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June 27 2012

Artoon of the week: Yoko Ono

Cartoonist Peter Duggan imagines what might have been had Yoko Ono got her artistic way on the album cover for the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band





June 11 2012

Long-forgotten photos of the Beatles resurface

Croydon schoolboy's pictures show the Beatles in the days before they achieved stardom

In one of the images a young George Harrison seems to be staring into the camera as he glances across the stage, while John Lennon and Paul McCartney look out at the audience where young women sit peacefully in the front row.

In another the fab four sit bunched together backstage, kitted out in familiar Chelsea boots, skinny ties and collarless jackets of the band's early-60s incarnation.

The photographs, taken during and after an appearance by the band in Croydon on 25 April 1963, are part of a previously unpublished collection of pictures of the Beatles in the days just before their fame tipped over into true stardom.

They were taken by Andy Wright, then a 15-year-old schoolboy keen on pursuing a career in photography.

His father worked as a steward at Croydon's Fairfield Halls and he got the manager's permission to let his son wander around the newly-built venue, with a camera.

"I only had 12 pictures on my roll of film," said Wright, who only recently remembered he had taken the shots. "Film was expensive back then.

"The picture of all four of them backstage was taken with the last shot I had. They were very nice to me but they were a bit shattered after the concert.

"I went home on the bus, developed the pictures and proudly took them into the school the next day. I still have the Rollei camera I took those pictures with."

The event in Croydon came barely a month after the release of the band's first album, Please Please Me.

The band gave two performances (5.30pm and 8pm) as part of the Mersey Beat Showcase mini-tour featuring acts from their manager Brian Epstein's stable.


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June 08 2012

Yoko Ono profile: from John Lennon to a Wish Tree

An artist for the age of Occupy is given a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London

The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her "the world's most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does".

As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.

Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.

Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an "obsessed fan".

This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. "As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallising. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy."

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organised the 2001 exhibition at New York's Japan Society. She says Ono's importance is only just being fully appreciated "after 40 years of her being dismissed – either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist". She adds: "What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist – and married to John Lennon."

The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono's originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognised.

"She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s."

Ono's energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.

She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital's fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.

After the war Ono completed her education, becoming the first woman accepted to read philosophy at Gakushuin University. The family moved to New York, where she studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and, in 1956, she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. By this time Ono was discovering a downtown scene of musicians, composers and artists, with John Cage and La Monte Young key figures.

After the collapse of her relationship with Ichiyanagi she married the American producer and art promoter Anthony Cox, and they had a daughter, Kyoko.

By the early 1960s Ono was working on the periphery of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus group, organising performances and happenings in her Chambers Street loft in Tribeca.

A key work was her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964, which has artworks framed as sets of instructions, or "event scores"; as such it is an important early example of conceptual art. (One example, entitled Painting to Exist Only When It's Copied Or Photographed, runs: "Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.")

Another significant work of this period was Cut Piece, a performance work in which Ono invited the audience to take scissors and snip away her clothes as she sat, silent and still. The critic Michael Bracewell notes: "It is amazing how well that piece has lasted. When you see film of the piece done originally, she seems so vulnerable as a young woman, especially a young Asian woman. There are extraordinary undertones – submissiveness, the idea of the geisha. Enacted, it becomes incredibly tense."

Bracewell saw the piece when it was re-done in Paris in 2003. "The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills, a couple of rows full of gilded young people, and absolutely no security. There she was, this elegant woman in her 70s and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors."

For Munroe, Cut Piece was "absolutely revolutionary. "The idea that the artist's body in time and space is itself a work of art was totally radical."

In 1966 Ono held a show at the Indica Gallery, London. John Dunbar was the gallery's director. "I introduced John and Yoko," he recalls. "I was a friend of John and Paul, and suggested they come in; I thought John would enjoy it. Yoko had never heard of John. I had to explain that he was a rich person who might buy something … It wasn't immediately clear that anything was going to happen. She is a strong woman. John had never met anyone like her."

After two years they got together. But the corollary was that Cox, after a custody battle for Kyoko that Ono won, effectively kidnapped the child, and Ono did not see her at all between the ages of eight and 31.

Ono's union with Lennon of course represents the pivotal moment in her life. According to Bracewell an immediate effect was her artistic influence on Lennon – which also served to damage her, since she was "regarded as the demon face of the avant-garde and, particularly in Britain, what she did was largely seen as unintelligible".

Sean, Lennon and Ono's son, was born in 1975, five years before his father was gunned down on the street outside the Dakota Building in New York . Ono still lives there with her superb collection of art that includes Magrittes and Warhols. And mother and son have  collaborated on music projects in recent years.

An often expressed doubt surrounding Ono is that the peace-and-love mantra she expresses through her art and through her activism can look like a relic of a lost time, a statement stuck in the era of the 1960s.

For example, her Wish Tree, which she has instigated in various locations and will appear outside the Serpentine this summer, is a tree on which members of the public are invited to attach labels on which they have scribbled their wishes.

Bracewell, who believes Ono has suffered from "a sexist and racist response to her from people who regarded her as a giggling, inscrutable Japanese woman who had stolen one of our national treasures", argues that to regard such works as childish is unfair.

"Why would we have a problem with Yoko doing peace and love when we are quite happy for the Beatles to sing All You Need Is Love?" he says.

Perhaps Ono has, in the end, more right than most to tackle hatred and violence in her own way. She experienced war in Japan firsthand; her husband was shot down; her life was clearly soured by hatred directed at her from some Beatles fans.

It is her resilience in the face of disaster that, for the musician Antony Hegarty – who has collaborated with her on performances – makes her a personal as well as an artistic model. "She has  shown me, by her power of example, how to stand by one's values, even in the face of fear," he says. "She  has endured brutal storms and never surrendered."

Munroe agrees. The peace-and-love message, she says, is authentic. "She really believes in love as the transformative energy in the world. That's her faith."

Potted profile

Born 13 February 1933

Age 79

Career Ono has worked in the avant garde of the art world since the 1950s, her practice taking in music, film, poetry and performance – including her two famous week-long "bed-ins" with her husband John Lennon, a twist on the sit-in.

High point Meeting Lennon at a preview of her exhibition at Indica gallery, London, in November 1966; also her 2001 retrospective Yes Yoko Ono, which cemented her work's reputation.

Low point Ono was vilified for decades for breaking up the Beatles and even after Lennon's death in 1980 attracted little public sympathy. Also suffered the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, Anthony Cox.

What she says "No one person could have broken up a band, especially one the size of the Beatles."

What they say "I learned everything from her … That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil." John Lennon, 1980


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May 08 2012

The Beatles on the road, 1964-1966 – in pictures

Photographer Harry Benson was granted access to the Beatles' inner sanctum in the mid-60s. Take a look at his intimate portraits of a band on the cusp of world domination



April 02 2012

Sgt Pepper revisited: who is missing from the new take on the album cover? | Open thread

Pop artist Peter Blake has marked his 80th birthday by reworking his 1967 Beatles cover – tell us who you would have included

Pop art veteran Peter Blake has recreated his iconic collage for the cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to celebrate his 80th birthday. There are some controversial changes: 45 years ago it was Oscar Wilde in the fourth row, this time it's Tracy Emin. The artist and illustrator, who won a Grammy for his artwork in 1967, has added a host of contemporary cultural figures he admires, including Amy Winehouse, JK Rowling, Noel Gallagher and Vivienne Westwood.

Which national treasures are missing from Blake's new collage? And if the artwork had to represent "the best of Britain", which cut-outs would you remove from the picture?


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Sgt Pepper revisited: who are the faces in 2012 Lonely Hearts Club Band? - interactive

Amy Winehouse, JK Rowling, Noel Gallagher, Mick Jagger and the Monty Python foot all feature in Sir Peter Blake's update of the 1967 Beatles cover to mark his 80th birthday



April 01 2012

New faces on Sgt Pepper album cover

Amy Winehouse, JK Rowling, Noel Gallagher, Mick Jagger and the Monty Python foot to feature in update of 1967 original

British pop artist Sir Peter Blake has taken inspiration from his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures he most admires as he marks his 80th birthday.

Twiggy, Amy Winehouse, Grayson Perry, JK Rowling and even Monty Python's emblematic foot all feature in a reworked version of the 1967 cover created for his birthday celebrations.

Blake, often called the godfather of the British pop art scene, said: "I've chosen people I admire, great people and some who are dear friends.

"I had a very long list of people who I wanted to go in but couldn't fit everyone in – I think that shows how strong British culture and its legacy of the last six decades is."

Singer Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis, was "chuffed" to be included. "To be on there with the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Mick Jagger and Paul Weller, just those three people alone, is amazing for me as I wouldn't put myself up with any of those," he said.

Rowling said: "Given that I've devoted quite a lot of time to gazing at the original Sgt Pepper album cover, you can perhaps imagine what it means to me to be featured."

Playwright Tom Stoppard said his inclusion was "an honour that outdoes delirium" while singer Elvis Costello said: "I always dreamed that I might one day stand in the boots of [Liverpool footballer] Albert Stubbins."

The original 1967 artwork also featured James Dean, Bob Dylan, Karl Marx and Marilyn Monroe.

The new version has been created for a special birthday celebration of Blake's life at Wayne Hemingway's Vintage festival at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, in July.

Hemingway, co-founder of the Red or Dead fashion brand, said: "The new artwork is a tribute to Britain's standing as the world's leading creative nation."

It was "an incredible honour" for Blake to "reimagine such an iconic work of art", he said, adding: "We are proud to be dedicating the Sunday at Vintage this year to celebrate his 80th birthday and creative and cultural legacy."

Terry Jones, the actor, director and original Python, said: "Monty Python is flattered to have had his foot selected, but there are better parts of his body available at very little cost."

The foot itself was borrowed by Terry Gilliam from Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, a work by 16th century Florentine painter Bronzino.

His Python co-star, Michael Palin, added: "It's a great tribute to a fine foot – just don't tell Bronzino or he'll want royalties."


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January 06 2011

Letters: Prefabs, Fabs and mass demolition

The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage are barking up the wrong tree in trying to "save" the prefab Excalibur estate in Lewisham (Anger over plans to demolish historic prefab estate, 3 January). The Excalibur residents' long struggle is a lesson about how people want to live together. It is not about preserving the fabric of damp, decaying homes well past their habitable lifetimes.

It is not a miracle that these homes have survived for so long. It is almost wholly due to hard work by the tenants and their management organisation. Stability and a supportive community at Excalibur grew from a feeling of "being in control", living in homes which are compact and easy to run, providing dignity and independence at an affordable rent.

Sadly, the pressures on housing in inner London don't encourage building detached bungalows. This has been taken on board by Excalibur residents, who for years have been developing plans to translate their ideals into achievable new homes, fit and decent, as they deserve.

Yes, let's study and respect the prefab history. A few examples to demonstrate one short-term solution, fitted to its time in the immediate devastation of war, would be better placed in a museum.

Caroline Mayow

London

• The campaign to save 9 Madryn Street is as much about stopping the council erasing an entire neighbourhood as about preserving Ringo Starr's birthplace (Comment, 4 January). The Ringo connection is important, and useful – as it grabs headlines – but the real story is the battle to stop a deluded council pursuing a regressive policy of mass demolition.

William Palin

Secretary, Save Britain's Heritage


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June 16 2010

Give Tate Modern to Keith Richards

Music legends of the 1960s might be welcome in today's pop music, but contemporary art shuns its old masters – why?

The Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin says somewhere, I believe, in his famous essay The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that people will accept a radicalism in popular art forms that they will never accept from the avant gardes of "high" art. Benjamin was writing in the era of Eisenstein. A lot of cut-ups have made it into the gallery since then. Audiences at Tate Modern seem pretty schooled to expect everything pre-deconstructed in the museum. The most interesting thing now about Benjamin's argument is that it also works the other way around. It is conversely true that the idea of the classics, the greats, the old masters, is universally accepted in pop music when it is nowadays widely spat on in the sphere of contemporary high art.

I've been listening to some 1960s favourites. The Beatles' Norwegian Wood, the Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday, a bit of The Incredible String Band. I hasten to add that I was only four when the 60s ended. I wasn't at Altamont or anything. But when I was a teenager, much later, it was obvious that rock music had reached a peak of imagination and brilliance in the 1960s – and it's still obvious. Does anyone dispute that? More crucially, does anyone think it trashes today's music to say so? There is a maturity, a common sense about critics and consumers of popular music that is totally absent from the high arts. No one thinks it demeans Lady Gaga to admire Madonna.

There is a sense of history in the appreciation of pop that completely eludes today's debates about art. It is clear to everyone that golden ages of rock'n'roll have existed in the past and produced enduring classics: it's a historical fact, and to deny the greatness of an old song such as Sweet Jane would be to deny the worth of the art form as such. So why can't fans of contemporary art accept similarly obvious historical facts, such as the enduring freshness and immediacy of the Renaissance and Baroque painters? And the fact that Matisse and Picasso are the Beatles and Stones of modern art?

See where I'm headed? There are classics and there is the new. The new is always worth hearing and worth seeing – you never know when and where the next genius will come from. But you don't help give birth to the new by ignorance of what went before. Rock has a sense of tradition that has been broken in our museums. Keith Richards has a great private library of the blues. He cares for it and catalogues it. He is proud to archive a heritage.

They should have made him the new director of Tate Modern.


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February 19 2010

Lloyd Webber may buy Abbey Road

Composer says it is 'vital' to save recording venue made famous by the Beatles amid concern EMI may sell them

Andrew Lloyd Webber says he is "very interested" in buying Abbey Road studios, saying it is "vital for the future of the music industry in the UK" to save the north London venue where he and the Beatles laid down much of their work.

A spokesman for the composer and impressario said he first recorded there in 1967 with Tim Rice. "Abbey Road has such great facilities, with three major recording studios, and Andrew has probably brought more musicians to record there than anyone else, because it has the capacity to record large orchestral productions."

Lloyd Webber threw his hat into the ring to save the studios, which gave their name to a Beatles album, as concern grew over cash-strapped EMI's plan to sell them.

Sir Paul McCartney has raised hopes that someone will buy them (although hasn't promised to try himself) and the National Trust, already the owner of the childhood homes of McCartney and John Lennon, has expressed cautious interest after DJ Chris Evans suggested it should step in.

The government has promised to fast-track a long-standing recommendation from English Heritage that the 19th century building should be officially listed.


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