Billie Ray Martin, the ‘queen of electronic soul’ is back.…
Trademark partied at Blitz with Bowie, made t-shirts for Warhol and art directed Bryan Ferry. He then created the artwork for London’s most infamous after-hours club and became the glittering underground’s most in-demand graphic artist.
If you could own any piece of art?
The obvious answer is one of Andy Warhol’s last self portraits. They are stunningly powerful paintings and he has had the biggest influence of any artist I think, on society and the media as we live it now. Failing that, I’d love one of Allen Jones’ late ‘60s fetishistic pop paintings.
When did you last have a really good night out ?
Despite, or perhaps because of, my 6 years running Trade, I have become quite reclusive and don’t really get out as much as I should these days. However I really enjoyed the Actart event put on by the Massive Ego boys back in the summer. It successfully fused art, happenings, music and performance in one club-style event and reminded me of such great events back in the ‘80s.
What’s your favourite item of clothing?
I had some great Antony Price suits and stuff, back in the day, which I wish I still had. Now, I quite like a hat for those ‘bad hair days’.
What was the biggest lesson you learned at the Wallasey School of Art and Design?
I didn’t learn much there at all. It was an old fashioned and very provincial art school and I got myself down to London as soon as I completed they course.
You arrived in London and became a Blitz kid- what was the most regrettable outfit you wore?
Luckily, I had a charge account at Antony Price so I normally looked fine. However, when Vivienne Westwood brought out her pirate collection, I bought into the whole look, and got done up in frills, furbelows, chiffon scarves etc.
I went to dinner at the south London home of my friend, the very camp Betty Valentino. Unfortunately, her not-very-camp brother, Nobby and his football mates were also there to watch the match. I spent the whole excruciating event trying to look inconspicuous, not easy in full pirate drag!
You lived through Punk and New Romantic and wound up in the rave madness of ‘90s ecstasy scene; when did you have most fun?
The whole Blitz era was great fun. Being in London and getting to meet your heroes, like Bowie etc. It was also a very creative scene, with everyone involved in some sort of master plan for world fame. That created an exciting energy.
My days at Trade in the early ‘90s were amazing but not really fun as I was managing all aspects of the night and it was tiring, stressful and hard work.
You were interviewed by (and painted) Paula Yates for The Tube- did she flirt with you too?
And how!! She gave me an extremely flirtatious massage in the Tyne Tees TV canteen, much to the amusement of assorted technical crew. I was blushing underneath my plaster pale foundation, but I loved Paula. She was an amazing woman.
You met Andy Warhol in ’86, how was that?
I was invited to the London opening of his last self-portrait show at Anthony D’Offay gallery. While he was signing stuff for me, he started asking me about the hand painted t-shirt I was wearing.
He was like, “Gee thaat’s sooo greeeat, I’d looove it if you could you ever make one for me.” So, next day, I delivered one to him at the Ritz Hotel where he was staying and he took photos of me. I wanted to go and work for him in New York, but unfortunately he died a few months later.
You storyboarded and art-directed promos for the likes of Bryan Ferry, Queen and Psychedelic Furs- which work are you most proud of?
Definitely the Bryan Ferry one. I was a huge Bowie and Roxy fan in the ‘70s and despite being close friends with Roxy designer Antony Price, I’d never met Bryan Ferry. I made the storyboard like a real illustrated work of art and Bryan was so impressed, he invited me to meet him at the video shoot.
How did you meet Laurence Malice, who later commissioned you to create the visual identity of the infamous after-hours Trade?
I met Laurence through mutual friend and ‘daughter of Des’ – Karen O’Connor, at an after show party for Live Aid in 1985. I started doing artwork for the group he was fronting at the time. When Trade started, he approached me to create the artwork/visual identity of the club.
Trade’s 25th anniversary -how does that make you feel?
Strange, but proud that we created a worldwide brand strong enough to survive the decades.
You worked at the club for some time, was there a defining incident that made you leave?
I was taking way too many drugs just to keep going basically and was also just physically and mentally burnt out. On top of which, my partner died in an accident in our flat and I realised that I just couldn’t continue with that lifestyle any more. It was too full on.
Do you regret not being organised with archiving your work at the time?
Definitely! We didn’t realise at the time, that we were creating club-culture history. Flyers and stuff were seen as disposable artefacts. Also, this was pre-computer and so lots of original artwork was sent out to magazines and printers etc. and never got returned.
There is so much stuff missing and I continually hear from people who have much more comprehensive collections of my flyers than I’ve got myself.
What’s your happiest memory of Trade?
When Trade first took off, it was amazing! It didn’t work for a while and we were almost going to finish it and then SUDDENLY it exploded. It was like a rocket launching, very exciting and great fun. I literally couldn’t wait for Saturday night/Sunday morning to come around.
It feels like your commercial peak was the Absolut campaign in the ‘90s, but what do you feel has been your artistic zenith?
The Absolut campaign could have been a zenith, but unfortunately, they pulled what was going to be a big series of ads after the first.
I don’t think they were entirely comfortable with the gay/underground aspect of my work and I like to think that I’ve yet (artistically) to reach my zenith.
Your portraits are very pop, colourful and flattering to the subjects, have you ever had a negative response to one?
You’ve had a rather long hiatus from the art scene, what have you been doing prior to this comeback?
I was working with Kylie Minogue’s Creative Director, William Baker, painting all the imagery for his b*boy men’s underwear range. Basically, it took up 2 years of my life, although I did exhibit the work at the time. I’ve also exhibited in Australia, Manchester and at the last 2 Liverpool biennales, so I haven’t actually had a hiatus at all.
Has the digital evolution changed the way you work?
Not really in the creation of the work, I still put brush to canvas in the old fashioned way. It has however, made the reproduction and dissemination etc. a lot easier.
If you had to represent your life so far in a shoebox, what would you put in it?
For childhood: probably a toy Dalek, teenage years: Bowie’s ‘70s records, the ‘80s: my signed Andy Warhol t-shirt, to represent my ‘90s experiences: some club flyers, a good bottle of wine and a sachet of ‘revivo-max’ restorative party powders!
You famously painted David Beckham in ladies underwear, do you know if he’s ever seen it?
I doubt it, that piece was commissioned by Boy George who was planning to use it as a record cover. Apparently, The Sun got wind of it and various lawyers suggested it might not be a good idea. If he has seen it, I hope he would be ‘metrosexual’ enough to take it like a man.
Your new exhibition features a Kanye West portrait. How’s that come about?
A friend of his bought one of my Grace Jones prints, Kanye saw it and liked it. He apparently viewed the website and likes my work. She thought it would make a great gift for him. It would be.
First published: TheHospitalClub.com, October 2010