Drawing on experience - Alan Aldridge interview

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He won a drawing competition with Salvador Dalí, partnered Oliver Reed in a drinking contest, and rode through the Hollywood hills with Steve McQueen. He also designed album covers and lyric books for top pop artists, including The Beatles and Elton John. Now a new autobiography and exhibition will reveal the life and work of the remarkable Alan Aldridge, finds Roger Cox

ALAN ALDRIDGE'S new illustrated autobiography is like an LSD-fuelled carnival between two covers. It strains your eyes and stretches your brain. If it was any more psychedelic then somebody somewhere, probably on the Conservative backbenches, would be calling for it to be banned. But if you can tear your attention away from the fantastical characters that crowd its pages – the mustachioed monkey emperors and bendy guitar-shaped tigers and axe-wielding rhinoceros warriors – you'll notice something else: it's also packed full of surreal, couldn't-make-it-up stories.

There's the one about Aldridge's private slow-dance with Princess Margaret at Kensington Palace; the one about the epic drinking contest in Barbados involving Oliver Reed and three "weed-smoking Rasta dudes"; the one about the high-speed motorbike ride through the Hollywood Hills with Steve McQueen; and the one about the artist's toe-curling first meeting with Paul McCartney.

The anecdote that really stands out, though, is the one about Aldridge's encounter with Salvador Dal at Nice Airport in 1967. Waiting for a flight back to London, the scruffy young artist is sitting at the airport bar, doodling in the back of his copy of The Hobbit, when the great Dal flounces in, surrounded by a rumbustious gang of hangers-on. Realising he is in the presence of another artist, as if via some Jedi-like sixth sense, Dal makes his way over to where Aldridge is sitting. After ranting at him in Spanish (and showering him with spittle in the process) he snatches the bewildered Londoner's book and pen, turns to a new page and begins to draw. Scribbling at incredible speed, and to roars from the assembled crowd, the master produces a magnificent, rearing unicorn – then pushes the book back towards Aldridge with a grin, daring him to do better.

At first, Aldridge freezes: "The crowd tightens. Dal's addled eyeballs bore through me. I stare at the page, my mind a blank." But then his boyhood hero John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, pops into his head, and he draws Dal as the Mad Hatter. The onlookers laugh. Game on. Dal shoots back with a spectacular sketch of St George slaying the Dragon, putting Aldridge under pressure once more, but then the PA system announces the departure of the Iberia Airlines flight to Barcelona. That should be the end, but it isn't – the maestro isn't ready to leave just yet. He orders a couple of his flunkeys to delay the plane and waits patiently for Aldridge's next move. Hit by a sudden flash of inspiration, the young upstart creates another Dal caricature, this time imagining his adversary as a sort of half-plane, half-fish. The crowd goes wild. Dal smiles thinly, embraces Aldridge once and stalks off to catch his flight. For most people, beating Salvador Dal in a public draw-off – out-surrealing the greatest surrealist of them all – would be something to get excited about, but Aldridge acts as if it was no big deal.

"I just got lucky," says the 65-year-old, in his laid-back cockney drawl. "And Dal wasn't very together, I have to say. I don't quite know what his problem was.

"He wasn't what I was expecting. He was much thinner than I thought, but he did have those antenna whiskers, tuning in to the psychic energies of the world. It was a funny experience, but I really didn't think much about it until I wrote this book."

Entitled The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, the book in question is published this month by Thames and Hudson to coincide with a major Alan Aldridge retrospective at the Design Museum in London. Both the autobiography and the show trace Aldridge's more-than-meteoric rise from "a chicken plucker, with no art experience at all" to The Beatles' official design consultant and beyond.

Aldridge got his first job through sheer brass neck, turning up at somebody else's job interview and passing off their work as his own, but after a few months of winging it, his natural talent began to shine through. His big break came in 1965, when Penguin invited him to redesign their fiction covers.

He left just two years later, but not before producing a wealth of iconic images, including a series of sci-fi covers that verged on the hallucinogenic and a corker for Roald Dahl's short story collection, Kiss Kiss, that featured a plastisticine figure being ground into mince.

In contrast to most artists, who develop their style over years or even decades, Aldridge seemed to pop up out of nowhere, fully formed, although that certainly isn't how he sees it.

"You look at the early stuff in the book and it's pretty bravado," he says. "I hadn't realised how bad it was. The early Penguins and the very first Sunday Times Magazine covers… already I was being hailed as the new Jack the Lad of the art world, but I look at them now and they seem really innocent and struggling."

If Aldridge is remembered for anything from this period, it is his work with The Beatles, and in particular his illustrations for The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. These include a trippy image of John Lennon, in which his feet are shown descending a staircase into his brain (There's a Place); a heartbreaking, all-white Nowhere Man, curled up into the foetal position so that he forms a tearful question mark; and a photograph of the side of a naked woman made up to look like a face in profile, with a large eye staring out from under her armpit and her left breast forming a plump, curvaceous nose (Sexy Sadie).

Other music-related commissions followed. In 1969 Aldridge managed to get the members of Cream – Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who were not exactly the best of friends at the time – to smile for just long enough to take the feelgood silver tux shots on the Goodbye Cream album, but only after running into Lionel Blair in the street and begging him to help with the shoot. Then, in 1975, he created the artwork for Elton John's album Captain Fantasticand the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and this project gave him the idea for an animated film along similar lines. Elton loved it. Sid Sheinberg, the then-head of Universal Pictures, also loved it, and before he could say "dream assignment" he found himself on Barbados with a house, servants, a healthy allowance and instructions to develop the script. In the end the film was never made, but Aldridge at least got to partner Oliver Reed in a drinking contest of epic proportions during his stay in the Caribbean, not that he really needed yet another claim to fame.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Aldridge moved to Los Angeles to start "looking for some kind of yellow brick road into the movie business". The rights to his fantasy novel, The Gnole (a story about a three-foot tall mole-like creature called Fungle Foxwit) were snapped up by Michael Douglas, but the cash was never found to realise the project. Similarly, an animated fantasy film about John Lennon's life, entitled Nothing is Real, has been approved by Yoko Ono, but is yet to see the light of day.

Aldridge is philosophical about these setbacks: "Projects are forever," he says. "When you write a novel it's still going to be there 200 years later. Somebody might find it at some point in the future and say 'wow, the world could really use this.'"

The exhibition at the Design Museum will no doubt re-ignite interest in the Alan Aldridge back catalogue, and he still has plenty of new projects on the go.

"I'm going to publish my own little book in the New Year," he says. "It's called Pandemonium – Trippy Tales, and it's a little serial of stories that I've illustrated. I've already done the cover."

Just one final question before he gets back to the drawing board: that slow dance with Princess Margaret in 1964. Was she, y'know, flirting with him? (Aldridge was at Kensington Palace helping design a new book of Lord Snowdon's photographs at the time).

"No, not at all," he says. "I think she was being very sweet. She asked me if I'd like to hear her father's record collection and… well, I didn't particularly want to, to be honest – I wanted to get out – but what do you say? I said yes and much to my surprise it wasn't Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, it was Guy Mitchell and Nat King Cole.

"I think we had a martini, but she was getting ready to go out, so please, don't suggest she was philandering with me. She was already dressed in a cocktail dress and ready to go. She just said to me 'Do you dance, Mr Aldridge?' and I said 'As it happens I do'. No, there was no fancying in it at all."

&#149 The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes is published by Thames and Hudson, price 24.95. An exhibition of the same name is at the Design Museum, London, until 25 January 2009.

TIMELINE

&#149 1943: Alan Aldridge is born in London

&#149 1957: Leaves school at 14 to work as a dockyard labourer

&#149 1963: Gets a job as a "junior finished artist" after passing off someone else's work as his own

&#149 1965: Hired by Penguin to design fiction covers

&#149 1966: John Lennon gets in touch, asks him to design the cover for his collected writings, The Penguin John Lennon

&#149 1966: Cover design for A Quick One by The Who

&#149 1969: Produces The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics

&#149 1973: Collaborates with the South African writer William Plomer to create The Butterfly's Ball and The Grasshopper Feast, a picture book based on the poem of the same name by William Roscoe

&#149 1975: Creates artwork for Elton John's album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

&#149 1977: Illustrations for The Ship's Cat, a poem by Watership Down author Richard Adams

&#149 1980: Relocates to Los Angeles

&#149 1991: Fantasy novel The Gnole published

&#149 1997: CD cover for Benjamin Britten's War Requiem

&#149 2004: CD cover for Tears for Fears' album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending

&#149 2006: Artwork for Incubus' album Light Grenades

&#149 2008: Publishes illustrated autobiography to coincide with retrospective

&#149 2009: Plans to publish Trippy Tales (or How Far Down the Rabbit Hole Do You Want To Fall?)

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