I’m one of those people that carries a notebook everywhere so I can be sure to record what mostly turns out to be a lot of useless information, for example rock concert set lists—though not religiously, just when I feel like it. Recently I tried using the notes app on my phone, but it’s just not the same. The main reason I do this is to stumble upon these jottings years later in some old notebook next to the ticket stub and be magically transported back to the moment. I’ve never recorded any info on opening acts, but awhile ago there was a top 50 concerts list being shared on Facebook that had me all nostalgic and wishing I had, which brings me MoMA’s fine rock poster collection.
Working with the collection can be like tripping trip back in time. Consider John Van Hamersveld’s icon Jimi Hendrix poster: not just Hendrix at the Shrine Auditorium on February 10 but also Blue Cheer! The Electric Flag!! and The Soft Machine!!! Mind-blowing. See how crucial the complete line-up and venue production info can become? Besides which, graphically this poster says it all.
If the work of a concert poster is the eye-catching delivery of the who, what, where, and when of the event, the well-designed concert poster tells all in style—so much so that it’s clear you’re in for some very good music, perhaps even a culturally defining musical moment, a happening scene not to be missed. And genre doesn’t matter. Consider Jan Lenica’s poster for the Warsaw opera Wozzeck, Milton Glaser’s Mahalia Jackson’s Easter concert at Lincoln center, Niklaus Troxler’s McCoy Tyner Sextet at the Willisau Jazz Festival, or punk rock’s Iggy Pop (with the Ramones) at the Palladium. Good music demands good graphics.
But, to consider the rock concert poster…for starter’s there’s Victor Moscoso’s terminally hip, seriously cool poster for The Chamber’s Brothers at the Matrix from his own Neon Rose series and the Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Avalon Ballroom from the Family Dog series. These weren’t your father’s concert posters.
And, speaking of fathers, consider the design work of Wes Wilson, the unofficial father of the 1960s concert poster: the Jefferson Airplane / Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore, or The Grateful Dead, Junior Wells, Chicago Blues Band, and The Doors concert. Wilson, who dropped out of school for forestry, found himself in the right place at the right time—San Francisco, just before the “Summer of Love” working for a printer. His only formal design training was a few night school art classes and trips to the library for inspiration from the likes of Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt, and Alfred Roller—excellent choices by anyone’s standard. Making the scene brought him in contact with concert promoters Chet Helms and the Family Dog and Bill Graham, and one thing led to another.
When Wilson and Graham parted ways over some contractual dispute Bonnie Maclean, Bill Graham’s wife at the time, took over where Wilson left off. Wilson’s stylistic influence is felt in Maclean’s designs, but she soon found her own psychedelic groove—and the beat goes on. Consider her The Yardbirds, James Cotton Blues Band, Richie Havens, and The Doors concert poster, or one for Eric Burdon and the Animals, Motherearth, and Hour Glass
Not all of the artists were hippie drop-outs that simply stumbled into poster design, just as many were well-schooled, serious designers. Van Hamersveld was an art student at CalArts, Moscoso studied with Josef Albers at Yale (ah ha!). But either way, the psychedelic posters of the Sixties, a sure sign of the times, left conventional restraints behind to march on to the rocking beat of the anything-goes cultural revolution.
These and a number of other concert posters are currently on view in the exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for the Ear and Eye through November 2015.