Self aggrandisement has reached epidemic levels on LinkedIn. “Honoured/proud to have been part of…” every other comment begins before, implicitly and boldly, stating how fabulous the writer is. Some project or other has come to fruition. Except the comment is not really about the project and far more about them. They did it. Without whom, it, well, you know, disaster. The whole thing would have crashed and burned. Whatever it was.
“Look at me, look at me!” they might just as well say. Or, more to point in these cash-strapped days of freelance over-supply and budget downsizing, “For fuck’s sake, buy this thing or give me a job.” Very understandable, but the sheer volume of self-loving commentary has rendered the phrasing a rusted cliché. It’s up there with “reaching out” in my book.
But if you can’t beat them, echo them, I suppose. A long time ago, far away in Bartle Bogle Hegarty-land, it happened to me. Except that instead of saying, “Honoured”, I should really just say, “Phenomenally lucky to have been anywhere near the building when…” and leave it there.
Not to be unduly unassuming but, for reasons I will never fathom, back in the late 1980s, I caught an extraordinary wave. I haven’t been, nor ever will be, a surfer. A Marigold washing-up glove would be more graceful on a board. Nevertheless, for a few moments, in a work sense, I stood up without thinking and didn’t fall over. I joined a shoal of other surfers in the BBH creative department. We weaved in and out of each other on our wave with insouciant confidence.
Everything worked, including us, for long hours at odd times of day, although we did also stand outside Soho pubs at lunchtime for hours on end.
One day, Martin arrived in the office with a story he’d written. In his inimitable handwriting, it told of a man who gathered his friends together in a funeral cortege. They walked solemnly through the New Orleans streets to a soulful march, before gathering around a grave. At that point, the man leaned forward and buried his battered old jeans, a shredded, threadbare pair of 501s, which he dropped into the earth. End of jeans and end of narrative.
Generously, he allowed me to mess about with it. We tinkered with some of the details, but the idea was all his. We knew that a Levi’s 501 script was “having trouble”** in the system and there was a quiet flurry of alternative scripts flooding into John Hegarty’s office.
Our (or Martin’s) funeral procession script was picked, presented and selected. We flew to New Orleans and inherited the crew that had just finished filming Oliver Stone’s JFK, with Kevin Costner. All the crew seemed to be called Danah (pronounced Day-nah with ‘Y’all’ languor). They told eye-watering stories of what Costner had supposedly got up to with varied, and evidently willing, young women of that city during the film shoot.
Our director was Michael Haussman, a protégé of the wonderful Helen Langridge. A cool American, he wore a very small pork pie hat and surrounded himself with a coterie of similarly cool hat wearers in white vests. In the hot and sticky city, long before the terrible floods of Hurricane Katrina, we wandered into the French Quarter for four full days, filming the funeral procession and street marching band. In a separate sortie, we investigated the delta, south of the city for locations but were put off by the hostility in the various bars and settlements we tried. Instead, we drove the 24 mile long bridge across Lake Ponchartrain to the north and filmed our hero burying his jeans in horse-racing country. Along the way, I remember struggling to get a conversation going with our chicken wrangler, a monosyllabic man who specialised in fowl on film. We also had a genuine New Orleans street band, led by 14 year-old prodigy, Trombone Shorty. Now in his thirties, he’s a modest but brilliant star. Having played with Bo Diddley when he was four, he grew up to record with the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and countless other acts, as well as leading two command performances for the Obamas in the White House.
There was also a more complicated legacy to Procession. Heart Attack and Vine, sung with commendable lunacy by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, is actually a Tom Waits tune. Although track clearance and rights permissions were all secured to everyone’s satisfaction, it turned out that Waits had the ultimate ownership and veto. He sued Levi’s for over a million dollars. They were very good about it and didn’t blame us.
The girl who stars as the admirer at the window in the piece was called Cynthia. She gave up modelling straight after the shoot and hurried off to become a dentist. Ronnie Marquette played our lead guy, a stunning looking man with the troubled soul of a fantasist. His was a developing career in TV soap opera, particularly a Californian show called 2000 Malibu Road. During the Levi’s filming, he talked to Martin and I of his childhood in New Orleans in vivid detail. Later, we learned it was entirely fabricated for our benefit. He shot himself dead in front of his girlfriend, Michelle Pfeiffer’s sister, three years later.
Fast forwarding from New Orleans, in 1994, I was working with the wonderful Rosie Arnold after Martin had left BBH and joined Tim Delaney. We were given a chance to develop a poster brief to continue the 501s story. From somewhere – probably a mutual love of stylised sci-fi movies – we alighted upon a Valley-Of-The-Giants thought that Rosie, with the photographic genius of Nadav Kander again, brought to life in London’s largest studio. When printed on to 10 by 20 foot poster sites, they were quite hard to miss.
There were a couple of other Levi’s campaigns that Martin and I produced before Procession.
The first was some print work. While the likes of John Hegarty and Barbara Nokes’ ‘Laundrette’ commercial and its sequels did a powerful job of endorsing the 501 brand for the mainstream audience, it was important not to neglect the cognoscenti. These were the style gurus who spent the 1980s with their noses buried in The Face and their night times lost in Heaven, the nightclub (whether they were gay or not). Our print campaign was to speak to them. Martin was very taken with Richard Avedon’s collection of portraits of the American West. I jotted down a few counter cultural statements that no sane fashion brand would embrace – expressions about how Levi’s looked best when they were on the point of collapse, personalised to torn fragments and scrappy threads. In a moment of genuine liberation, Martin took the handwritten statements and blew them up to sit around his drawings of how the portraits might be positioned.
In the final event, two of the ads are actually my handwriting – ‘Every pair’ and ‘I like them best’- while the other two are, respectively, from Nick Worthington and John Gorse. Richard Avedon took the four portraits in New York for $100,000. Martin went to oversee the shoot but was bidden to remain outside while the great man actually photographed his subjects. As with all his work, Avedon then took four prints from each shot and destroyed the negatives. In this era, the ads don’t seem that extraordinary but at the time they caused a bit of a stir. I still have a few copies of The Manipulator in which the ads appeared, a bath towel-sized publication of largely black and white imagery that was so achingly hip no one ever bought it. You needed to be in a hangar to turn its absurdly large pages.
Finally, there was a radio campaign. One of the most enjoyably indulgent exercises of my working life, Martin and I spent a week in a New York studio with Joy Golden, radio producer extraordinaire and of razor wit, encouraging several slightly bewildered actors to extemporise off our writing. After fourteen or fifteen takes, I would wander into the sound box and remove their scripts altogether, encouraging them to capture the gist in improvisation, rather than read it. The results were then hacked down to time by our engineer during a long and fabulous week. Our agency producer, Lucy Marsden, was responsible for carrying the tapes back on our flight home. A fabulous, funny, heron of a creature, she didn’t realise there was a hole in her bag, so forty hours of recordings were strewn across the floor at La Guardia airport as we ran for the flight. Martin stopped, tutted and gathered up the tapes (it was that long ago) in his natty carry-on bag behind her. Had he not, our return to BBH would have been considerably frostier than the warmth that met us.
[**The 501s TV script “having trouble” was a reworking of a corny old joke. Research and nervousness kept stalling it. Various people, both within the agency and at Levi’s were dead against it on grounds of taste, given its Benny Hill structure. The story was that two young girls approach a lakeside and see a a pile of clothes. A little way out, a lithe, fit guy is splashing in the water. It’s hard to see, but the girls think he’s naked. They steal his clothes, only for an old, withered and nude man to emerge out of the water and approach them to retrieve what are actually his clothes. The young man, it transpires, still has his kit on. Nick Worthington and John Gorse, a creative team almost opposite our office, had suggested the young guy should be wearing 501 shrink-to-fits and kept on finessing the ‘joke’. Eventually, with an Ansell Adams photograph, the Smashing Pumpkins song ‘Today’ and some pictures of the Pennsylvanian Amish, they combined with directing duo Vaughan and Anthea and went on to film what many consider the best commercial ever made: ‘Creek’. Practically the only TV ad ever to have been granted a permit to be filmed in Yosemite. When the Smashing Pumpkins refused permission for their composition to be used, the composer of the final piece turned himself into a band called Stilstkin, invented a bogus history and toured, successfully, for two or three years. A labour of several years’ persistence, the 60′ cut is below:]