Wednesday, 11 February 2009
The Impact of the Watchmen Smiley.
The Watchmen movie will soon be with us – and its blood-sprayed yellow smiley logo will be everywhere. It’s a deceptive little thing, that smiley. For such a simple looking thing, it has quite a story.
When I Have America Surrounded was released in the UK, there was a smiley badge on the cover. This surprised a few Americans, who didn’t feel that it was suitable. Then the US edition surfaced and I was asked by Brits why there was no smiley on the cover. It is a logo that has different connotations on either side of the Atlantic. Alan Moore and Watchmen have quite a lot to do with why this is.
The logo itself was created in 1963 by Harvey Bell, a graphic designer in Massachusetts who produced the design for a life assurance company. He made no attempt to trademark it, and it fell into the public domain. In the early Seventies it started to appear on branded merchandise in America – mugs, T-shirts, lunch boxes and so on. The damn thing was everywhere.
It was not long before the image became naff. The smiley was increasingly seen as vapid, grinning and mindless, suitable only for children and the simple. As with all such fads, it soon faded.
The UK was spared most of this smiley merchandise, but it was dimly aware of the image thanks to its love of American TV.
Skip forward now to the mid 1980s, when Alan Moore was writing Watchmen. He decided that the smiley badge would be a perfect fit for the character of the Comedian, a brutal, cynical vigilante who ‘gets the joke’ in all its dark horror.
The story starts with his murder, and it is here that his badge gets covered in blood (the splash, incidentally, was intended to be reminiscent of the Doomsday Clock at a few minutes to midnight.)
This blood-stained smiley was a powerful image. The young counter-culture British audience who read Watchmen had only a vague knowledge of its association with 70s cheesiness. To them, it seemed damn cool. Certainly Bomb The Bass thought so: they borrowed the Watchmen Smiley for the cover of 1987s Beat Dis single.
Something about the image and Acid House music clicked. From that point on, the smiley in the UK became known as the ‘acid smiley’.
But lets back up a moment - why did that image become associated with that music? Is there anything more to it than it just a representation of the loved-up euphoria of the times? Like a lot of the history of Acid House - such as why the music is named after the wrong drug - the story gets a little vague around here.
There are many conflicting stories, but a common strand is the involvement of acid house pioneer Genesis P-Orridge and his band Psychic-TV. Genesis was a friend of Timothy Leary, and Leary’s influence is obvious on tracks such as Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out, which samples Tim, or the Tablet of Acid series of albums. D-Mob's We Call It Acieed, which pushed the music into the British mainstream when this video appeared on Top Of The Pops, also featured the lyrics ‘Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out’:
Large swathes of the UK were somewhat lost for words when that video popped up on the BBC, I seem to remember.
Now, the Leary/LSD link is interesting because in the mid-Sixties, following advice from Marshall McLuhan, Leary made the conscious decision to use his own smile - a classic shit-eating grin if ever there was one - as the marketing brand for LSD. From this point on he made a point of always smiling when cameras were around, and that smile, especially when seen against the dead faces of law enforcement officers taking him away in handcuffs, was a wickedly clever and successful method of promoting his beliefs and lifestyle.
So the birth of Acid House, and the music gaining that name, had roots in LSD culture. For many people in that culture Tim’s smile represented Acid, and the smiley became known as an ‘acid smiley’. Could then this badge be seen as a portrait of Tim Leary? It seems unlikely that this was a conscious realisation at the time, but rather that those threads came together in a happy synchronism. Those in the psychedelic culture generally take a fairly non-linear view of events, not being overly concerned with cause and effect, and it was in that spirit that the badge was used on the cover of my Leary biography.
Alan Moore can also be linked to these threads, as he was once an LSD dealer - one of the world’s most inept, as he describes it. Perhaps Pop Will Eat Itself were more accurate than they thought when they sang that ‘Alan Moore knows the score’? He was certainly playing with some potent symbolism.
But back to Rave. It had grown into the Last Great British Youth Movement. Tens of thousands of kids were gathering in fields and deserted warehouses across the country, taking E and dancing til dawn. The tabloids, of course, went into hysterics. Enter the government:
Fresh from destroying the miners, Margaret Thatcher decided that the counter culture was to be treated the same way. Police violence was part of the tactics used, most infamously at the Battle of the Beanfield:
This led, ultimately, to the the Criminal Justice Bill, which effectively outlawed free festivals. It also led to those in the travelling/festivals/rave scene become politically active. As a result, the acid smiley symbol became a symbol of defiance, an image of the unbroken spirit in the face of oppression from dark forces who no longer got the joke.
You can see this is in the work of an artist such as Banksy, such as:
But all this was a UK-only phenomena, and the smiley had none of these associations in the US. For this reason, when the US issued this stamp in the late 1990s, there were many in the UK who found it extremely funny.
Over in America the smiley had taken on almost opposite associations. It had become the face of corporate consumerism. Wal-Mart had adopted it as their logo.
In fact, in 2006 there was an attempt by Wal-Mart to copyright the image. It must take a certain shamelessness to try and seek legal ownership of what is, essentially, an archetypal image that all children draw at the age of 3 or 4. But you know what lawyers are like.
Wal-Mart lost the case, and have since stopped using the icon. The smiley face is now better known from Internet forums, where it has replaced the emoticon :-) in messages of good cheer around the globe.
But what next for this strange, blank-eyed, slightly sinister face of happiness? It is a symbol that has shown itself to be capable of taking on many different and contradictory associations. Perhaps, once the Watchmen movie has thrust it back into the mainstream, it will take on some new and even stranger meaning.