From his iconic cover art for Massappeal to his Hard-Ons fliers, Ben Brown’s nihilistic images have become synonymous with Australia’s early ?90s punk scene. But while his work has always drawn heavily on skulls, bones and despair, it’s still very tongue in cheek, writes TIM SCOTT.
As far as iconic Australian punk rock imagery goes, you’d be hard pressed to top Warwick Gilbert’s classic Radio Birdman logo. But Ben Brown’s cover for Massappeal’s 1986 EP Nobody Likes a Thinker comes close.
With just pen, brush and ink, Brown’s image of a skeletal longhaired guy holding a gun in his mouth while wearing a shirt that says ?Choose Life? managed to capture the spirit of Massappeal’s speed and fury. It also came to symbolise the suburban teenage angst that made up most of Sydney’s punk, skate and surf scenes of the late ?80s and early ?90s. Nihilistic, yes. Humorous, yes. Awesome, most definitely.
?I was friends with all the Massappeal guys and I had been doing handbills for them for a while,? says Brown. ?I was just mucking around with stupid images and drawings. There was an earlier version of that drawing from a show with The Hard-Ons and a heap of other bands. I can’t remember exactly why we used that image – it just ended up being re-drawn as the cover.
“I can’t really remember doing it either. I lived with some friends in Manly and had a table set up in my room for drawing. I probably did it there or in front of the television. I don’t have the original but Brett Curotta [Massappeal’s guitarist] might have it somewhere.?
On the surface, a psychotic guy about to blow his brains out may seem like just another messed-up image in punk’s long history of nihilism. But the ?Choose Life? T-shirt makes it hilariously absurd. This came to be a recurring theme in Brown’s early work. There were lots of skulls, but also lots of humour.
?The rendering of death and destruction holds no real symbolic meaning for me. It’s about the silliness of the situation or image. My work has always drawn heavily on skulls, bones and despair, but it is very tongue in cheek. It’s an ironic way of portraying our culture out of control. There is a lot of fun to be had with the macabre – and it looks fantastic.?
Matt Reekie, editor of Sydney’s Unbelievably Bad magazine, has been a fan of Brown’s work for years. He says the appeal of his art lies in his ability to convey a band’s raw energy on an A5 piece of paper.
?Ben Brown was the closest thing the Australian punk scene had to famous US punk artists such as [Raymond] Pettibon [Black Flag, SST Records] or Pushead [Septic Death, Metallica]. Like those guys, he created a distinct visual style that goes along with a certain sound. But I think what Brown had, especially in his early handbill art for
Massappeal and the Hellmen, was a special ability to encapsulate all the fun of the forthcoming show. You look at a gnarly skeleton in the tube of a huge barrel on the flyer for a Hard-Ons/Massappeal gig and you just want to be there moshing with your mates.
?The rendering of death and destruction holds no real symbolic meaning for me. It’s about the silliness of the situation or image.?
?I also think the amount of effort he put into many of his early handbills inspired many other bands and artists to try harder with their shit, or at least to think more about the way they presented themselves through their artwork.?
Brown agrees that his artwork sits somewhere between the gnarly skulls of Pushead (aka Brian Schroeder) and Petibon’s more politicised illustrations.
?Yes they are good references stylistically. I love their stuff still. They are both very active artists today. I was also influenced by other guys around me too such as Ray Ahn and Fred Negro, and all sorts of different artists. But Pushead and Petibon were definitely a strong influence.?
One artist influenced heavily by Brown is Steve Cohen, illustrator and guitarist/vocalist for Melbourne thrashers Cut Sick.
?I think the words ?holy fuck? sum up how I felt when I first saw the cover of Nobody Likes a Thinker,? explains Cohen. ?A suicidal man with a gun in his mouth is hardly an original concept, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen that idea been done so spot on. The newspaper clippings, pills, flying hair. It’s easily my favourite record cover.?
Cohen, who designed covers for Cut Sick’s Fraudulent Little Fuckers* and *End It All LPs, says he incorporates Brown’s raw aesthetic and style into his own art.
?It’s probably no secret by now that Ben Brown and Ray Ahn are big inspirations,? he says. ?The thing I was attracted to the most was the Massappeal and Hard-Ons handbills/T-shirts I managed to track down. They just made me feel like I could be doing the same thing.?
The inspiration has come with a price, however.
?Those guys kind of ruined my life actually,? he jokes. ?I lose a lot of sleep now because I’ll come up with an idea for a flyer or something late at night and it just has to be done, regardless if I have to work the next day. I never felt this way before seeing their art. It’s Ben’s linework that I like most about his art. It’s completely raw and scratchy. It just adds to the, ?I can’t take this shit no more, I want to fucking die? vibe.?
A longstanding Australian punk myth is that, after Metallica’s James Hetfield was featured on the cover of Sounds* magazine sporting the *Nobody Likes a Thinker* shirt, merch sales went so ballistic that Massappeal were able to fund their 1989 album *Jazz on the profits.
?The T-shirt was merchandised through ACME, the big merch company at that time, and it sold really well nationally,? Brown confirms. ?I got my 20 percent cut and Massappeal used their cut to record. It was a good deal for all.?
Brown’s work for the Jazz record, however, was a departure. Gone were the skulls, with the artist adopting a more experimental, almost digital approach.
“I was keen to progress and try something new. It was before Macs were used to design stuff, so it was quite involved planning it and putting it all together. I still like it.”
Around this time, Brown started to get more commercial work for labels including Melbourne’s Au Go Go and Sydney’s Waterfront.
?In Sydney, promoters like Steve Pav [Pavlovic], Tim Pittman and Joe Seg were starting to tour international bands and I did a lot of posters for really cool bands. That was great fun. I did an LP cover for Bored!, one of my all time favourite bands, and all sorts of different things – from my mates? bands to work for triple j and Sony.?
In much the same way that Massappeal took the fast US hardcore approach and added a local flavor, Brown’s art is unmistakably Australian – from his work on the famous Australian punk rock compilation The Not So Lucky Country to his later prints of Ned Kelly and James Cook.
?The Not So Lucky Country featured that old Australian vaudeville guy Mo and Ginger Meggs. It was a pretty weird drawing. But I don’t think it was a very conscious decision. I hate all that nationalistic ?Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!? crap, but I like using Australian icons and that sort of thing. But like I said, it’s not a conscious thing – it’s where I live.?
In addition to his art, Brown fronted the Hellmen, a high octane rock’n?roll band that shared the stage with many of Australia’s best punk bands between 1987 and 1994.
?Back then there were lots of backyard parties, Harbour cruises, hilarious all-ages shows and heaps of inner-city and outer-suburban venues. We played with all kinds of bands too. You could have the Hummingbirds, Box the Jesuit, Hellmen, Massappeal and Ratcat all on the same bill. Every band sounded radically different from each other.?
Nowadays Brown has developed the more commercial side of his art, but still has a rabid fan base for his more extreme early work.
?I like doing art shows and there are healthy art scenes in both Sydney and Melbourne right now. I suppose my work has got a little more refined these days. I used to draw fast and furious and totally fill what ever space was available. Now I like to spend more time on the drawing and have more stark compositions to highlight the image or idea.?
Feeling Lucky, an exhibition of Brown’s prints and drawings, is at Marker Gallery in Melbourne from March 6-27.