Article by Colleen Watson O’Reilly

V

ancouver has a rich history as a
rock and roll city, and few have a
better appreciation for that history
than Rob Frith. Besides owning
Neptoon Records—the oldest independent
record store in Vancouver—and a record label by
the same name which has released new music as
well as compilation albums of the best of
Vancouver rock, Frith owns one of the most
extensive collections of music posters and
handbills in Canada. The collection includes
thousands of posters dating from the 1950s to
today, from all over the world. Frith also holds
the rights to all poster images commissioned for
shows at the Retinal Circus, the venue at the
centre of Vancouver psychedelic rock in the
1960s. He purchased those rights from the club’s
legendary promoter, Roger Schiffer. He regularly
attends poster conventions in the U.S. and works
closely with many contemporary poster artists to
sell their work. He has also donated posters to
the Museum of Vancouver and other archives.

Frith began collecting posters at a young age,
an urge that grew naturally from his love of music
and interest in art. In the late 1960s his father, who
was a builder, took him to a house that was about
to be torn down. There, Frith came upon psychedelic
rock and roll posters left behind by draft
dodgers who had come up from San Francisco. He
also took posters from walls and telephone poles.
Not many people did this at the time—concert
posters were thought of solely as advertising rather
than decorative or collectible objects—but their
groundbreaking style and wild, arresting imagery
would soon cause this to change.

The phenomenon of rock poster art made its
way to Vancouver by way of 1960s San Francisco—
the hub of beatnik, hippie and psychedelic culture.
Times were quickly changing, and openness,
emotion and originality took precedence over
traditional values and social structures. As music
and performance styles changed, imagery changed
with it. Artists were influenced by the free flowing,
organic forms of Art Nouveau and the imaginative,
distorted imagery of surrealism rather than the
straightforward, classic fonts and graphics popular
on concert posters for blues and folk artists of
previous decades. Artists ignored the rules of
design they had learned in school, and the text
itself became part of the image, filled with bright,
vibrant colour. The art seemed to reflect the
adventurous spirit of the time, not to mention an
interest in altered mental states. Clarity of text and
basic event information on posters came second to
visually striking colour and form. “I guess it evolved
just like the music did,” says Frith, “people were
inquisitive about everything… they wanted to
experiment.” Bob Masse was one of Vancouver’s
most famous poster artists and designed posters for
nearly every major rock band. Along with other
artists of his generation, he visited San Francisco in
the 1960s and was profoundly influenced by this
new style, and by the constantly changing outdoor
art gallery of the city’s Haight-Ashbury district. This
style was well received in Vancouver, where similar
cultural and political changes were taking place.

In that vibrant period, when a large population
of young people was coming of age in a world that
was changing by the minute, the poster, a universally
recognizable commercial tool and, historically, a
platform of the people, became another tool with
which to express the spirit of the time. Poster design
quickly solidified into an art form in its own right.

The impact of posters was augmented when
promoters at concert halls such as the Fillmore
Auditorium in San Francisco began to give away
posters to concert goers at the end of shows, and
people began to keep and value them as memorabilia.
From the perspective of the makers, it was a
convergence of promotion for the band, the venue,
and the artist. From the perspective of young music
fans, posters were visually appealing, free, portable,
‘autograph-able,’ and a way to express both musical
tastes and political leanings. Rock music and the
imagery associated with it were artistic expressions
of rebellion against the status quo, traditional values
and parents’ tastes.

Vancouver’s poster scene flourished in the
1960s, with artists like Masse, Steve Seymour and
Eric Fisher, all famous for their psychedelic style
and for their promotion of classic Vancouver
bands like My Indole Ring, Mother Tucker’s
Yellow Duck, Papa Bear’s Medicine Show, and The
Painted Ship, as well as international legends The
Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and
the Velvet Underground.

The late 1960s remain one of the most
significant periods for poster collectors today. As
Frith says, “it was that golden age, that special time
period from ’65 to ‘68. If you look at the [music]
charts, at the Top 30 [from that time], every song is
considered a classic now.” Collectors are often of the
baby boomer generation, “people who were affected
at that time period, whose whole outlook on life
probably changed because of the music and the art.”

Frith started actively collecting both records
and posters from this period in the 1970s, by which
time poster design culture had peaked, perhaps as a
result of rising printing costs and a shrinking music
industry, or a falling interest in live concert venues,
psychedelic music and jam bands. The disco era had
no corresponding poster style and corporate, mass
marketing strategies were more common. However,
poster design as an artistic activity stuck, as did the
market for collectors. More recently, the decline in
record sales brought on by the advent of online
music buying has caused bands to re-think marketing
and look for additional means to increase
revenues. As a result, posters are again popular as
band merchandise. New, cost-efficient printing
techniques also make posters an attractive option.

Many bands since the 1960s have commissioned
one-of-a-kind posters, and there is a
particular poster culture associated with the rise of
Punk music. The Simon Fraser University Library
has compiled an archive of Vancouver Punk music
posters, which includes some 300 examples from
Frith’s collection. He has an interest in all kinds of
posters and has always had an eye for their
potential value as collectibles. Recognizing the now
iconic Frank Kozic-designed Soundgarden/Pearl
Jam Houston 1992 concert poster at a show in San
Francisco organized by Wes Wilson (the artist
famous for creating the classic “melting” psychedelic
font), Frith bought up a stock from Kozik’s
manager for $7.50 a piece and sold them at his store
for $15. A poster from that original run would now
fetch somewhere around $1,000.

While today’s cities are often covered in
posters for parties, DJs, and the occasional live
music event, high-quality gig posters designed by
dedicated artists for specific shows and bands have
become almost exclusively something special to sell
to fans for collecting, decorating, and expressing
their own interests and passions. As in the past,
posters are also a way for a band to define its image
and convey its artistic vision. In essence, posters
have lost their original commercial function and
become an aesthetic, symbolic object of intrinsic or
decorative value, a transformation that has not
happened with many other commercial objects in
North American history. The practice of decorating
with posters is again commonplace, especially
amongst young people and university students,
and has led to the rise of companies that specialize
in poster reproductions of all kinds such as
AllPosters and Imaginus. Posters of musicians are
very popular, especially those of stars from the
classic rock era.

As historical artifacts and contemporary
decorative objects, posters represent the crossover
between music and the graphic arts, and between
the commercial and the artistic. They demonstrate
how visual culture is formed through powerful
social forces and our very human desire to
commemorate and memorialize ephemeral
experiences. They are also, especially in the case of
Vancouver, a fascinating way to learn about and
appreciate the cultural significance of the city’s
unique musical past.

Colleen Watson O’Reilly is a writer and curator based in
Toronto.

Steve Seymour
Fat Jack, Mother Tucker’s
Yellow Duck, Hydro
Electric Streetcar.
The Retinal Circus,
Vancouver, March 15-16,
1968. Handbill.
Offset
17.8 x 12.7cm