H.R. Giger changed my life

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I was sad to read of the death, aged 74, of the Swiss surrealist artist Hans Rudolf “H.R.” Giger. Through his groundbreaking, influential designs for the alien and its environments in Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking, influential murder mystery in space Alien – a style that was known as “biomechanical”, a precisely airbrushed cross between the visceral and the metallic – he had more than crossed my radar. Although I was under the age of consent to see Alien on release in 1979, as an avid teen film fan I bridged the gap by requesting The Book Of Alien – a lavishly illustrated making-of by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross – for my birthday in March 1980. Via the portal of this otherwise conventional softback souvenir, I entered the rarefied, graphic world of Giger (the book was full of initial sketches and designs by various artists, but his dominated).

This book, though cherished, did not change my life. But Giger did, in 1987, although I didn’t even know it at the time. I was a student at Chelsea School of Art in 1987, on the cusp of graduation and what I hoped would be some approximation of a “career” as an illustrator or more specifically a cartoonist (my chosen area of expertise in the sense that it chose me: I wasn’t much good at proper drawing). I had been an avid reader of the NME since the year Alien was released, and had keenly rolled with its evolutionary punches as it morphed from the inky rag of the post-punk era to a post-modern media studies pamphlet designed with acres of white space in the early-to-mid 80s. What I didn’t know, as a reader, in 1987, is that the paper was on its knees, commercially speaking. This would have been no concern of mine; as long as my weekly fix of music news, culture and dangerous Marxist politics arrived on a Tuesday, all was well.

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I was the sort of nerdy NME reader who pored obsessively over what I didn’t know at the time was called “the masthead” (ie. the list of staff and freelance writers), and noted any personnel changes with interest. As a student of art and design, I also mapped the visual changes in the NME in relation to whoever was  designing it, and knew that the reigning art editor in 1987, Joe Ewart, had ushered in a starkly dynamic page layout, of which I approved. It was very much in keeping with advances in style magazine design over at The Face and i-D, except printed on shitty newspaper.

In 1988, I was living in a studio flat in South West London and attempting to keep the wolf from the door by taking on soulless freelance illustration work for a modest design agency. It was not “art”, but if I drew enough cartoon cats, cyclists and reindeers in a month for corporate handouts, I could pay the rent. (If you bought the puzzle magazine Puzzled around this time, you will have seen my cartoon owls, polar bears, penguins and other assorted fauna – this was the vertiginous level at which I toiled.) In order to satisfy my creative juices, I decided to produce my own fanzine and write about things that interested me and perhaps sell a few copies, like two new NME writers on the masthead whom I had quickly grown to idolise, Steven Wells (who produced Molotov Comics) and James Brown (Attack On Bzag).

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I did not make my own fanzine, This Is This, in their image; instead, I went for neatly typed columns of copy with – yes – plenty of white space around them. I wrote about Tony Hancock, Stephen King, Gerry Sadowitz and the water metaphors in Lloyd Cole’s lyrics, and drew my own cartoon strips satirising TV-AM, Time Out and Apocalypse Now. I borrowed the photocopier at the design company that employed me and used it to “size up” my illustrations and create a clean page design. Then I paid Kall-Kwik to print me up and staple 100 copies. My aim was to carry them around in an Our Price plastic bag and sell them at gigs. I think I sold around a dozen.

However – and here’s where my life intersects with H.R. Giger’s, without his or my knowledge – I sent a copy of This Is This to James Brown, recently installed Features Editor at the NME, and, I hoped, a kindred spirit. The height of my ambition at this stage was to have my fanzine mentioned in the bitty news section Thrills, which James edited. Maybe I would flog a few copies by mail order. What I wasn’t doing at this point was looking for a job at the NME. The prospect was a fictional one.

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I’m glad that I didn’t know then what I know now about how the office of a weekly music paper works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wasted a stamp. The probability that the brown envelope containing This Is This would have been opened, never mind the contents being read, was close to zero. I could never have imagined how high the teetering pile of envelopes on James Brown’s in-tray was. However, the stars were aligned for me, and he did open my envelope, and he did flick through my fanzine, and he did phone me up.

In the message he left on my answer machine he said he liked the fanzine and wanted to have a chat with me about it. I was cock a hoop, and yet still only dreaming of seeing my fanzine mentioned in the pages of the NME. He invited me up to the offices of the paper in London’s New Oxford Street – which was, for me, like visiting Mecca – and casually mentioned that he might be able to put a bit of writing work my way.

Now, the history books tell us that back the white heat of July 1976, the NME ran a small ad asking for “hip young gunslingers” to write “lively and incisive prose” in an effort to refresh the lifeblood of the paper in the wake of punk rock with a new staff writer. (Actually, the history book – Pat Long’s closest-to-definitive The History Of The NME.) It ended up with two from the 1,200 applications: Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, with Ian Cranna, Paul Morley and Paul DuNoyer taken on as freelancers. No such formal clarion call went out in 1988, but Brown and his successor on the live desk, Helen Mead, were unofficially tasked with trying out some new writers. It was in this spirit of provincial empowerment that I found myself sucked into the wonderful and frightening world of the NME. (Barbara Ellen, Stuart Maconie and Steve Lamacq were among those who also had their professional lives changed in the same period of conscription.)

Though lured into the office with the promise of writing work, a part-time vacancy was going in the NME art room and, technically if not practically qualified, I was introduced by James to editor Alan Lewis and new art editor (previously Joe Ewart’s assistant) Justin Langlands, who seemed to like me – or perhaps just my dungarees and Age Of Chance baseball cap – and took me on. All of sudden, from a standing start, I had landed a two-days-a-week post at my bible, which quickly expanded to three days. When Justin took his first holiday in the August of ’88, I actually became Art Editor for a fortnight; that’s two issues of the paper I’d read and re-read for almost a decade under my aesthetic control (yes, I redesigned all the logos while Justin was away, and Justin reinstated the old ones when he got back).

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From my new vantage point, I set about bothering all the section editors for writing work, and one by one, they caved. My “journey” from layout boy to actual bylined NME writer had begun. The rest is autobiography. But without H.R. Giger, the man whose art had so captivated me in The Book Of Alien, my life might never have wound its rudderless way in this direction, and the NME might have remained a weekly newspaper I pored over and not one I actually tinkered with from the inside. The “media”, as I did not yet refer to it in 1988 – and an industry of which I did not count myself as a member – might have remained over there. I have no idea if I would still be a freelance illustrator, providing print-ready artwork for puzzle books, but it’s conceivable. If not for nine erect penises …

In 1987, when my wildest dreams still revolved around perhaps drawing my own comic strip for a newspaper, the NME I loved was undergoing one of its habitual regime changes. I couldn’t have known how seismic. According to Pat Long’s account, sales had fallen below 100,000 copies for the first time in 31 years. It is sad to say, but choosing Neil Kinnock as its cover star in the week of the General Election – a decision that thrilled me to marrow of my bones as a reader, and cemented all my political ideals – was symbolic of the NME‘s propensity to back a loser. The paper’s owners, IPC, saw that famous cover (“Lovely, lovely, lovely!”) as the shortest suicide note in history. Editor Ian Pye was sacked, and “safe pair of hands” Alan Lewis was parachuted in.

His commercial instinct and desire to drag the NME back to being about – hey – music were seen as anathema to remaining stalwarts like media editor Stuart Cosgrove PhD – a mid-80s appointee of editor Neil Spencer, under whose leadership the paper entered what was, for me, a purple patch of polemic and pretense. It was future Channel 4 Controller of Arts and Entertainment Cosgrove who produced an issue devoted to censorship while Lewis was on holiday in September ’87, which involved the reproduction of a sexually explicit painting by H.R. Giger known as Penis Landscape. It had been given away as a poster by Californian punk activists the Dead Kennedys in 1985 with their Frankenchrist album and landed the band and their lable in legal hot water. It depicted nine erect penises entering nine orifices that could be vaginas or anuses. What could possibly go wrong?

The NME folklore passed down to us was that the printers had refused to  print it and downed tools. According to Long, it was more a case of the colour repro lab complaining about having to print it, but the industrial kerfuffle gave IPC management the excuse to get rid of the staffers it considered “troublemakers”, notably Cosgrove – who I presume considered it a cause worth dying for – and Joe Ewart. “Media” returned to being a token section of the paper with film and book reviews in it, and Ewart’s assistant, Justin, took the art reins. (Having worked under him, I know that Justin was surprised and delighted to get the gig, although the trade-off was allowing Alan into the design room, whose lack of design finesse did not stop him wielding a scalpel and demanding bigger, clearer, more literal layout.)

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Without understanding its significance, with a few months of my arrival in Justin’s art room, the NME moved offices back to IPC’s skyscraping HQ King’s Reach Tower in Waterloo. We were the unruly child, taken in hand and put under the same roof as Mum and Dad. I had no real idea that I was part of a new era, but events have proven that to be the case. Under Alan’s earnestly commercial helm, we started to produce a tighter, brighter, more focused, less discursive and more humorous paper. The circulation went back up. We even managed to cover Acid House within the newly revived, conventional rock format, made easier when, during the Madchester boom, guitar bands took E and picked up samplers, while Lamacq and new lieutenant Simon Williams plugged directly into an energised, corporate-sponsored indie scene. (As Lamacq told Long, “Everyone at that time wanted Danny Kelly’s approval,” and this genuflection to the larger-than-life successor to Alan Lewis generated real heat in the office, regardless of musical affiliation.)

If you’d asked me my preference as a media outsider in 1987, I would have wished for a Labour government and the continuation of the Ewart/Pye/Cosgrove regime. I would have cheered a pullout H.R. Giger anal fantasia every week and stuff those evangelistic reactionaries in the print trade. But it was not to be. There’s only so much sticking it to The Man you can get away with when you’re part of the machine, which the NME always was. (Believe it or not, we never referred to it as a “brand” in the late 80s – that was all to come.)

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So rest in peace, H.R. Giger. You changed my landscape, and very possibly paved the way for Hull indie rockers Kingmaker to breach the Top 20 in 1992.

 

 

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A big boy now

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So, it’s ten years since my biography of Billy Bragg was publlished. I know this because the reason Billy agreed to help me write and research it, thus making Still Suitable For Miners official and authorised, was because, in 1997, he was fast approaching his 40th birthday. This seemed, to him, like a good time to take stock and put his life in order (he was also selling the flat where he kept his archive and putting it all in storage). I’d just left my day job, and was finally in a position, after ten years in offices, to knuckle down and write a book. It all fell into place (and I remain grateful that Billy responded to my well-timed overtures and decided that I was the man for the job, having interviewed him a number of times for the NME and Q). Billy and I spent six months in 1997 travelling around his past and present, from Barking to Oundle to Dublin, and meticulously going through his effects and diaries. He gave generously of his time, as did his partner Juliet, and we came up with what we felt was a definitive book, one that he’d be happy to give to his son Jack when he ready to read it, five years old at the time of publication. Although Billy had no stake in its royalties, he helped promote it, and sold copies of it through his merchandising stall on tour. In all, Still Suitable For Miners was a happy and prosperous experience, and author and subject became friends. Since then, the book’s been republished with a new chapter twice, and thanks to ongoing interest in Billy, it could be the gift that goes on giving. Ten years on, and Billy is about to turn 50. On December 20th.

On Sunday, Juliet had persuaded him to mark this milestone by appearing “in conversation” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. It was a terrific occasion, with Billy actually playing some of the key vinyl records of his early life on an actual record player (Dylan, Clash, Linda Ronstadt, the Watersons, Thin Lizzy), interspersed with warm chat and a few songs on either acoustic or electric guitar, including a couple of new ones from his forthcoming album Mr Love & Justice, a few very familiar (Levi Stubbs’ Tears, New England, There Is Power In A Union) and a real rarity, Riff Raff’s Here Comes The Now, which I’ve certainly never heard him play live before. The hall was full of fans who’d probaby heard most of Billy’s stories before, but it didn’t stop the evening being personal and amusing and profound in its own way, as this man we’d been listening to for 25 years sat in an armchair, grey of hair and reminisced about half a century. What stopped it being mawkish was Billy himself. After the final song, he thanked everybody who continued to support him, and claimed, with lump in throat, that he only keeps going because of the inspiration he gets from his fans.

In order to force Billy to celebrate his own birthday, the inner circle of associates and family were armed with a laminate (see: above) that got us into the party afterwards. This was, in itself, a rare occasion, in a bar buried underneath the Royal Festival Hall. A chance to see old friends, many of them from the 80s. There were two NME editors in the room: Neil Spencer, now a registered astrologer of course, and Conor McNicholas, who was unsurprisingly tired of talking about Morrissey, but in good spirits otherwise. It was great to see Karen Walter, too, who has been the NME‘s “editor’s secretary” (ie. she runs the office) since Danny Baker still worked there and never ages. She remembered Neil Spencer personally sending her home with a copy of Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy by some bloke called Billy Bragg, telling her it was a life-changing record. It was, and for so many people in that bar on Sunday. Peter Jenner, Tiny Fennimore, Dylan Walsh (Billy’s plugger for years, and like so many of those Billy has worked with, a friend of the family now), photographer Steve Double (with whom I did Billy in Amsterdam for the NME in 1992), Jerry Dammers (who told me a tale of bad behaviour by Morrissey at an Artists Against Apartheid gig the Smith played in the mid-80s), Carl Smyth, Ken Livingstone (gig but not party), Riff Raff alumni Wiggy and Ricey, my old colleague Phill Jupitus, who DJed alongside a man I assumed to be a bloke who looked like Paul Weller but who turned out to be … Paul Weller. What a treat. There was even a cake in the shape of Billy’s old Orange amp. It was lovely to see Billy’s mum, Marie, too. I’m not sure she remembered me coming round her house in Barking ten years ago to go through a box of Billy’s childhood memorabilia in her front room, but I remembered her. She’s the only person on earth who still calls him Stephen.

Happy birthday for the 20th, Stephen William Bragg of Barking, Essex.