Have you ever wondered what would have happened if your favourite singers and bands had become writers rather than musicians?
At first glance, the idea of a Harley-in-a-hotel-riding-hell-raising rock star even reading a good book, never mind writing one, is a bit like expecting Joey Essex to know what would happen if he put his finger in a plug socket.
You can imagine if we had asked Keith Moon whether he’d ever snuggled up in bed with Anna Karenina, he’d have said “I’m not sure dear boy, is she a redhead?”
And yet, there are quite a few cases where rock stars have proven themselves very entertaining writers, from Ian Hunter’s “Diary of a Rock Star” to Morrissey’s recent autobiography, at least until he gets bogged down score settling in the minutiae of the court case he lost against his former The Smiths band-mates.
This shouldn’t be such a surprise. After all, a good songwriter ought to be able to come up with a neat turn of phrase in any walk of life.
One person who has asked this question is Simon James of Standard Designs. It happens that Simon has an MA in fine art, and he has taken the question one step further by taking an artist’s album and re-imagining it as a set of classic Penguin paperbacks, with each song as a separate book, all arranged in the same order they appear in on the original album.
Here’s an example – this is David Bowie’s “Heroes”:
It’s a great idea, and he has a lovely range of these, so I got in touch with Simon and asked him how it all came about…
“Well, it really was just an idea that popped into my head. I’ve loved & collected old Penguin books for a long time, and I’d used them occasionally in my work ever since I was at art college in the early 1990s. It was when I was looking at a pile of them on my desk one day that I made an analogy – initially – between the spines of the books and the spines of vinyl LPs as they might appear in someone’s record collection.
“I was listening to ‘The Queen Is Dead’ at that particular moment, and Morrissey’s songs, while he was in The Smiths at least, were each like potted versions of Kitchen Sink films & novels (A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner etc.), so much so that – hey presto – each one of the songs might easily have been expanded into a novel. So that’s how I got the idea of a collection of songs being the equivalent of a collection of books.”
What is it that you found interesting at an artistic level?
“Book spines are interesting in and of themselves. You can tell a lot about the life a book’s had from its spine. Where it’s been kept, how much it’s been read. There’s something very human or human-equivalent in that, I think.”
“Then there’s the speculative thing – what if this or that singer, this or that band, had decided to become writers instead of musicians. Obviously there’s a fair bit of crossover, or at least dabbling and equivalences, between the two art forms, and so for me it’s interesting to speculate around what happens with the creative urge, why does it come out in one form as opposed to another with people, and what would it take (a lot? not much?) for it to come out in a different form?”
“Finally, in my work I’ve often put one thing in another thing’s clothes, as it were, to see how it fits, and to better see the strangenesses and interesting points within both of them.”
What can you tell me about the creative process you go through?
“In terms of the actual production, they usually take about a day or so to put together. I do a lot of proofing and tweaking though, so it’s usually another week or two of back and forth between me and the printer before I get exactly what I want.”
“In choosing how to do each one, which books to use, sometimes I take cues from the music itself – my Tom Waits ‘Rain Dogs’ print is appropriately a slightly erratic pile of books. Sometimes I take cues from the original album’s cover artwork – my Radiohead ‘In Rainbows’ and Van Morrison ‘Astral Weeks’ prints are good examples of that approach. And sometimes I just indulge my own tastes and make something quite blank and minimal, like my Kraftwerk ‘Radio-Activity’ print – I love grey! The test is always: would I want this on my wall? If it doesn’t pass that, it doesn’t go out.”
So there you have it. The perfect solution for anyone who wishes to contemplate how the creative urge can manifest itself in different, contrasting forms, or to speculate on how literature’s loss is music’s gain.
It will equally suit those who have a bit of loose plaster that needs covering in their downstairs loo. The contemplation will come later, I’m sure.
So far in the series Simon has covered lots of different artists – The Smiths, Bjork, Pixies, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin – with more being added steadily. You can see them all in Simon’s Etsy shop by clicking on this link
There are several other music-related print series in the shop, including Morrissey’s days as a music hall entertainer: