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16 January 2019

How art schools created British pop music

From Roxy Music to Florence and the Machine, a new book chronicles the long, fertile and symbiotic relationship between pop music and the art schools  

By Stuart Maconie

When John Lennon sat his O-level art exam in 1957 “there was one question which said to draw something to do with ‘travel’. I drew a picture of a hunchback covered in warts. They obviously didn’t dig that.” Unsurprisingly, he failed in every subject, including art, his favourite and best. “There was obviously only thing one for it,” writes Mike Roberts in his new book; “art school.”

This tart, illuminating anecdote sets the tone of appreciative wonder for How Art Made Pop (And Pop Became Art), a detailed, lively survey of the long, fertile and symbiotic relationship between pop music and the art schools, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. As Keith Richards, another art school alumnus, puts it: “In England, if you’re lucky, you get into art school. It’s somewhere they put you if they can’t put you anywhere else.” Richards’s alma mater was Sidcup Art College, which may sound comically unprepossessing but was part of a network of suburban institutions across the country each fostering several generations of talented layabouts destined never to threaten Duchamp, Picasso or Bacon but who certainly gave Lulu and the Bay City Rollers a run for their money.

Richards and Lennon were part of a generation of British musicians who emerged into prominence via the supportive and adventurous milieu – and even benign neglect – of the British art school system. A mere partial list of their number is staggering. The aforementioned Lennon and Richards, Pete Townsend, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ray Davies, Eric Burdon, Roy Wood, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Malcolm McLaren, the Clash, Ian Dury, Adam Ant, Throbbing Gristle, the post-punk Leeds school, the Human League, Jerry Dammers, Soft Cell, Sade, the KLF, PJ Harvey, Blur, Pulp, Franz Ferdinand, the Horrors, Florence and the Machine and so on and so on, all doing their own thing and finding their own voice in tiny flats, squats, lecture halls and studios in Camberwell, Ealing, New Cross, Hornsey, Moseley, Yeovil, Newcastle, Hull, Leeds and Glasgow.

All over Britain, helped by a system of decent grants and cheap student housing, art fed into British pop and made it the envy of the world, commercially and creatively. Gustav Metzger’s theories of auto-destructive art found expression in his Ealing Art College student Pete Townsend’s penchant for smashing guitars. Bryan Ferry had a bona fide hit with “This Is Tomorrow”, a title pinched from his tutor Richard Hamilton’s groundbreaking exhibition of 1956. Roxy Music’s other Brian, Eno, sprinkled the theories of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew into the charts via Bowie and U2. Malcolm McLaren turned a little learning about situationism into the dangerous thing that was punk rock.

In a previous life, author Roberts was Mike Flowers, the ersatz lounge singer whose cover of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” reached number two and enraged Noel Gallagher with its aching irony, and possibly because the gorgeous crooned arrangement pointed up the nonsense of the original lyric. As he might then, Roberts asserts that what the art schools brought to rock, certainly in the 1970s, was a certain ironic detachment: “It was as though they were putting up work in some art school crit.” When Roxy Music play the Old Grey Whistle Test, the “stiffly choreographed” Ferry “stagily gives the camera the eye. Here’s someone not disposed to rock, having to rock and so developing distancing strategies to help alleviate the discomfort.”

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Bowie, rightly, looms large and often from start to finish. His short-lived Beckenham Arts Lab was an early indication of the Brixton boy’s rapacious intellectual hunger. Bowie made the point that while Eno elevated pop to a new plane of ideas, he raided art to “drag it down to street level”. During his Berlin sojourn with Iggy Pop, in retreat from his LA life of debauchery and cocaine, Bowie would spend his days wandering galleries, and the work of Egon Schiele and the Die Brücke group influenced the feel and look of his albums Low and Heroes and Pop’s The Idiot. Essentially, they were keen new students and something of the giddy excitement of the academically blooming fresher informs this period, albeit in an icy Mitteleuropa way.

Sometimes the interconnectivity took strange routes. Roy Wood is now best remembered for what Roberts calls his “comedic razzmatazz” and a string of Spector pastiche hits with Wizzard (most notably, and indeed annually, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day”). In the 1960s though, an expellee from Moseley College of Art, his band the Move were prime pop art pranksters, whose manager Tony Secunda’s wife Chelita edited the innovative and glamorous style magazine Nova and persuaded Marc Bolan to wear glitter on his cheeks.

Roberts takes an international approach and so there’s much on Warhol’s Factory and the New York loft scene and their links with art colleges. We should remember though that Patti Smith couldn’t afford to go to art school and trained as a teacher instead. In Britain, then at least, she’d have got a full grant and a little bedroom in Sidcup or Moseley. For me, because of that, the really interesting material concerns this British experience, with the attendant layers of class, geography and even a little nostalgia for different disappeared Britains.

I’d have liked more on the Leeds Art School scene of the 1970s, which the painter Patrick Heron called “the most important European art school since the Bauhaus” and also set the tone for the whole aesthetic of alternative British pop and rock in the late 1970s: angular, radical, intelligent, feminist, Marxist (see Scritti Politti, Delta 5, the Mekons etc). But this is a terrific book for both the academic and the general pop culture vulture, learned but readable, energetic and smart, making one pine for the days when pop music was not afraid to have ideas above its station, and the state helped it have them. 

Stuart Maconie’s books include “The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records” (Ebury Press)

How Art Made Pop (And Pop Became Art)
Mike Roberts
Tate Publishing, 224pp, £24.99 

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This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain