When the Crayola company began to manufacture packs of crayons in 1903, they introduced kids to hitherto unknown multi-coloured artistic possibilities. Taking the ‘Cray’ from the French word for chalk, and the ‘ola’ from oleaginous, or oily, they also introduced new semantic potentials into the mix. Beginning with just eight colours, by the turn of the millennium they were producing 120 different hues, including 23 different shades of red.
The Red Krayola are a band formed in Houston, Texas almost 40 years ago and still a going concern. They may have changed their ‘C’ to a ‘K’ after Crayola took legal action over their original name, but as an organisation, they too have expanded, morphed, reinvented, accommodated and appropriated an ever-expanding palette of multi-coloured strategies.
In 1967, when Mayo Thompson, Frederick Barthelme and Steve Cunningham first released their debut album, The Parable of Arable Land and its follow-up, God Bless the Red Crayola and All Who Sail with It, The Red Crayola’s extremes— freeform freak-outs and all—were considered too wigged-out even for the peace and love generation. The band imploded at the fag-end of the 1960s, and Thompson put out a solo record, Corky’s Debt To His Father, before effectively being locked out of the love-in.
Yet, as the spokesperson of The Red Krayola, Thompson has remained a Zelig-like figure, a free-thinking, dialectically inclined Dr Seuss, always on the inside of the outside, landing in the right place at the right time, be it working as assistant to the pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, joining forces with the conceptual art collective Art & Language, or becoming in-house producer for the nascent Rough Trade Records, where he took a hand in what are now considered to be post-punk classics by such bands as The Monochrome Set, The Fall and The Raincoats.
Thompson was associate producer for Derek Jarman’s 1987 film The Last of England . He also talked Jarman into making videos for The Smiths. He had supermodel Rachel Williams pose for the cover of his 1995 album Amor and Language, penned essays for exhibition catalogues and—during the past decade’s incarnation of The Red Krayola—has worked with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, David Grubbs and other younger musicians centred around Chicago’s Drag City label.
Today Thompson resides in Edinburgh (when he’s not lecturing in sound at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design in California). After releasing a singles compilation in 2004, The Red Krayola is now poised to a new album, Introduction while a documentary is currently in development, to be directed by Chicago film-maker Amy Cargill. At the same time, the band’s association with the conceptual art group Art & Language is to be reignited via a long-gestating operatic project, Victorine . At the age of 62, Thompson, it seems, is still seeing Red.
‘Red is a concept,’ he ruminates in his down-home Houston burr, contemplating the possible roots of his band’s name. ‘And there is something that is red. That’s an interesting thought, to think that there are shades of The Red Krayola. Sky red. Pink. Crimson, I don’t know. The thing I liked about the name was that it was a child’s expressive instrument. It’s the next step after fingers, and red is the basic colour. I’m pretty sure that between black and white, in the middle, somewhere between these two extremes, there is red.’
Such an observation may be why Thompson named The Red Krayola’s 1999 album Fingerpainting . It also goes some way to explain the child-like glee with which he operates. But it hasn’t always been this way. ‘I was in a bad mood for about 20 years,’ says this man of impeccable Texan good manners. ‘I was out of the music business effectively. It was like being in Hollywood and you knock on the door, you open it up and you walk in, and it’s just a façade. ‘That was a revelation,’ he admits. ‘Then I got involved with politics, and I think that’s what put me in a really bad mood. With this tension between revolutionary thought and revolutionary practice, there’s always a kind of contradiction. After a while I realised that for my own purposes the contradiction was in keeping with that Left idea, to jack up the volume of the contradictions. Make them sharper, make ’em deeper, make ’em tougher, make ’em harder, make ’em more real, make ’em more powerful, make ’em inescapable, undeniable.
By the early 1970s, Thompson was working as an assistant for the iconic artist Robert Rauschenberg. Thompson met him by chance in Paris, and cemented their friendship by writing blurbs for a forthcoming exhibition.
‘He’s like Midas,’ says Thompson. ‘He’s got this in-built ability to not put anything in the wrong place, and I got to watch him work, and got to meet Cy Twombly, Leo Castelli, all these people who made American art history after the war. I also got to learn some stuff about how artists function. Because artists complain as a way of bragging. ‘Oh, I’ve gotta go to South America,’ and all this stuff.’
Thompson became involved in a film about Rauschenberg, but was taken off it when he fell out with his mentor over politics. ‘He eventually said that he always thought of himself as a loose Communist, and then realised he was actually a happy capitalist.’
There’s little rancour left now, however. ‘He’s done a damn sight more for the commonwealth than I have,’ Thompson admits, ‘and I will always have total respect for him. He’s a freedom fighter.’
It was around this time too, Thompson began his extended association with Art & Language, the conceptualist collective founded on both sides of the Atlantic to explore lines of critical practice.
‘I knew who they were from ’69 on, but didn’t really get to meet ’em until ’73. Then I came over here and met Michael Baldwin and Philip Pilkington and Charles Harrison and those people.’
He invited members of the collective to express their opinions on his record Corky’s Debt to His Father . The response was not altogether favourable, so Thompson threw down a gauntlet. ‘I said, “Well, why don’t y’all write some lyrics if you think that there’s another way of doing this? If you think this is bullshit, let me hear what you think ain’t bullshit.” ‘They gave me some very consequent stuff, which was historically related and embedded in a deep understanding of English history, and touched on linguistics and analytical philosophy.’
From the resulting 74 sets of lyrics, Thompson created Corrected Slogans, a densely populated album that somehow mixes an untutored, music-hall vibe with English folk airs, heavy theory and stand-up pranksterism. It also carries a palpable sense of liberation, whereby serious artists—of all people—are actually getting to be rock stars.
Thompson became a key figure in Art & Language, moving between the increasingly polarised London and New York factions and running the group’s journals, The Fox and Art-Language .
‘We formed an alliance,’ is how Thompson sees it. ‘We had strategies, and this whole strategy got to be a way forward, a way of sorting out who was who and what was what in Art & Language, and what direction it was gonna take. You get involved in the conversation, and you think, This is the conversation. This is the one.’
Around 1976, Thompson moved to London, where he was a key creative force behind the Art & Language performance video, ‘Nine Gross And Conspicuous Errors’. But it was an intense and volatile organisation, prone to schisms, and Thompson fell out with the group. The video was never released, though footage would later emerge in Art & Language’s 2005 exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London, where it came complete with karaoke opportunities. It was also presented alongside an exhibition in Nantes, France earlier this year.
Thompson returned to music, collaborating for several years with Pere Ubu, the Cleveland band whose ideas were clearly rooted in The Red Krayola’s oeuvre. An inevitable falling in with the fledgling record shop and label Rough Trade followed. In response to its DIY ethos, Thompson formed a Red Crayola ‘supergroup,’ featuring members of The Raincoats, Swell Maps and Lora Logic from Essential Logic.
The band’s first single, the dense and dubby 12’ cut, ‘Micro-Chips & Fish,’ was unjustifiably damned by John Peel as ‘arty shit’. The follow-up, the soundtrack to Lizzie Borden’s feminist future fantasy film, Born In Flames, found Thompson reunited with Art & Language. With the new supergroup loose-fit enough already, A&L stuck to writing duties for the era-defining 1981 album, Kangaroo? ‘I think they’d missed us writing songs together, and they liked the idea that they’d made this record, and began to appreciate the differences it made to their own practice and their own discourse. Something that art has had to face up to is that people who like art also like other forms of culture and other ways of doing things. There were people who admired Art & Language for their art, but who also liked the music.’
The painting on the cover of the 1981 Red Crayola/Art & Language album Kangaroo? was based on a painting by the German expressionist Georg Baselitz. By depicting the eponymous marsupial inverted, it suggested the world really had turned upside down. Its tracks boasted titles such as ‘The Principles Of Party Organisation’ and ‘The Mistakes Of Trotsky’ and—given the militant climate of the times—its clattering, junkyard-Brechtian cacophony sounded like a manifesto. For sure, in the album’s accompanying booklet, each set of lyrics came complete with a short commentary. ‘The philosophical premise of the record,’ Thompson points out, ‘was socialist-realist. It was a “what if …?” record. What if there was a record that took this idea seriously? What does socialist music sound like today? But ultimately it was a miscalculation. If it was a strategy to reshape the language and revolutionise the times, it failed signally.’
While ‘Prisoner’s Model’ was a pithy assault on officialdom’s patronising embrace of art therapy for prison inmates, ‘Portrait of VI Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock Parts I and II’ was part of a much bigger Art & Language project, which included an essay published the previous year. The single, ‘An Old Man’s Dream’, was based on a German poem by Max Horkheimer, which concerns Freudian psycho-analysis in a bourgeois state. Despite this, it was a girly swoon of a song and Thompson was convinced it would make Top of the Pops . Then again, as an arch commercialist raised on doo-wop as much as Duchamp, why wouldn’t he?
‘Pop songs are really free-standing things,’ Thompson points out, ‘and they can be surrounded by other things which are unlike them. Life’s a jukebox. Programme it. Have fun. Whereas in art, it’s much more tendentious in respect of the way meanings work. If you insist on pointing to the instability of certain kinds of functions, you’ve gotta do a lot of work to prove it.’
The follow-up Art & Language collaboration, Black Snakes (1983) was altogether smoother and funkier, but The Red Krayola have yet to make Top Of The Pops . In 1986, Art & Language were shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Gilbert & George won it, though Derek Jarman was also on the shortlist. That was year of The Smiths’s album The Queen Is Dead, for which Thompson persuaded Jarman to direct a promotional video. The following year came The Last Of England, Jarman’s savage anti-Thatcherite montage of guerrilla film-making. Thompson wrote a song for the soundtrack, which he persuaded the film’s star Tilda Swinton to sing.
‘It was something like working with Art & Language, convincing people whose natural domain is not music to sing,’ he comments now. ‘To win their trust really, and to say, “It may feel funny for you, but I swear to you it works.”’
Decamping to Germany for several years, Thompson penned two yet-to-be-published novels, collaborated on exhibitions, and eventually met David Grubbs, who introduced Thompson to the Drag City crowd. He moved back across the Atlantic, and a third phase of Red Krayola activities began.
There’s been no formal involvement between Art & Language and The Red Krayola during the last decade, but the title of the album Amor And Language (1995)—which included contributions by visual artists Albert Oehlen, Christopher Williams and mainstay Stephen Prina—referenced the past directly.
The image on the back cover of scantily clad supermodel playing dead was, Thompson points out, ‘Oehlen’s idea of a joke.’ Thompson recalls: ‘Christopher Williams calls me and says his teaching assistant works for a supermodel. We meet Rachel Williams, and she did that cover for zip. It was a great cover, but it generated brouhaha. People said it was sexist, because we’d taken pictures of a woman being dead. But it all worked out, because Rachel had also been a graduate student, and wrote a piece on Jeff Koons in which she didn’t slam him completely, but found something favourable there.’
On the front cover, Williams wields a movie camera, and inside she brandishes a Red Krayola lyric book: there’s something knowingly Warholian about the images. By coincidence, Thompson’s neighbour in California these days is sometime Warhol ‘superstar’ Mary Woronov.
Since 1995, Drag City has reissued the bulk of The Red Krayola’s back catalogue. Apart from the instrumental soundtrack to the film, Japan in Paris in LA (2004)—another work concerning the nature of the artist—‘Introduction’ is the first full-length Red Krayola album of new material since Blues, Hollers and Hellos in 2000. Thompson insists it’s ‘The friendliest record we’ve made since Corrected Slogans .
Thompson is also confident that the opera Victorine will be ready for production in 2007, more than 20 years after its original libretto was published in Art-Language . At last sighting, Victorine concerned a French policeman who mistakes the nude figures in paintings by Courbet and Manet for a serial killer’s victims. As you do. ‘I see some of the strategies we developed in the ’60s have now proliferated and become ‘ways of working’,’ observes Thompson. ‘If that shows we were on time with our thinking then I’m pleased about that. But where this leads, I have no idea. I can maybe see it in form and possibly some political content. But has the rest of the world caught up? That would suggest I knew where I was.’
Neil Cooper is a freelance journalist and theatre critic for The Herald