Culture

A brief history of fly-posting

This is an extract from Pin-Ups 1972-1982: Twenty Years of Classic Posters from the Punk, New Wave and Glam Era by Roger Crimlis and Alwyn W Turner, the second edition of which is now available from Cadiz Music…


As he passed a passage at the side of the theatre, the kind sixties bands had glowered down on the sleeve of their early albums, a movement caught his eye. A girl was plastering posters along the wall. Just a face and a name. Hers, he presumed.
Susan Hill, Breaking Glass (Star, London, 1980)

In 1840 Prince Napoleon, the nephew of Bonaparte, decided that the time was ripe for him to claim his birthright and assume control of France. He was at the time in exile in England and, having gathered a few dozen followers about him, he sailed from Gravesend to Boulogne, seemingly convinced that he could win over the town and – replicating his uncle’s return from Elba – sweep through the country on a wave of popular support into Paris itself. As it turned out he was promptly arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment (though he subsequently escaped and eventually – disastrously – became Emperor Napoleon III).

So confident was he in the success of the enterprise, however, that his arsenal for  the trip consisted of little more than a batch of posters to be pasted up around Boulogne and points beyond, proclaiming his restoration of the Napoleonic dynasty. And, since crossings of the English Channel were even more unpredictable then than they are now, and since he therefore couldn’t guarantee the date of the attempted coup, he left a space at the bottom of the printed text for the date of the proclamation to be completed by hand. It was, in effect, the first tour poster, with a blank strip for the date and venue to be filled in later.

At this stage in the mid-19th century, the putting up of posters in Britain was entirely unregulated. Businesses, theatre companies or individuals who had a message they wanted to see displayed went to one of the professional bill-posters who would paste them up wherever he could. As the trade increased, so too did the competition for the best sites, with disputes settled as often as not by physical violence. In the early-1860s Edward Sheldon, who had taken over a bill-posting business in Leeds from his father-in-law, was so badly beaten in a fight with his rivals, Wood & Holdsworth, over a particular site that, fearing he might actually lose his life in a future conflict, he hit upon a radical idea: he rented the wall from its owner and thereby gained the exclusive right to put posters upon it.

Thus began the division between paid-for sites and fly-posting, the practice of putting up posters on sites that hadn’t been authorized, an activity that was always of dubious legality at best. By 1877 it was estimated that there were around 200 men working legitimately as bill-posters in London, together with a larger – though unquantifiable – number of fly-posters.

The violence did not, of course, stop, though Britain seldom reached the levels of New York, where street brawls were commonplace in the early years of the 20th century: ‘Police were informed that sixty billposters, representing every theatre in town, were fighting for possession of the facades of 104 and 106 West Thirty-Fourth Street,’ read one report, adding that the combatants had ‘hit one another with mucilage mops and beaten tattoos on heads with handles.’Ziggy Stardust poster

Instead the British trade became a minor branch of gangsterism; as Joe Boyd later discovered when he wanted to advertise the UFO Club, you had to go to one of the hoods who ran fly-posting if you wanted a presence on the streets.

In the rock era, as posters became an essential form of advertising, a covert relationship developed between respectable, multinational record companies and those who operated on the fringes of the criminal underworld. Billboard advertising was very expensive and the alternative, of paying someone to put your stuff up on vacant shops, hoardings and uninhabited houses, was clearly the cheaper option. Rates were negotiated – it was reckoned to cost £30 per hundred posters in 1977, rising to one pound per poster 25 years later – and payment, though preferred in cash, could be made by cheque; invoices were also issued, despite the illegality of the enterprise.

Talk of fly-posting in the 1970s and ’80s is dominated by the mention in hushed tones of such shadowy characters as Vince Stitt and Terry ‘the Pill’ Slater (the latter’s nickname in reference either to his fondness for vitamin tablets, or to his role as a supplier of speed in the days of mod). They were reputed to control the fly-posting sites right across North London, and to look with grave displeasure at anyone who strayed onto their patch, or over-posted the work done by their boys. Putting up posters without permission was illegal, but for the amateur who wanted to advertise a gig, it was not the police who were the threat, so much as the professional villains: even if apprehended and taken to court, the worst that would happen was a small fine, which counted as nothing compared to the stories of retribution meted out by the gangsters who had first claim on the walls.

Many of these tales were undoubtedly apocryphal, but the reputation was sufficient to maintain authority, particularly since, of the many who knew the name of Terry the Pill, very few ever met him. One who did remembers him as: ‘A real character, something of an eccentric wandering around in a smoking jacket; he sounded a bit like a gangster but he was never threatening in any way. Not to me, anyway.’

So integrated had this side of the business become by the late-’70s that the major record companies would send artwork to printing plants with instructions to deliver the posters ‘direct to Terry’. For smaller labels the procedure was more colourful; one new employee at a leading independent record company in the early-1980s found that amongst his first tasks was to drive a vanload of posters to an underground car park in Kilburn, North London late at night. ‘I got out the van and a little old man in brown overalls appeared. He put all the posters in a shopping trolley, and scuttled off with it, up the tunnel that led out of the car park.’ On another occasion he was sent to a Red Star office with parcels of posters to be sent express delivery to various villains in the north, including the one who was said to run the walls of Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle.

No money changed hands on either occasion – such transactions being dealt with elsewhere in a shadow economy – but the furtive nature of the enterprise did leave record companies at the mercy of their unofficial business-partners. Boyd had reckoned that only half the posters he printed actually got put on walls, and that proportion became accepted as the norm, a regrettable but tolerable level of wastage. Some in the industry even suspected that there was a lucrative side-business in selling off posters for pulping.

artwork-pinups

And, just as workers in a pressing-plant were able temporarily to halt the production of the Sex Pistols’ single ‘God Save the Queen’ in protest at its lyrics, so too did an unofficial censorship develop in fly-posting. For the general election in February 1974 the Edgar Broughton Band produced a poster featuring a drawing by Ralph Steadman which showed a pair of human buttocks, one cheek of which was the face of Harold Wilson, the other Edward Heath, with a speech bubble emerging from between: ‘Why Vote? It’s a Double Cross!’ It bore the name of the Edgar Broughton Foundation, but advertised nothing other than a distrust of politicians. As their manager, Peter Jenner, remembers, however, the gangsters who controlled the walls turned it down: ‘I couldn’t put them up anywhere. The word came back they wouldn’t handle it because it would give them too much grief.’

For the major record companies there were other benefits: fly-posting conferred a certain street cachet, or at least the illusion of it, and, while it might be cheap compared with using official paid-for sites, it was still too pricey for many of their smaller would-be competitors, as Michael Beal recalls: ‘It was hard to get into that scene. The first Eddie and the Hot Rods poster wasn’t used for fly-posting because that meant the company paying whoever it was that did London at that time. And that took marketing clout.’

The alternative was to use casual, unaccountable labour, as one opportunist found in 1977; walking into the Virgin offices, he offered to do some flyposting for them and was given 200 posters for the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ and £10 to cover both his work and the purchase of brush and paste. He got a cab home with the money and held on to the posters; three decades later he was selling them on the internet…


revised edition out now:


 

 

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