Andy Royston remembers one of London’s wildest artists, Paul Cannell, London’s Basquiat.
“Like all great dyslexic artists Paul Cannell pants” JEFF BARRETT
Jeff Coons? Do me a favour! Gilbert and George! Fuck off and die! The Grey Organisation?? In three years time if Paul Cannell is not a superstar artist with constant exhibitions in every main city throughout the world come and find me… EDWARD BALL Creation Records 1992
Paul Cannell was an artist from East London who was introduced to the wider planet in the early ’90s by Darren Penney, manager of hedonist indie band Flowered Up. Paul had approached them with a view to providing some artwork and from there he became the house artist for Jeff Barrett’s Heavenly Records in the early nineties, an eerie Pre-Banksy world where a madcap artist had to bother record companies to scrape a living.
Paul did stuff for Primal Scream, Manic Street Preachers, The Telescopes, Flowered Up, Shonen Knife and more, including the infamous Screamadelica sun. Paul also toured as a support act, painting on stage for the bemused British audiences of blink-and-you’ll-miss-em indie phenoms Fabulous.
He went on to do the sleeves for Flowered Up’s Phobia, Manic Street Preachers You Love Us & Stay Beautiful and the very cool Heavenly bird logo, still used on all things Heavenly.
Select Magazine found him and wrote: He’s 28, he’s deeply skint, never went to art school and started painting ‘Just to get me out of a rut”. He sort of stumbled into record sleeve work via a vague connection with Flowered Up “they were on the cover of a music paper without even having a record out. I thought: I want to be part of this!
He held down a studio at Creation Records labyrinthian office above a Hackney sweatshop, described by artist and blogger Marceline Smith as “a bomb site of paper, canvas, paint, car body filler, polystyrene cups and fag ends.”
Paul’s most famous work has got to be Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”. Their iconic sun logo was originally a detail from one of his paintings, as are the sleeves for the “Higher Than The Sun” & “Don’t Fight It Feel It” singles. Heavenly staged an exhibition of his work Cannellism – Art Will Eat Itself at the Heavenly Record Shop in Covent Garden.
You’ve got to know how to draw, you’ve got to have control of your fucking hand. All this work that you see here, is done with the other hand, it’s not even done with my natural hand. I changed my hands about three and half years ago because I was sick of what my left hand was doing.
I like drawing with my right hand because it’s messy, it’s like a kid. It’s clumsy. All this clumsy work you’re seeing here, that’s why it’s clumsy. That’s the only way I’ve been able to build abstraction. I was getting too dangerously technical with this arm. Paul Cannell
Cannell’s bonkers approach to art, using household undercoat paint and car body filler, made him the ideal artist to capture the post-rave hedonistic vibe of the early ’90s music scene, Child-like menace and exuberant colours, driven by his love of punk and all its aesthetics, abstract art and cubism,
The first artwork that he painted for Primal Scream was for their single ‘Higher Than The Sun’. Bobby Gillespie (Primal’s front man) got in touch with Cannell looking for sleeve artwork. “He couldn’t play me the record” Cannell told Select Magazine in 1992. “He just told me the title, which I thought was cool. We spent ages sectioning out the painting and figuring out what he wanted from it. He wanted it to be jazz. Abstract. He knows what he wants and he’s very exact about getting it.”
The legend was that Cannell dreamed up the sun design for the Screamadelica album inspired by a damp water spot he’d seen on the Creation Records offices ceiling after taking LSD. The reality is that Gillespie took it from a detail on one of Cannell’s paintings, changing the color to a hot red.
Paul Cannell was also a musician, starting out with the Kenny Process Team, a group loosely connected with the insomniac indie kids hanging out in Stratford’s King Eddie pub. Andy Golding and Frank Stebbing (both of Wolfhounds infamy) then joined Paul Cannell and recorded a single and album under the name of Crawl. Andy Golding takes up the sorry story…
“It’s all set up. A recording and publishing deal with Creation. Champagne in Alan McGees office. Oasis are number one. I’ve got a Marshall. Innes is producing. Doctor takes one look at Cannell and locks him up. Rock by day release. Gibson SG has its neck busted. Bobby pops in from time to time. Bolton is there. Tense is not the word. I get sacked. Fantastic. Band change name to Dr Khan, deliver album and split up all on the same day. Creation folds. Album never sees the light of day…
Which is a shame because it’s Cannell’s album. Gathering dust under a bed somewhere. One day someone will find it. ” Andy Golding
On 5th July 2005 the gig was up: tragically Cannell took his own life. He was 42 years old.
Word was he was compiling a long promised Ecstasy exhibition. Cannell never received full recognition from the art establishment in his lifetime, yet his work now fetches quality prices, as you can see here. In many ways he’s London’s answer t0 Jean-Michel Basquiat – we lost a great talent way too soon.
I wasn’t born to follow
I live just for today
I don’t care about tomorrow
What I got in my head
You can’t buy, steal or borrow
I believe in life and let live
I believe you get what you give
HIGHER THAN THE SUN – PRIMAL SCREAM
Further reading : Marceline Smith’s interview with Paul Cannell
Heavenly Records by Alistair Fitchett / Tangents
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
June 3, 2017
Great article.I played guitar in the aforementioned Dr Khan and lived with Paul in East Ham.He was a great guy and he would be made up to know that his art is getting the recognition it deserves.
April 7, 2017
I met Paul Cannell in 1996, in the hospital where he was ‘locked up’. At that stage he was, like me, an in patient and not on any kind of, at least authorised, day release. When I first met him he was painting furiously, covering every available piece of paper as part of some art ‘therapy’. Over the course of the next three weeks I had several conversations with Paul and found him to be a gentle, engaging and very friendly man.
I won’t go into what he said about his lifestyle but it was clear at that time that he had been taking, and indeed felt compelled to take significant amounts of different drugs. I remember him explaining that, in his view, it was simply inconceivable to work in his environment without taking drugs. He said he would have felt as though he was on a different planet.
I make no judgements. However, the consequences for Paul were that he couldn’t sleep without serious amounts of heavy medication, first to knock him out and then to keep him asleep. Despite his circumstances, and I can’t begin to imagine his state of mind, he was cheerful, funny and I greatly enjoyed being with him.
When I learned that he had taken his own life I was sad but not surprised. He was a gifted and lovely man but fragile. May he rest in peace.