50 Years Of Graphic Design, Album Covers And Music Posters
By Harvey Kubernik
Visual artist and designer, John Van Hamersveld, over the last half century, has been responsible for so many iconic music, art, business, food, surf and pop culture images throughout the last five decades. He ranks as one of America’s leading multi-disciplined graphic artists and illustrators of his era. Best known for his psychedelic patterns and vivacious color schemes.
Van Hamersveld’s art can be found in The Smithsonian Institute, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, Experience Music Project and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
John Van Hamersveld was born at the John Hopkins University Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland in 1941 and immediately raised in the South Bay section of Southern California. He is a graduate of Art Center College Of Design and Chouinard/California Institute of the Arts. Van Hamersveld is a former instructor at California Institute of the Arts.
John Van Hamersveld’s commercial artistic journey began with The Endless Summer poster. What followed was more than 300 album covers, including designs for the Beatles’ American pressing of Magical Mystery Tour, the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St., Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation, Grateful Dead’s Skeletons in the Closet, Blondie’s Eat to the Beat, Hotter Than Hell from KISS, and An American Prayer, poetry from Jim Morrison, music by the Doors.
Van Hamersveld did the artwork for Bob Dylan’s soundtrack LP to the movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band long player. While helming the art department at Capitol Records from 1965-1968, he crafted the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey along with 54 other albums for the label during his tenure at the famed Tower building in Hollywood.
In addition, Van Hamersveld collaborated with illustrator Rick Griffin on the Max Buda and Chris Darrow Eye of the Storm and supplied the design for This Is What You Want from John Lydon’s PIL.
John Van Hamersveld’s landmark 1968 Pinnacle rock concert posters, especially the world famous Jimi Hendrix portrait, created a monumental influence on pop culture artists for generations to come, including Shepard Fairey.
During 2013, in an extension to graphic identity and dazzling homage, Van Hamersveld, as well as over 30 million people worldwide, saw the culmination of his work on a grand scale, 1,500 feet high and 12 million LEDs bright, at the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, Nevada.
His new book, John Van Hamersveld, Coolhous Studio, 50 years of Graphic Design by John Van Hamersveld, was just published by Ginkgo Press in June, 2013. 304 pages. 250 color illustrations. $49.95. Forward is written by Shepard Fairey.
It is both a stunning and inspiring collection of text, assorted photos and illustrations. Music and art fans should celebrate its existence. Van Hamersveld’s West Coast-defined life and visionary process is fully housed and revealed in this gorgeous volume.
During August 26-October 12, 2013, Van Hamersveld’s Drawing Attention” exhibit at Cal State University Northridge will open. Drawings, posters, and a fine art survey of his work from 1968-2012.
Author Harvey Kubernik and John Van Hamersveld collaborated in a series of phone interviews and email communications as well as infor-
mation provided by Van Hamersveld — culled from his self-penned blog along with responses based on his dialogue with Kubernik.
Q: The Endless Summer. We are in the 50th anniversary of your legendary image. What is the genesis behind your creation? Why does the poster and work still resonate in 2013?
A: I grew up in Southern California as a surfer there were three of us and we traveled everywhere to surf and meet other surf gangs in the 50s. It is ironic that the three some become symbolic as image of surfing. What (director and producer) Bruce Brown did to capture that idea and stretch the concept around the world and to make a statement like that is his genius. Playing out in the travel film for tourist with surfboards.
“The poster came from when I an art student in art school, made in the small town of Dana Point. The film and the poster went to New York City and made a killing. It had a reputation with ‘60s pop culture then and today. I as the designer have followed the poster and the distribution of the variations over the decades. I showed it Art Center College of Design where the poster was done in connection with my education there in 1961-1964. The Design Faculty still view it as fresh and new today. The poster is collected by MOMA, in New York City. The poster and the film continue to tell a story about surfing but also symbolically represent surf culture today.
Q: You were a partner in the Pinnacle Rock Concerts held at the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles during 1968. 14 memorable events. Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, the Jeff Beck Group and visiting U.K. bands made their local ballroom debuts. Buffalo Springfield, Grateful Dead and Vanilla Fudge also played at your shows. How did it start?
A: I was visiting my surf/artist friend, Rick Griffin, an underground poster maker, in San Francisco, during March of 1967. I had money from my Capitol Records job to travel and two loft studios with my roommates wanting something to do. I returned, awoke out of a dream, to a vision of the word ‘Pinnacle.’ I later started a production company called ‘Pinnacle Rock Concerts’ with a dba, as my partners Marc Chase, and Sepp Donahower managed the deals and dates.
“As I finished Magical Mystery Tour for the Beatles American album cover package campaign that year I was working on the first, Pinnacle dance concert format for the production company, at the Shrine Exposition Hall. The new poster and the show called Electric Wonders debuted as one of my visions of an art happening, from my work at Chouinard Art Institute/Cal Arts, as a grant project I had developed in art school as a student.
Q: Drawing the Jimi Hendrix Shrine/Pinnacle concert poster. How did it start and explain in detail the construction of this memorable image.
A: Making the classic rock poster: I knew I had to get the drawing done. There were a couple of starts, but on the morning of December 28, 1967, as I sat down at the drawing table inside my second-story Coronado Street Studio, I started a new kind of drawing for the poster. The morning light came in through the large front window of the studio corner, casting the light across the table, spreading over the paper. With my black Pentel pen in hand, I began drawing from the image in my mind the portraiture of the head of Jimi Hendrix with wired hair, styled in his fashionable coiffure from London, like the Cream.
“I put the draw-ing in a drawer for a week to think about it. My partners had booked Jimi Hen-drix and the experience for the Pinnacle event at
the Shrine Auditorium. The drawing was incorporated into the design of a Shrine Exposition Hall event to promote the famous February show. The poster was distributed locally and then nationally, and later worldwide.
Q: You did the Jefferson Airplane Indian Shrine venue concert poster and their Crown of Creation LP cover.
A: The Jefferson Airplane, Pinnacle Indian Poster: 1967 was passing and 1968 loomed. In the New Year I was in the studio looking for an image for the band Jefferson Airplane. As I sat smoking my cigarettes and rolling some joints, I could not think of any one image for them as a band, so I chose to enter from a subliminal level. Their audience was always stoned, so anything I used could be read into as intentional. I decided that I would think of the show as if it were a meeting of the Northern and Southern tribes of the new hippies, and out of the closet came the Indian photo. I puffed and puffed and focused my typography in a myopic process. It eventually emerged like a beaded belt design I saw once at a trading post in the Southwest. You could read it if you were stoned. I left it that way. It was my company, so I could do what I wanted. My partners complained, but the show was a success, they made money, so life went on. And so the 8” x 10” photo of an Indian is launched into the images of eternity. I positioned it in a new way.
“Paul Kantner and Grace Slick were the Jefferson Airplane. One night, they stopped by my house on Kingsley in Los Angeles. My studio was in the attic, where we relaxed on early American wooden chairs. We were together, so we got high. We used the drawing table to roll some of that great Mexican pot into joints. At the time all pot seemed to be great. ‘Man, you gotta check out this great pot.’ We bonded through the ritual ceremony of lighting up and getting high. It was all a part of the cosmic psychedelic mind game. ‘I’m out there in space,’ I told Paul and Grace, who looked at me with knowing smiles. They gave me a lid to keep me going, while I worked on the design for their upcoming album. I placed the memory of this unbelievable evening in my precious suitcase of dreams. The idea of creating this album cover sent me higher into a new orbit of ecstatic possibilities.
“Then came the community idea in August 1967, confusing without narrative, only abstract thoughts. I created the word for my happening ‘Pinnacle’ meaning ‘High Places’ as it came to mind as I awoke one morning. That moment created the Pinnacle posters to promote the large scale shows at the Shrine Exposition Hall. The idea was bigger than the Elks Hall shows organized by Otis and Chouinard Art Schools for the students. The first show in November was great, but lost money. Our group managed to get some money together and book shows into May of 1968.
Q: In October 2012, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was released in expanded DVD format. Can you reflect on the artwork on the American market soundtrack album product you were involved with at Capitol Records?
A: I was recommended by my instructor friend and Ed Ruscha at a lunch one day who suggested I could call Capitol Records and meet a director in Art Services. I was 25 years old and without a job. I had an art school portfolio from Chouinard Art Institute/Cal Arts; there were some Surfer Magazines from the early jobs at Surfer and the new Day-Glo Endless Summer Poster.
“I made the call to the Capitol Art Department and they answered and gave me an appointment. I had used my Chouinard instructor friend’s name as a reference. Later, I went for an interview at Capitol Records and showed the poster to George Osaki of creative services at the Capitol Records building, on the 6th floor in 1967. He recommended me to Brown Meggs who was the vice president of the CRDC, the Capitol Records Distribution Company.
“The first meeting at the circular Capitol Building that looked like a stack of records was with George Osaki’s. I chatted and showed my work of commercial images I had done for other corporations.
“Then the moment came where I had to stand up to show the 40×30 Endless Summer poster in his small executive office. George looked and reached over to his white Italia book case and pulled a 12×12 Endless Summer album cover by World Pacific Records as he showed to me. It was quite a moment where the poster became an album cover. As I left, George said he would call me in three weeks.
“I had rented the Coronado Studio near Otis Art Institute where my girlfriend was a student. George as the director of the Art Services asked me to report to the 8th floor of the Capitol Record building on Vine Street. As I step stepped off the 8th floor from the elevator I then turned left and walk into the office of Brown Meggs.
“He appeared in front of me and addressed me quickly saying. ‘You are going to take this job and you can’t turn the job down.’ I paused for the moment. Here I was in the air-conditioning of the executive offices. It was a new status for me to do work here and get paid.
“We’re in his office face to face, door is closed behind me. Brown tells me of Brian Epstein’s suicide. He managed the Beatles. Brown reaches over to desk for a small EP album cover, and shows the cover to me and says this in the Beatles new album we received from EMI. He says, ‘How can I sell this to the stores? I am the Vice President of the CRDC. What do I do with this?’ John you are my art director!’ We begin to sit down as I am thinking on my feet at this point, he sit down in his chair in the executive small room. He says, ‘The news on this Magical Mystery Tour video movie for the BBC is a flop! What do you think you can do to put this together with the tune titles to sell it to the consumer?’ I say, ‘Okay, I’ll take it home tonight and figure it out!’ So I am sent home to do the work at my studio as a private contractor, separated from Capitol Records staff, or art department where my day job office is. I sit there in my studio the first night wondering how to solve the problem.
“So, from Brown’s point of view, I was to bring the under-ground graphic look to the EP that EMI had provided. The EP was customed and masked faces of the Beatles. The company had made all their sales on the Beatle portraits on the cover of their albums. This time they didn’t have a picture. So I created a graphic style that would com-plement the photograph. I was the graphic designer and made judgment of what would help sell the drama of the package.
“The Magical Mystery Tour video movie on the BBC with magic bus idea was a flop. But the album soundtrack was their product to sell to the consumer packaged in a style to fit the times in the marketplace. On another desk was the Pinnacle poster being made and both were published at the same time for the same market.
“At the Coronado Studio the white walls define the room with two tables to work on. One table has the production work to the first Pinnacle Shrine Exposition Poster to be finished to print in AD Print. I wander around for a few minutes and all of it comes to mind. I am thinking, I will flow the EP photo in the larger 12×12 square. I will get a funky font for the tune titles that is in contrast with EP typography. So I get out a pen from a drawer. Pull out a piece of paper and draw the background of clouds in black and white. I am still up later into the night to finish the drawing. The next day I send the drawing out for a photostat at AD Stat. The stat comes back to the Capitol office. I pick it up and go back to the studio, and on the way across from my studio was the art store, where I buy some ZIPATONE screen in large dots. So with the type and the supplies to walk into the studio to finish the highly political Magical Mystery Tour American cover.
“The single black and white drawing, and the black dots are layers, with the phototype in an arc photographically manipulation of the special optical camera like machine. The position stat of the EP photograph is centered on the production board. This work is called a mechanical as a paste-up on a board. I call out the colors I want in process four-color.
“The magic in this project is understanding the stripping of negatives and exposing them to make a comprehensive color key of the actual production instruction for printing. About 48 hours has passed, as I get ready to present the finished color key for Brown. The delivery to my office at Capitol arrives in a package from AD stat. I pick it up and go to Brown’s office. He greets me kind of sober, as I open the package to show the contents. He’s excited with a big smile and says, ‘You saved it!’
“I call the printer and do not show it to them, just print it, put the vinyl in it and show it to the distribution. I left the office. Later I got my check in my girlfriend’s Honey’s name. Cash it! But I never got a published credit. I was paid by Capitol off their books as a vendor. That was my night job to pay for my Coronado Studio, there where Pinnacle Dance Concerts was created with my psychedelic poster line, distributed by Personality Poster in New York. My Endless Summer poster was hot, and mostly sold out and reordered. After the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was released I left Capitol on a leave of absence. Brown was befuddled that I had other things to do.
Q: The Rolling Stones in 2012 celebrated the 40th anniversary of their masterpiece Exile On Main St. double album. It is now out as an expanded 2-CD set on the UMe label incorporating a bonus disc. You designed the original artwork for the 2 LP package initially released on Rolling Stones Records and distributed via Atlantic Records.
A: Most people don’t understand the politics behind the development of album cover of the past. First of all, the album was like buying a piece of pop culture fashion, constructed by a graphic designer reflecting the music culture. Like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band, or Andy Warhol’s Banana for the Velvet Underground… the cover for Exile on Main St. from the Stones in 1972 really turned heads.
“One day (photographer) Norman Seef and I met the Rolling Stones in Hollywood. A beautiful girlfriend I had met earlier on the scene in London, Chris O’Dell, was now Mick Jagger’s personal assistant. And so in early 1972, the Rolling Stones approached Norman and me to work on the design of a songbook with photographs for Warner Brothers. At this stage, I didn’t know that I would be packaging Exile on Main St. The Stones were in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound studios, finishing the record. Our first meeting was set to be in Bel Air, where they were staying.
“Perhaps the most memorable photograph on the cover is one of a guy holding three balls in his mouth. Marshall Chess, who was then the Stones’ manager, needed an image for billboards and other advertising; I had a great idea. ‘Look-it,’ he said, ‘Why don’t we take the guy with the balls in his mouth. That is the most amazing photograph I’ve ever seen. And doesn’t it look like Charlie?’
“Keith was sitting on the couch across from me. He was looking at me in his mirrored sunglasses while smoking a joint. He looked so healthy, handsome, and rested. Then, to my surprise, Robert Frank (the photographer and film-maker well known for his late 1950s book The Americans, with a foreword by Jack Kerouac) walked into the room with a small Super 8mm Canon camera. Jagger and I smiled. ‘This is a very hip day,’ I said to myself. I knew Robert from a meeting in New York in 1968. I knew of Frank, and said to Jagger, ‘Hey, why not use Frank for the album cover?’
“This then was when the concept was launched in Jagger’s mind. Frank and Jagger had a conversation and later went off to seedy Main Street in L.A. to take photographs of the band, and this was when the Stones in ‘Exile’ and ‘Main Street’ came together as a title.
“At the request of Marshall Chess, Norman and I came to a second day of meetings. We walked through the living room of the villa, down to the far wall in the dining room where Mick and Keith were waiting with Marshall.
“Marshall started the meeting, and Norman handed another album cover by another designer to him. The cover was passed to Jagger for approval. He rejected it. Marshall then handed me a Robert Frank front photo collage. The tattoo-parlor-wall cover image was from Robert’s photo documentary The Americans. Mick, on my right, looked on for both of us to agree, so I nod. This then became the famous photo-composition for the Exile on Main St. album cover. As the meeting progressed, the other pieces of the package were handed to me.
“During the meeting, Marshall asked me what we would do with Norman’s photos, given that Frank’s photos were the agreed-upon ones for the cover. Marshall had Norman’s images from the late-night photo shoot. They were the sequences in which Keith arrived at the very last minute for the shoot. Everyone had been waiting for him to show, and then he arrived with his pants hanging off his butt. With Keith’s arrival, the group was ready to go on with Norman’s session (‘This is a one-time shot!’ someone said). Lights, smoke, and confetti were readied, and a sequence was attempted, but then, by accident, Keith began to fall all over the set, creating a disaster. All else failed, and our budget then had been used up.
“Suddenly Keith said from across the edge of the table, ‘Make some postcards,’ showing us with his hands an accordion-folded-style collection of postcards. He then proceeded to almost lose his balance and fall over onto the rug. I said to Mick, ‘Let’s take that as an idea and do it.’ He agreed and Marshall said, ‘Done.’ Marshall and Jagger handed me a stack of photos made by Frank over the weekend. I left with the visual ingredients to go to my place at the Chapman Park Studio Building.
“The last step of the approval process stopped at Ahmet Ertegun’s office at Atlantic Records. He was the label’s ultimate authority and so when this kind of art and aesthetic made it past his eyes. I knew that all would be okay. In the eyes of the many in the industry, they were all shocked by the ugly, rough, tuff, beat look of the package and that it was not funny or real humorous (to anyone but a Johnny Rotten).
“So, as the result of Jagger and I sitting side by side in 1972 at our meeting, my arrangement of materials that would go beyond Frank’s photo style, creating an identity that would become the basis of the punk fashion movement. To the spectators, critics, and others in the establishment, I had made a package that was not glamorous. It was not a friendly image to put on display in the record stores, but it was that image that established the anti-establishment look of punk.
“The album cover art images from the past, as part of our culture, were styled for fashion and archetype. In 1984, my friend John Lydon said to me, ‘The Stones’ Exile package set the image of punk in 1975 — we used that graphic feel to communicate our message graphically.’
“In the ‘70s, I do feel that 12×12 album covers were an all-inclusive image of cultural style in the visual fashion of the sixties and the seventies. I was, therefore, a well-known designer of cultural images which were created as reflections of that culture. These were then watched closely by other design teams and designers who copied me their pursuit to find new images. Today more than 100,000 artists are using a ‘Ripping and Tearing’ style and graffiti in their work.
“At least Johnny was nice enough to explain what his intention was then…
Q: There was also a huge billboard of your Stones’ Exile on Main St. front cover on Sunset Blvd.
A: One day, Norman and I drove through Hollywood in his dark green ’69 Mustang convertible with the top down. I had a stat of the cover in my hand, and we looked it over as an art piece. I told him I thought if I were to take four of the front cover photos out and paste them in color into the billboard composition, I would have a great design. So I later blew up the photos and pasted them on a board. The next day I had to get the right measurements for the size of the hand-painted outdoor billboards. I went over to Pacific Outdoor to meet a couple of salesmen to show me a diagram of the billboard on the Sunset Strip. I helped them maximize the size. The finished product finally was placed at Sunset and La Cienega, at the top of the hill. I focused the message around the fantasy, sideshow characters in the cover with the guy with eggs in his mouth.
“This became the ‘freaks’ displayed on the Sunset Strip, a prestigious site for the art & rock scene.’ Reviewers said that the cover shot, assorted pictures of circus freaks, is not a collage but a photo Frank took in 1950 of the wall of a tattoo parlor somewhere on Route 66. The comparison to the notorious Stones — jet-setting tax exiles, cocaine-fueled satyrs and perpetual outsiders — is clear. To drive the point home, an identical layout on the back cover featured Frank’s photos of the Stones themselves, shot on LA’s seedy Main Street. The inner sleeves were even more casually slapped together, with titles and credits hand-lettered by Jagger himself. The layout perfectly complements the sprawling, ramshackle sound of Exile itself.
Q: Earlier this decade you were commissioned to create a new Cream poster for their reunion shows in the UK and for the cover of the live DVD taken from the event. In 1968 you originally created a poster for a Cream locally at the Shrine.
A: In my history of new drawings at the Coolhous studio, in Santa Monica, the flow from my pen and ink on paper is a personal adventure. I worked with Eric Clapton’s merchandising manager. Cream wanted me to draw the 1960s Cream portrait from when they were young. I referenced back to my studies from art school, when he had studied the drawings of Hokusai, the Japanese artist who worked in the 17th Century, whose work was described ‘as pictures of the floating world.’ I drew from other master drawers as well to help in the process, one of whom was Audrey Breadsley of the Art Nouveau era.
“The Cream drawing was designed into the poster format and sold out as a limited art Poster edition. My wife Alida and I toured with the poster to 17 Tower Record stores across the U.S. and Canada. On this tour, we met with and sold the poster to a new market of buyers. With the help of Alida’s Post-Future art company, I continued during the most recent seven years to publish posters and fine art prints including the Eric Clapton posters.
Q: You have a book out now and some future titles due.
A: John Van Hamersveld, Coolhous Studio, 50 years of Graphic Design by John Van Hamersveld, published by Ginkgo Press, as a coffee table book. 304 pages, as a full color collage the moments in my career and my travels through the unfolding fragmented world of postmodern history.
In 2013 I have a book, John Van Hamersveld, My Art, My Life, an autobiography, published by Augustine Press, a Philosophy label.
“There will also be John Van Hamersveld, Drawing Attention, published by Cal State University Northridge in 2013. 95 drawings a survey of the hand drawn images of my progress from the Jimi Hendrix head, from 1967 to recent drawing from the 2000s.
“Also scheduled for 2014 is John Van Hamersveld and T.V.LIFE. A book of 150 photos from a collection of black & white images while I traveled the culture of the art & entertainment world from 1965 to 1975 with a Leica M5 Camera.
Q: You have the Drawing Attention 2013 exhibit at Cal State University Northridge
A: The show is mounted around 45 years and 64 drawings from my private collection. The exhibit includes large mural pieces, prints, and illustrations for the media. Over the years I developed commercial drawings and my own drawing done in studio. So the images in the show give a view of the black and white medium I work in and their application to color and printmaking.
“There’s also a portion devoted to graphic design working in the art and entertainment business of album covers and posters during the seven years I taught design students at Cal Arts.
“The company Post-Future is the distributor of my collection. I tour with posters and prints with lectures and meetings with fans, or through the website Post-Future.com
“Today I do my work at the Cool Hous Studio, Santa Monica, California and Post-Future sells my products.”
For info: johnvanhamersveld.com
Los Angeles native Harvey Kubernik has been an active music journalist for 40 years and the author of 5 books, including This Is Rebel Music (2002) and Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music In Film and On Your Screen (2004) published by the University of New Mexico Press.