Author: Unknown (attributed to John Lydon)
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Measurements: 40 cm x 56 cm
I’ve hesitated a lot about which poster should I choose to open this series of articles about my personal collection: the first one I bought, one of the rarest ones, one of the most common ones, one that helps explaining why I find relevant to defend the importance of the large format… And, in the end, I’ve opted for this one because it almost literally defines the format in question.
Apart from this consideration, it’s one of my favourite posters and also I have to acknowledge that I have a special penchant for posters with the word “poster” written on them. And lastly, it seems to me that the context for the article’s appearance (a web site wishing to look into the essence and practice of public communication) is the ideal one for this particular poster.
In February, 1986, John Lydon had just turned 30 and published his sixth LP with Public Image Ltd., the band he created after leaving the Sex Pistols eight years earlier and whose name he borrowed from Muriel Spark’s novel of the same title.
The Public Image, Muriel Spark. English first edition, MacMillan, 1968.
The record, entitled Album in its vinyl format and Cassette in its tape one, redefined the initial PIL project by using star musicians as guest appearances in order to try and get a sound closer to 80s rock super productions. A commercial, as well as self-destructive, step to willingly cause controversy.
Maybe the most memorable thing about the whole launch was its concept. The idea of naming the album just Album, the cassette, Cassette, and from then on anything to do with the record with the eponymous word defining it (including the single Single, the VHS Videos and promotional products such as Mug, Badge or Keyring), on the one hand linked it to conceptual artists such as John Baldessari, On Kawara or Joseph Kosuth, who constantly played with words as definitions, descriptions and even affirmations of the artistic objects.
Art, Edward Ruscha, 1970. Acrylic on canvas.
But, on the other and much more prosaic hand, Album took inspiration in the emerging supermarket generic brands, the no-label packages with which some chain stores tried to respond to the increasing demand of cheaper standard products coming from a consumer class impoverished by the economic crisis of the beginning of the 80s.
This packet of
in the same way in
which the Album
(grocery store scene)
a movie by Alex Cox, 1984.
Leaving aside the absurd polemic over the originality of the idea (its concept owes quite a lot to the promotion of John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges album from twelve years back), it exists almost no information about the origin of this proposal. I’ve been unable to find any reference to how and why the concept emerged in any of the many interviews Lydon gave upon the launch of the album. But it seems evident that Lydon was particularly inspired by the generic brand of North-American chain store Ralphs, with its white background and light blue ribbon at the bottom of the packaging, but substituted the serif font with an even more neutral Helvetica typeface.
It’s quite probable he got the whole idea by watching the film Repo Man, since during the recording of Album its director Alex Cox and John Lydon met several times to talk about the possible involvement of the latter in a biopic about Sid Vicious that Cox was working on. In Repo Man, the main character works at a supermarket chain inspired by Ralphs in which there can only be found white and blue generic products.
Lydon, whose career up to then had been accompanied by some of the most iconic artworks in popular music, from Jamie Reid’s covers for the Pistols albums, to Dennis Morris’ Metal Box, wanted this time to strip all the packaging from any evident personality traits and instead offer something that, through its impersonal anti-design, was a new way of illustrating the rebellious nature of his music and of questioning the aesthetic dependency of the musical industry. It was, of course, an ingenious double-entendre by which through the negation of the artwork he was at the same time turning the idea of the format upside down in the same way the Beatles had done with their White Album in 1968.
Poster is nothing more than the translation of the same idea to the promotional poster typically conceived to be stuck on the walls of record stores. But, instead of the usual promotional poster with nothing more than a blown up image of the cover or a picture of the artist, Poster is an autonomous object with the same strength and weight as the cover of Album, the record it promotes.
What I personally like about Poster is the value granted to it by the mere fact of providing a definition of it. Blowing up the word “poster” and printing it on a poster could be a stupid nonsense, but in this case it doesn’t work exactly as does generic packaging describing its contents.
The packet of cigarettes contains cigarettes, in the same way in which the Album sleeve contains an album. But Poster is a poster, and on its own surface, stripped from any other message, it seems to vindicate its own nature. I’m here to announce something, even if it’s just to announce myself. And it’s in the subtext (the logo and name of the band, as a kind of signature almost) where you have to immerse yourself to look for my own meaning.