Always outnumbered. Generally overdresssed.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Brother Stevie: dirty 30

Perennial illustrator for this blog, and artistical genius Brother Stevie makes it to the big three-oh today. I suggest you go and have a look at his new Tumblr blog and commission him to do a series of family portraits, particularly if you're a billionaire oligarch werewolf. (Readership is up amongst billionaire oligarch werewolves, sitemeter says so ok?)

Happy Birthday Brother.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Show your working

I had an English teacher who used to say fascinating things to us. One of them was:

All novels are about writing novels.

What I think he may have meant was that writing a book is such a long, absorbing job that whatever else you set out to write about you end up writing about the process itself. The good thing is that the process of writing a book, which necessitates continual application, introspection, creativity alloyed with just the right amount of self-criticism, is something like a metaphor for life. So if novelists know anything at all about life, it's because they've spent all this time trying to do a very hard thing, for an imaginary reward that they either can't hope to achieve or, if they can, can't enjoy, and maybe learned something in the process. 

Process though, is often interesting, often makes a good story.

(Nice turn from Andy Serkis there).

And if you think about the great American TV of recent years it's often as much about process, as result. The innovation of The Sopranos was to show the mafia boss in his dressing gown eating Parma ham straight from the fridge - it's just the Godfather, but with less left out. Shows like 30 Rock, The Wire and Madmen all work on a similar principle - they are all making-of dramas concerned with TV comedy, the drug trade and advertising respectively. That's why when you watch a DVD box set (and couples my age who are sick talking to one another don't do anything else) and reach the end of it, the feeling is not one of satisfaction, but disappointment. People still watch things with their teleological heads on, but they've stopped being interested in the ends of things. It's the process they want to see.

The modern experience of working as a tiny part of a much larger system, and being made aware of that system by the media, means that the goals that we work towards are likely to feel less dramatic. Especially in the context of global news and the knowledge that everyone is up to more or less the same thing. Ends don't feel special or significant any more. 

This is just one of the reasons that video games are a better entertainment fit for modern life. They are designed to prevent you from getting to the end. Like the impossibly apostrophised  Demon's Souls, which, well, you may as well write a novel as try and finish that game.

In other news, I saw Mick Jones on Friday night outside Hix on Brewer Street. Long term readers will know that Mick Jones tends to pop up at crucial moments in my life, looking terrible. I somehow didn't have my wits about me enough to take his picture, but I did say hello. I then spent the rest of the evening regretting not having photographed Mick Jones on my mobile so I could post it on my blog. A modern neurosis if ever there was one.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Judging book covers

I had imagined taking a couple of weeks off after the end of my MA and just reading and blogging and playing video games but it doesn't seem to have worked out quite like that. This is one of about eight posts that I've been planning but somehow haven't got round to writing. I might dribble them out over the next few weeks because I anticipate that I'm going to be rather busy


So I wrote this very long essay about Kingsley Amis for my MA, and one of the the byproducts of it was that I ended up doing a sort of impromptu study of the covers of Amis's novels. I got all the criticism up from the stack of the British Library but I'd buy random editions of the novels from second hand shops for £2 each so I could dog-ear the pages and come back and note them later. Most secondhand and charity bookshops have a whole Amis section, with Martin featuring as much, if not more than, his father. Make of that what you will.

Book covers are very like what we do. Whenever we make an advert we are asking the consumer to ignore the old axiom and judge a book by its cover. In fact an ad bears even less relation to a product than a book does to its cover because it doesn't even have the benefit of physical proximity to the object it describes. An ad makes up for it though, because it can contain pictures of what it's describing, where as a cover although attached to the book actually describes something much less concrete - the contents of the book, rather than the object of which it is also a part.


KA had a very long writing career, spanning around four decades, and his reputation evolved as he went on, from Angry Young Man, to sexy young author, to establishment figure, to reactionary outsider. But, for complex reasons (which, if you're interested, I can send you a 15,000 word essay about), Amis's subject matter changed very little. So what we have is a fairly consistent product that is differently perceived by each successive era.

Something like a very well known brand that has a series of different agencies work on it.

Obviously there are a few obvious reactions to the brief. Since they're largely concerned with the relationships between men and women, really, almost all Amis covers could be like this:

Personally I don't like these covers much because I don't want to be told what Patrick Standish or Jenny Bunn look like - I think that's something I do on my own with Kingsley Amis, and I don't appreciate having to share that experience with a illustrator who's probably only skim-read the novel. Both of these are rather craven portrayals of the character, Stanley with a little moustache, Patrick blonde and balding at the temples. They don't tell me what's interesting about these books, what makes them different, in fact all they tell me is what's inside the book, which is redundant, given that it's inside the book. The Difficulties cover is a 1989 number, the Stanley cover is the Vintage 2008 reissue. Difficulties is set in the 60s and Stanley in the 80s, but you wouldn't know it would you? The primary fidelity of these covers is to the aesthetic sensibilities of the time in which they were produced. 

This cover on the left is just straightforwardly misleading. This edition is from, who would have thought it, 1970. Amis writes about sex but never describes it, never really describes bodies, male or female, but does occasionally mention breasts. There is sex in this book, but perhaps not as much or of the kind that you might hope for had you only seen the cover. The problem is that the cover art is based on a perception of what the audience wants - the art director lost track of the truth of the novel in the pursuit of his audience.


The best covers are not those that try to represent the characters, but those that represent the themes:
The Old Devils and Jake's Thing are concerned with the end of a life spent drinking and an Oxford don's struggle with impotence respectively. Both of these are visual gags of a very high order indeed - not only is that good in itself, but their comedy, in turn, describes the humour and intelligence of the books. By hanging on to the essence of the books they avoid the pitfalls of pandering to the audience. They also avoid merely repeating information that is already in the books (by showing characters and situations etc.) and instead offer something that's more like a new interpretation of the same central idea. This, I believe, is what bastards mean by 'adding value'. 

But obviously this too can go too far, the cover that really makes me laugh is the new Penguin 50s 2010 edition of Lucky Jim. Imagine being the client on this one:

'Yeah so hi Peter Blake, love the cover and everything, but is there any chance we could have the title just a bit bigger? Because at the moment it looks like the title of this million selling book that everyone knows the name of, and is on reading lists all over the world, is England's Glory - which, yes, would be a great title for a book obviously - but isn't actually ... yes I have heard of the Sergeant Pepper's album ...'

I reckon the good ones will age best. I wrote a thing for the Tattooed Lady Magazine recently about the History of Advertising Trust and how adverts are totally contemporary and therefore totally disposable - but isn't it almost always true that the best ones aren't? And therefore doesn't it follow that the that best ones are tied to the truth rather than to the time.

I've got another post about book covers - but I think I'll save it...


Friday, September 10, 2010

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

It's a horrifying terrifying event

Just got home from being sworn at by Doug Stanhope at the Leicester Square Theatre - he's on for another four nights and there seemed to be some returns on the door. You need to go and see him because there's a chance he may commit suicide on stage, which I've never heard of anyone doing before, but if anyone were going to, it would be him.

I mean, anyone apart from Jesus.

PS: I'm in the process of tinkering with the design of the blog - you may also notice some Google Adwords giving you links here. Willful perversity is the only explanation I can offer you.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Renaissance Renaissance

Happened to be watching the Box the other day and saw this video.

And what it made me think was that music videos have entered this new phase where they're no longer trying to ring the cherries of the lowest common denominator. They're actually starting to look more and more like serious, ironic, or genuinely beautiful art. And this has happened very quickly indeed, compare and contrast this Hype Williams 1999 classic:

The message of the Big Pimpin' video is roughly, 'we're so rich we've got a huge white boat and crates of Dom Peringnon and whole squadrons of women who don't find being sprayed with champagne demeaning, in fact they rather like it actually.' The message of the Kayne West videos is, approximately, 'I'm so rich I can pay real artists to make my videos'.

This is what brands are doing when they employ skilled advertisers - the whole selling shit schtick is just a ruse to justify it to the accounts department. Really it's the geeks getting to tell the art kids what to do.

But then the hugely rich have traditionally been prepared to pay for art, designed for the masses, as a demonstration of their power. Because talent the one thing they can't buy and it makes them furious. Like the Medicis all over again.

Which is not to take anything away from Kayne, if he's reading this, which I'm sure he is.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Nice copy for a TV ad

What does it take to turn you on?

The 90s were a joke decade. Seems to me there was at least a kind of earnestness in the posing and materialism of the 80s but the 90s had this overlay of irony that was really insincerity contrived to hide a lack of feeling or ideas. Suede, Oasis, Blur - terrible bands the lot of them. His 'n' Hers and Odelay were probably the only good albums to come out of the whole sorry period.

But I digress.

When I did the D&AD workshops some years ago we went to see Dave Trott. He kept us in there from 6.30 till 11.00pm and was brutally nasty about all the work we'd done. He was spot on about most of it, and he did manage to tell me some useful things about myself, for which I still haven't totally forgiven him. One of the interesting things he said was 'You have to learn what turns you on.' Apparently, what turns Dave on, he told us, is fear. Not necessarily whimpering from the basement type fear (I wouldn't rule it out though), but the fear that you're not going to crack the brief and everything you've ever believed about yourself will be shown to be a lie.

Certain copywriters, those who write particularly chippy lines like, for instance, 'We took their land, their women and their buffalos. Then we went back for their shoes.' or 'A table for two? Certainly you old trout.' or 'You're never going to be able to retire, so why should your shoes.' seem to get turned on by anger. Anger is a great creative emotion because when you get angry you're reaching out to the world around you - toward the thing that makes you angry - and that makes you feel present in the world. It fills the, hem, ontological vacuum. Think about those scenes in The Thick of It where Malcolm Tucker is about to lose control completely and then re-composes himself using an angry tirade.

There's a nice bit in Mad Men where Draper's bohemian mistress, Midge, talks about 'the ego that people pay to see'. This is another thing that makes great copywriters - the need to be loved and liked by everyone. You can see why a brand would want to buy that off you, and turn it to its own purposes. These copywriters are phallic narcissicists, specialists in verbal constructions woven with the desire to be liked and loved.

And this is why advertising is so wonderful, because these people, who would otherwise be dangerous sociopaths get to have their neuroses turned inside out for the benefit of light industry.

Anyway, if you hunted around you could probably find more than three typologies, but today I'm a bit busy, my column for The Crypto Fascist Chronicle is late (sorry Mark, end of the day?), and I have an MA dissertation to tidy up.

So I ask you, what does it tike to tyurn yoo oooooooon?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Yeah, yeah I know

Ben already posted it on his blog but I wanted to say something about it and I didn't want to colonise his comment section with it and get flamed as a massive pseud as you will see.

I like this advert a lot - but does it strike anyone else that the moment that Jack Black says 'I'm not your puppet!' constitutes a mind-bending nexus of irony?

Because obviously, Jack Black is acting not as himself, but as a version of Jack Black, the actor who doesn't want to appear in an advert for Orange. Orange are behaving, not as themselves, but as though they are the kind of brand that wants to aggressively manipulate Jack Black into acting as their shill. So both Black and Orange are engaged in a double-bluff where they know that we know that they're not these things (i.e. Black as shill, Orange as manipulator). But the point at which it gets absurd and mind-bending is that Orange and Black really are all of the things they're claiming not to be. When Black is made to dance, he really is being made to dance. Orange are forcing him to dance, for money, to sell their product.

This is interesting to me, not just as a kind of conceptual calisthenics, but because working all this out makes no difference whatever. In fact, if you uttered this aloud in a client meeting someone would almost certainly punch in the side of the head before you got to the end of the word 'nexus'.

Sometimes you can forget that it's two thousand and fucking ten and that our audience has one of the sharpest sensibilities in history.

Nearly finished the essay, but thanks for asking. Anyone going to enter this long copy contest?