The older I get the more I find my mind goes backwards and forwards through time. Why wouldn’t it when you realize that things that were once staples of my youth became abandoned, ridiculed and made redundant. Regarded both as old fashioned and old ways of thinking. Yet now many are celebrated as being cool and relevant again. In music this has happened with the re-emergence of vinyl records and recording in analog instead of digital. Believe it or not, I was at a record show a few weeks ago and in some places the long forgotten cassette tape is making a resurgence! If 8-tracks make a similar return then the cycle will truly be complete.
Other recent trends that have slowly been coming back are things like typewriters, film photography, real corks in wine bottles, Atari video games, even quality non- disposable pens. What makes these comebacks satisfying for me is that it is not purely nostalgia driven. After years away from these things, I think people realized that they do prefer the tactile feel of a real pen in their hands for example. Some companies are realizing that the value of documents typed on a single sheet and stored in a physical filing cabinet is safer than being stored on a server digitally. Others are realizing that there is a benefit in this fast paced world of slowing down just a little bit…say the length of time it takes for a Polaroid photo to develop, another product making a comeback. Some of these trends are more of a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario-new pressings of vinyl records that come with a digital download link or classic video games you can play on your smartphone. The key to all of these elements is the feeling that maybe there was a rush to push these things to redundancy a bit too quickly for things newer and flashier. The throes of technology can be alluring, but in honesty, they are not always the only way.
Another trend that I especially appreciate making a comeback are old building signs painted directly on the exteriors. Before newer, lighter, and cheaper methods took over, that is how billboards and company signs were done. There were no neon flashing signs or waving inflatable characters waving at you from the roadside, bombarding you with messages. Instead there was a building with its business name emblazoned on the front. Or for advertising purposes, the ad was painted directly on the side of the building. Often now when I come across these types of signs or billboards I take a photo. The photography is more for preservation sake and not creative. I just like what I am seeing and want to keep a record of it because I have always liked these sorts of signs.
A number of years ago before I took up photography seriously I noticed one such old advertisement on a building near Lincoln Center in New York. Another building adjacent had been knocked down, which revealed a great old advertisement for a now forgotten brand of bread. The ad was in great shape, no doubt shielded from the weather by the now torn down building. But it did not last, as another building soon started going up, and before long the advertisement was covered up again. I’m kicking myself now for not taking a photo to preserve it, but who knows, perhaps the newer building will meet a similar fate and the same ad will see the light of day once again.
And I think that notion is exactly why I love those old signs so much. Just like with old vinyl or dusty typewriters, or old camera gear in a thrift store, they manage to hang on, year after year. Of course that is a testament to the way things were made back then, but also to the sensibility for what was important. Old billboards for Coca Cola had the same purpose as ads for Coke do now-to sell product. But somehow those painted billboards seem way less in your face than the flashy celebrity driven ads do now. Ads today are driven by market research, target audiences and data mining done from sites you click online. The old ads were trying to stand above the crowd too of course with slogans and characters pushing the product. But because they were in the pages of a magazine, or painted high above the street on a city building, they don’t come across the same way thinking about them now. Rather than being ‘in your face’ it was more the idea of ‘try it’ and tell all your friends.
Additionally, there were other signs that are just company names, and though they may have been defunct for years now, the signs still survive. You can usually pinpoint their age by telltale signs like fonts, design, and color patterns. It has been nice to see this trend coming back on some level today with new businesses painting murals on their buildings, or just using the side of a building as a blank canvas to advertise what a particular company does. I go back to that realization that tactile and audio elements have already come back. So why shouldn’t having the side of a building be the advertisement rather than a billboard? With a billboard you have to pay for the ad, the cost of the billboard itself, with the knowledge that it will only be up for a certain amount of time. With a painting there is an element of being permanent, of quality and confidence in a brand. Like those other things we have discarded that are coming back, perhaps we will get back to that idea again someday.
For the musical side of this post I wanted to feature someone that has that same sort of old school meets new school vibe. Music with one hand firmly based in the past, but musically in the present. In the 1990’s I came across the country band BR549 (the name came from a sketch on Hee Haw). Right away I was hooked by their infectious mix of original songs and classic country songs. Most sounded straight out of a 1953 honky tonk bar though the subject matter was pure rock and roll. None more so than my favorite song of theirs- ‘Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts). It ties in well with what this post is about-things going back and forth in time. Ramona might have punk rock roots still in her, but she is more interested in the older country roots. Its the musical version of the examples from above. Living in the present, but having appreciation for the ‘realness’ of the past. Just like vinyl records, Polaroid cameras, typewriters, pens and old signs on older buildings. Below in the gallery are a few from my archives of old sign taken in several locations.
Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)-Written By Chuck Mead
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
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