to 1970. It is ambitious in scope, with rooms covering music, politics, fashion, technology, culture and travel. This ambition means that there is much to enjoy. The displays are, as you would expect at the V&A, lovingly set out. You can, amongst other things, marvel at the Sgt. Pepper’s costumes, gaze up at the huge screens showing Hendrix at Woodstock and wonder at how Jagger managed to squeeze into that jumpsuit.

V and A sgt pepper

At the heart of the exhibition is a great room featuring the struggles of the time: Paris, May 1968, the Black Panthers, the LGBT struggle, women’s rights and the anti-Vietnam demos. This genuinely feels powerful and links well with the music of rebellion. Being someone who has lived his adult years experiencing retreats, defeats, and only partial victories, this high level of class struggle is intoxicating in its inspiration.

The exhibition’s ambition though is also a weakness, with some rooms, such as the travel, I felt only awkwardly fitted the theme. Personally, I would have narrowed the focus, so allowing more space for the link of music and rebellion. Because the scope is so wide, things get lost; I did feel that soul and funk were under-represented here, and, surprisingly, Bob Dylan.


The strengths outweigh the weaknesses though. I especially liked how it ends. It easy to feel nostalgia and sentimentalism for rebellion gone by, and then when it comes to the present these same people can lose their enthusiasm. Look at how The Guardian loved this exhibition, whilst regularly attempting to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. To its credit, this exhibition closes with a look at how much the rebellion achieved and the effect it had on our world. But it also has a montage of footage of contemporary campaigns, such as Black Lives Matter. And a question hangs in the air, have we replaced the ‘we’ with the ‘me’?

Of course it is up to us, when we leave this exhibition, to help build the ‘we’ into fighting back; to music and rebellion is alive, they ain’t no mere museum pieces. You say you wanna a revolution – yeah, we do.



You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum till 26 February 2017.

'If we stop fighting, the world will die': a review of Casablanca
Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:14

'If we stop fighting, the world will die': a review of Casablanca

Published in Films

Phil Brett draws some lessons for today's refugee crisis from Casablanca.

Casablanca often features in lists of favourite films, and often receives highbrow scoffing. The novelist and critic Umberto Eco, for example, says of the movie, 'To make a good story, a single archetype is usually good enough. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that. It uses them all.' I want to make the case that Casablanca is not only a good film but one with a strong political element to it which socialists can relate to.

Most people will be aware of the plot. It is December 1941, American Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a nightclub/gambling den in Casablanca, a city controlled by Vichy France, with the head of police being the corrupt Louis Renault (Claude Rains). The clientele is a mixture of Vichy French, locals, Nazis and people desperate to flee war-torn Europe and get to then still-neutral America. Three people arrive to disrupt Blaine’s apparent apathetic life: Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance leader, his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and a man who intends to stop these two fleeing - a German major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt). Whether Lazlo will be able to escape is a central part of the narrative arc, along with the complication that Lund had previously (in pre-invasion Paris) a relationship with Blaine - which man will she choose?

So why is Casablanca so good? Well, the cast is sublime, aprt from the above-named there are actors such as Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. Many of the performances are excellent: Bogart’s nonchalance, Lorre’s slimy petty criminality and Claude Rains amoralism (which steals virtually every scene). The film also drips with classic lines which are among the most quoted (and misquoted) in cinema history.

But I think it resonates with people on other levels too. It's an anti-Nazi film, and one which has the question of refugees at its heart. The opening credits feature a map of the world and a narrator talking about 'imprisoned Europe'. Images of lines of refugees appear the narrator describing the 'tortured roundabout refugee trail', with people anxiously crossing the Mediterranean to safety. The images then would have touched a chord. They do now, the direction it is the opposite, but the desperation of refugees to flee war is the same.




 Later, Greenstreet’s character, when discussing Sam, the café’s piano player, echoes the major theme, telling Rick that people are the key commodity in Casablanca.

This was no accident. The script was adapted from the play Everybody comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, who had written it after a visit in 1938 to Vienna, where he had been appalled by what he had seen of the treatment of Jews. The twins Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch, politicised it further. The Epsteins were Jewish liberals and Howard Koch was a radical who became a victim of the McCarthy 1950s witch-hunts. One example of their alterations, which is symptomatic of the layering of the theme, is the change of the customer who Rick bars from the gambling room. In the play it was an English cad, in the film, a representative of the Deutsche Bank.


Yes, it was made by Hollywood through the studio system, but as Mike Quille writes about The Third Man and Peter Frost about the more overtly political Spartacus, it has always been possible to create interesting movies within the mainstream. Casablanca is a melodrama, and there is much which can be ridiculed: the fact that Laszlo is a refugee on the run, but still sports a wardrobe of sharply pressed linen suits, and after his time in a concentration camp has only a dashing scar on his forehead. However, there is a certain realism to it. The famous scene where the bar stands up and drowns out Germans singing by a rendition of an emotional La Marseillaise, shows the extras crying with the passion of the fight against the Nazis. Many were not acting, because virtually the entire cast were real refugees, including the actor playing the German major, Conrad Veidt, who had fled Berlin because of his anti-Nazi activities. Another German officer in the bar is played by Hans Twardowski, who had fled the Nazis because he was gay. Director Curtiz lost family, murdered in Auschwitz. Many had leftist leaning - Lorre for example was a friend and colleague of Bertolt Brecht. And the list goes on.

If the realism of a film is defined as characters behaving logically within their world, then for the most part, they do. Eco believed the film was a “hotch-potch” of scenes, a result of the well-known story that the three writers were unsure of the ending. It is true, Ingrid Bergman found her role difficult because the uncertainty of who her character would end up with, right up to the filming of it. But I think that adds to the realism of her performance. I think it has a strong unified theme: for example, there is a young couple attempting to flee, and their story runs in parallel to the main story, often pre-empting it. Viewers thus see that this is a story not just of one couple fleeing for their lives, but of many.

As expected in such a film, (it is after all, Hollywood) it does focus on individuals but there is a strong supporting cast of characters with their own stories. The opening scene shows a street (with, for the time, a large number for black actors) bristling with people. The message is clear – the threat of Nazism is world-wide, it is a danger to the collective whole. When Major Strasser says that the Germans will have to acclimatise to varied types of climates – from the arctic to the desert, modern audiences will see it as the Nazis being dastardly. Audiences in 1943 would see it as still quite a distinct possibility.

Written in a period of defeats, (it officially entered the studio system the day after Pearl Harbour), it was early enough to avoid the Bureau of Motion Pictures, America’s heavy hand of censorship and propaganda. The Bureau was too new to enforce its dislike of the use of the La Marseillaise and the criticism of Vichy (who, at the time, the States were cosying up to) within the film. Rick represents the USA, stirring out of its isolation. The audience though is told early on that whilst he is a cynic, he has historically been on the right side - fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and supplying guns to the anti-fascist side in Ethiopia (acts which in real life a few years later would have got him into trouble with Senator McCarthy). But it isn’t just Rick who is the United States, but the café itself. Curtiz makes the café America in microcosm. The music playing, not only the iconic As Time Goes By, is American, playing as a backdrop to a multinational clientele. This is classic American self-mythologizing. But whether intentionally or not, it isn’t all heroic. The roulette wheel represents the dependence on chance which the refugees rely on, but it can also equally act unwittingly as a metaphor for the capitalist system. Supposedly with luck and skill, people can ‘get on’ and ‘win’, but ultimately, the game is rigged.


And whatever the impression which Ricks likes to give, and read that as of America, not everybody is equal. Pianist Sam (played by actor and singer Dooley Wilson) may be portrayed fairly sympathetically for a black character in a nineteen forties movie, but he is still made to be subservient to Rick. At one point Ilsa refers to him as a ‘boy’. Sexual conservatism is also present, with Hollywood rules only allowing the backstory of Rick and Ilsa because she thought Laszlo was dead.

This is not a Marxist film then, but I believe that one of the most important lines is not one of the most celebrated, it is not witty or amusing but it is at the heart of the film. It is spoken by Laszlo, an earnest, sincere and brave character (if somewhat boring): 'If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die'. The enemies here are Nazis, espousing a murderous racial superiority which not only threatens the world but forces it to look to its conscience to decide what its reaction will be.

Umberto Eco says audiences feel a sense of déjà vu when viewing Casablanca. These days, with the far right growing in popularity on the back of anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia, maybe there will be a sense of déjà vu. Watching a time when Europeans were seeking sanctuary in a Muslim country should make people think. Today, there are millions of refugees desperate for safety. They are not fleeing Nazism, but they are fleeing a war, and being met with states closing borders and denying transit. In Casablanca, countries and people have to decide on what action to take: the same is true now. In the film, the choice made is solidarity - that is the 'beautiful friendship. Ilsa and Lazlo get the transit they need; so should today’s refugees.
Thirty Pieces of Silver
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 14:00

'Increasingly more political': the art of Cornelia Parker

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett introduces the art of Cornelia Parker.            

I was only vaguely familiar with the artist Cornelia Parker, when in 1998, Steve, a good friend of mine, suggested that we visit the London Serpentine Gallery for an exhibition of hers. At the time, I wasn’t in a good emotional place, so I might have expected a pub rather than a gallery, but nonetheless I agreed. It was a good choice. What I saw entranced me. I sat on the floor, staring in wonder at Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-1989). The silver plated cutlery had been flattened by a steam roller and hung by wires. They shimmered in the light, floating mid-air, casting shadows on the wooden floor, with the elegance of an Alexander Calder mobile.

My unfamiliarity to Cornelia Parker was due to my lack of knowledge, rather than any obscurity on her part. Rising alongside, but not essentially a part of, the wave of Young British Artists, such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, who gained prominence from the late 1980s, Parker has become a major contemporary British artist. She has benefitted from the explosion in the global art market (which in 2015 was estimated to be worth £63.8 billion). This year, has seen the publication of a monograph (Thames & Hudson) on her, a major installation at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a documentary by the BBC arts programme Imagine and her curatorship of an exhibition at the London Foundling Museum. Her work includes installations, paintings, drawings, photographs, even embroidery.

That she is not as well-known as either Emin or Hirst is perhaps due to the fact that generally she has avoided the jeering of the tabloid media in their self-appointed role of guardians of ‘what is art?’ Not that she has escaped completely. Whilst the new may not shock very often, it can provoke sneering. This, they did to The Maybe (1995) which had actress Tilda Swindon sleeping in a glass box.  Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described common sense as being the ideas of the ruling class; the tabloid media have appointed themselves as defenders of the ‘common sense’ view of what is art. She also received a dismissive reaction from such quarters with her 2003 piece The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached). This was Rodin’s The Kiss, wrapped in string. The concept was to show the “claustrophobia of relationships”, how they can bind and protect, but also constrain and restrain. Such thoughts weren’t accepted by some, with a group of art students cutting off the string. It insulted great art, they said. Missing the irony that Rodin himself had been so accused in his time.

PB distance

The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached). (2003)

Freedom is a theme found often in her work. Generally, she is not regarded as a ‘political artist’ as Mona Hatoum or Jeremy Deller might be. Parker herself has said that she is merely, “a human being trying to negotiate the laws of the land” but that said, she also believes that “being an artist is a political act”.

Looking at how one aspect of her work has evolved is instructive. She is perhaps best known for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) where she got the British Army to blow up a shed full of household objects and then hung them around a lightbulb. The effect of the hanging broken domesticity and their shadows is stunning; questioning the familiar and making them cryptic. Looking at it makes me feel like I am prying into someone’s private world. The art being suspended, allows the viewer more freedom to observe it, from a variety angles; more than you could a painting, where generally, the onlooker is prepositioned.  With this you can circle it. Again, one gets the sense of snooping. This is one of my favourite pieces of art – I find it to be at once, static but also changing, every-day but mysterious. But to be honest, I find it difficult to explain clearly why I like it so much. Perhaps that is because as Marxist art critic, John Berger, wrote, “All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but we cannot altogether understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognise.”

PB cold dark matter

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

In 2004 and Parker used in a similar way, the remains of a church which had been burnt down in a forest fire. Both its title (Heart of Darkness) and its composition, she said, was a deliberate metaphor for the right-wing politics of the USA.

PB next one after cold dark matter

Heart of Darkness (2004)

A year later and she developed the theme in Anti-Mass (2005), with a church, this time not burnt down by nature, but a black congregational church which had been fire-bombed by racist bikers. Assembled as a cube it looks like an abstract painting, yet it stands as a very concrete and physical condemnation of racist violence.

PB Anti mass

Anti-Mass (2005)

Who Parker works with is interesting. Marx wrote that when Milton was writing Paradise Lost he was an unproductive worker; he was just like a silk worm producing silk, but when he had sold it he had become a dealer in a commodity. The position of some of today’s artists (Hirst for example) is further complicated by the fact they employ teams of people to create their art. They are employers.  Art as a money-making commodity can at the very least be a strong counter pole of attraction to producing silk for the sake of it.

Parker does employ others to aid her in her art but they are an important part of their meaning. She chose the British Army to blow up the shed as a challenge to her view of authority, in her words, a touch of “sleeping with the enemy”, and simultaneously questioning who an artist should work with. I also think it is a clever choice – because in modern wars armies don’t just blow up military targets, but civilian ones. The shed represents people’s homes, their lives, their memories.

To celebrate 800 years of the Magna Carta, The British Library asked Parker to create a piece of art. She decided to embroider a Wikipedia entry on the document. She did some of Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015) herself but she also chose 200 other people to help her for different bits. Again, she chose carefully, as well as thirty three prisoners, individuals were asked to embroider particular words, such as Julian Assange (freedom), Doreen Lawrence (justice) and Edward Snowden (liberty) – feeling that by doing it, these people physically creating these words, the art was given more power.

PB wiki embroidery

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015)

In the Imagine, programme she told presenter Alan Yentob that she feels that she is, “increasingly more political as I get older”. This is obvious with Magna Carta (An Embroidery) but also War Room (2015) which she created in the Manchester Whitworth Gallery; a chapel-like room is made out of the red sheets which rememberence poppies are made from. One enters it in a hush, looking at the mass of red, but with the empty holes somehow capturing the lost lives of a futile war.

PB Below are links

War Room (2015)

Possibly, her most explicitly political piece is a video instalation, Chomskian Abstract (2007). This is an interview by Cornelia Parker of Noam Chomsky, the Marxist historian, social critic and activist. Her voice is edited out so you only hear the answers, thus the viewer is free to insert their own questions, as Chomsky silently listens, before you hear his articulate answers. The topics range from power, the environment, foreign policy and capitalism. She was intrgued by Chomsky because of his “clarity, cutting through the McCarthyist fug of Bush’s America”.

The links to the three-part interview are as follows:

The art of Cornelia Parker always interests and often moves me. For me, she fits how John Berger finishes the earlier quote, “Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious.”
Lesley Woods, lead singer for the Au Pairs
Friday, 27 May 2016 11:05

No-one's little girl: gender and guitars in post-punk pop music

Published in Music

Phil Brett riffs on the political meanings of some great post-punk pop groups.

Forty years ago punk exploded into the national conscience, with bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Jam developing a huge following. Much as I love these bands, I want to focus on what followed from that burst of energy, the music which is now called post-punk. Inspired by punk, it was originally lumped in with it, but it was music which drew in a range of influences such as electronic music, reggae, funk, Bowie and jazz. By 1978, musicians wanted to move away from what Andy Gill of the Gang of Four describes as punk, being “slightly faster, slightly worse played heavy metal”. New wave was a term which was also sometimes used, but that conjured up rather insipid radio-friendly versions of punk by session musicians wearing skinny black ties.

Post-punk was I believe, a period of sublime creativity which had the questioning of music and indeed of society at its heart (and often its mind). Much of the mainstream music press has either ignored or downplayed its political aspect. That is a mistake, because not only did the music sometimes contain some pretty unambiguous political views (examples of which will follow), but even when it didn’t, it was indirectly political, similar to the point which Nick Grant makes in his article on Snarky Puppy.

Too often, music history merely looks at individuals as if they live in a social vacuum. In this case pages have been spent debating who was the most important - John Lydon or Malcolm McLaren. Yet, for me that is a secondary issue. More interesting is why, when the biggest audience the Pistols ever played to (as headliners) was 100 people, did they have such an effect? So many people who saw them were inspired to form bands, including some famous names, that in some ways it would be easier to compile a list of individuals who did not form one.

The answer lies in the fact that there was a receptive audience to what the Pistols offered. Late seventies Britain had seen the decline in the militancy of trade unions. Movements such as feminism and anti-racism had made gains but had stalled. The Labour Government of Callaghan had brought in policies which Thatcher gleefully took up. The National Front (NF) was leeching on people’s dissatisfaction and growing in size. Grey Britain was matched by grey plodding rock music. Here then was a milieu which contained elements that would embrace punk and nurture post-punk. A squatting movement had grown up, taking over the empty houses which lay derelict. The hippy 1960s idealism and sense of rebellion lingered, maybe not in its former strident terms, but it was still there. A pub-rock circuit had emerged, desperately trying to provide an alternative to the excesses of Yes et al.

Recently, in a reaction against punk’s emphasis on ‘street cred’, much has been made of the involvement of art school students in punk and post-punk, downplaying the working class. Leaving aside the interesting point as to why punk felt the need to pledge allegiance to ‘the street’, I believe this class denial stems from a snobbish belief that the working class cannot innovate artistically and needs the middle class to do so. The recent obituaries of George Martin, which tried to paint the son of a carpenter and cleaner as some toff who brought culture to four scruffs from Liverpool, and the Lydon/McLaren debate, are examples of this.

But many of the musicians involved in punk and post-punk were working class. Many who listened to it, including myself, were working class. It should be added that art schools at that time allowed access for some of the working class to express creativity, something which present government polices of pricing higher education out of even the lower middle class reach is destroying. Disaffected working class and art school youth wanted something different: the Pistols came along and suggested something.

Punk spat in the face of bourgeois respectability. Why, even the punk dance, the pogo, didn’t have any moves! Just up and down. It was chaos against order. Things moved quickly though. Central to punk’s ethos were two things: the primary one was, to steal a quote from Miles Davis, “Do not fear mistakes – there are none”. This encouraged everyone to form a band, including people who have historically have been excluded from rock – women. The second was the attitude of “questioning everything, challenging everything” (Mark Stewart. The Pop Group). For me, those music critics who like to deny political influence in anything which doesn’t include Marxist theory (which actually, The Pop Group and Gang of Four did try to do in their time!) miss the fun and power of the music. Post-punk, even when singing about map references or love, was made in a spirit of do-it-yourself, of greater inclusiveness and the challenging of the established order, often on independent labels who were fiercely anti-corporate. Not political?

Within the post-punk pot there were people who had explicit links with political organisations, for example, Green Gartside (Scritti Politti) and the parents of Richard Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) were Communist Party members. The Redskins were members of the Socialist Workers Party, and Phil Oakley (Human League) has said that the Sheffield post-punk scene were all ‘Old Labour’. However, like the majority of the population, most did not belong to specific groups, but instead were people who were dissatisfied with late seventies Britain. They may not have had a clear worked-out world view but they had a view that the world was not working out.

This atmosphere of questioning of the norm opened space for creativity. Punk had kicked the door open and post-punk ran in. Siouxsie Sioux has said, “The punk thing was really good for women. It motivated them to pick up a guitar rather than be a chanteuse.” To which should be added the powerful effect of such participation had on women listening to and seeing women make music. The currently much used (and misused) term of empowerment can correctly be applied here. How could it not be, when Poly Styrene opens X Ray Spex’s debut single with, “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think, Oh bondage up yours!”

Poly Styrene: Love Music Hate Racism

However, one should not exaggerate the involvement of women; it remained a male dominated arena although the number of female musicians, whilst still a minority, grew in these years. Those who were involved had to battle the contradictions of the ‘scene’ because whilst all in it felt duty-bound to denounce the conservatism of the music business, many still echoed it, with female musicians facing sexism from other bands, music journalists and television. Also, despite the importance of funk and reggae to it, post-punk was also overwhelmingly white.

Simply by their gender, female musicians challenged the status quo, but it is important not to think that just because bands such as Penetration, Delta 5, Girls at our Best, The Slits, The Raincoats and Essential Logic had female musicians that they were similar in style or attitude. I asked Viv Albertine (guitarist of The Slits) at a book launch for her biography whether there was a feeling of kinship between them and bands such as The Raincoats. Her answer was that they treated them like any band, either dismissing them or seeing them as rivals. She added that only now does she see such a connection. On reflection, it was probably a dumb question, probably due to being star- struck (the Slits being one of my favourite bands). I mean, do male musicians necessarily feel a brotherhood with each other?

But to see it all as purely mere individual rebellion is too simplistic. Many were drawn to collective action, most notably Rock against Racism (RAR), the sister organisation of the Anti-Nazi League. RAR organised scores of gigs across the country against the threat of the NF, with the largest in Victoria Park in 1978. The headline act was The Clash, but frankly X Ray Spex blew them off the stage. I admit to feeling joy at seeing her again at the 2008 anniversary festival at the park, and feeling satisfaction that Poly Styrene was as strong and charismatic as she had been all those years before. (There were other examples of direct links with campaigns, such as The Pistols playing a benefit for striking fireman at the Christmas of 1977 and The Slits, Au Pairs and Pop Group playing the 1980 Beat the Blues festival at Alexandra Palace, north London).

The Slits: Typical Girls 

The Slits probably should be labelled punk, as they were there in the beginning. However, such a label can be misleading. They had always wanted to avoid what they saw as male guitar rock, with Albertine developing a scratchy style which nodded toward funk and reggae, but which created a new and wonderful sound. Ari Up’s whooping singing with its German-accented English mixed with Jamaican patois bounced around Albertine’s guitar, Tessa Pollitt’s bass and Palmolive’s drums. Produced by reggae musician Dennis Bovell, their debut album Cut (1979), stands as a stunning classic, quite unlike the standard riffs which rock recycles. It is fresh, even after forty years. Their songs, like X Ray Spex’s, were a mixture of anti-consumerism and anti-gender stereotyping. Their best known song, the great Typical Girls, is about the latter, listing the clichés associated with women (“Typical girls worry about spots, fat/and natural smells, stinky fake smells”). The song Newtown addresses the young taking drugs to relieve the boredom, including “televisena” and “footballina”.

The Slits moved further into dub and elements of jazz. Free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry joined them, at their personal expense, on one of their last tours alongside reggae ‘toaster’ Prince Hammer with the band deciding to alternate top billing between the three. An apt illustration of their outlook on life: can you imagine Coldplay doing that?

With post-punk wanting to move as far away from the rock canon as possible, the jazz influence grew, with even Miles Davis playing on a Scritti Politti single, Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry for Loverboy). This was especially the case with free jazz. At the final stages of the Slits' life, they were joined by Cherry’s step-daughter (and future 80s pop star) Neneh. She co-founded, with ex-members of The Pop Group, Rip Rig and Panic - itself a name derived from a Roland Kirk album - to a create a glorious and sometimes quite bonkers mix of post-punk, jazz impro and dub, with Don Cherry also appearing on some tracks.

Jazz and post-punk also shared a belief in strong record sleeve design, feeling that it could complement the music within it - see my piece Wearing their Politics on their Sleeves. They inherited this from punk, using artists such as Jamie Reid, who had designed the cover of the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and whose ideas were imbued with Situationism. No doubt, the art school influence also played a part. The second Raincoats album, Odyshape (1981), features the Kazimir Malevich painting Peasant Woman.


The Raincoats were often tagged as a feminist band, co-founder Gina Birch responds by being rather more nuanced, saying that hers and fellow founder Anna de Silva’s, was of an “intuitive” variety which was challenged and strengthened with the arrival of the more explicitly political Vicky Aspinall. Their 1979 eponymous debut album epitomises the stop-start rhythms of post-punk, which sometimes sounds as if it will come to a halt at any moment.

The Raincoats

The Raincoats, photo: Birmingham 81@Birmingham_81

However, it is far from being a shambles, and is an album of pop which is unafraid of being loose and of leaving spaces. Of the many fine tunes, two stand out – Off-Duty Trip, a scathing recount of then current case of a guardsman let off a rape because it would ‘harm’ his career. The other, is a stunning cover of The Kinks' Lola, who "walked like a woman and talked like a man". Sung by the women in The Raincoats the whole nature of the fluidity and social construct of sexuality and gender are explored brilliantly in a catchy pop song.

 Raincoats playing Lola live, with Viv Albertine on backing vocals.

Odyshape moved away from this sound. Using a range of second-hand instruments the band embraced a variety of musical influences as diverse as English folk, world music and our old friend, free jazz. This album and their most accessible release, Moving (1984), combine in a single song elements from around the world, managing to simultaneously float whilst moving in a definite direction. There can be jazz piano alongside Middle Eastern chants and soulful vocals, all at the same time. It sometimes seems as if time and space has been expanded to allow the tunes to breathe. Personally, I think this album is a neglected pop classic. The opening three songs should have been monster chart hits, including the wonderful, No One’s Little Girl:

I’m no one's little girl, oh no, I'm not                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         I'm not gonna be - cause I don't wanna be                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               I never shall be on your family tree.

It’s political! It’s pop!

The Au Pairs

Another album with a striking cover, with music to match, is Playing with a Different Sex (1981) by the Au Pairs, which has an Eve Arnold photograph of Chinese female militia on manoeuvres in Mongolia. This Birmingham band, formed in 1978, produced edgy yet catchy songs with a scratchy, funky edge to them. Songs included brilliantly sarcastic looks at sexual relationships in We’re so Cool and It’s Obvious, and a great cover of David Bowie’s Repetition, dealing with domestic violence. Other topics include Northern Ireland eg Armagh, with its chorus – “we don’t torture, we’re a civilised nation”. This album has well-crafted songs with passion, humour and politics: polemics which are powerful but accessible. Their lead singer, Lesley Woods, their lead singer, has one of the great rock voices.

 The Au Pairs on The Old Grey Whistle Test: Set Up

Perhaps if The Au Pairs had not been political they would have made it big. Or maybe that was denied because Woods was a woman who did not play in the defined roles which the industry demanded. The excellent lecturer and writer, Helen Reddington, has said:

Arguably, if female bands had developed the sort of innovations in music that The Slits and The Raincoats, for instance, made, they would have become household names.

Certainly, a good many of the female (and male) post-punk musicians dropped out of music for many years, some even permanently. Some suffered from mental health issues, perhaps from the pressure and the energy required to swim against the stream. Then again, these were often people who had never intended a career in music, but just needed to create what they wanted - sometimes just one single - and then to stop. Or it might be that by the 80s the music business was taking control: the indie labels were being swallowed up, the rough edges of post-punk were smoothed into new pop, and the rest was discarded.

So what is the relevance of these bands today? Well, firstly of course, there is the fantastic music which they created. If you are unaware of The Slits, Raincoats, Rip, Rig and Panic or The Au Pairs then I suggest you treat yourself. Any list of great albums should include them.

They changed women’s involvement in rock. Viv Albertine in her autobiography says that she had few, if any, women guitarists to emulate. The musicians here - and there were many others - filled that gap and inspired others like the Riot Grrrls to follow in the nineties. Sexist stereotyping of the music industry still exists, and depressingly appears to be going strong, but there are challenges to it. Bands such as Warpaint and The Savages continue the tradition.

Similarly, any list of great political songs should include them alongside the usual entries of sixties protest anthems. They re-energized politics in music, which would continue throughout the eighties and nineties. And whilst bands who are explicitly political are at present rather thin on the ground, benefit concerts for strikes and campaigns are now the norm.

But let me return to the point made at the beginning of this piece. Music, even if not explicitly political, can with its quest to question, challenge and innovate, affect people who listen and enjoy it. For the most part, I have mentioned music which does address political issues but I believe they were able to do so in an atmosphere where such a thing was not seen as odd or unusual. People are drawn into politics by many routes, often by a combination of factors. Art, including music, can be one of them. That was true for me - an important part of my personal political education was as a fifteen year old listening to The Clash, and then having a whole new joyous world opened up by the music from these bands.


Thanks to Birmingham 81@Birmingham_81 for the use of his photos of Lesley Wood and The Raincoats.

Sunday, 06 March 2016 18:17

Wearing their politics on their sleeves: Civil Rights and the art of the jazz album cover

Published in Music

The cultural struggle takes many forms, says Phil Brett, and shows us the aesthetically beautiful and politically challenging art to be found on the sleeves of albums made by black jazz musicians..

A journalist from the New Yorker, who was writing a piece on Duke Ellington, heard a white New York cop say to the great band leader, “If you’d been a white man, Duke, you’d have been a great musician.” Such racism wouldn’t have surprised Ellington because he, like other black musicians, experienced it daily – the segregated travel, clubs, seating and even the toilets. Arbitrary stops on the road and general harassment would have been the norm. Of course as well-known musicians they would have ‘enjoyed’ small level of protection which black non-musicians would not have. For them, assault and murder would have been far from unusual. Perhaps, it shows the level of racism in American society that the cop talking to Ellington, was an enthusiastic fan of his!

It would be wrong, however, to see black jazz musicians merely as passive victims, because in a multitude of ways, they made their voice heard in the struggle. After all, Martin Luther King, addressing the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival said that “jazz speaks for life”. Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, Charlie Parker’s Now’s the Time or John Coltrane’s Alabama certainly spoke up for life - defiantly, angrily and passionately.


But the struggle for a better society can take different forms. The civil rights movement included a cultural struggle, which affected not just the music but what it came packaged in – the album covers. Look at these and what do you see?

s ellalouis AllCDCovers miles davis milestones 2001 retail cd front

Your answer will depend on a whole range of factors. John Berger wrote, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe.” So take the album cover on the left: if you do not know who they are (there is nothing on the front sleeve to identify them) then they are a black woman and black man sitting on chairs smiling at the camera.

However, the chances are that even if you don’t like jazz, you will recognise Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. That in turn will affect how you see it, including feelings towards their music. But put this album in context: it was released in 1956, less than 12 months after Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat for a white man. What might the reaction have been when seeing it on its release? They look like anyone’s relatives. Their humanity shines through. But of course, knowing who they are adds a twist because they possess such fame that their names are not required on the cover to identify them, and the photographer chosen to take the picture was Phil Stern, the lead photographer for Vogue. They have status. It is an image of positive affirmation, something to rejoice in.

Likewise with the other album cover. You might just see a man wearing a rather cool green shirt. It is indeed a fine shirt. But look at Miles Davis (Milestones, 1958) looking at you. In his autobiography, he wrote that whether on stage or on his record covers, he wanted to break from the image of jazz musician grinning purely for the enjoyment of a white audience because he felt it was demeaning – too much of a throwback to minstrels – so he just looks straight at you.

 our music BackatChickenShack

This same focus is true of Ornette Coleman Quartet, on their This is our Music (1961). In the context of a period of history when black people were expected to get off the pavement and walk in the gutter to allow space for a white person, these photographs suggest that these men wouldn’t in a million years consider doing so.
Jimmy Smith on the cover of Back at the Chicken Shack (1963) is also wearing a pretty damn cool shirt, and trousers with a razor sharp crease. You may say, and so what? Photographed by Francis Wolff and with an album design by Reid Miles (one of a series of iconic albums for the Blue Note label) Smith oozes style, wit and sophistication. Yet this was at a time when politicians and the Ku Klux Klan (often being both one and the same) were violently denying that black people could have any such attributes.

The working class have often used clothes as a form of rebellion, for example Teddy Boys, Mods and Punk Rockers. Here they are a contrast with the location. Smith's urban elan is juxtaposed with a chicken coop, with its echoes of the Deep South. The composition though makes it clear that he is no farm slave, not with that style and that look. The shot is taken from slightly below Smith, so he is looking down on us, the viewer. Here is someone who has pride, someone who is his own master. He is in control. So for the black audience, these were images of self-respect, dignity and independence. For the white audience they were a challenge – do you think these people are not your equals?

weinsist Mohawk

However, affirmation and positive images can only go so far. The civil rights movement was also about direct action, with many in the movement demanding a greater militancy. And so does some of the album covers of the period. Max Roach’s 1960 album We Insist recreates a scene at a lunch counter, the focus of that year’s battleground, with the sit-ins in white-only establishments. The title and image are totally unambiguous. Look at the size of the title – in block letters and with an exclamation mark. It's a demand, not a request. The stridency of the cover perfectly matches the mood of the album which was one of the first jazz albums to directly attack racism. Tracks tackled subjects such as slavery, the Sharpeville Massacre, pride in African nationalism and opposition to the racist Jim Crow laws.

A band which was very much involved in the movement was The New York Art Quartet, a free jazz ensemble who would cause some controversy in their brief existence when they included the incendiary black beat poet LeRoi Jones in some of their performances. On their 1965 album Mohawk, Dutch artist Marte Roling’s witty illustration is similarly direct. In it she features a placard reading ‘Freedom now’ in the cut-away brain. Politics, it suggests, was on everyone’s minds.

archieshepp attica blues impulselp MonkUnderground

Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues (1972) is a reference to the Attica prison riots which occurred when the prisoners rose up demanding better conditions, following the shooting of Black Panther George Jackson in San Quentin jail (one track on the album is called Blues for George Jackson). The sleeve shows Archie Shepp working at a piano, his sax slung across it like it was a rifle. He is flanked by books and images of black heroes, including a poster with the iconic image of the African American Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 games, giving the Black Power salute on the medal rostrum. The composition of the photograph evokes militancy: a great cover and a great album.

A trussed up Nazi, hand-grenades on the table and a sub-machine gun slung across his back is not quite the scene you’d usually expect from an album by a jazz pianist. But then, this is Thelonious Monk. His 1968 album sleeve for Underground won a Grammy for its design (photography by Norman Griner and supervised by Columbia Records art director, John Berg) but proved to be controversial with some folks. Maybe it was because this was the same year Martin Luther King was been assassinated, sparking riots across major cities in the States. Although the picture is ostensibly a tableau of the French Resistance, people saw allusions closer to home. It wasn’t a great leap of imagination to see the title as being a reference to the nineteenth century abolitionist network – the Underground Railway. Or conflating the resistance to the Nazis with that of resistance to the racist US state. Or perhaps that at the time of the Black Panthers, a picture of a black man carrying a gun was pretty damn frightening to the establishment.

Nina Simone High Priestess of Soul   MilesDavisBitches

The civil rights campaign spawned a greater interest in black history. The Black Arts Movement promoted African-American art and demanded a higher profile for black artists, authors and musicians and black history in general. High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone’s 1967 album has her as Cleopatra. It, like Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, is an example of how Afro-centrism was influencing 1960s sleeve designs. So whilst fifty years on it may seem a touch cheesy to have Simone as the Egyptian Queen there was however a greater significance beyond wearing fancy dress. (And let’s face it; it is a whole lot less cheesy that the girl from Hampstead, Liz Taylor, who four years earlier had dressed up as Cleopatra). The image here had a clear message – black people, including women, should not be written out of history. Cleopatra, whatever Hollywood might say (and in light of the recent Oscars, it still obviously has issues with race) was a strong black queen, something African-American women could draw strength from.

Both these albums’ designs were overseen by John Berg. The gatefold sleeve has a painting by Abdul Mati Klarwein, with the black African figures in the centre, reflecting the fact that humanity first came from that continent. The double album was one of the first LPs which would be labelled jazz-rock and was a successful attempt to go beyond jazz’s confines and reach the larger rock audience. The artist also provided covers for artists as diverse as Santana and The Last Poets.

Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg in 1932, Klarwein’s mother was an opera singer and his father an architect with the Bauhaus Movement. They fled Germany in 1934 and settled in Palestine. He went on to study with Fernand Leger in Paris and became friendly with Salvador Dali. You can see the surrealism and use of symbolism in his work which derive from these associations. Tellingly, he later added the Muslim name Abdul, which means servant in Arabic, as a statement of his belief that Judaism and Islam needed to understand and respect each other.

OrnetteColemanFreeJazz album mingus ah um

Not everything was figurative though. Elsewhere on this website, Christine Lindey has written how the Russian Revolution gave artists a sense of freedom to explore their art. The civil rights and anti-war movements may have been a less intense class struggle than the Bolshevik Revolution, but they likewise gave space to new artistic and cultural expressions. One grew out of New York, Abstract Expressionism. So it is apt that this 1961 album Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman came in a gatefold sleeve, with a cut-out showing Jackson Pollock’s 1954 drip painting, White Light. Free jazz and modern art – now that’s taking no prisoners! Both art forms were about tearing down conventions and both are here. Berger says of Pollock that his genius was to create a paintings where “continuous surface patterns which are perfectly unified without the use of any obvious motif”. It's a statement which could serve as a good description of Coleman’s music. It gives a sense of freedom in the art, a feeling that Coleman was attempting to achieve with his music, and something which people on the streets, in the schools and in the diners were fighting for.

The sleeve to Mingus Ah Um (1959) is by a Japanese American, Neil Fujita, who was also responsible for another 1950s classic – Dave Brubeck's Time Out. Previous to being a graphic designer he had enlisted in the U.S. Army whilst still having relations in Japan. Which as well as making family gatherings a little tense, might also have given him a sense of being outside the American mainstream. Fujita was also responsible for the paperback cover designs of two books which in different ways would question American values and become immensely popular – Catch 22 and The Godfather.

This marvellous album harks back to the big band sound whilst incorporating the new post-bop. It captures the mood between the certainty of the 1940s and the clear-cut cause of fighting fascism, with the questioning of the 1960s. Who were they fighting now? That sense of in-betweeness is what one gets from looking at the lovely cover, which owes a debt to Miro and Picasso. Look at it at different times and you’ll see something different each time, something which either cannot be articulated or can be so in different ways. Perhaps that grappling for meaning is why Mingus, a highly articulate man, chose an almost nonsensical title. Not that all the album is hidden in codes. There is one track which is very direct – Fables of Faubus. It was written as an explicit protest against Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of nine African-American children into Little Rock Central High School.

There was however a tension in the design for jazz albums which mirrored that of the music itself – what style should they take? A no-nonsense direct approach which confronted the issues head on? But that might alienate audiences, and we should remember that the vast majority of record design teams were white. Or should they play safe with images of the musicians which would make greater commercial sense, and could still make a point with subtlety? The problem was that with the National Guard on the streets, subtlety did not seem an appropriate response. There was nothing subtle about water hoses or police batons. Christine Lindey ends her piece by saying: “the dilemma of creating innovatory art which is accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved”, and this statement is surely true of both album design and jazz music itself.

In jazz music, the cutting edge was seen as free jazz, but as the years rolled on it started to lose its black audience. Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice wrote: “It is the jazz issuing from the friction and harmony of the American Negro with his environment that captured the beat and tempo of our times”. But the fact was that by the mid-sixties many black Americans were moving to a different beat, a soul or funk one. For them the avant-garde of jazz was too abstract, too removed from their daily experiences.

Jazz continues, as does the fight for civil rights, and with the Black Lives Matter campaign for example. As does, even in these digital times, album cover design. However, the albums created by the cross-fertilisation of jazz and civil rights are great examples of music as cultural struggle, with sleeves to match.



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