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David Bowie was “facing his own mortality” says Barnbrook

 

The cover of David Bowie’s Blackstar album was designed to reflect the musician’s mortality according to collaborator Jonathan Barnbrook

Source: David Bowie was “facing his own mortality” says Barnbrook

“He always wanted to do something interesting, often to the annoyance of the record company,” Barnbrook said. “He understood the value of the image on a record cover, when other people had forgotten about it.”

The designer added that Bowie was, more than anyone else, the artist responsible for bringing “art-school thinking into the mainstream.”

[…]

“This was a man who was facing his own mortality,” said Barnbrook. “The Blackstar symbol [★], rather than writing ‘Blackstar’, has as a sort of finality, a darkness, a simplicity, which is a representation of the music.”

“It’s subsided a bit now, but a lot of people said it was a bullshit cover when it came out, that it took five minutes to design,” he added. “But I think there is a misunderstanding about the simplicity.”

The use of abstract shapes was developed from Barnbrook’s previous controversial cover for The Next Day album. The design features a white square covering an old photo of Bowie and was influenced by Constructivist art.

The black star graphic also carries deeper meanings, said Barnbrook.

“The idea of mortality is in there, and of course the idea of a black hole sucking in everything, the Big Bang, the start of the universe, if there is an end of the universe,” Barnbrook said. “These are things that relate to mortality.”

For the vinyl edition, the star is cut out from the black sleeve so the record inside is visible.

“The fact that you can see the record as a physical thing that degrades, it gets scratched as soon as it comes into being, that is a comment on mortality too,” said Barnbrook.

[…]

He would look at the stuff, and talk about what he liked and what he didn’t like, not in a rude way, just clear and explaining his reasons why, he was also fulsome in his praise when he liked something. Sometimes he would throw a spanner in the works and ask me suddenly to do something completely different for the project for an hour. That was quite a refreshing way of working and often produced good results as it meant you put aside all of the responsibilities of the project for a moment and could just play.

He was always really respectful about the people who bought his music, so he wanted them to understand the ideas. There was no point in doing something when it was so obscure that people wouldn’t get the reference; it had to relate absolutely to the music.

He understood the value of the image on a record cover, when other people had forgotten about it. We had a renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s of album covers because the format of vinyl, but then it dropped when CDs were introduce. There are still good record/CD covers around, but a lot of time nowadays the cover just had to be “nice”, it wasn’t a thing that provoked discussion, our covers wanted to have that discussion again. Some people hated them, some people really liked them.

[…]

The Next Day was the most divisive one, because we didn’t do quite what people expected, which was a nice new picture of David Bowie on the front. We decided to play with that idea of image expectation.

Some people thought they’d been cheated because it’s a reprint of an old album cover, which is a bit ridiculous, because the cover was in the concept. I think it just puzzled a lot of people too who just “didn’t get it”, which we thought would happen.

However there were a lot of people who also recognised it was a very brave thing to do, something quite new. I dont think anybody other than Bowie would have taken that risk. He was really interested to see how people were reacting to it.

[…]

I’ve always been influenced by Constructivist art, so there was the influence of Kazimir Malevich and John Baldessari on The Next Day cover – the obliteration but also the spiritual, meaningful context of the abstract shapes. That followed through on ★, definitely.

The main thing of course is put over the emotional feeling of the music, that’s what a good record cover does, it lets you know somehow, somewhere within it, what the music is about, or what you believe the music is about is confirmed in it. And there’s not necessarily any logic to that you just have to get somewhere in that area which you have designed, and hopefully it will work.

[…]

He always wanted to do something interesting, often to the annoyance of the record company. Especially with Next Day, they were quite shocked with the cover, and they were pretty sure that it wasn’t going to work. It actually became a very successful viral campaign.

[…]

After all it’s an album called ★, with a cover that has a ★ on it, which doesn’t sound like a leap of imagination. But there was so many tangents we followed, until we realised that it has to cut through the noise of what is going on in the world. We see so many images every single second when we search the internet; it’s a directness that is needed. The simplicity of the design also left it more open.

It also has to appear in many different kinds of media: on a website, on iTunes, in reviews, and in newspapers. These are all practical considerations for it, and as a designer you would always work within for the parameters you have. For instance, it’s not actually written “Blackstar”, it uses a symbol ★, and that symbol goes through different technologies, so it can be used wherever.

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Channel 4 rebrands, with help from Jonathan Glazer and Neville Brody – Creative Review

Source: Channel 4 rebrands, with help from Jonathan Glazer and Neville Brody – Creative Review

 
The new identity comes ten years after Channel 4’s last brand refresh, but while ten years is a long time in media, the broadcaster’s previous look – which included abstract idents where the 4 logo appeared out of landscapes – hadn’t necessarily grown tired and was still much loved by viewers. With this in mind, Chris Bovill and John Allison, head of the channel’s in-house creative agency 4Creative (which is behind the concept for the new identity, alongside creative agency DBLG), describe the challenge of rebranding as “one of the biggest, scariest briefs we’ve ever had”.

Wisely then, when there is so much love for Channel 4’s iconic style, the team decided to keep the classic 4 logo originally designed by Lambie Nairn, though it will no longer appear in its full form on TV. Instead the 4 has been broken down into its constituent parts, which will be used across all of Channel 4’s branding, from on-screen graphics menus, to the new typeface, to the channel’s idents.

“Our starting point was that Channel 4 is so much more than just a number,” says Bovill. “We’ve actually got something to say, we’ve got a remit – to be original, alternative, innovative, to be surprising, to be bold. We stand for this – let’s make the branding reflect that. So instead of just telling people what they’re watching, tell them why they’re watching.

“We went back to the start, we went back to the iconic Lambie-Nairn 4 … and we broke it apart. It was incredibly liberating.”

The new identity needs to work hard for the channel, to be distinctive yet flexible enough to work across all Channel 4’s offerings, from Countdown to Channel 4 News (which will feature a new title sequence based around the blocks, launching tonight). “The broadcast media landscape is a much more complicated place than it was ten years ago,” says Allison, “so there’s a need to stand out more than ever before.

“From the very start, we wanted whatever we did to be real and to be tactile, because if you look at a lot of other branding out there, it’s very shiny and CGI-led. As a channel and a brand, we have a real impact on the world around us, and so we wanted our brand identity to be very real and tactile. The blocks run through all the on-screen identity and into the idents that Jonathan Glazer’s filmed for us.”

Glazer’s idents present the blocks as elemental forms born of nature and found within the earth. His films have a sci-fi, slightly mad feel, depicting the blocks being discovered and their impact on the world. While there is a narrative running through the four films, they are abstract enough to potentially leave viewers, especially those more used to the obvious approach of most TV channel branding, scratching their heads and wondering what on earth is going on. Their subtlety is their charm though, and the decision not to spell everything out is a bold and exciting one, plus intentionally leaves room for the channel to expand on the theme in future films.

“Channel 4 is unique and precious, there’s nothing else quite like it, so the idents have a pressure on them to imbue the blocks with that quality, that they are part of the fabric of everything,” says Allison.

The concept behind the channel’s use of type in the new identity is a little more straightforward, though the blocks remain central to this too. Designed by Neville Brody, there are now two fonts, Chadwick and Horseferry, named after the streets that Channel 4 sits on. Chadwick serves as an information font, while Horseferry is the headline font. “Horseferry is built out of Chadwick and in it you can find all the little blocks. They’re all buried within it,” says Alice Tonge, creative director at 4Creative.

“It’s got loads of character – it’s occasionally spiky, sometimes smooth, sometimes goes against the grain, doesn’t always follow type rules. Full of personality, and only something that Channel 4 could own. That was the big thing – to create something that when you look at it, you know it’s Channel 4.”

The new font will be used on air and across all of the channel’s off-air advertising, where it will appear alongside the new, slimmer 4 logo. “Off air is the only place you’ll see the fully formed 4,” says Tonge. “It’s really different from the current 3D graphic – it’s going back to the original 3D tactile blocks. It’s been on a bit of a diet – adding a bit more space around the blocks draws your attention to the blocks themselves.”

Channel 4’s new identity is unusual, but also coherent and confident. While quirky, it avoids falling into being gimmicky, and it’s easy to imagine the fun the team can have with it going forward. It may be coincidental – the rebrand has been worked on for three years – but its arrival at a time of speculation around whether the channel will be privatised seems apt, for it serves as a reminder of the bold, creative decisions that run through the channel’s history, and, according to Allison, remain central to the organisation today.

“There’s an incredible creative culture here, running right through the building,” he says. “So instantly you’re on the front foot because you’re not thinking ‘oh god, how am going to get this thing through’. You know that it will be received in the most nurturing of environments, even if it’s not right. So that gives you so much confidence at the blank piece of paper stage.

“It’s been an incredible honour to work on such a loved brand, a brand very close to our hearts. Hopefully we haven’t let the viewers down.”

Joy Division – Ceremony (Rehearsal Session in Manchester 1980)

Joy Division – Ceremony (Rehearsal Session in Manchester 1980) – YouTube.

I’ll break them down, no mercy shown

Heaven knows it’s got to be this time

avenues all lined with trees

picture me and then you start watching

watching forever

China Has Overtaken the U.S. as the World’s Largest Economy | Vanity Fair

China Has Overtaken the U.S. as the World’s Largest Economy | Vanity Fair: “”

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When the history of 2014 is written, it will take note of a large fact that has received little attention: 2014 was the last year in which the United States could claim to be the world’s largest economic power. China enters 2015 in the top position, where it will likely remain for a very long time, if not forever. In doing so, it returns to the position it held through most of human history.

[…]

China did not want to stick its head above the parapet—being No. 1 comes with a cost. It means paying more to support international bodies such as the United Nations. It could bring pressure to take an enlightened leadership role on issues such as climate change. It might very well prompt ordinary Chinese to wonder if more of the country’s wealth should be spent on them.

[…]

Tectonic shifts in global economic power have obviously occurred before, and as a result we know something about what happens when they do. Two hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain emerged as the world’s dominant power. Its empire spanned a quarter of the globe. Its currency, the pound sterling, became the global reserve currency—as sound as gold itself. Britain, sometimes working in concert with its allies, imposed its own trade rules. It could discriminate against importation of Indian textiles and force India to buy British cloth. Britain and its allies could also insist that China keep its markets open to opium, and when China, knowing the drug’s devastating effect, tried to close its borders, the allies twice went to war to maintain the free flow of this product.

Britain’s dominance was to last a hundred years and continued even after the U.S. surpassed Britain economically, in the 1870s. There’s always a lag (as there will be with the U.S. and China). The transitional event was World War I, when Britain achieved victory over Germany only with the assistance of the United States. After the war, America was as reluctant to accept its potential new responsibilities as Britain was to voluntarily give up its role. Woodrow Wilson did what he could to construct a postwar world that would make another global conflict less likely, but isolationism at home meant that the U.S. never joined the League of Nations. In the economic sphere, America insisted on going its own way—passing the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and bringing to an end an era that had seen a worldwide boom in trade. Britain maintained its empire, but gradually the pound sterling gave way to the dollar: in the end, economic realities dominate. Many American firms became global enterprises, and American culture was clearly ascendant.

World War II was the next defining event. Devastated by the conflict, Britain would soon lose virtually all of its colonies. This time the U.S. did assume the mantle of leadership. It was central in creating the United Nations and in fashioning the Bretton Woods agreements, which would underlie the new political and economic order. Even so, the record was uneven. Rather than creating a global reserve currency, which would have contributed so much to worldwide economic stability—as John Maynard Keynes had rightly argued—the U.S. put its own short-term self-interest first, foolishly thinking it would gain by having the dollar become the world’s reserve currency. The dollar’s status is a mixed blessing: it enables the U.S. to borrow at a low interest rate, as others demand dollars to put into their reserves, but at the same time the value of the dollar rises (above what it otherwise would have been), creating or exacerbating a trade deficit and weakening the economy.

[…]

America’s real strength lies in its soft power—the example it provides to others and the influence of its ideas, including ideas about economic and political life. The rise of China to No. 1 brings new prominence to that country’s political and economic model—and to its own forms of soft power.

The Technical Constraints That Made Abbey Road So Good – The Atlantic

The Technical Constraints That Made Abbey Road So Good – The Atlantic.

The sanctum sanctorum of Abbey Road is Studio Two, the room where the majority of The Beatles’ recordings were made.

Standing at the threshold of Studio Two, it doesn’t look all that different from a small school gymnasium: a big rectangular box with white walls, 24-foot-high ceilings, and a parquet floor. But as soon as we entered, any thoughts of dribbling basketballs fell away, as I began to remember images of John Lennon and Paul McCartney standing around a microphone at the far end of the room, working out their harmonies.

[…]

When each of the tools in that display was first introduced, many music experts were totally wrong about the impact they would have on creative culture. “Records will kill live music,” they said as the phonograph gained popularity. Tape recording was initially viewed with suspicion by recordists accustomed to using disc-cutting lathes.

As digital technology arrived, many people thought it would surely relegate analog recording equipment to the scrap heap. In what seems like a stunning example of shortsightedness, some of Abbey Road’s most noteworthy gear was sold off in a 1980 sale as “memorabilia” at bargain-basement prices. One example—A 4-track recorder used on “Sgt. Peppers’” went for just $800 (that’s $2,300 in today’s money).

For melodic pop music, Studio Two has physical, tonal qualities which transcend its humble appearance. “It emphasizes the midrange,” Kehew says, ”and has a warm, short reverb unusual for a room its size.” These reverberant qualities are so well known that Abbey Road’s rental contract actually prohibits any sampling of its distinctive acoustic signature. As I stood in the room, I could hear the echoes of the vocals and kick drums on some of my favorite recordings of all time.

[…]

Kehew agrees that every tool can have a place as part of an artistic palate. “Old is not good or bad,” he said. “Question it. Try it. Listen. Buy weird bad gear and great quality gear—see what it does for you. I love Jon Brion’s quote—‘I don’t want to be Lo-Fi or Hi-Fi, I want to be ALL-Fi!’”

Scott touched on this in the lecture too, recounting that this was the approach that caused Beatles producer George Martin to turn down Abbey Road’s first 8-track recorder for use on the White Album. The 4-track recorders used for years by The Beatles had been specially modified to help create some of their signature sounds. Because the new 8-track recorder lacked those modifications, Martin declined to bring it into the session. His thinking, Scott said, was that it would be better for the process to maintain continuity.

In an ironic twist, Scott mentioned that The Beatles themselves had a different idea. They decided to use the 8-track without Martin’s permission, which got Scott and another engineer into a fair amount of trouble. The fact that the device was used to track parts of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” probably helped accelerate the forgiveness. Even though new technologies can kill off old ways of working, it’s ultimately up to humans to decide the hour that they should.

“It was the 60s,” Scott said of the incident. “Rules were meant to be broken.”

At the beginning of the Beatles era, technicians had to complete what amounted to an extended apprenticeship program—and were even required to wear white lab coats (Winston Churchill once quipped that Abbey Road made him feel like he was visiting a hospital). Prospective engineers were brought up through the ranks slowly and instructed on the “rules of the process” at each stage.

But as the 60s went on, culture—specifically counter-culture—began seeping into the studio and changing that dynamic relationship between the engineers and their tools. Over time, the room became filled with incredibly skilled people who were willing to break any rule if it helped their artists create new and interesting sounds.

It was this combination of playfulness, openness to risk-taking, and deep professionalism which enabled Abbey Road’s technicians to respond to seemingly off-the-wall requests from The Beatles. Engineers began to record amps inside cupboards to get unique sounds. The studio’s tape recorders were rewired to automatically double-track performances. The tapes themselves were sped-up, slowed-down, sliced, and looped—to great effect. Even a joke, Scott says, was turned into an engineering puzzle that he had to solve when John Lennon took him up on his “suggestion” to fit the entire band in a small utility closet for the recording of “Yer Blues.”

A sort of positive feedback loop was happening: Culture was driving the development of technologies which, in turn, emboldened that creative culture to go even farther to create new tools and techniques. This embrace of the unorthodox didn’t mean that the Abbey Road staff abandoned everything they had been taught in the “white coat days,” though. In fact, Scott says it was that training which gave engineers the necessary skills to successfully and intelligently break the rules and develop all those new sounds and techniques.

[…]

When you listen to recordings from a generation or two ago, though, you often hear all sorts of rough edges: large dynamic transitions between loud and quiet, the sounds of oversaturated tape and tubes, instruments bleeding together. Chunked notes. Vocals that are out of pitch. Drums that drift in and out of time. Mistakes. Lots of mistakes.

Today’s creative paradox is that this human element, which often makes a song distinct or artistically interesting, is the thing which is almost always erased from modern productions.

“Do mistakes make music better?” I asked Kehew. Not really, he responded. It’s just that, when it comes to what people like about music, there was actually only one thing worse than these imperfections: perfection.

“I’ve done it and seen it many times,” he said. “Take something flawed, work on it ’til every part is ‘improved’ then listen. It’s worse. How could that be? Every piece is now better. But it’s a worse final product.”

This tendency towards incessant improvement has been encouraged by the power of modern tools. These days, sounds are almost always passed through a computer at some point in the recording process. These computers have their own working paradigms—things like cutting-and-pasting, the automated repetition of tasks, and “infinite undo”—which gives them incredible power to alter performances. It also adds more potential for overpolishing and something recording engineers refer to as “option paralysis,” a state where the sheer number of choices available prevents decisions from being made. Almost any element of a recording can be changed, right up until the moment that a song is released to the public.

The limitations of Beatles-era technology were substantial by comparison, and they forced a commitment to creative choices at earlier stages of the recording process. If, for example, an engineer wanted to exceed the number of recorded tracks that their tape machine allowed, two or more tracks had to be mixed together and “bounced” to an open track elsewhere. Cuts were physical, done with razor blades and tape. Mixes were performed by engineers in real time. Big mistakes at any point in the process could force an entire recording to be scrapped.

It was because artists were often stuck with the mistakes they made that they sometimes decided to embrace them. Once while recording a Beatles song called “Glass Onion” Scott accidentally erased a large number of drum parts that had been painstakingly overdubbed. Certain that he’d be fired, he played the tape to John Lennon. To Scott’s surprise, Lennon said that he liked the unexpected effect created by the glitch—and both the track and Scott stayed.

Scott was clear in his opinion: It isn’t so much the use of these new tools as it is their overuse that serves to undermine musicality.

“The trick,” Kehew says, “is a savvy or talented producer or engineer knows when to be bold and stop. To let character and roughness and lack of polish exist. I can bet most people spend more time polishing something than writing or creating the substance of it. The only cure is to work faster, more often, so you don’t treat every damn thing as being so precious that ‘It Must Be Perfect For All Time.’”

I asked Kevin Ryan if he was able to heed Scott’s warning in his own work. He laughed and acknowledged that knowing the risks of overusing digital tools didn’t make it any easier for him to resist that temptation. Kehew’s final word on the subject was, I thought, an especially Beatle-like principle for not overworking something: “Let it be what it was,” he says. “If it’s not that good, you shouldn’t be recording it.”

[…]

Today, Abbey Road straddles a line between modern culture and English Heritage. It has become Pop Music’s Westminster Abbey: partly a tourist attraction, partly a working cathedral where all the traditional rites and rituals are still observed.

Abbey Road is still producing hits though—even as tighter budgets and rising costs have caused many other recording facilities to close. An almost unbelievable number of influential artists and projects have worked (and continue to work) at the studio. Even if you eliminated the entire Beatles oeuvre the list is impressive. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was tracked there. Acts like Kate Bush, Elton John, Oasis, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Green Day, U2, Radiohead, and Kanye West have all recorded there. Countless film scores, too—Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings.