revolt into style
Though inspired by UK punk, the Bazooka collective's violent, sexy graphics spoke in a French accent
History / Bazooka [EXTRACT]
by Roger Sabin
There is a traditional story of punk graphic design. It begins with 'great men' like Jamie Reid (with the Sex Pistols) and Malcolm Garrett (the Buzzcocks), detours to take in the lesser men who designed for the indie label explosion, and ends up with post-punk, typically symbolised by Peter Saville (New Order, etc.). As a narrative, it's certainly 'designery' and geographically contained (visual anarchy in the UK). The trouble is, it has been re-told so many times, there is a danger of boredom setting in. B-dum, as punks used to say, b-dum...
There are other stories: no less spectacular, but often ignored for understandable reasons, and one such originates in France, and concerns the exploits of a bunch of graphic revolutionnaires calling themselves 'Bazooka' - a mixed-sex collective. They had their own handle on the punk aesthetic, and came up with a look - or rather series of looks - that matched anything by Reid, Garrett et al. in terms of inventiveness and visceral impact.
Their influence spread to the UK and US thanks to a handful of devoted fans. One of these was Andy Johnson (then calling himself 'Andy Dog'), who went on to pioneer a different kind of post-punk design for the Some Bizzare [sic] label - more about him in a moment. What follows, then, is a Gallic-flavoured twist on events, and a belated 'salut!' to some forgotten combatants in the graphic design punk rock wars.
Who were Bazooka? They came together in an art school in Rouen in 1974, coalescing around the splendidly named Kiki and Loulou Picasso (real names: Christian Chapiron and Jean-Louis Dupre). Other collective members comprised Olivia Tele Clavel (aka Olivia Clavel), Bananar (aka Bernard Vidal), Lulu Larsen (aka Philippe Renault), along with invited artists such as Philippe Bailly, Bruno Richard, Jean Rouzeau and Pascal Doury. Art school was the place they came into contact with ideas from both fine art and graphic design - especially Dadaism and neo-Dadaism - but it was also where they learned how to print their own material. Other inspirations included student recreational reading matter such as satirical monthly Hara Kiri and American underground comics. Very quickly they were experimenting as a group with putting out self-published zines, and an us-against-the-world mentality was taking shape. [...]
Punk graphics: French style
(Part 2 of 3)
Andy Dog, real name Andy Johnson, first saw Bazooka's work in 1977. Before that he'd been a safety pins-and-shouting kind of punk, having seen the Pistols at the legendary 100 Club Festival in 1976, and 'the following day cut my hair and consigned my Yes and Pink Floyd albums to the back of the cupboard.' He was also a comics fanatic, and had dabbled in cartooning since he was in his mid-teens, 'circulating my own crude little roneoed efforts'. Now he saw with sudden clarity how his two enthusiasms could be combined: how punk offered a new paradigm for comics - a chance to create an aesthetic that would reflect the subculture in much the same way as Robert Crumb, Rick Griffin and the other masters of the underground had captured and defined the hippie era.
Dog's efforts were faltering at first. 'I consciously tried to make my technique look spiky and aggressive, and enjoyed drawing grimacing, screaming, eye-ball-popping figures contorted by their own pain.' But nobody was taking him seriously. Drawings sent to top punk zine Sniffin' Glue were returned a few months later with 'we don't do art' scrawled across the envelope.
Then, by chance, he saw some work by Bazooka that had been imported to a London comics mart. 'It was amazing - it just made me want to jump up and down!' He time-flashes: 'The art was very busy, and I particularly liked the way it was ironic and kitsch, as well as political and sexual. Here was a bunch of artists, appearing to work on one another's drawings, collaborating more like a music group than as individual illustrators - a perfect visual equivalent of the scene that was going on around me. Above all, it looked completely fresh.'
The Englishman started to absorb the French influence: 'I took elements from all the Bazookas, plus their associate artists - people like Bruno Richard. For a while I experimented with Kiki Picasso style collages, painting over photocopies and photographs. But I was much more interested in drawing, so my freehand style developed quite naturally.' He even went to Paris to meet his heroes, even though he couldn't speak a word of French: 'I remember having a very pleasant time wandering through town with Olivia Clavel, trying to communicate'.
Dog Group circa 1983. Andy Dog on the right.Thereafter, Dog pitched his work with renewed confidence, and it wasn't long before he landed a job cartooning for the Melody Maker. At the same time, he tried to tell the world about his new Bazooka-inspired perspective, by writing letters to zines and the music press in which he campaigned for an artistic progression from the established underground - a 'new wave' in art and comics. Some of the old guard didn't like it. Bryan Talbot, one of the leading UK undergrounders, produced a strip in which Dog was depicted as a complaining infant, with his punk safety pin now used for its proper purpose - to hold up his nappy.
But Dog was... ahem... on a dog trail. Having applied to Camberwell School of Art and Crafts to study Illustration, he joined together with two other students (Ollie Howard and Adrian Bland) to form the Dog Collective - a homage to Bazooka. Here was another anti-auteurist collaboration dedicated to new ways of thinking about graphics, and indeed when the first DOG magazine appeared in 1981, it included overt references to the French group (including a guest appearance by Clavel's TV-faced character). The punk vibe was still there: as the manifesto on page 1 put it, '...love us, loathe us, cut us up, piece us together, pin us to your walls, burn us, colour us, deface us. This is DOG'. Yet in other ways it was a progression into post-punk territory. The oversize format and full-page illustrations had more in common with RAW than a fanzine, and there was a knowing sensibility to the way it dealt with its subject matter, including depictions of London youth tribes and a page devoted to William Burroughs.
The Dog collective didn't outlive Camberwell, but its instigator did attempt to revive the idea thereafter. Having become a regular on the Melody Maker, he was meeting other cartoonists and illustrators working for the rock press, and it was a short step to combining with them in a further Bazooka-esque project. The result was 'The Battle of the Eyes', consisting of Dog, Savage Pencil (Sounds) and Chris Long (NME). Their flagship publication Nyak-Nyak! (1985) was a transgressive mix of comic strips about hot rods and car crashes, and out-wilded anything coming out of the alternative comics scene in Britain or the US. Though much cherished by collectors, both at the time and today, for Dog it was a failure: 'The three of us were pulling in different directions, and as a publication it didn't work so well as the earlier effort.' The vaunted ideal of collaboration was evidently only agreeable insofar as people got along: 'I discovered through the Battle of the Eyes that I wasn't so interested in cartooning any more', he says ruefully, 'and that I wanted to get more into pure illustration.'
Which is exactly where his career went next. The opportunity to do record sleeve art had come about by happy coincidence: brother Matt Johnson was having success with his band The The, then signed to the Some Bizzare [sic] label, and insisted on keeping the graphics in the family. Andy's colourful, fiery art for the 1983 album Soul Mining confirmed him as an artist of real maturity. 'Peter Saville was the big name in sleeve design at the time, but I never had much time for his work - I saw it as sterile and cold. In contrast, I wanted my art to be HOT'. That particular sleeve (depicting a black woman smoking a cigarette) bore an uncanny resemblance to Un regard moderne number 3 from 1978, and in the same way that Bazooka had become stalwarts of the Skydog label, so now Dog became increasingly associated with the visual identity of Some Bizzare. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, his intense gouache-and-ink work for The The and other artists showed that illustration still had a place in the era of abstract minimalism.
Today, Andy Dog is plain old Andy Johnson, and lives as an artist in rural Suffolk. He's long lost touch with the Bazookas, but is genuinely delighted to learn of their ongoing revival: 'I'm so glad they're finally getting the recognition they deserve.' The only thing that bothers him about the 1970s-80s graphic revolution, insofar as he thinks about it at all, is the way it's been re-imagined by successive commentators to privilege the litany of Reid/Garrett/Saville. 'History is always written by the victors', he says, sounding like a punk once more. 'But, believe me, there was MUCH more going on.'
Copyright Roger Sabin/eye magazine © 2006.
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