Original feature by John Robb printed here…LINK
Working in all mediums from music, to collage to film to theatre to pure art, Linder Sterling first rose to prominence in 1976 as one of the main players in the fertile and vibrant Manchester punk scene, and helped to define the aesthetic which helped make Manchester the key punk city alongside London. But although her influence on that scene and beyond has been enormous, it often gets overlooked to the extent that she seems to have been consciously written out of Manchester’s musical history. For instance, there is no Linder in Michael Winterbottom’s film of all things Mancunian and musical; 24- Hour Party People. But hopefully, Linder: Works 1976 – 2006, the recently published and definitive anthology of her artistic output should help to change all that.
There’s just so much great stuff in there: from her utterly iconic sleeve for the Buzzcocks ‘Orgasm Addict’ single (perhaps my favourite piece of punk artwork and that’s saying something when you consider how strong the artwork was during that period), to photographs from her recent The Working Class Goes to Paradise performance show at the Tate. Hers is a brilliant body of work that sits defiantly outside of the hyped-up, London-based art scene. In fact, currently residing in the seaside town of Morcambe, Linder chooses to operate on the fringes both geographically and artistically. As she explains,
“There is a coastal drift going on with our generation. Jon Savage (author of the highly-recommended England’s Dreaming) moved to the coast in Wales, and my husband and I moved to Morecambe. We are already on the margins of culture, so why not go right outside? Physically Morecambe is a great place to observe, disengaged from culture. I liked cities for a long time but not right now.”
Linder grew up in Wigan; a town which in the Seventies had its own rich and distinctive musical scene based around the legendary Wigan Casino.
“Everybody at school would go to the Casino. At the time it was always Northern Soul. I went a couple of times but when you grow up with something, it becomes a bit boring. I was more into folk music, listening mainly to Joan Baez, but also Bob Dylan. I also learned to play guitar and sing songs. There was a family that lived down the road, and they gave singing lessons for 50p an hour, and I would stay all night. They would tell me to write my own words, because in the folk tradition it was very normal to write your own songs.”
At the same time Linder was raiding the school library. “Because I went to a poor school, all we had to read were lots of books on Greek and Roman mythology. So I became an expert on the classics when I was about ten!”
She also found that she was good at drawing: so good in fact that she let it slip, bored by the easiness of it. But she picked it up again a couple of years later and qualified for art college in Manchester.
“At the end of the Sixties there was a pretty amazing art education to be had in Britain, and we came in at the tail end of it. Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett (two of the UK’s most influential graphic artists) were there at the same time.”
While student life in Manchester 2011 may be a riot of poncey bars and partying, back in 1973 things were very different, with Linder arriving in the city to find that it was artists) were there at the same time.”
While student life in Manchester 2006 may be a riot of poncey bars and partying, back in 1973 things were very different, with Linder arriving in the city to find that it was, “just like a slightly bigger version of Wigan. There wasn’t a lot going on in Manchester at the time. The Poly disco every Wednesday was the highlight. Otherwise, there was nowhere to hear Bowie and Roxy Music stuff, or the Philadelphia sound. And there weren’t many good bands around ” just
Deaf School, and they were from Liverpool.”
However, in her last year of art college, Linder went to see the second pivotal Sex Pistols concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.
“That evening I talked to the Buzzcocks: Pete Shelley, who was very friendly straight away and then Howard. We went for a drink afterwards at the Conti club.”
Linder colliding with The Buzzcocks was a crucial moment in all their lives. She became romantically involved with Howard Devoto, as well as collaborating closely with the band; providing artwork for flyers and record covers. Sterling, Devoto and Shelley were on the same trip, taking inspiration from Warhol’s New York set, but they were doing it for themselves in Manchester, which is even cooler. And this scene within a scene lived on Broughton Road in Salford.
“Howard and I lived in the same house: Pete Shelley lived next door. It was very close knit and fairly intense. But at the same time we had to keep our focus and our absolute integrity.”
It was a feverish time of energised creativity and shape shifting. “Punk was about self invention in a very literal sense, in that you had to actually make your own
clothes. Richard Boon (Buzzcocks manager at the time and another key member of the crew), was making shirts in a Jackson Pollock-style, while I was putting underwear over faces and making lingerie masks.”
Meanwhile, Linder’s viciously humorous sharp shocks of cut-up collage were challenging complacent notions of sex and sexuality.
Assaulting porn mags with scissors and juxtaposing them with scenes of cosy domesticity, she was contributing to the same fractured rush of punk rock, but with her art rather than ”â like her Buzzcocks buddies ” with a guitar sawn in half, and a vocalist in the form of Howard Devoto, singing snapshot lyrics over brittle pop songs.
“I was doing a combination of feminist statements and looking at things like pornography which was very hidden away. A lot of people thought my early work
was done by a man. They seemed to think only a man would work with that kind of imagery, and were genuinely shocked to discover it was created by a woman.”
Many of Linder’s provocative collages appeared in a publication called Secret
Public, on which she collaborated with the aforementioned Jon Savage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there weren’t many outlets willing to stock it ” and typically, the folk at the local radical bookshop totally missed the point.
“They took it at face value, thinking it actually was some kind of weird porn” she laughs. But by January 1977, Howard had left the Buzzcocks, disillusioned with where punk was heading ” and Linder too felt disenchanted.
“By 1977 there was a dilution of what was happening. Woman’s Own had ”Ëhow to be a punk’ fashion tips for your daughter; Zandra Rhodes had adopted the safety pins and the high end of fashion was getting interested. Punk had turned out to be not how one had hoped it would.”
So, putting the collages to one side, Linder took to pencilling a series of explicit drawings inspired by pornographic magazines,
“I was trying to decode pornography: pornography as a sexual shorthand and the way it’s very formulaic. And I was fascinated by the way pornography was very hidden. Britain was so prudish then. I remember sending off for fetishwear catalogues and they were not remotely sexual. They had everyday clothes made out of rubber, such as flared trousers ” really vile. Now, sexual imagery is part of everyday life and what was once only available in brown paper bags can now be found in Loaded. Its difficult to say if that’s for better or worse,” she comments ruefully. “Everything has its own complications…”
It was around this time that Linder first bumped into Morrissey, at a Sex Pistols concert at the Electric Circus in Manchester.
“He wanted to speak to Howard and Peter, but they were sound-checking so he spoke to me and we hit it off pretty quickly.’
For the next few years Morrissey and Linder hung out. A common world view was forged as the pair strolled around Southern Cemetery in Manchester. That mix of fifties glamour, feminism, vegetarianism and kitchen-sink dramas purveyed by The Smiths, you can also find in Linder’s art. For instance, in the book there’s a great series of photographs of Linder looking tough, in a be-denimed, sexually ambivalent kind of way. But there are also shots of her in glamorous fifties dresses, finished off with piles of beads and necklaces, looking beautiful, smart and dangerous. It’s no wonder that Morrissey bonded with her.
Was he the male Linder or she the female Morrissey? Were they a mixture of each other, or were they just moving along a parallel and very keenly chiselled aesthetic?
“Its hard to say. We were both really into the America of Andy Warhol and Factory, and we both had a fascination with British cinema and that notion of the recent past – the past of of our childhood and our formative years. It was a fascinating, dynamic and intense relationship.”
And one that has continued down the years. Morrissey reviewed Linder’s band, Ludus, at a 1983 gig that I remember clearly. Ludus were supporting Depeche Mode and their abrasive avant-jazz post punk and Linder’s fiercely inteligent stage personnae made her scary in the best possible way.
Linder has also done a book of Morrissey photos, full of the kind of classic shots that only someone on the same wavelength can get. Ludus never got big. They were never designed to: their semi- formed music was intended to provoke and not to fit into narrow musical conventions. Certainly, with her connections, charisma and musical talent, Linder could have played the commercial card, but she was never interested in that sort of thing, and was instead quite content to watch her mate Morrissey became one of the biggest pop stars in Britain, during the Eighties.
Not that Linder is purely a confrontational artist. She is also a great documenter of what’s going on around her, and in her book there are great shots of a young Ian Curtis in leather trousers oozing the ghostly charisma that would briefly flicker a couple of years later, as well as of transvestites in rough-and-tumble northern gay clubs.
“I did photography for a very short period, until my camera got stolen. I took those pictures of transvestites in 1976 and 77. Then, there were a lot of gay clubs in north Manchester, and the transvestites would come in from Rochdale and Oldham. They would turn up in their mother’s dresses, with cheap wigs with
bad make up on. But they still managed to look good in comparison to the men in normal clothes in the background!”
Again Linder was focussing on the construction of image and the blurring of boundaries between masculinity and femininity, but all done against a distinctively northern backdrop. And she would also use herself as a model, messing with her own image. There are some brilliant montages from the mid- to-late Eighties, of Linder heavily made- up with a pair of lips collaged over her mouth, yanking her face out of shape.
This shape-shifting and image changing reached its peak fifteen years ago in a Moss Side gym, where Linder took up body building. Using her own body as a physical work of art, she pursued her art aesthetic through the tough, yet very mentally and physically liberating world of body building. Like Henry Rollins, and Yukio Mishima in the 1950’s, Linder applied an artistic licence to the brutal and almost Zen like world of lifting iron. And then photographed herself.
“It was fascinating working with the raw material of my body, to see what you can do with weights. At the time it was really hard work. I would train at 8.30 in the morning for two years with two Jamaican ex-boxers. They sort of knew it was an art project, but it was very serious. It was an experiment I really enjoyed. Building muscle is a slow process, to do with balance, proportion and symmetry. Going to that gym every morning was a fantastic ritual. Two hours working your body and not thinking about anything else: just lifting up bits of metal. That’s why meditation is so fascinating to me now, the repetitive tiny gestures, words repeated many many times.”
Her current projects are still pushing the boundaries of art, sexuality and the role of gender but are never hectoring or dull. There is humour and pure art and it’s always utterly inspirational, like the 13 hour performance of The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated From The House Of FAME…
Marrying the physical to the mental to the artistic, Linder’s journey has been a extraordinary one. Perhaps the UK’s best artist, Linder’s art can certainly be confrontational, but it also has warmth and humanity ” and it’s bursting with ideas: ideas that fellow travellers have picked up and placed firmly into the mainstream. And Linder’s book is a mere portal into a fascinating world… Linderworld.