Event promotors who have equal, and sometimes larger profiles than the musicians whose shows they are bringing to the masses are few and far between. Bill Graham is one such iconic character, CBGB’s Hilly Kristal is another, as are Peter Gatien of Limelight and Studio 54’s Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager.
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The UK’s Dave Beer — the force behind Back to Basics, the longstanding, award-winning nightclub in the city of Leeds in the north of England, also falls in this category. Beer is a household name in his native country and a legend internationally — not only in electronic dance music but also in pop culture.
Much of Beer’s activities which brought him to the public’s attention are tied with nightlife. Once the pandemic temporarily halted his flagship Back to Basics party, it left Beer at a loose end. Then, striking images began to appear on Beer’s social media channels: the familiar faces of Marilyn Monroe, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Joe Strummer were drawn in unusual, saturated, part glowing from within, part cast in shadow, color palettes. Another post showed a collage of Back to Basics flyers with a cross-section of figures at their center. From the Queen of England and Margaret Thatcher to the Mona Lisa, Elvis, and Che Guevara, all of them are altered in unexpected and shocking ways. This was followed by a gallery of dog paintings, colorful and expressive with numerous symbols and wording embedded in them, mosaic-like in their appearance.
“Painting became the one thing that actually made me chill out,” says Beer from his home in Leeds. “I put up one image of a dog I painted. From that, I found myself with commissions to paint people’s dogs and kids. The two things you shouldn’t work with: children and animals.”
A key characteristic of Beer’s work, which is likely one of the attractions for the those commissioning pieces, is the personalization of each painting to its owner. The aforementioned symbols and words are representative of the owner’s affinities, or “idents,” and give them connections to their piece. Examples of this are the anarchy “A” for a punk rocker client or the Adidas stripes for a sports-loving client. There is a lot of black line in Beer’s paintings. These create small frames within the painting to focus on, which is also what gives them a mosaic look.
“My work is very pop art in its simplicity and naivete,” says Beer, who works in acrylic paint as it is conducive to working quickly. He uses paint pens for finer details and lettering and spray paint to fill out areas. He has expanded into sculptures, the first of which is of Gandhi, part of a series he is calling “acid art.”
Says Beer, “The subject matter is memories or heroes or dreams and aspirations, all in one. I can have 20 different subject matters in one image, the likeness to the original, as long as you can still tell it’s them, I can keep adding onto it. It’s gotten out of control because I’m under pressure and it takes so long for me to do them. I’m a prisoner to the paintbrush now. It’s kind of crazy.”
It has been decades since Beer had a brief stint at art school. He spent more time chasing The Clash around on tour and later, working as a roadie for various bands, only sporadically dipping into his coursework. As abbreviated and disjointed as this time was, Beer credits it for his knowledge of art history, his understanding of composition and creating what he calls multi-media “environments,” which included experiences, sound, film and performance as well as paintings on walls.
“I loved art school because you’re learning and you could swear and you could have pink hair and you could express yourself,” says Beer. “But I saw university as an institutionalized, more restrictive environment. It was too scary as well. Going for the interviews was like going to court, taking your artwork to justify your innocence. It seemed really futile to me to become a part of it. For most people it’s a way of life to gain freedom. For me, I was already free.”
Still, Beer’s formal art training has fed into not just his paintings, but all the visual aspects of Back to Basics from lights and projections in the club, to collectable flyers, which he is offering as limited-edition large prints, and controversial merchandise.
“I see myself as a plagiarist,” says Beer of his flyers. “Richard Hamilton, that cut and paste attitude to artwork, is a big influence. When Nic Gundill and I first started doing the club flyers, we didn’t have a computer. The first flyer with the Queen’s head, we stole from Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols imagery, cut out letters like a blackmail note and stuck them onto the image. I’d look through books, photocopy an image and see how we could play around with it and turn it into our own. That plagiarism, for me, is amazing, because you find something there that maybe other people haven’t seen in it”.
There is always something cheeky, political, familial, or all three, woven into Back to Basics flyers, which also have idents that are specific to the club and what it is about. Beer and Gundill put so much effort into the flyers, sometimes they wouldn’t be ready in time for the club night and would be distributed after it was over.
For the 20th anniversary of Back to Basics, an exhibition of the flyers, “Excess All Areas,” was on display at the Leeds Gallery. Prior to that, the flyers were part of “Our Cultural History,” an exhibition documenting the visual history of acid house and rave in the UK at Selfridges Ultralounge in London and before that, as an exhibition at the Barbican. More recently, one of Beer’s paintings was included as part of “A Letter in Mind,” a virtual exhibition for National Brain Appeal, whose focus is on raising funds for neurology.
“I’m a very ‘Forrest Gump’ kind of guy, stumbling across important times in history and accidentally becoming a part of them,” says Beer who attributes his achievements, in part, to his learning disabilities: ADHD and dyslexia. “It’s insane to think that I’ve been on stage with the Royal Ballet, had exhibitions at the Barbican, had my own column in a national newspaper, or been on television. You never realize you are going to have such an impact and an imprint on people’s psyche. It’s never been about the business. It’s a way of life.”