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Keep Warm This Winter – Make Trouble

Richard Cabut interviews Jamie Reid, the self-styled “socialist druid” who turned the Sex Pistols into a work of art.

Cookie Mueller, late NY art critic and associate of trash king John Waters, said of 80s artist Jean Michel Basquiat “He’s doing some kind of shaman work, some voodoo hoodoo, like automatic writing”.

Some of us have been similarly affected by the work of Jamie Reid. The Croydon-born artist’s work has prodded and inflamed since the early 70s with graphic digs at consumerism – “Keep Warm This Winter — Make Trouble”, “Save Petrol — Burn Cars” – via work with the infamous Suburban Press. Jamie’s incendiary Sex Pistols artwork needs no introduction, while his current magical material, borne of an adherence to druidic tradition continues to inspire. For over thirty years, Reid has been, like Basquiat, a copper wire for art/social electricity, a conductor telling unusual and provocative tales that are, in effect, an ancient, profound history. There is in Reid, as Mueller said of SAMO (Basquiat’s tag), a strange force moving his hand, forcing him to conduct to canvas something that is larger than he is: he is making transmissions, manifestations appear in front of him.

Lovers of such fugitive vision will be thrilled to learn of two new Reid ventures. First, there’s the recently published Illustrated Ape magazine, which Jamie co-curated (no mere editing here). “It came from working with TomTom,” says Jamie, referring to the shop-cum-gallery in London’s New Compton Street, which has exhibited Reid’s 80s Sex Pistols mural. “Like all the best things, TomTom can’t be described very easily. They sell some of my paintings as well as bits and pieces of retro furniture but, really, you can just go in and have a good talk.”

The magazine itself is a delicious and potent collection of Reid graphics, plus specially-commissioned poems and stories from pals and punters. “Because of money restrictions at their end, it’s had to be a black and white affair,” says Jamie. “I gave them a whole selection of drawings, some of which go back 30 years, as well as some of my more recent stuff. I’m really pleased with it.”

Secondly, Reid is to participate in a major anti-war art exhibition at the Aquarium Gallery in London, beginning mid March. “A few years back, I was asked to do something for the peace coalition, so it all came from that,” says Reid, who is contributing four pieces to the event. These include Peace is Tough, a witty treatment of John Wayne wearing lipstick, also the front cover of Greil Marcus’ book In the Fascist Bathroom. Plus, there is a new piece, portraying Blair and Bush rather aptly as reptiles. “Really evil ones,” says Reid.

“The Iraq war, like so many wars, was something done to fulfil other aims — greed and domination,” says Jamie, who attended last year’s anti-war marches in Liverpool, where he currently resides. “It’s something that I was brought up with. Both my mum and dad were in the CND movement and, at an early age, I was dragged off to the Aldermarston marches, which were brilliant for a kid. And my brother was in the Committee of 100, in fact he was one of Spies for Peace”. The National Committee of 100 was founded in October 1960 in response to a call from Bertrand Russell and Reverend Michael Scott for a movement of non-violent resistance to nuclear war and to the manufacture and use of all weapons of mass extermination. Part of that movement, the anarchist Spies for Peace broke into a secret government bunker at Warren Row near Reading. “My brother was one of the six who got tried for treason. Treason!” It’s a word that Jamie relishes.

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Clearly, Reid had a lot to live up to, but he soon more than fulfilled this rebellious family tradition with his very own brand of politicised hi-jinx. In the early 70s, he worked for the Situation-esque Suburban Press, a community printing outfit pumping out material for women’s groups, anarchists and their own mag covering issues like the consumer society and boredom. Anti-media sticker campaigns – “LIES” – were launched, while Reid also produced the graphics for the Christopher Gray translation of Situationist text Leaving the 20th Century. But in 1975, a disillusioned Reid left London for the peace of the Outer Hebrides – until, in 1976, a telegram from old college mate Malcolm McLaren drew him back into the fray.

In the capital, Reid was one of the people around the Sex Pistols who pushed the group in a political direction. “Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm wanted to milk the Bay City Rollers phenomenon and weren’t happy about the band being political,” says Jamie, undermining McLaren’s recent claims in the Daily Mail where he reasserted his “evil” and “devilish” primacy regarding the Pistols. As for Rotten, Reid watched bits and pieces of I’m a Celebrity… and thought the former Pistols frontman was “a bit mad”: “I think he would have won it, though. He’s charismatic and very entertaining. He’s mellowed, too, although the nastiness was always there in the background.”

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In 1976, Reid co-wrote the lyrics of “Anarchy in the UK” and produced a series of images – the anarchy Union Jack, the Queen with a safety pin through her lip, the Vacant Nowhere bus – which was nothing less than a declaration of war on the establishment and which remains a potent and instantly recognisable icon of opposition. It’s the definitive pop political art statement which remains pertinent in its pointedness, a world away from the current art scene. “Brit art – Hirst and Emin, etc – leave me cold,” says Jamie. “I associate the YBAs with Thatcherism – it was spawned out of that, people paying a lot of money for nothing. It’s just empty gestures – the nouvelle cuisine of the art world”.

Of course, Reid’s Pistols work has now been picked up as badge of rebel chic by the glitterati, the Liams and Robbies. Prints start at £300 on Greenwich High Street, but that’s the way of the world.

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“A lot of stuff is anaesthetised – that’s the nature of the beast,” says Reid. “The way to cope with that is to move on to the next thing. Keep one step ahead all the time. It’s about tomorrow, and don’t worry about it or it’ll do your head in! Just keep moving on.”

Over the years, Reid has done nothing but bathe in fountains of fresh possibility. He soon left behind the blackmail lettering and safety pins – his anger had sharp edges – moving into areas just as close to his heart and, more importantly, his soul. Reid’s 80s and 90s work for world music outfit Afro Celt Sound System and Shoreditch recording complex the Strongroom, for instance, characterises a shift in which the focus has moved to an exploration of Reid’s long held – he was the original New Age groover around town – Druidic and Shamanistic faith.

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“Magic, to me is a matter of being practical. I mean, to try to create something with it,” says Jamie. “One example is the Strongroom, an old Victorian warehouse where, for over 20 years I’ve painted a series of big canvases using colour symbolism, astrological symbolism. Owner Richard Boote asked me to do one studio and didn’t stipulate what he wanted – it comes down to trust – and I just wanted to use that element of magic, for want of another word, in a solid way, in a real situation, actually creating an environment. Over the past two millennia, architecture has attempted to dominate people, make them feel inferior, servile. I wanted to create an environment that’s an inspiration.”

Groups such as the aforementioned Afro Celts – “They sell more albums than the Sex Pistols,” says Reid – and chartoppers The Prodigy can testify to his success.

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Reid’s paintings of astrological and magical symbols, flowers, mountains, and trees are part of a journey observing life as mystical microcosm and macrocosm.

“Again, this is a family thing,” says Reid, whose great uncle was Dr George Watson MacGregor-Reid, early 20th-century head of the Druidic Order. “There are connections over three or four generations. In many ways, political change can only come through spiritual change and I was brought up with that feeling. The two are intertwined – there’s a deep-seated socialist druid tradition in this country which considers certain thing to be our birthright: the right to housing, education. I hate labels but, yeah, I would describe myself as a socialist druid.”

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Over the past five years or so, Reid has been working on a series of paintings based on the Druidic Eight Fold Year. Apparently, these are the eight festivals which divide the so-called Wheel of the Year into the Druidic celebrations, including solstices and equinoxes. The premise is not just a hook but a starting point for a story that keeps developing to reveal new surprises.

“Whenever possible, I go on all sorts of jaunts with my wife, Maria, particularly around Scotland and Wales and take photos,” says Reid. “Many drawings and paintings come from that.”

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The Eight Fold Year is a massive body of work, important because its timescale, like the Strongroom project, underlines Reid’s belief in the process of slow deep change rather than the quick fix. Its style, meanwhile, characterises his current approach. The work bubbles, its cells weaving freely in and out of each other like the organism they compose. The wry and decompressed attitude towards imagery and abstraction exhibits witty unpretentiousness taken to the point of revelation. It moves beyond the living margins, zooming right into a floating, shimmering, half-remembered dreamworld. A murmur trembling on verge of coherence. Perfect for those desperate for sensation in the monochromatic, decontextualised city. Here, everything smells sad and good like it does after a heavy rain. You can’t put a price on this sort of stuff.

Miles away from ironic pleasure in nothingness, Reid’s art is something more difficult to accept: it is a provocation suggesting that, away from the density of the city, there are other places, environments. There is another pulse – that of the wilderness, of the other. In this, Reid remains an exponent of a visionary politics; he is a romantic, cool, anti-capitalist who would almost be quaint if his art wasn’t so vibrant.

“I’m on about how potentially beautiful it can be on this planet,” says Reid. “We’re so doctored from birth into not fulfilling our potential. But more and more things are always being revealed about how it’s all a con, about corruption and how we are being manipulated by the powers that be. Not just the obvious political things but the stuff that lies beyond that in spiritual terms. I’m always dabbling in different things, but I’ve come to the conclusion in my older years that beauty is the best weapon we’ve got. It’s the one thing that the powers can’t replicate.” Jamie is talking about a beauty from within. “You go as deep as you can,” he says, referring to something that, wrapped around our minds and mingling with our dreams, laughs in sympathy with all of us caught small and exposed in the maelstrom of harsh forces. The laughter of true celebration of the tenacity that keeps people going despite the knocks.

Jamie is inspired by a strong “belief in living”, he says, while his muse remains his wife Maria, with whom he has one daughter, Rowan. Jamie refuses to talk too much about her, except to say, “She’s one of the only Liverpudlians left up here. Everywhere, it seems, is losing its identity. London, Newcastle, Liverpool are all the same these days with a universal look, the same bars – it’s all based around hedonism, which I’m not interested in. The culture business is taking over. There are no Cockneys anymore, no Geordies, no Scousers: everyone has a universal university accent”. (“Yeah, roight, matee,” sez oi.)

“But there’s still no pretension in Liverpool,” Jamie continues. “Although, in the future I fancy a bit of countryside – Dorset, Devon, or the West Coast of Ireland. It’s much more open down there.”

However, before making the big move to rurality, Reid has work to complete. There’s a new DVD on its way, and another exhibition at the Aquarium Gallery in September, featuring a selection of prints and screenprints on both canvas and roof slate. Good news for those who have fallen for Jamie Reid’s sheer desire, one of the charms of which is to move beyond common sense and offer a peek at the extraordinary, elevating his story from the mundane to the mythic.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Cabut, has written on popular culture for the NME, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph magazine, ZigZag, Vague, Offbeat, Comic Strip magazine, Hello!, travel site Hotbunk and Siren mag. Pen names include Richard North. Richard also published his own punk mag Kick, played in punk rock band Brigandage (album: Pretty Funny Thing), and worked with handicapped kids as Arts, drama and literary worker at the Hackney Community Workshop. He has been interviewed by countless fanzines, pirate shows, The Face, LWT etc. He currently works for the BBC, writes fiction, cycles around London and takes photographs.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 12th, 2004.