An ensemble of amazingly cool new marionettes crossed my radar recently that bring together the exciting energy of the 1950s-1960s music scene with a retro styling that harkens back to Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, Stingray, and even a dash of the Rankin/Bass holiday classics. These hip puppets were crafted by Kaiser George Marionettes in the UK, who also have produced a large range of beautifully designed products, including large stand-ups and card sets. And in keeping with the brand aesthetic, their merchandise is even wrapped in ultra-cool, Mid-Century-inspired wrapping paper. The artists stopped by the Spy Vibe lair last week for a chat and I'm excited to share our interview with you below.
Spy Vibe: Welcome to Spy Vibe! First of all, I really love what you're creating. There's a wonderful kind of celebration of artists from the late 50s and early 60s, and the whole style also seems reminiscent of, seeing, for example, Cliff and The Shadows appear in Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. What is the overall concept of your project?
George: There wasn't an initial concept as such, other than an expression of admiration for the artists depicted and a desire to entertain and amuse. Attempting to capture something of their humanity has always been important.
SV: How did this all begin for you?
G: I was working as Production Designer on a BBC children's drama when lockdown first happened and I suddenly went from being extremely busy to having nothing to do, so I decided to make a Link Wray marionette. I'm a huge fan of his and he has a great face, so he seemed a logical choice of subject. I made a few more and when I posted a photo of my Buddy Holly puppet on Facebook, Chris sent me a great Box label design featuring a drawing of Buddy that he had coincidentally been working on. Having one of the puppets in its own box with artwork on the lid was when it really felt like the start of a project.
SV: What are some of the visual choices you make? How would you describe the style you aim to achieve?
G: As far as the marionettes go, they need to look like toys but also little portraits, so they're caricatured, but not too heavily. I like them to be not too slick and a little bit homemade looking. On close inspection, they're pretty crude in places. Much as I love the Gerry Anderson stuff, it felt appropriate to keep them a little more rough around the edges than that, in keeping with the music of the era. Their mouths are mostly shut. I'd rather they look like they're thinking rather than singing.
Chris: I try to be as sympathetic to the marionette versions of the stars when it comes to any illustration work, so it might be a case of George sharing early photos of the marionettes in progress, or sharing his photographic reference. There's an element of not getting them exactly right - so they feel like some poor illustrator is having to create box art with limited visual resources, not knowing what the finished marionette will look like. You see this a lot on things like model kit box illustrations of the 50's and 60's, the artwork is superb, but maybe something is a little off with the likeness. It all adds to the charm, plus I tend to rush things a little - so my attention to detail can sometimes slip. For the recent Rolling Stones marionettes George has made, I'm trying out a slightly different style, but working more directly from the actual models, so far it seems to have worked. As for any graphics - again it's trying to make them feel of the time, like these are long forgotten toys contained in their original packaging. I look at lots of packaging and graphics of the era we're working within, things like magnetic reel to reel tape boxes, LP and EP sleeves along with advertising from that period.
SV: What are your ideas when trying to decide which personalities to add to your puppet universe? Who have you included so far?
G: When we got the idea for a '50s Rock 'n Roll bubblegum trading cards set, we pretty much made a list and worked through it. We forgot Ritchie Valens, but we'll make it up to him. We enjoyed giving the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elvis equal status. At the moment however, it's just whoever we fancy doing. The bubblegum card set consists of: Link Wray, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Esquerita, Fats Domino, Johnny Burnette, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Bill Haley
Larry Williams, The Everly Brothers, Etta James, Ray Charles, Duane Eddy, Rosco Gordon. We also have Joe Meek; plus, the Rolling Stones and Johnny Kidd are currently under construction.
SV: Were there any particular accessories or design choices that were especially fun to work on?
G: Bo Diddley's Cushman Road King Scooter!
SV: I love it! I featured Bo often in the early days of Spy Vibe. It seems you have a few different ways to channel your creations. What are the various ways they come together to share with your audience?
C: Between George, Johnny and myself we discuss ideas, so for the bubblegum cards for example, we felt this was a way to showcase all the marionettes George had made in a really sympathetic way - it also allowed us to have some fun, so including the fake gum stick and getting Deke Dickerson to write really snappy star bios. It felt like the right product, it had collectability and we felt it had a subtle educational quality, so younger rock 'n' roll fans could get a fun overview of all these artists... we're hoping these will become part of the school curriculum one day.
Another thing we like to try and do is go that bit further with how we present any merchandise, so the postcard set comes in a bespoke wallet and the postcards are wrapped in tissue paper, we feel this adds a little something special and hopefully delights customers in the process. The great thing is that between us we have a good mix of skills and these all infuse into the KGM project very nicely.
As for sharing all this with an audience - we utilise the social media giants of Facebook and Instagram... which is a good way to show what we are up to, maybe there's limitations to this? We are looking for other ways to showcase what we do beyond those platforms... if anyone has any other ideas then please send them to us on the back of a self-addressed stamped envelope.
SV: Who were your own heroes from that era? Were you a fan of Anderson, Bond, Avengers, ITC shows?
G: I do love the earlier Gerry Anderson stuff before they made the heads more in proportion to the bodies. Also, the 1966 Batman series - so deadpan yet daft. Perfect.
C: As a kid I was a fan of the work of Ray Harryhausen, those films left a strong visual impression. I think we've lost something cultural and artistic with the advent of more TV channels, even in the 80's they weren't afraid to show reruns of a lot of 60's TV shows and dramas. I remember watching things like the 1950's Buck Rogers episodes and Laurel Hardy shorts all before I had my tea!
SV: If you could cast a marionette movie set in the 60s, what would be the dream project?
G: Probably a documentary about the Liverpool and Hamburg music scene 1960-64.
SV: So, I’ve only just I realised that you guys are from the band, The Kaisers! My mind is officially blown. Now your doc idea (and everything) makes even more perfect sense! I'd love to see that get made, too! That would be an amazing project. Let's make it happen! For Spy Vibers who don't know the band, The Kaisers, they’ve been stomping out HIGH-ENERGY beat music since the early 1990s and perfectly capture the Liverpool and Hamburg scene of the early 60s. And it’s a whole package of sound and style! I love how you've brought the aesthetics of that era into these new visual projects. How did The Kaisers band first develop?
Johnny: Around May 1992 we were over in Berlin for a week or so playing with one of our groups at the time "The Hitsville Greaseguns,” a rockabilly/rock n roll outfit. On the way back to the UK we had a few hours in Hamburg and the conversation wandered onto The Beatles in Hamburg recordings, during this George said something along the lines of "I wouldn't mind starting a Beat group. You fancy it?" That's about right isn't it George?
G: Yes I was having doubts about our Rockabilly qualifications and thought we might make a more convincing stab at the UK Beat style. You've got to move with the times after all.
J: So about a month later on June 22nd 1992, we got together for the 1st time in the bass players spare room and had our first rehearsal which we recorded on George's Tascam 4 track recorder. We did 20 tunes, all rock n roll and RnB songs that Beat Groups of the day were playing. Tracks included I Wish I Could Shimmy Like my Sister Kate, Some Other Guy, Little Queenie, Lets Stomp, You're No Good, Boys, What I'd Say, etc. Still have the cassette which sounds like it came straight out of the Kaiserkeller or Star Club circa 61-62. And yes the name "The Kaisers" is a nod to The Kaiserkeller.
SV: Fantastic! I helped a Japanese Beatles group, The Silver Beats, about 20 years ago by photographing them for Rolling Stone, and I made a promo film that helped them get invited to Liverpool's Beatles Week (and eventually a US tour with The Killers). Did The Kaisers run in that Liverpool circle, too?
G: No, we made a conscious decision right at the start to distance ourselves from the whole tribute band thing. Nothing against those kinds of bands, but we wanted to be purely and simply a Beat group and we started introducing original material pretty early on. We'd sneak them into the set and always got a kick when people asked who had recorded the original.
SV: That’s awesome! Given the period of interest and mention of artists like Rosetta Tharpe in your new visual creations, any thoughts about including Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan in your projects? Maybe Acker Bilk? Hey, a Marionette short film inspired by Richard Lester's It's Trad Dad would be cool, too! Gene Vincent could do his Spaceship From Mars!
G: I've thought about making a Lonnie Donegan, and recreating the photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe cutting Chris Barber's hair would be fun. Ha, yes, Gene all in white. Nice!
SV: Chris was also involved with motor racing, which could suggest some cool imagery.
J: You know that we're still out there performing?
SV: I didn’t realize that!
J: Yeah, we [The Kaisers] do a few select festivals each year.
SV: Very cool! Now I see there’s a live Halloween show lined up for October 30th, 2021 at Nambucca in London (near Archway on the Northern Line). I’d love to meet up and see a show next time I’m in the UK (usually during my teacher holiday during summer).
J: And we have a brand new 45rpm out in October, and an LP to follow beginning of 2022, which coincides nicely with our 30th anniversary.
SV: Great! I see now that the October show is also a record launch for the new 45. Spy Vibers can look for details on their band FB page. I hope many of our readers out there can attend! Are there ways you wish to expand Kaiser Marionettes projects in the future?
C: It's tricky to pinpoint at this stage - there's been lots of excited talk about bringing in more film work, fusing the marionettes with a potential music project and even talk of staging an exhibition. So, who knows... as long as people engage with the work, then I'm sure we will find ways to keep it fresh and entertaining!
SV: Finally, if you could design your own secret lair, what would it look like?
G: I'd make a puppet of Ken Adam and get him to do it, so I can't say, but I'd guess it'd be pretty snazzy.
SV: Excellent! Ken Adam did set the style! Guys, thanks so much for hanging out in the Spy Vibe lair. It’s been really fun to catch up on your various projects and to see how you’ve masterfully diversified The Kaisers into a whole multi-media effort. More info at Kaiser George Marionettes on FB, shop links, and Instagram. Enjoy!
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