Saturday, 16 June 2012

Punk rock, Manchester illustration and Nihilism

There are a lot of anniversaries in the UK this year, most significant for me being the 30th year since my first professional illustration job. The commission for Fatbag in 1982 was an important threshold on a journey that had begun years before. Recent programmes on BBC TV and radio celebrating punk and it's legacy have brought back a lot of memories of that time.

First let me say I was never truely a punk, the revolution was arguably already over by the time I cottoned onto it all in 1978. Although the Sex Pistols played a secret gig in Walsall as the Spots, just a few miles from my house, I was blissfully unaware, and wouldn't have been able to go anyway even if I'd heard of the Pistols, which I hadn't. I glided gormlessly through '76 and '77 more interested in folklore than phlem, my badge of honour was a sketchbook, not safety pins. When the Pistols were in the headlines I was 16, a quiet mouse in suburban Sutton Coldfield, with dreams of following in the footsteps of Golden Age illustrators of 100 years before. No interest in the hippy/heavy metal bars in Birmingham (unlike brother and sister), I spent my spare time miniature wargaming and drawing.

Leaving home for the illustration course at Manchester Polytechnic jolted me out of this cosy world and plunged into the dynamic Manchester music scene. Thanks to compatriots on the course I was quickly introduced to the delights of the Russell Club in the grim no man's land of Hulme and Factory Records first major venue in Manchester. One of the first gigs I remember seeing there were the Rezillos, shortly after that the Buzzcocks headlined, supported by The Fall and John Cooper Clarke, after which there was no looking back. I was lucky enough to see nearly every notable band of the era, some of them in their earliest gigs.

The illustration course at Manchester was a curious experience. 11 students, all of widely differing styles and interests, meandered through experiments and projects overseen by tutors under the overall leadership of Tony Ross, but we were never really taught a great deal. It was an oasis from the urban world around us where we could nurture our craft, but to me the energy of Manchester at that time was in music, John Peel became more important than anything within the walls of the Poly. I saw as many gigs as I could afford on my meagre budget, while in the studio my sense of direction and enthusiasm for illustration became sapped as I was told to forget about the long-dead artists that inspired me, "nobody works like that anymore, those kind of conditions don't exist today". It was a hard learning curve, though necessary. As I fumbled through graphic experiments looking for new inspiration I began questioning whether I really wanted to be an artist or join a band. I bought my first guitar for £45 on Oxford Road, a cheap but functional Gibson Les Paul copy. By the end of the course in 1981 I almost felt had a stronger bond to music than I did to illustration.
Members of the illustration course 1978-1981. Jean Yarwood, Lorraine Formstone, Heather Farr, John Goodwin, myself, Bob Wood, Tammy Wong, Lynn Wakefield.

Three years studying illustration at Manchester Poly were a very powerful experience, I treasure every moment of it. I found my voice, I came out of my shell, and it sparked an attitude of cavalier optimism (some would say stupidity), a disregard for disaster, a determination to give things a go. Nomatter how much or how little support the course tutors were, it was largely the Manchester music scene, my mates (Bob, John and Andy) and experiences outside the course that really made the biggest difference.

The infamous Sans Culottes
I even created a band, dubbed the Sans Culottes after the French Revolutionary mobs, had some totally spurious gig reviews printed in the Poly newsletter, and sent them off to the national press with photos. John Peel mentioned them on his radio programme, looking forward to our upcoming record release. They were interviewed for a fanzine.

But there was no record, no gigs, in fact no band.

My sense of direction may have meandered, especially in the final year, but there was always a purpose to it all, the energy was there, it just needed some serious focus.

On the last day of the course, 27th July 1981, in a gesture indicative of the time (or my state of mind perhaps) I gathered all my student artwork and threw the lot out of the 6th Floor window, to be scattered like confetti over the streets of Manchester.

the first pile...

...and more...

....cast to the wind....


I considered burning it, but casting it all to the skies seemed somehow more apt.  I kept my degree show work and a few other things I really liked, but not much else. The rest littered the roofs of the Poly buildings below,  a final statement of nihilistic tomfoolery before leaving the city and starting a new chapter with fresh vision and new work to take on the world. As the words of the song go, "Rip it up and start again". I wasn't a punk, nor ever fulfilled my band ambitions. But that gesture came close to the mark.

3 comments:

June said...

What a small group on your course John! There were 35 or so of us on my Illustration and Design course, and it was difficult to get a tutor's attention at times.

I love the Uni card with your photo... how handsome is that young man! I look a fright on my old college pics.

John Shelley said...

35 students on your course? wow that's a lot! We didn't get much attention either though, Tony Ross spend a large part of his time working on his own pictures in the staff room, or long lunchtimes playing pool in the local pub. The other tutors were absent for much of the day.
Handsome? Ha! I wish someone had told me that at the time!

Catriona said...

The Rezillos! Happy memories. And what's not to like about a song called 'My Baby Does Good Sculptures'...