Ray Lowry passed away eight years ago today, and while you might be drawing a blank when you hear his name, I assure you, you know some of his work.
He was a rock illustrator and cartoonist for several music publications and columns through the punk, post-punk and economic depression of the early 80s.
You’d be surprised to find someone who has never seen this album cover…his most famous work.
From an Obituary written in The Guardian
During the years characterised by punk, post-punk and the economic depression of the early 1980s, the cartoons of Ray Lowry, who has died suddenly aged 64, were admired as much by readers of Punch, Private Eye and Mayfair as those of the New Musical Express, plus many alternative magazines and fanzines, for their anger and anarchic humour.
Ray’s best-known image remains the sleeve he designed for the Clash’s third album, London Calling. Alongside the photographer Pennie Smith, he accompanied the Clash on their north American tour in September 1979, later adapting one of Smith’s rejected, out-of-focus shots of Paul Simonon angrily slamming his Fender bass into the stage at the Palladium in New York. To this he added bold pink and green lettering, paying a blatant tribute to Elvis Presley’s eponymous first album cover. The link between the Clash and rock’n’roll’s early energy was never more clearly expressed. It was no coincidence that Ray’s enthusiasm for music had begun in the mid-1950s.
Ray was born in Cadishead, near Manchester; his father was a bricklayer at the local steelworks. His earliest memories included the sight of huge cargo ships bringing wood from Canada along the Manchester ship canal and churning up terrifying waves of detritus, “sharpening one’s sensibilities for the sinister and baser elements of life”, he later remarked. After passing his 11-plus, he was sent to Urmston grammar school where, he recalled: “I showed little artistic or academic promise but cared fanatically for the most arcane areas of the holy rock’n’roll thunder which had crashed down upon us.”
Ray drifted into a series of jobs at advertising agencies in Manchester and London. Lacking any formal art training, he drew cartoons in his spare time and, with the emergence of the new underground press, he was published in Oz and International Times. This led to better-paid work on mainstream periodicals, and a long involvement with the New Musical Express, including a weekly cartoon strip, Only Rock’n’Roll, in which he anticipated the discontent that was about to fuel the next big change in Britain’s cultural climate.
In 1976, he saw the Sex Pistols during their infamous Anarchy in the UK tour, at the Electric Circus, Manchester. There he met the Clash for the first time. The friendships he struck up, and the extreme experiences of the 1979 American tour, were chronicled in his packed notebooks.
“Lowry’s obsession,” the critic Simon Frith observed, “is rock’n’roll authenticity, which he rarely finds, and his search for it means a search through the language of rock, through the words and attitudes that are used to sell and make sense of it.”
The best metaphor Ray used was to equate the over-the-top nature of rock with totalitarianism and warfare. During the early years of the Thatcher government, his humour was merciless and Swiftean.
In the early 1980s, he was at the height of his powers, writing columns for the lifestyle magazine The Face. “I did cartoons for a ridiculous number of magazines and papers,” he recalled, “but the cartoon era was drawing to a close.” As the music scene mutated, The Face and New Musical Express changed their tune, and this, together with the demise of Punch, caused a downturn in his fortunes.
Even in dark times, “in a crumbling, freezing house with zero commercial work”, he continued to paint prolifically, as his first retrospective exhibition revealed when it opened last month. Organised with his help, despite his ill-health, the show at the See Gallery in Crawshawbooth, Lancashire, (which closes next Friday) highlights his skills as a painter of urban landscapes in the tradition of his unrelated namesake, LS Lowry, and anticipates the work of contemporary painters such as Liam Spencer, who described Ray as “a kind of punky, maverick, renaissance man”.
Ray continued to create psychically- charged images, including a yet-to-be-published series inspired by Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent’s 1960 British tour, which ended in a road accident near Chippenham, Wiltshire. Both were injured, Cochran fatally.
At the time of his death, Ray was working on paintings inspired by the 1947 semi-autobiographical novel Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry (another non-relative).
On the day he died, Oasis dedicated a song to his memory during their show at Birmingham, just one indication of the esteem in which Ray’s work continues to be held.
He is survived by his ex-wife, Christina, and his sons Sam, Joe and Damian.
• Ray Lowry, artist, born August 28 1944; died October 14 2008