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George Underwood Interview In New Mojo Special

Total Blam Blam's picture
on March 20, 2007

You want to fight...

MOJO magazine has published another of it's regular specials: The Greatest Album Covers. Naturally, David Bowie is featured and George Underwood is interviewed about his work for David. He also describes the lead-up to the moment that changed David's appearance for good...A version of events that David has confirmed as absolutely true.

Actually, it was as I read George's recollection of this event that it hit me that David and his two childhood friends, George Underwood and Geoff MacCormack, have been his friends since they were eight-years-old! All three have turned sixty this year, which means they've been best mates for fifty two years so far.

That would be impressive in a normal setting, so it's even more special that they have remained in touch across the years. Sorry, I digress, but I think you'll agree it's the kind of thing that rock people aren't really known for, but I know David values these friendships dearly. Awwrrrr.

Anyway, here follows an edited excerpt of George's MOJO piece.

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"Freaky bisexual alien rock'n'roller" Original photo that became George's Stardust Memories painting.

MOST COMMERCIAL ARTISTS are known only for their published work. But not George Underwood. Before his association with a number of classic album covers, he had another claim to fame: changing the course of popular music by punching his best mate in the eye. Remember when David Bowie sold himself as a curly-haired cockney Dylan before coming on as a freaky bisexual alien rock'n'roller? Ziggy Stardust was a more believable creation on the basis of Bowie's different-coloured eyes: one blue, the other appearing brown because of a permanently dilated pupil (a medical condition known as anisocoria) that had been caused by an accident.

"It was coming up to David's 15th birthday," recalls George Underwood now. "We both liked the same girl, Carol Goldsmith, so I invited her to a party David got absolutely rat-arsed, but I stayed sober and asked Carol out, and she said, 'Yes, next Wednesday at the youth club.' David was a competitive sort, and he was furious. On the day, he phoned me and said, 'She doesn't want to go out with you; she asked me to tell you.' I thought, Oh well, but went out anyway, and another friend said, 'You're late. Carol waited and then left.' David's call was complete bollocks, and when I later heard him boasting about how he'd got off with her, I saw red. I hit him. I didn't know until a week later that he'd been rushed to hospital, so I went to see him and said, 'It's not worth it over a girl', and we stayed friends."

Even so, Bowie remained competitive. By 1964, he and Underwood were half of R&B quartet The King Bees. Then Underwood landed a bona fide record deal. "David was really upset, saying, 'Music is my life, while you have your art to fall back on.' But he was right. Music wasn't a passion I could maintain." An art school graduate, Underwood started designing for a book publisher, specialising in "nasty little demonic drawings that shocked people". His first two commissions were for horror paperbacks. But when his drink was spiked with LSD, Underwood suffered a breakdown, was sectioned and took a year to begin drawing again.



George's painting on the reverse of the David Bowie Philips album.

THEN, IN 1969, in stepped Bowie himself. Energised by his first hit single, Space Oddity, Bowie already had a print by geometric abstract artist Vasarely to front his new album, David Bowie (reissued in 1972 as Space Oddity), but wanted an illustration for the back. (Above) Underwood still has the sketch Bowie gave him of various ideas ? "a fish in water, two astronauts holding a rose, rats in bowler hats representing the Beckenham Arts Lab committee types he was so pissed off with", George recalls. "I added a few of my own, such as the Buddha."


Highly collectable and extremely rare original Ziggy Stardust live
poster by George Underwood, for which I was recently offered a
thousand pounds for my copy. I wasn't tempted...well, perhaps a bit.

For his 1971 release, Hunky Dory, Bowie again sought out Underwood. George was now running his own studio with airbrush artist Terry Pastor, and Bowie requested a colourised version of a photo of himself in "Hollywood '30s actress" mode. George did a hand-tinted version, "but Terry came back with a much nicer airbrushed version, which David liked". The same procedure followed with Ziggy Stardust: David briefed George, who briefed Terry "Airbrushing has that misty, diffused effect," says Underwood. "It creates a comic-book effect."


Unreleased Ziggy Stardust live at Santa Monica album sleeve from 1972. Later made into a print.

Ziggy Stardust turned Bowie into an even bigger star, but Underwood and his wife still joined the Bowies on a transatlantic sea voyage to New York before designing a cover for a live Ziggy album, (above) which remains unreleased. It would be the last time the two worked together.

Analysing the visual themes of George's painting ? warriors, giants, angels, "the sort of vulnerable heroes that time forgot, the things that legends are made of" ? you'd imagine that no band of modern times, Bowie included, will beat a path to his door. "People know me because of David, which is fair enough," says Underwood, grinning. "I'm proud to be his friend." And as for that accidental punch..."Neither of us knew then that I'd actually done him a favour."

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Great stuff. George also talks about his other album sleeve designs in the feature, including his work for Marc Bolan.

MOJO's The Greatest Album Covers special is in all good newsagents now, and in a few crap ones too no doubt.

FOOTNOTE: Each of the above images in this news item link to something relevant to that picture...Click away!

blog image: 
    20 March 2007
    George Underwood Interview In New Mojo Special

    You want to fight...

    MOJO magazine has published another of it's regular specials: The Greatest Album Covers. Naturally, David Bowie is featured and George Underwood is interviewed about his work for David. He also describes the lead-up to the moment that changed David's appearance for good...A version of events that David has confirmed as absolutely true.

    Actually, it was as I read George's recollection of this event that it hit me that David and his two childhood friends, George Underwood and Geoff MacCormack, have been his friends since they were eight-years-old! All three have turned sixty this year, which means they've been best mates for fifty two years so far.

    That would be impressive in a normal setting, so it's even more special that they have remained in touch across the years. Sorry, I digress, but I think you'll agree it's the kind of thing that rock people aren't really known for, but I know David values these friendships dearly. Awwrrrr.

    Anyway, here follows an edited excerpt of George's MOJO piece.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


    "Freaky bisexual alien rock'n'roller" Original photo that became George's Stardust Memories painting.

    MOST COMMERCIAL ARTISTS are known only for their published work. But not George Underwood. Before his association with a number of classic album covers, he had another claim to fame: changing the course of popular music by punching his best mate in the eye. Remember when David Bowie sold himself as a curly-haired cockney Dylan before coming on as a freaky bisexual alien rock'n'roller? Ziggy Stardust was a more believable creation on the basis of Bowie's different-coloured eyes: one blue, the other appearing brown because of a permanently dilated pupil (a medical condition known as anisocoria) that had been caused by an accident.

    "It was coming up to David's 15th birthday," recalls George Underwood now. "We both liked the same girl, Carol Goldsmith, so I invited her to a party David got absolutely rat-arsed, but I stayed sober and asked Carol out, and she said, 'Yes, next Wednesday at the youth club.' David was a competitive sort, and he was furious. On the day, he phoned me and said, 'She doesn't want to go out with you; she asked me to tell you.' I thought, Oh well, but went out anyway, and another friend said, 'You're late. Carol waited and then left.' David's call was complete bollocks, and when I later heard him boasting about how he'd got off with her, I saw red. I hit him. I didn't know until a week later that he'd been rushed to hospital, so I went to see him and said, 'It's not worth it over a girl', and we stayed friends."

    Even so, Bowie remained competitive. By 1964, he and Underwood were half of R&B quartet The King Bees. Then Underwood landed a bona fide record deal. "David was really upset, saying, 'Music is my life, while you have your art to fall back on.' But he was right. Music wasn't a passion I could maintain." An art school graduate, Underwood started designing for a book publisher, specialising in "nasty little demonic drawings that shocked people". His first two commissions were for horror paperbacks. But when his drink was spiked with LSD, Underwood suffered a breakdown, was sectioned and took a year to begin drawing again.



    George's painting on the reverse of the David Bowie Philips album.

    THEN, IN 1969, in stepped Bowie himself. Energised by his first hit single, Space Oddity, Bowie already had a print by geometric abstract artist Vasarely to front his new album, David Bowie (reissued in 1972 as Space Oddity), but wanted an illustration for the back. (Above) Underwood still has the sketch Bowie gave him of various ideas ? "a fish in water, two astronauts holding a rose, rats in bowler hats representing the Beckenham Arts Lab committee types he was so pissed off with", George recalls. "I added a few of my own, such as the Buddha."


    Highly collectable and extremely rare original Ziggy Stardust live
    poster by George Underwood, for which I was recently offered a
    thousand pounds for my copy. I wasn't tempted...well, perhaps a bit.

    For his 1971 release, Hunky Dory, Bowie again sought out Underwood. George was now running his own studio with airbrush artist Terry Pastor, and Bowie requested a colourised version of a photo of himself in "Hollywood '30s actress" mode. George did a hand-tinted version, "but Terry came back with a much nicer airbrushed version, which David liked". The same procedure followed with Ziggy Stardust: David briefed George, who briefed Terry "Airbrushing has that misty, diffused effect," says Underwood. "It creates a comic-book effect."


    Unreleased Ziggy Stardust live at Santa Monica album sleeve from 1972. Later made into a print.

    Ziggy Stardust turned Bowie into an even bigger star, but Underwood and his wife still joined the Bowies on a transatlantic sea voyage to New York before designing a cover for a live Ziggy album, (above) which remains unreleased. It would be the last time the two worked together.

    Analysing the visual themes of George's painting ? warriors, giants, angels, "the sort of vulnerable heroes that time forgot, the things that legends are made of" ? you'd imagine that no band of modern times, Bowie included, will beat a path to his door. "People know me because of David, which is fair enough," says Underwood, grinning. "I'm proud to be his friend." And as for that accidental punch..."Neither of us knew then that I'd actually done him a favour."

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Great stuff. George also talks about his other album sleeve designs in the feature, including his work for Marc Bolan.

    MOJO's The Greatest Album Covers special is in all good newsagents now, and in a few crap ones too no doubt.

    FOOTNOTE: Each of the above images in this news item link to something relevant to that picture...Click away!