The JamBase Concert Poster Primer: Part 1
The Rise of Concert Poster Art
The countercultural roots and rise of concert posters from the 1950s to 1970s.
By Nate Todd Sep 6, 2022 • 1:44 pm PDT
Imagine walking down a bustling street. A vibrantly colorful poster catches your eye over the mingling throng. The central image is a woman with long, flowing hair unfurling into arabesque curls. She’s smoking something. The smoky haze trails off behind her into a mysterious space. Where are we? When are we?
If you guessed strolling through San Francisco in the psychedelic sixties — bingo. You would also be correct if you guessed sauntering through Paris in the late-1890s. How can this be? Let’s find out. In this first installment of a four-part JamBase series in partnership with Psychedelic Art Exchange – the premier source to buy, sell, and learn about vintage concert posters – we’ll examine The Rise of Concert Poster Art: 1950s – 1970s & Ties to Counterculture.
The woman in the central image of the poster described above originally appeared in an 1898 JOB cigarette papers poster by Czech-born Parisian artist Alphonse Mucha. In 1966, pioneering psychedelic poster artists Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley — who worked for the famed Family Dog collective — “borrowed” Mucha’s JOB woman for use in a poster advertising a concert for Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Big Brother & The Holding Company and others at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom on October 7 and 8, 1966.
FD-29 in the Family Dog numbered series to be exact. Mouse gave the image the appropriate psychedelia, adding green hair and two-tone purple dress and skin — known more commonly as “Girl with Green Hair.” These posters are just one example of the myriad tendrils that tie poster art history together.
Both Mucha’s JOB poster and the Family Dog’s “Girl with Green Hair” are selling something — one rolling papers and one a concert. Posters advertise. But they are also art. Posters invoke ideas and feelings, compelling the viewer to step into the image — or take it home with them.
Family Dog de facto art director Chet Helms saw parallels between the birth of modern poster art in turn-of-the-century France and the psychedelic concert poster art scene of San Francisco in the ‘60s.
“The modern poster originated in belle epoque France,” Helms stated in Paul Grushkin’s 1987 best-selling book The Art Of Rock: From Presley To Punk. “Contemporary accounts describe how avid collectors unceremoniously stripped opera and café posters from walls, even before the glue could dry. I believe we experienced a parallel evolution some eighty years later in San Francisco.”
As Helms noted, both eras were characterized by a desire to collect — to possess.
“It was very disconcerting to poster a whole street and then walk back a few minutes later and discover that 90% had been removed,” he added. “But I soon learned that a stolen poster carried home and pasted on the refrigerator reached the audience I wanted.”
While Mucha was a central figure in “belle epoque France,” one of his Parisian contemporaries is also of note. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec created posters for the famed Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris. Not unlike his psychedelic ‘60s colleagues, absinthe-enthusiast Toulouse-Lautrec drew inspiration from bohemianism, an unconventional lifestyle that would later inspire the beatniks and hippies of the 1950s and ‘60s.
In contrast to bohemian, beatnik and hippie anti-establishment ideals, early posters were also useful to governments for political propaganda and armed forces recruitment. Conversely, the counterculture of the ‘60s would use posters to organize anti-war and civil rights actions as well as concerts.
Early Concert Poster Art
The modern concert poster has roots in cardboard posters for boxing matches. As progenitor genres of rock ‘n’ roll like blues, R&B and country music moved more into a commercialized sphere in the 1950s, concert promoters borrowed the style of the boxing posters, which often featured bolded names and or pictures of the artists paired with bright colors to catch the eye. A number of prominent printing companies began filling the market for posters. These included Nashville’s Hatch Show Print and Baltimore’s Globe Poster and Colby Poster.
As a Nashville-based shop, Hatch Show Print — a family company run by master woodblock carver Will Hatch — created posters most notably for the country-centric Grand Ole Opry. Globe Poster is credited as the first to use “Day-Glo” ink in posters. Many of these were highly collectible at the time and still are, namely for the legendary names that graced them like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown and others.
When Elvis Presley became “The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” there was little need for posters to advertise his shows, as was also the case with the rise of The Beatles and Bob Dylan in the early 1960s. The fact that posters were used less for Elvis, The Beatles and Dylan once they became mega-stars, makes them highly collectible and often rare.
Posters were still used for British Invasion bands — chief among them The Rolling Stones — as well as in the promotion of folk shows and festivals in Dylan’s realm. However, as the music moved into the mainstream, posters played a lesser role. But the artistry of The Beatles, Dylan and Stones would usher in a new era for concert posters – mirrored by a burgeoning psychedelic scene.
Birth Of The Psychedelic Era
By the summer of 1965, a new movement was brewing in San Francisco, growing from the beatnik bastion of the Bay Area’s North Beach and spilling over into the Haight-Ashbury district. The new aesthetic was glimpsed in North Beach shops like the Magic Theater For Madmen Only, co-founded by visual artist and musician Michael Ferguson. Ferguson would team up with a sharp dressing artist and San Francisco State student named Geroge Hunter, as Ferguson relates in The Art Of Rock.
“George was the first hippie I ever saw in San Francisco. George was the one who turned everyone on out at State, and he turned on the Haight… And when you walked into his pad, that too was a trip. I’d hung out in artists’ pads before, but George’s … he had gaslights in his house, and he was into a Victorian trip in a big way, totally. And I think he designed the band, Charlatans, to sound like and look like the things going around in his head. Part of our difficulty in sustaining the band was that George couldn’t quite communicate the total vision to the rest of us.”
As Ferguson notes, The Charlatans were short-lived but are widely regarded as one of the first psychedelic rock bands. The Charlatans’ old-timey aesthetic was perfect for the newly reconstructed Wild West-themed Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. In June 1965, the band auditioned — on LSD.
“It’s true we actually auditioned on acid,” Ferguson confirmed in The Art Of Rock. “What a rubbery experience!”
Naturally, the fledgling Charlatans psychedelic Red Dog scene gave rise to what is pointed to as the first poster of the psychedelic era, dubbed “The Seed.” Ferguson did much of the hand-drawing on “The Seed” with help from Hunter on text and lettering. He described the process:
“George had ideas about the lettering, and he also provided the slogan, ‘The Amazing Charlatans.’… But I had an inkling in my own mind of what it ought to look like as a complete piece. And I wanted to do it sort of Victorianish, with little oval frames around the caricatures. Like all rock posters, it was done at a late hour, in a big rush to get it finished … George did some of the cross-hatching on the final piece, but all the little details, like the iron cross, the crescent moon, and the swastika, are mine. Looking at it from a distance of some years, I think that if there could have been more time taken with it, it could have been really a terrific poster. But it was the first.”
The Family Dog Series & Bill Graham Catalog
With Summer 1965 winding down, talk of happenings similar to the Red Dog scene began spreading through San Francisco. A group of people living in a communal setting in a house at 2111 Pine Street in San Francisco picked up the torch. They would become known as the Family Dog. Among the folks living at the “Dog House” were aforementioned artist Alton Kelley and student activist Luria Castell. Castell and others began organizing rock dances with Kelley designing the posters.
The first dance they dubbed “A Tribute To Dr. Strange,” influenced by housemate and collaborator Ellen Harmon’s love of Marvel comics. Kelley did the poster for the show at Longshoremen Hall on Fisherman’s Wharf which featured The Charlatans as well as Jefferson Airplane and The Great Society. Castell, Kelley and the Family Dog would continue to put on dances with bands like The Lovin’ Spoonful and Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention. They also worked with future Grateful Dead crew members Danny Rifkin and Rock Scully.
But after some bad experiences and having to compete with one of head Merry Prankster Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, Castell moved to Mexico and Chet Helms stepped into her role. Helms managed Big Brother & The Holding Company and had planned a more public show with Castell at California Hall. But when Castell departed, the plans fell through and Helms approached concert promoter-on-the-rise, Bill Graham. Graham had successfully helmed dance benefits for the San Francisco Mime Troupe and had his fingerprints on the era-defining 1966 Trips Festival, conceptualized by Kesey and others.
Graham capitalized on the buzz around the Trips Festival and brought its “sights and sounds” to the Fillmore, which he initially shared with the Family Dog to put on concerts. Graham also brought along an artist who had worked on the Mime Troupe shows as well as the Trips Festival, Wes Wilson. Wilson would create some of the first posters for two of the most important runs in poster art history: The Family Dog and Bill Graham numbered series. These landmark collections of the psychedelic era established concert posters as high art, which could, and would, be cataloged and collected.
The Big Five Poster Artists
Wilson, working closely with Chet Helms, had a hand in the first dozen Family Dog posetrs save for FD 11. He also created posters for Bill Graham and in doing so established the psychedelic lettering style. Wilson shared his process of creating the lettering:
“Posters to me represented real departure points. I like the idea of filling up space, and I like to do my work freehand — no ruler and stuff. Just make it fit naturally. If I needed to make a letter a little wider, well, I would. So, early on, I was already headed in a certain direction, and when I found this catalog for the November 1965 Jugendstil and Expressionism exhibit at the University of California, which included Viennese Secessionist lettering, I was able to adapt it and use it on almost all my posters from that point on. It was the easiest type of lettering imaginable. You just draw the outlines and put in these little intrusions to make each space become a letter. Playing with foreground and background helped me work out patterns and shapes … A lot of my early posters for the Fillmore involve great masses of lettering, because lettering was really fascinating to me, especially using letters as ‘negative spaces,’ the way some woodblocks are done.”
While Wilson’s work was groundbreaking, he and Graham had creative and monetary differences leading to Wilson leaving Graham’s operation in May 1967. Graham’s wife, Bonnie MacLean, stepped into Wilson’s role. MacLean did the chalkboard artwork at the Fillmore, as Graham noted:
“Bonnie always did the chalk art for the billboards at the Fillmore. One billboard featured the acts for the current show, the other promoted our show for the following week. Her chalk pieces were posters in themselves, conveying messages as the posters did — subtle, decorative, and amusing. The blackboards gave me the idea she could do posters for the Fillmore, and when Wes left, Bonnie took over.”
Wilson also left Family Dog and into his role stepped Stanley Mouse. The Detroit artist had already made a name for himself, Mouse Studios, working primarily in the airbrush medium on the hot rod circuit. Whereas Wilson created FD 2 – 11, Mouse began working with the Family Dog on FD-13, a Captain Beefheart concert at the Avalon in June 1966. Often working closely with Alton Kelley, Mouse had a hand in creating 26 of the next 36 Family Dog posters, cementing psychedelia as a visual art form.
Here’s Mouse on some of his pieces:
“I came in around June and did a Captain Beefheart piece, my first. Then Kelley and I started working together. We did that great ‘Zig Zag Man’ one, which I was terribly afraid would get us busted, and then I did a lacy Jefferson Airplane piece, then the RCA dog, then ‘Men in a Rowboat’ — which has become one of the rarest in the Family Dog numbered series. A few others led us up to the Grateful Dead ‘Skull & Roses,’ which still gives me a lot of satisfaction…”
Mouse mentions FD-26, the iconic “Skull & Roses” or “Skelton & Roses.” Done for a two-night Grateful Dead run at the Avalon Ballroom on September 16 and 17, 1966, the piece helped to establish the Dead’s aesthetic.
Not long after moving to the Bay Area in 1964, Mouse went down to Southern California to airbrush t-shirts at a fair. A kid came up to his booth and asked if he could paint the surfing character “Murphy” that was born in Surfer Magazine. Being new to California, Mouse didn’t know who “Murphy” was, much to the kid’s amusement. He later learned it was a famous cartoon by Rick Griffin. Interestingly, Mouse and Kelley’s work with the Family Dog enticed Griffin to move to San Francisco two years later.
Griffin was already somewhat initiated, having been to the Red Dog Saloon in ‘65 as well as attending Ken Kesey’s Watts Acid Test in early 1966. Griffin also teamed up with a group of traveling musicians called the Jook Savages and began creating art for them. Griffin talked about his integration into more steady poster artwork in an interview with Zig Zag Magazine quoted in The Art Of Rock:
“The Jook Savages finally made the trip up the coast together. And all of us arriving from Los Angeles was something of an event. We just fell right in. Our band played at a few small concerts, and then we were invited to put on an art exhibition at the Psychedelic Shop, in Haight-Ashbury. I did the poster, which was my first, and while I was taking it down to the printer, I met the organizers of the Human Be-In. And they asked me to do a poster for this real special event which took place in January 1967, and that was the second piece I did in San Francisco. When Chet Helms, who was running the Avalon for the Family Dog, saw my Jook Savages poster and my Human Be-In poster, he said to me, ‘Hey man, you’ve got to do posters for the Family Dog, too. We really want you to do our posters.’ And that’s how I got started doing regular dance posters.”
Griffin went on to work on the Bill Graham numbered series. One of his most famous pieces is BG-105 or the “Flying Eyeball.” Here’s Graham on Griffin:
“What Rick had were those searing color combinations. I look at his ‘Eyeball,’ or his ‘Heart and Torch,’ and I see beautiful, beautiful color, even over and above the beauty of his drawings. He was so skilled with the pen, but what I think made his posters so wonderful was his exuberant use of color. So rich. So warm. Rick had a very delicate strength, and his posters have a special, distinctive look.”
Another artist who used color expertly was Victor Moscoso. The New Yorker had a great deal of academic art training, which included a master’s degree from Yale. While his schooling served him well in a technical aspect, he had to adapt to the cutting-edge psychedelic poster art scene. Here’s Grushkin on Moscoso:
“[T]he artist soon discovered that training was not enough, that the new art form required a certain reliance on instinct, a willingness to let go. In his subsequent work for the Family Dog, Moscoso set about violating many hard-learned formal rules in an effort to overcome self-conscious inhibition. He used clashing, vibrating colors and deliberately illegible psychedelic lettering to hold — to demand — attention, so that a viewer would ‘have to spend at least three minutes figuring the thing out.’ Moscoso played with the viewer’s faculties of perception — faculties often heightened or at least altered by drugs.”
While Moscoso did work for Family Dog, he also did a lauded run of posters for San Francisco club the Matrix, founded by Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin. The Neon Rose series is “characterized by vibrating edges and borders and by bright, intense colors inspired in part by Moscoso’s study with Josef Albers at Yale,” as per Grushkin.
Moscoso, Mouse, Kelley, Griffin and Wilson are collectively known as the “Big Five.” Along with Bonnie MacLean, these artists — just as much as the great San Francisco bands like the Dead and Airplane — were at the forefront of ushering in an artistic revolution that became a cultural revolution, firmly establishing a counterculture. It’s no coincidence that the Summer Of Love took place in 1967 when these artists were at the height of their powers.
But to quote Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
“We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Thompson wrote that passage in 1971 around the same time the Bill Graham numbered series ended. The Family Dog numbered series came to a close in 1968. Graham also commissioned posters for his Fillmore East, although the output was not as prolific; the first however, Jimi Hendrix in 1968, is iconic.
The ‘60s lamented end is well documented. But as the world changed, so did art and artists. A new revolution was on the horizon. Stay tuned for Part Two: The Continued Rise of Concert Poster Art In The 1970s & Beyond.