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M1-31 Ralph Steadman

M1-31 Sweetest Love…

M1-31sm

m1-31

OK, it wasn’t really pouring (poetic license), just drizzling in the gloomy way English rain is prone to do in the Kent countryside where Ralph’s noble mansion is situated. It seems he still lives and works there, judging by the trailer for “For No Good Reason” – the new film about Ralph featuring his pal Johnny Depp.

I can’t remember how I was able to get in contact with Ralph. Even in those primitive pre-internet days it is surprising what one could do and who one could meet if one  put one’s mind to it. I was a bit of a sneaky bugger, offering him a release of his (AFAIK) first-ever music recording, before daring to ask for an album cover too. All for free, due to the total lack of a budget. Ralph, being a gentleman as well as a lovable rebel, accepted my wretched pitch whole-heartedly, with majestic generosity. Well – he did say, “I suppose you want that for free, too?” When I pleaded that I was near-boracic (true) he agreed at once. Yet another fine example of a deeply talented artist rallying to the Miniatures cause, for which I am eternally grateful!

Frankly, I would have been more than delighted with the slightest doodle from Ralph, dashed off in a second on a napkin or beer coaster. Such is the power of his individuality that it is vividly identifiable even in a single stroke of his vicious pen. I’d already had more than one letter from him, often with a little sketch added to his signature:

m1-31steadmansign

Imagine my surprise, then, when he unveiled, on the floor of the grand entrance hall of his mansion, the rich and complex cover you see on the Miniatures album – and in its original form, about three feet square, far bigger than needed. I was so gobsmacked that Iain McNay, Cherry Red Records boss, who had accompanied me on the visit, had to nudge me and say “Well aren’t you going to say something?” I murmured a bumbling but heartfelt appreciation and asked how he had put his meisterwerk together.

It was done on such a large scale because Ralph had decided to kick-start the design by climbing the grand staircase of his imposing entrance hall and dropping the contents of a bottle of blood-red ink onto the paper some 20 feet below. You can’t just sit in front of an easel and meticulously paint explosive energy like that. It was more like the clanging opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” – and I imagine it was quickly followed by a flurry of activity, pens flying through the air, and Ralph rifling through his undoubtedly huge, chaotic archive of newspaper cuttings, old photos, books, newspapers, etc., to come up with the amazing collage on the right, a marvellous visual equivalent of the cornucopia of musical styles to be found on this album (I wonder what you think of that, Peter Blake?).

There’s even a Kurt Schwitters-style dadaist poem in the middle of the collage (and a real Schwitters poem on the album – which Ralph didn’t yet know about – by the great George Melly). I think Ralph may have this written himself (Google didn’t bring up any other source, even though MERZ was a label Kurt often used to categorise his visual works). This is a poem obviously meant to be read out loud, and I mean LOUD:

“…ant a lollypop

t is dead
MERZ
i want a poppylol
art is dead
MERZ
i want a popidoll
art is dead
MERZ
i want a dollypop
art is DEAD
MERZ
i want a dollilol
art is DEAD
MERZ
i want a loll
art is DEAD
MERZ
i
DEAD
MERZ
DEAD
MERZ DADA
DAD AAD DEAD A MERZ
MERZ DA DEAD A DADA
(etc., etc., )
John Sharkey – “

The last few lines have been “crossed out” in bright red ink, a brilliant move, making a connection with the livid red of the huge ear on the left. And the red had to be just right – proofs were sent to Ralph for his approval. (Note – Miniatures will be reissued later this year as an LP, so proofs will be flying Ralph’s way again). And I love the way the horizontal lines on the left place the head in a deep surrealist mindscape, receding into the far distance – like images I had long wondered at in in Dali or Yellow Submarine.

Back to the music… Ralph, as described on the original LP cover, started out by accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, very nicely too, I was impressed to discover. “Sorry the birds are a bit noisy today,” he said after the first run-through. “No problem,” says I, “why don’t we open the window so we can hear them even better?” I thought it might add a nice drop of verité to the recording (you can hear how gung-ho the birds were, in the closing seconds of the song). Ralph at once doffs his guitar, heads to the window (which is probably some hundreds of years old) and opens it, however it doesn’t stay open. The aging sash cord gives way and the heavy wood-framed window crashes down on his finger, almost breaking off a nail. This would, of course, have be a finger on his left hand, which he uses to fret the guitar. If it had been on his right, he could probably have used another finger or thumb and we’d still have guitar on this track.

Off he goes to the bathroom, and returns with a large plaster (band aid) on the injured digit. “Right, let’s have another go,” says he, staunchly. But after getting halfway through the song, the amount of blood on the guitar (and the occasional groan from Ralph) indicates that perhaps it’s time to stop. Spotting a nice antique harmonium in the corner, I offer to accompany him on that. Ralph agrees, and in the interests of the “audio verité” that had already shed blood (red seems to be an ongoing theme in this blog post) we drag the harmonium into the garden and record the song there, under the light but refreshing Maidstone rain. Job done! Iain and I drive back to London delighted with the visit and leave Ralph to nurse his poor fretting finger.

The only time I met Ralph after that was soon after, in a pub in Covent Garden, to finalise the cover and enjoy a beer or three. When we reconnected by email several years ago, his reply started “Morgan, Morgan, Morgan!!!” so I guessed he was in fine fettle as usual, adding fizz to the email similar to the way he used to sign letters with a pen in the days before the internet – with gentlemanly grace, generosity and a wild flair that is unique to this treasure among great British artists. An honour to have worked with you, sir – and THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for this brilliant, classic album cover! It does not belong in the paltry confines of a CD, so I am thrilled about the forthcoming LP re-issue (more on that later).

Many more album covers have been graced with the slashing hand of Ralph. I am delighted that Miniatures has a place in this gallery along with the likes of F.Zappa, L. Driscoll, J. Arlott, The Who and V. Stanshall! Even Slash himself owns a fabulous guitar graced by the slashing hand of Ralph!

Ralph’s musical career has of course blossomed since that early first (AFAIK) attempt. In 1998 EMI Records released an album he called “I Like It” which contains 13 tracks by his favourite artists from Spike Jones to Haydn. A 14th track is himself singing the same song as the above Miniatures track (a full-length re-recording, I am guessing). A 15th and far more feisty track called “Weird and Twisted Nights” he sang and co-wrote with his compadre Hunter S. Thomson – it was later included in the film “Gonzo – the life and work of Hunter S Thompson.” In 2006 he sang the closing song on a fine album of sea shanties (accompanied by Robyn Hitchcock, Kate St. John and Andy Newmark and others – also on the album were the likes of Nick Cave, Bono, Richard Thompson, Bill Frisell, Lou Reed and Van Dyke Parks). If anyone knows of more Ralph recordings, please post a comment! I will detain you no longer, for Ralph has his own lavishly-illustrated biography for you to enjoy online, right ‘ere (even though the Miniatures cover boasts a left ear).

Next up: Sanity, Madness and the Piano…

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