By Colleen Watson O’Reilly
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2011
Vancouver has a rich history as a rock and roll city, and few have a better appreciation for that history than Rob Frith. Besides owning Neptoon Records—the oldest independent record store in Vancouver—and a record label by the same name, which has released new music as well as compilation albums of the best of Vancouver rock, Frith owns one of the most extensive collections of music posters and handbills in Canada. The collection includes thousands of posters dating from the 1950s to today, from all over the world. He also holds the rights to all poster images commissioned for shows at the Retinal Circus, the venue at the centre of Vancouver psychedelic rock in the 1960s. Frith purchased those rights from the club’s legendary promoter, Roger Schiffer. He regularly attends poster conventions in the U.S. and works closely with many contemporary poster artists to sell their work. As well, he has also donated posters to the Museum of Vancouver and other archives.
Frith began collecting posters at a young age, an urge that grew naturally from his love of music and interest in art. In the late 1960s his father, who was a builder, took him to a house that was about to be torn down. There, Frith came upon psychedelic rock and roll posters left behind by draft dodgers who had come up from San Francisco. He also took posters from walls and telephone poles. Not many people did this at the time—concert posters were thought of solely as advertising rather than decorative or collectible objects—but their groundbreaking style and wild, arresting imagery would soon cause this to change.
The phenomenon of rock poster art made its way to Vancouver by way of 1960s San Francisco—the hub of beatnik, hippie and psychedelic culture. Times were quickly changing, and openness, emotion and originality took precedence over traditional values and social structures. As music and performance styles changed, imagery changed with it. Artists were influenced by the free flowing, organic forms of Art Nouveau and the imaginative, distorted imagery of surrealism rather than the straightforward, classic fonts and graphics popular on concert posters for blues and folk artists of previous decades. Artists ignored the rules of design they had learned in school, and the text itself became part of the image, filled with bright, vibrant colour. The art seemed to reflect the adventurous spirit of the time, not to mention an interest in altered mental states. Clarity of text and basic event information on posters came second to visually striking colour and form.
“I guess it evolved just like the music did,” says Frith, “people were inquisitive about everything… they wanted to experiment.” Bob Masse was one of Vancouver’s most famous poster artists and designed posters for nearly every major rock band. Along with other artists of his generation, he visited San Francisco in the 60s and was profoundly influenced by this new style, and by the constantly changing outdoor art gallery of the city’s Haight-Ashbury district. This style was well received in Vancouver, where similar cultural and political changes were taking place.
In that vibrant period, when a large population of young people was coming of age in a world that was changing by the minute, the poster, a universally recognizable commercial tool and, historically, a platform of the people, became another tool with which to express the spirit of the time. Poster design quickly solidified into an art form in its own right. The impact of posters was augmented when promoters at concert halls such as the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco began to give away posters to concert goers at the end of shows, and people began to keep and value them as memorabilia. From the perspective of the makers, it was a convergence of promotion for the band, the venue, and the artist. From the perspective of young music fans, posters were visually appealing, free, portable, ‘autograph-able,’ and a way to express both musical tastes and political leanings. Rock music and the imagery associated with it were artistic expressions of rebellion against the status quo, traditional values and parents’ tastes.
Vancouver’s poster scene flourished in the 1960s, with artists like Masse, Steve Seymour and Eric Fisher, all famous for their psychedelic style and for their promotion of classic Vancouver bands including My Indole Ring, Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck, Papa Bear’s Medicine Show, and The Painted Ship, as well as international legends The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and the Velvet Underground.
The late '60s remain one of the most significant periods for poster collectors today. As Frith says, “it was that golden age, that special time period from ’65 to ‘68. If you look at the [music] charts, at the Top 30 [from that time], every song is considered a classic now.” Collectors are often of the baby boomer generation, “people who were affected at that time period, whose whole outlook on life probably changed because of the music and the art.”
Frith started actively collecting both records and posters from this period in the 1970s, by which time poster design culture had peaked, perhaps as a result of rising printing costs and a shrinking music industry, or a falling interest in live concert venues, psychedelic music and jam bands. The disco era had no corresponding poster style and corporate, mass marketing strategies were more common. However, poster design as an artistic activity stuck, as did the market for collectors. More recently, the decline in record sales brought on by the advent of online music buying has caused bands to re-think marketing and look for additional means to increase revenues. As a result, posters are again popular as band merchandise. New, cost-efficient printing techniques also make posters an attractive option.
Many bands since the 1960s have commissioned one-of-a-kind posters, and there is a particular poster culture associated with the rise of Punk music. The Simon Fraser University Library has compiled an archive of Vancouver Punk music posters, which includes some 300 examples from Frith’s collection. He has an interest in all kinds of posters and has always had an eye for their potential value as collectibles. Recognizing the now iconic Frank Kozic-designed Soundgarden/PearlJam Houston 1992 concert poster at a show in San Francisco organized by Wes Wilson (the artist famous for creating the classic “melting” psychedelic font), Frith bought up a stock from Kozik’s manager for $7.50 a piece and sold them at his store for $15. A poster from that original run would now fetch somewhere around $1,000.
While today’s cities are often covered in posters for parties, DJs, and the occasional live music event, high-quality gig posters designed by dedicated artists for specific shows and bands have become almost exclusively something special to sell to fans for collecting, decorating, and expressing their own interests and passions. As in the past, posters are also a way for a band to define its image and convey its artistic vision. In essence, posters have lost their original commercial function and become an aesthetic, symbolic object of intrinsic or decorative value, a transformation that has not happened with many other commercial objects in North American history.
The practice of decorating with posters is again commonplace, especially amongst young people and university students, and has led to the rise of companies that specialize in poster reproductions of all kinds such as AllPosters and Imaginus. Posters of musicians are very popular, especially those of stars from the classic rock era.
As historical artifacts and contemporary decorative objects, posters represent the crossover between music and the graphic arts, and between the commercial and the artistic. They demonstrate how visual culture is formed through powerful social forces and our very human desire to commemorate and memorialize ephemeral experiences. They are also, especially in the case of Vancouver, a fascinating way to learn about and appreciate the cultural significance of the city’s unique musical past.
Colleen Watson O’Reilly is a writer and curator based in Toronto.