THE TALK; Ink-Stained Wretch
New York Times, September 17, 2006
He designed posters for the Rolling Stones; was best friends with Jimi Hendrix; and served as the creative director for the original Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues as well as for the opening of the Playboy Club in London; he even penned a best-seller. Yet despite his staggering rsum, the graphic design guru Alan Aldridge is little known today. If anything, you're more likely to be au fait with his eldest son, Miles, a fashion photographer, or his daughter Saffron, a model turned writer. ''Yeah, get that quite a lot: 'Oh, you're Miles's dad, didn't you do something in the 60's?''' admits the 63-year-old Aldridge, who follows the comment with his trademark ''aww-shucks'' snigger. His voice possesses the mid-Atlantic timbre of a man who left London in 1980 in search of Hollywood fame; his all-black attire, his handsome, compact features and his horn-rimmed specs give Aldridge the allure of Jack Nicholson playing an aging Beatle.
Back in the 1960's, Aldridge was as deified in the world of graphic design as the Fab Four were in music. John Lennon even appointed Aldridge the group's official design consultant. Like the band, Aldridge seemed to be rewriting the world in which he lived and worked.
His art embodied classic 60's graphic design: campy old-fashioned lettering, faux-nave images, warped reworkings of Alice's trip into Wonderland and big, bold psychedelic colors. He was not a pop artist, like Peter Blake or Allen Jones, but a commercial designer whose vision trickled down to the masses via advertisements, posters, record sleeves and, later in his career, a best-selling children's book. Aldridge, like such other swinging Londoners as Vidal Sassoon and Terence Stamp, was raised in the working-class East End. At 14, he left school to slog away at the docks, leaving little opportunity for any formal training in the arts.
He admits, ''Had you have asked me who Picasso was when I was 14, I'd have thought he played soccer for Italy.'' Still, he established a lucrative side career by selling doctored tracings of corset and bra ads that he'd found in Vogue magazine. ''Unfortunately, my mum found a hoard of them under my bed,'' he recalls. ''She then told me the story of my Uncle Sid, who'd gone to Africa to work as an artist. He came back with a dose of syphilis and died soon after from constant boozing. My mum warned me, 'If you carry on doing ''fancy'' stuff like drawing, you'll end up like him.' And I thought to myself, Well, that sounds a damn sight better fun than sitting in a council house for the rest of my life.''
After a chance meeting in 1965 with the art director of London's premier publishing house, Penguin, Aldridge started illustrating book covers for the company. In two years, he'd taken his boss's job, brought in his bohemian mates to assist him and transformed the buttoned-up British institution into a riotous art house. Where Penguin covers had previously been somber, his designs flirted with Surrealism, nudity and revolutionary statements, which fit in perfectly with the whirling mood of the time.
In 1968, Aldridge opened his own graphic-design firm, INK, and its first client was the Beatles' new record label, Apple. Aldridge would often confer with Lennon and McCartney at Apple's Savile Row headquarters on new commissions: apple-shaped radios and record players, posters and even ''Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds'' wallpaper. (''If it'd ever been put on a wall, you would have got stoned by just looking at it.'') Soon he was getting design gigs from the Rolling Stones, Cream and Andy Warhol, for whom he designed the poster for the film ''Chelsea Girls.'' (His idea of using an Advent calendar with different windows opening out had originally been proposed as the cover for the Beatles' ''White Album.'')
Before Aldridge, so-called commercial artists were behind-the-scenes grafters in braces and Brylcreem; after him, they were prima donnas who drove sports cars and made magazine editors and ad agencies jump at their imperious whims. Indeed, when the director Peter Whitehead started filming his documentary on 60's culture, ''Tonite Lets All Make Love in London,'' Aldridge starred alongside Mick Jagger, Michael Caine and Julie Christie.
In 1969, Aldridge masterminded the seminal art book ''The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics,'' which mixed his own illustrations with works that he'd commissioned from artists like David Hockney and Allen Jones. ''The only illustration the publishers rejected,'' Aldridge says, ''was one I did of John Lennon as a giant hypodermic needle, scattering pills over Manhattan.''
So symbiotic had Aldridge and the Beatles become that, when the band broke up on the cusp of the 1970's, he took only one more job before he closed down INK: a campaign poster for the Labor Party, which subsequently lost. He bought a huge rectory in the English countryside and spent his days ''being a professional hippie,'' looking after his kids. It was during this time that he stumbled upon an 1807 children's poem, ''The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast,'' which featured wild creatures and insects as the central characters. Aldridge created a modern version that evoked John Tenniel's work for ''Alice in Wonderland.'' It won the Whitbread Literary Award and became the best-selling children's book at the time. Aldridge's creative universe appealed to animal-loving children as well as acid-fried rockers.
Elton John had admired Aldridge's work for some time, and in 1974, he asked him to illustrate the cover of ''Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.'' Aldridge created a Boschian smorgasbord, complete with Elton flying on his piano. When the album went platinum (Aldridge earned a Grammy nomination for his artwork), Aldridge proposed developing the album art into a feature film -- part animation, part real life -- starring Elton himself. After a studio gave the green light, Aldridge spent the next 18 months in Beverly Hills at the newly formed Captain Fantastic Enterprises, working on the ''Captain Fantastic'' movie. Hollywood put the kibosh on the project, however, when Elton admitted his bisexuality in the American press. As Aldridge ruefully explains, ''All of a sudden, no one returned our calls.'' This was the mid-70's, and no studio could sanction a children's story with such a hero.
The ''Captain Fantastic'' trauma signaled the start of a long period of depression for Aldridge. Having become disillusioned with Margaret Thatcher's England, in 1980 he relocated to Hollywood, where the allure of the movie industry suggested a fresh start to his career. However, the dream projects failed to materialize, and for as much as he worked on new characters, scripts, books and even plans to construct a Hard Rock Cafe theme park, few ideas went further than the drafting table.
''It's a crazy place here,'' Aldridge explains of Los Angeles, the city that he's called home for nearly 30 years. ''There're no rules as to what will be successful in Hollywood and what will flop. I've seen so many people -- myself included -- driven to drink because of the cruel nature of the business; I guess that's what makes it so special. I remember seeing Spielberg on the brink of suicide after he'd completed 'Jaws,' and he's doing all right now, isn't he?''
Ever the optimist, Aldridge is making the most of his numerous abandoned projects from over the years, saying, ''Right now, I've got more work on and I'm more financially endowed than in the 60's.'' This includes ''Nothing Is Real,'' an animated fantasy film based on the childhood of John Lennon ($(3$)It's got Yoko's blessing''), fabric designs for clothing lines and FeeFiFoFun, a solar- and wind-powered portable children's playground concept. There's also ''Pipedreams,'' an illustrated autobiography in the works. ''Thirty-one years on,'' he says, ''and they're still dangling the carrot in front of my eyes.''
Visit Alan Aldridge's website
Photo by Miles Aldridge