Monthly Archives: April 2018

Colour enhancement

 

The Sunday Times was the first UK newspaper to produce a colour supplement in 1962, and The Observer followed soon afterwards.

When, some years after that, I started looking at the grown-up newspapers which came into our house each Sunday, those colour magazines were the first part I ventured into. They were welcomingly different from the other larger pages of dense black newsprint.

At that time colour photographs in newspapers came only in these separate glossy supplements. When I think back to them now, it is not so much as a significant technical innovation or because I have strong individual memories, but because in recent years all publishing has become like them.

Colour moved into mainstream sections of newspapers 20 or more years ago. This made the colour magazine undistinctive. Yet today all surviving newspapers seem to still have one.

The regular features of colour supplements in the 1970s and 1980s were the topics which worked particularly well in colour: fashion, food, celebrities, foreign countries – and advertisements. Sometimes the photo-journalism about war and poverty sat incongruously side by side with the advertising pictures of consumption and luxury – as pointed out effectively by John Berger in his famous 1972 TV series on art, Ways of Seeing.

Another popular feature of the colour supplements was visual art, the current gallery and museum exhibitions. An article about the Andrew Wyeth show at the Royal Academy in 1980 provided inspiration for my first ever visit to the cultural life of London that summer. Some articles which I recognised were, amazingly, among the pages which John Berger flipped through randomly in another part of Ways of Seeing. Content and advertisements were often blurred when the latter pastiched the characters or poses of famous individual paintings in their scenes of domestic wealth and comfort.

One of the last examples of magazine coverage of art which I do remember was a Claude Lorraine exhibition in the 1990s which earned a cover entitled “Trouble in Paradise” in The Independent Saturday magazine. That the genre scarcely features nowadays suggests editors have a low opinion of readers’ interests – plus a lack of confidence in their own knowledge and judgement. The current Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate Modern has gained a good deal of media attention – it is easy to imagine how it would have been treated by the colour supplements of previous decades!

The recent tabloid rebranding of The Observer has retained the magazine but it is now almost identical to the review section. Similar type of paper, similar colours. A few regular features stay in one place rather than the other but they share an overall likeness. Profiles of arts practitioners and personal memoirs can feature prominently in either section, and therefore on either cover.

Peter Jackson’s article for In Publishing about The Sunday Times magazine in 2012 suggests that its gradual deterioration was the inevitable result of lowered budgets. He also identifies Andrew Neil’s flamboyant editorship of the paper in the 1980s when it became divided into many short sections of specialised interest, which diluted the impact of the original design, including the colour supplement.

Jackson’s article includes a solution proposed by former editor of The Sunday Times magazine, Robin Morgan: “I’d put all of the sections back in the newspaper and have a 150-page magazine that had a clean sheet to tackle anything it liked.” An idea which is likely to stay only an enticing fantasy in these dying days of newspapers – and as likely as there being less personal memoir and more visual art!

 

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Ritchie Yorke, Van Morrison and the unmade Christmas album

 

In the 1970s, books about pop/rock music were rare, and newspapers and magazines were still the authoritative sources. After all, the landscape changed fast. New bands and artists appeared regularly and some became successful quickly; others changed personnel or broke up equally quickly; some major figures died like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison or became inactive like Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton; most artists still produced an album every year; concerts and tours took place regularly in venues large and small.

Van Morrison was a major artist. His Astral Weeks, although only a few years old, had already been universally and confidently acclaimed to be a classic. The first Morrison albums I myself heard were Veedon Fleece (actually similar in tone to Astral Weeks) and the live It’s Too Late to Stop Now (both loaned by someone or taped for me by someone – it happened endlessly in those days) and then I bought, and loved,  Astral Weeks itself.

By unfortunate coincidence I had become acquainted with Morrison during a period of his inactivity and lack of confidence. It would be another three years before he released a new record.

Also during this time (1976-77), I bought Into the Music, a biography of Morrison by one Ritchie Yorke. The book was informative in many areas but Yorke’s personal critical assessments often seemed too dogmatic and shallow. His opinion was that Astral Weeks was Morrison’s masterpiece, a view already widely shared.  However he would scornfully and dismissively find fault with any other journalist who had found anything of value in Morrison’s subsequent albums, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey.

As I said, the music journalism landscape often changed fast. You might still though have shared my surprise when, a couple of years further on, I saw Ritchie Yorke’s name again, this time as a contributor to Paul Gambaccini’s Critics’ Choice book. Not that Astral Weeks was his choice as the number 2 album of all time, but that his number 1 and number 3 choices were of albums by Supertramp – whom nobody at that time or later ever judged as one of the notable acts in the pop/rock genre! It did make me wonder at the time about the quality of Yorke’s research and writing and the soundness of his judgement. Anyway, my musical tastes soon moved on, Yorke continued to have a substantial media career, and, now, many decades later, I have no taste in traducing a recently deceased person whom I know so little else about.

I do still find it intriguing how pop and rock music, once so defiantly the province of the young, came to become so religiously practised and followed by the middle-aged and the old. It is actually rather nice to see how many of those artistes of our youth, once super-cool and therefore exalted and distant, have mellowed into regular tourers of accessible songs. Morrison, despite not entirely losing his grumpy taciturnity, has released about a dozen albums in the last 20 years and appears to perform frequently.

In Yorke’s book Morrison expressed an interest in some day releasing an album of Christmas songs, of the type that in the 1970s would have been associated with older “easy listening” singers like Perry Como or Frank Sinatra. One possible track he named specifically was “The Christmas Song” aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Such a plan seemed then bizarrely individualistic even for one of rock’s mavericks.

However, as Morrison’s career has stretched and broadened, with his recordings of other people’s jazz and blues songs, collaborations with such as Georgie Fame and Cliff Richard and the Chieftains and Tom Jones, the tendency of other contemporaries to move into such earlier “classic” repertoire, his own knighthood and status as one of the grand old men of pop/rock music, it’s actually rather astonishing that somewhere in the last couple of decades this hasn’t happened!

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