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Going For a Song

pop under the hammer

How much is old rock and roll worth? Jon Lewin visits Sotheby's for a sale of pop antiquities.

The Beatles' original bass drum skin (£2000/£3000)

You know that the former squalling brat has grown up when the Victoria & Albert Museum starts buying the artwork from Sex Pistols singles. Rock 'n' roll is well out of its dirty nappies, and now seems to be in the process of soiling its Antony Price suit with the grime of the last 30 years — roughly its own life-span.

Sotheby's catalogue for their August auction had on its dayglo cover a charming psychedelic poster of the late Mr John Lennon, and the caption "Rock & Roll Memorabilia 1955-1984". This looks ominously like an obituary for the whole schemozzle, considering Mr Lennon's current state of health. Lurking within the covers of this fine pamphlet are 490 choice chunks of rock'n'roll's chequered past, and in particular that of the Beatles.

Capitalism ate rock 'n' roll in 1956, using Colonel Tom Parker as its knife and fork. It's still chewing. Parker is featured in this sale — Lot 278 — in a telegram sent to the Beatles c/o Brian Epstein, offering greetings from Presley and himself, and inviting them to call on the Colonel for any service he could do as a "friend".

The estimated auction value of this item is between £300 and £500. It was, according to the catalogue, the first ever contact between these two bastions of Modern Popular Culture, both of which were later to become the grossest (or largest-grossing, if you prefer) exports of Western civilisation. Elvis Presley even succeeded in turning Gracelands in Memphis, Tennessee, into a more important place of worship than the temples of Memphis, Egypt.

Popular music has always been big business, but it is only in the last six years or so that the trivia surrounding the performers has become important in itself. Since Lennon's death, as this auction conclusively proves, artifacts of his life have assumed a financial importance far beyond the wildest fantasies of their original owner: from this one sale alone, it's possible to equip oneself with a complete J W Lennon wardrobe, including two shirts, tie, bathrobe, seven jackets, including that worn on the sleeve of "Rubber Soul" (Lot 306, about £300/£500 for that alone), an evening suit, another suit worn by him in "A Hard Day's Night" (Lot 330, around £600), a pair of green suede boots, and the hat worn on the cover of "A Spaniard In The Works" (Lot 342, about £300/£450).

A signed first edition of said work, which would admittedly look daft on your head, would be a mere snip at only £100 (Lot 232). True Lennon memorabilia hunters have the option of capturing one of the great man's earliest artistic masterpieces: a watercolour of a jay and nest, painted June 1952, when the artist was 11.

But don't let me give the impression that this auction is all grave robbery and trivial nonsense, for in amongst the Presley posters (Lot 475), Pink Floyd satin tour jackets (Lots 434/5), Fleetwood Mac gold discs (whoever thought they'd be hard up? Lots 405/6), and Marc Bolan poems (most notably Lot 431 — "electronic music seeped thru' the karsy window"), you may find such gems as the Beatles' original Ludwig painted bass drum skin (Lot 290, £2000/£3000), John Lennon's beautiful Hofner Senator acoustic — or "Hoffner", as G Harrison calls it in the accompanying letter (Lot 215, £5000/£8000), or Brian Jones' white Vox Phantom (Lot 487, £2000/£3000).

John Lennon's Hofner steel string, with a letter from George (£5000/£8000)

Lennon's murder has brought home to the 1960s' generation the transcience of their youth elevating the Beatles (or "Battles", or even "Bottles", as they frequently signed autographs), and the late John Winston in particular, to divine status. This imbues everything they have touched — financially, at least — with more miraculous powers than the hem of Christ's (He who the Beatles were more popular than) cloak. This auction has drawn forth the most peculiar musical flotsam and jetsam, from the traditional fare of signed items, Beatles' wigs, and framed photographs, to the Abbey Road street sign, and even a chocolate beetle from Hamburg, posted by John Lennon to a friend in Liverpool 20 years ago. The beetle is described in the catalogue as "distressed".

Collecting works of art, or any object with aesthetic or historic value, is an activity which has attracted the attention of the financially burdened since the Renaissance. But it still comes as something of an unpleasant shock to find Art History slavering over John Lennon's corpse, having stripped it of everything that could possibly be authenticated as Beatle-connected. I can understand the value of original manuscripts such as the handwritten lyrics to "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" (Lot 291, £3000/£4000), and even P McCartney's leather trousers, but I am dubious as to the possible worth of bubble gum card collections (notable Lot 52, which is missing numbers 27 and 49). And for every two Bryan Ferry original paintings (what do you mean, you didn't know he was an art student? Lots 420 and 421) we are exposed to atrocious portraits by the deeply obscure Sonia Stratton, which are of neither historical or artistic merit.

Popular music is too ephemeral and still too young in the case of rock 'n' roll, to have any sense of reverence for its own past. Lock it into the context of a museum by all means, and it will make interesting social history. But treat the mass-produced trash that rock comes wrapped up in as ART, and we run a grave risk of losing sight of what little value the music ever had in the first place. We can always buy the records. (Which is probably what the owners of Lot 229 said; Lot 229 is three unused tickets, one for Shea Stadium, 23rd August 1966, and two for Candlestick Park, 29th August, 1966.)

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One Two Testing - Oct 1984

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