Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Things you Didn't Know you Didn't Know...about Charles Front

My Dad said, when I visited him a few weeks ago, "that thing Rumsfeld said about the 'unknown unknowns', the things 'we do not know we don’t know'; it's starting to make sense to me". I can't remember the context he (my Dad) said it in, but despite the fact that it made me laugh, it does make sense, dealing as it does with the philosophical concept of the unknown known. The Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist Slavoj Žižek describes it as "that which we don't know, or intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know...". Which, if you think about it in the context Rumsfeld was using it, WMDs, really suggests that he might just be admitting that he "sort of knew" there were no WMDs, but kept it from himself. Oh heck, talk about a digression; let's get back on track.

Yesterday, Saturday July 31st 2010, I was looking through The Times and I spotted a big story about ex-Oasis front-man Liam Gallagher's new clothing line, and shop, Pretty Green (which, being an old Suedehead/Mod I'm into, by the way), and right there, staring me in the face, was a new twist that just impossibly, through sheer serendipity, segued into my blog post about the illustrator Charles Front. You see the logo for Pretty Green is a bit of a Beatle-hat tip to Charles Front, whether those concerned know it or not.

You see, Charles Front was the young illustrator who designed the lettering on The Beatles Rubber Soul album. Back in 1965, Art Director Charles Front was asked by Bob Freeman, the Beatles' photographer, to create artwork for a new album sleeve; Rubber Soul. Front's design, squeezing the words Rubber Soul into a shape that resembled the drip of rubber from a milked- rubber-tree (an early example of playful bubble-shaped lettering) quickly became a template for the poster art of the period, and would slowly, very slowly, influence the design of more creative forms of typography over the coming decades.

A cursory glance at the Beatles album designs around, and even after Front's design, reveal that whilst album covers became increasingly innovative, vivid, and colourful, the typography was more often than not less adventurous. And the fact that the influence of that iconic design can still be detected today, with very few people knowing a great deal about the designer himself, speaks volumes about the quality of the work.

This is where the "not knowing what you don't know" part comes into the equation. If you look at the work of the cartooning-godfather of graffiti art, Vaughn Bode, with no knowledge of the Rubber Soul design, then the only illustrator who produced typography that could have influenced today's Urban Art, beginning with the bubble lettering, "Softies", of PHASE2 on the streets of New York in 1972, is Bode. Indeed Bode, who used balloon lettering in his strips Deadbone, in Cavalier Magazine in 1969, and later in Cheech Wizard, is acknowledged as an influence on that movement.

When you look at the lettering on Rubber Soul again though, and think of the popularity of the Beatles, then it is not impossible to imagine that Charles Front's iconic Rubber Soul font, might also have been an influence on that Art form. It is, I would suggest, a possible cultural influence that you had no idea you knew existed.

Although other artists who worked with the Beatles are better known, you will surely be hard-pushed to find more t-shirts, logos, key-rings, and the like, out there devoted to a Beatle-related image, than the Rubber Soul typography designed by Front. In fact it is pretty rare to see an album typeface, other than the later YES designs, take on a life of it's own in this fashion.

Indeed, the only other really daringly playful use of typography on a Beatles album, can be seen on Magical Mystery Tour, released in the US in November 1967, and that album also uses bubble writing, but in a more conventional way. And whilst Peter Blake's cover for Sergeant Pepper (Jun, 1967) is pretty spectacular, the lettering is incorporated into the drum in the image and is therefore, more or less, pretty conventional.

I would argue that nobody who worked on the Beatles's album art played the kind of daring game that Charles Front played with the text, in fact very few artists of the period seemed to have been daring enough to try. Even the late Heinz Edelmann, brilliant creator of the hallucinogenic landscape of Pepperland as art director for the 1968 animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine, who like Charles Front also produced artwork for albums, never produced typographic design as innovative as his album cover art.

Outside the Beatles hit-factory there was also a dearth of daring typographical design, and even the great Andy Warhol was producing covers with unadventurous lettering.

One of the few artists who who worked on album art, and who did experiment with typography, including bubble-lettering (most famously on Keep on Truckin' (1968))alongside colourful, playful, artwork, was Robert Crumb, who, coincidentally, worked alongside Vaugh Bode back in the day. Again though, Crumb could be a little conventional with the typeface, and it is surely a little fanciful to see that big upturned shoe sole that appears in much of Crumb's artwork, as slightly reminiscent of the shape of Charles Front's Rubber Soul design.

If you search for "Rubber Soul" on Google, and check out those images you will see some evidence of the influence of Charles Front's innovative design. You will also see little or no mention of Charles Front, the man who created the design. I took some advice in regard to the copyright of the Rubber Soul font, and of the design in general, those in the know, Nate Piekos and Daniel Poeira, are of the opinion that Apple would be responsible for establishing rights. My feeling though is that there is certainly a case for moral rights belonging to Charles Front, and of course it very much matters what his original deal with the company was. In the meantime, it would be a nice gesture to acknowledge Charles Front as the original creator of what is very clearly a popular design. I mean, how many people have seen their artwork adorn a Beatles cover, countless t-shirts, influence Urban Art, and act as a backdrop for The Righteous Brothers? Respect.

As a caveat, bear in mind this post makes no mention of the many books Charles Front illustrated, and the fact that while you were young you enjoyed his drawings on Jackanory. Now there's a thought, you saw his work in books, on TV, and sitting there in your big brother or sister's or even your parent's record collection. It was influencing you, and you didn't know it. More things you didn't know you didn't know about Charles Front.

The images here are copyright their respective copyright holders. If you have any questions, ask me.


Royston Robertson said...

Nice piece. Rubber Soul has to be one of my favourite album covers of all time, definitely my favourite Beatles one. And it's surely the most influential. It's staggering to think that it came out in 1965. The music's not half bad either.

Rod McKie said...

Thanks Royston. It was perculating slowly until Liam G's clothing line hit the news - galvanised me.

I agree with you, I think the influence of the artwork has been overlooked because it's maybe perceived "just" to be a log. As you know from experience, getting the lettering right can often be the hardest part.

I loved Michelle, always conjures up images of the 1960s.

TimHarries said...

Mark me down as another who 'didn't know what he didn't know' about Charles Front, so thanks for putting the work in on the research, Rod - it makes for fascinating reading.

I'd love to read that 'Jackanory - Stories from Wales' book too!

Rod McKie said...

Me too, Tim. I can't believe the lack of info' on him, it's an important design.

I thought about you and Ger when I caught sight of that one. Also, I've been reading up on Welsh Black Dog legends - some nice story possibilities there, methinks.

Daniel Poeira said...

Just to clarify my opinion, I think Apple holds the copyrights, but I don't this is right. As an artist, I'll always feel that whatever artists make, should belong to them, but that's just not the way it works, specially when big money is involved. Just to give a bigger picture, the Beatles themselves are not the owners of their songs!

Rod McKie said...

Good point, Daniel.

Even today, when we are a bit more conscious about the rights to our work, there is still pressure to sign it away.

That Crumb piece on the blog, Robert doesn't have any rights over it, which is just so unfair.

RCF1 said...

Didn't know much about Charles Front and I found your article much interesting in the way it connects to later classic graffiti letterring.

Was wondering why you don't mention Rick Griffin's work. Althought it sure wasn't as iconic and popular as a Beatles album logo, isn't it from the same period?
i think it also influenced a whole era.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Charles Front is a truly gifted artist. His skill of styling the lettering to the match the piece is truly inspired and always original. His artwork is similarly gifted. Genius always makes things look deceptively easy and inspires others. He succeeds in both. He is a collector's dream and his works should be chased with indecent energy.

Tim Swettenham

alan friswell said...

Charles Front--or 'Charlie', as we knew him--was one of my teachers at art college. he had told us abut the album cover, but was very modest about his possible influence on the art culture of the time. Very nice chap too

unclephil said...

Just heard Charles Front on the radio, speaking about his daughter, actress Rebecca Front. And Rubber Soul was a great piece of lettering.

Rod McKie said...

I'm sorry I missed the radio interview. I actually spoke (well, tweeted) with Rebecca Front about her dad, unclephil; talented family.

Jonathan Madden said...

This is weird, I only just stumbled across this article about Charles Front. I was at Art College in the early seventies and taught by an illustrator called Charlie Front, always in a bow tie and smart jacket, always dapper. He introduced me to MJQ (The Modern Jazz Quartet) he was a lovely chap. I'm presuming it is the very same, I had no idea he did the Rubber Soul logo and illustrated so many books.

Rod McKie said...

Hi Jonathan. Not long after I posted the blog I got a tweet from an Australian illustrator, who had been taught over here by Charles. He said the same, that he was a lovely man.