Psych Out: The Central Valley Turns On
By Tim Foster
Published in December, 2010 issue
The Central Valley Turns On: Psychedelic Poster Art, 1965-1975, the new exhibit at the California History Museum spans the heyday of the rock era, and consists of over 80 artifacts, ranging from handbills and posters to vintage musical equipment courtesy of Skip Maggiora of Skip’s Music. The exhibit is extremely well conceived – the curators even thought to pipe in northern California rock music; I caught “Satisfaction Guaranteed” by ultra-obscure San Jose garageniks The Mourning Reign playing over the museum’s speakers at one point.
The first thing aficionados of sixties culture will notice is that the posters, like the Central Valley itself, seem a bit behind the times. While surf music had died out in most of the country in the face of the British Invasion, local instro bands like The Contenders and The Jaguars were still battling it out in Central Valley surfer stomps well into the mid sixties. Posters from this era used standard ‘boxing poster’ graphics: plain backgrounds with performer’s names letterpressed in big type and maybe one image. Handbills tended to use a similar style.
The star of Sacramento handbill production in the early sixties was Becky Schiro, the wife of promoter Gary Schiro. Becky Schiro’s charming Rick Griffin-influenced cartoons often illustrated flyers for Schiro’s productions, and sometimes made it onto the poster as well. One such poster, an incredibly rare example from January 1965, features Schiro’s cartoon of a garage band in a Wells Fargo-type wagon to advertise a “Blast-Out” with local heroes The Marauders and The Fugitives. Schiro’s September ‘65 “Help!” handbill for a five-band bill at Governor’s Hall has gone on to cult fame for its drawing of a kid lugging a ball and chain labeled ‘school’ – it perfectly captured the spirit of the times and has since been used as the logo for Teenage Shutdown, a multi-volume collection of American garage band recordings.
As simple Rock and Roll gave way to the more complicated sounds of Rock, the poster art followed suit. Local artists were influenced by Bay Area poster artists like Wes Wilson and Victor Moscoso, who in turn were influenced by the Pop Art movement in general, and by Bridget Riley’s Op Art in particular. Artists from Los Angeles to Montreal mastered the unique legible/illegible lettering styles that came out of San Francisco, and there are plenty of representations here. Artist Cheryl Rankin’s striking poster for a 1968 Country Joe and the Fish/Grateful Dead show in Fresno exactly emulates the style that had been de rigueur on Haight Ashbury just one year earlier.
And sometimes emulation wasn’t quite enough. A 1967 poster for a Pop Music Festival at Hughes Stadium owes a strong nod to the imagery from an iconic 1966 Stanley Mouse/Alton Kelley poster for seminal garage rock band Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Mouse himself is represented in the show with a stunning poster for an April 1967 concert by Big Brother and the Holding Company and the New Breed at the Stockton Civic Auditorium.
While it was standard practice by the mid sixties to use the same image for both poster and handbill, there were exceptions. Local artist Jim Ford was hired to create a separate design for a handbill for the aforementioned ’67 Pop Music Festival. His design was well received and put Ford in place to create the poster art for some of the biggest regional concerts of the era, including Cream, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. “I was just a lucky puppy,” Ford says, laughing.
Ford’s poster for the Hendrix concert at Sac State is the best-known image in the show. Featuring a line drawing of the Experience and clearly legible lettering, the image is striking, but restrained for the time. Reprinted in The Art of Rock (the preeminent book on rock poster art) and also on display in the Hendrix collection at Seattle’s Explore Music Project museum, Ford’s Hendrix poster marked the high point of his brief tenure as Sacramento’s top Rock poster designer.
Though he had entered the music world with his Simultaneous Avalanche psychedelic light show, Ford says he didn’t really fit in: “I had short hair and my shirt was always ironed.” Before 1968 was out he had moved to Aspen, Colorado to take a job as City Draftsman, but the nine concert posters he designed in 1967-68 have become integral parts of the Sacramento musical history documented in the exhibit.
The show offers posters and handbills for concerts up through the mid seventies. There are many happy surprises for local music fans – a 1969 poster featuring artwork by Donny Marquez who later went on to form Sacto punk legends the Twinkeyz; a 1973 poster for KZAP’s Fifth Anniversary Party; and most amazing, the original silk screen for the poster promoting Pink Floyd’s appearance at The Sound Factory.
The Central Valley Turns On is an amazing collection of artifacts in a well-presented museum format – my only complaint would be that having the posters hanging several feet behind glass walls makes deciphering some of the details difficult – but this is a minor quibble. The show ends on May 8 – tune in, turn on, and don’t miss.
The Central Valley Turns On: Psychedelic Poster Art, 1965-1975, through May 8, 2011
The California Museum, 1020 O Street
Hours: Mon – Sat 10AM – 5 PM; Sun Noon – 5PM