Among the sad passings this year was that of Australian artist Martin Sharp. I’m certainly no expert on Martin’s art or its influence, but I always responded to the colour and the humour in his work – say on his sleeve for Ginger Baker’s Air Force – even before I knew it was his. I interviewed him in March 2013 for Uncut about his work with Cream, but his remarks on mid-1960s London are well worth a look even if psychedelic heaviosity isn’t precisely your bag.
Martin wasn’t in great health when we spoke, but his wit, insight and generosity of spirit evidently could not be dampened by illness.
How did you connect with Cream?
It was through a friend of mine, Jenny Key who is a wonderful fashion designer. She was working at Biba and had a night job at the Speakeasy. She asked me to come down and seee where she worked. I went down there one night and I saw a girl I knew called Charlotte Martin. She was sitting with two other guys and I gathered they were musicians, and I said I had just written this song: I’d written a song about when I’d been down in Formentera and Ibiza, and someone told me that one of the islands was where the sirens sang to Ulysses. I could identify with that point of contact. I wrote it as a folk song.
One of the musicians said he’d just written some music, so I gave him the words. That was Eric Clapton, and in a couple of weeks, he turned up with the song on the B-side of “Strange Brew”. And that was “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” They had just been in the studio recording their album. I had no idea who he was, so I wasn’t impressed or unimpressed that way – it was just the spirit of the times. I had always been made very welcome in London. There was a lot of friendship around.
How about “Anyone For Tennis”?
That one came about later – by that time I was sharing a studio place with Eric and Charlotte who had become his girlfriend. I had a girlfriend Eeye who was a Finnish lady and a guy called Philippe Moerer who was an artist from Melbourne and his girlfriend Freya Matthews all living there at that stage. And after all, I’d become a songwriter, so I’d write out some more lyrics – and Eric said it we do well as an acoustic, Calypso sort of beat.
Can you tell me a bit about life at The Pheasantry?
It was a basement and three storeys above. We were living on the top floor with views of the Kings Road. The building’s still there – it’s a pizza place now. Germaine Greer came to live there, she had an apartment. Haden Guest lived there. David Litvinoff, Tim Whidborne was living there in the part that had formerly been a dance studio. There was anightclub in the basement called the Pheasantry. It had been a jazz club and it was a blues club by a guy called Alex Sterling – you had music coming up from under your feet as well as the studio where we all lived.
How did your sleeve art for Cream’s Disraeli Gears come about?
Eric asked me to do a sleeve for it, which I was very pleased about because the groups were the bosses of the day; the leading lights of the times. The Stones and the Beatles…He asked me to do the cover, and I did. It’s the same size, it wasn’t a larger drawing. It was a collage – I did more collages on the back, with photos by my friend Bob Whitaker who lived round the corner. I just tried to create that warm electric sound that the Cream had with those fluorescent paints – that’s what makes it really stand out. I think it came quite close to succeeding – it’s certainly my most well-known work.
It’s one of the key images of what we now call psychedelia. Did people talk about this kind of music/art like that at the time?
I did psychedelic stuff in Sydney before I had heard the term. It was a time of collage – you have to remember that you start with the caves at Lascaux people and drawing on the walls of the caves. Kenneth Clark’s History Of Art came out and it covered from this all the way up to Jackson Pollock: from the emergence of images to their disappearance in abstract painting. And then a new chapter began: pop art, art about art. Art had become imageless, but new images emerged and that was very much the spirit of the times.
“Psychedelia” became a word – a lot of that came from universities and psychiatry. People experimenting with their students, so to speak. So the word was coming into public life from those channels and it had an enormous impact, it affected everyone. Some people didn’t survive and some people did. It (LSD) was not something you’d want to do every day, though people did.
I tried to express that there were other dimensions, other realms at the same time, that this was all going on. There was a lot of talk about UFOs and all that. Old religions, if you like, surfaced at that time, old fairy tales, paganism. They all came up to the surface, came out of cupboards. They re-emerged into the amalgam of the times. There was a lot of imagery around: the Hobbits, it all took off into…The Green movement.
How did this appear to you in Australia?
England had recovered from the war – it had been a very hard time. Coming to London…American culture had dominated popular culture, music and magazine. All of a sudden The Beatles came through, with great humour, and we in Australia, appreciated that. There was life in England, which hadn’t been perceivable to our young eyes before. The whole youth of the world were there.
Where did Cream fit in all this, do you think?
They didn’t have the influence of the Beatles or Stones, they were second wave. I liked Pink Floyd…musicians had come out of art schools, not music colleges. It was a classic meeting of artists and musicians.
The middle man was, for a time, I think eliminated. It was Eric who commissioned me to do the cover, not the art director at whatever record company. Youth itself was very strong at the time. There was a great elegance there in those days – the dressing was very original. You had people like Jean Shrimpton who was a great icon, but there was also street fashion to do with Afghan coats, beads, tapestry effects from various nations. People brought things back (from hippy trail travels)– I had picked up some things on the way over from Australia.
I got to London and stayed with Robert Hughes for a while. My friend Robert Whitaker was Brian Epstein’s personal photographer for the Beatles…an influential friend. I went to Ibiza for a swim. Here (in Australia) you just go down the road – in London you had to go to Spain.
You did the Wheels Of Fire cover, too…
That was Eric again – it was for a live and studio album, the original is shiny and it has a fluorescent inside. I don’t think it was as successful. The group was in charge. They were all working together – that was the great feeling of the time. Eric was always a modest person. He was touring in America that time, consolidating his position. There was some money coming in so he soon bought a place, Hurtwood Edge, where he still lives. That was a very important move for him.