Hello! Here you'll find comments on the afterlife of Timothy Leary - his impact on our culture and his portrayal in the media. Consider this a continuation of the biography 'I Have America Surrounded - The Life of Timothy Leary', by John Higgs with a foreword by Winona Ryder.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Wal-Mart and the Acid Smiley

In the wake of all the fuss about Wal-Mart trying to copyright the yellow smiley face symbol, I was reminded of the reaction of some Americans who had seen the British cover of my book. A few were unsure about the inclusion of a smiley badge symbol. This is because the symbol has taken on different meanings in the UK and the USA.

In the USA - correct me if I'm wrong - the symbol is seen as a bit vapid or brainless, a vaguely moronic symbol of empty-brained happiness, regardless of whether or not the link to acid house music is known. One difference between the UK and the USA, of course, was that the UK was not inundated by a tsunami of branded tat featuring the face in the early seventies, like the USA was. But the biggest difference was that the Acid House movement became a political issue in the UK, following the Conservative governments efforts to crack down on alternative lifestyles. This led, ultimately, to the mass protests against the Criminal Justice Bill, which effectively outlawed free festivals. It also led to those in the travelling/festivals/rave scene become politically active.

As a result, the acid smiley symbol became a symbol of defiance, an image of the unbroken spirit in the face of oppression from dark forces who no longer got the joke. You can see this is in the work of an artist such as Banksy, for example, such as:

For this reason, when the US issued this stamp in the late 1990s, there were many in the UK who found it extremely funny.

Anyway, Wal-Mart are now going to court to claim ownership of the symbol in the US. To be fair to Wal-Mart, they claim they have been forced into this by the actions of the Frenchman Franklin Loufrani, who is seeking US copyright of the symbol on the grounds that he used it in a newspaper in 1968 to denote a positive story. To be less fair to Wal-Mart, this is a pretty poor excuse. It is widely accepted that the symbol was invented by a guy called Harvey Bell in 1963, who used it to promote an insurance firm, and that they symbol then fell into the public domain before he could copyright it. It must take a certain shamelessness to come along afterwards and try to seek legal ownership of what is, essentially, an archetypal image that all children draw at the age of 3 or 4. It is like someone claiming, with their hand on their heart, that they own all the stickmen ever drawn. But you know what lawyers are like.

But where this gets interesting is how the symbol came to be associated with acid house. Like the coining of the name acid house itself, there are many conflicting stories, but a common strand of these is the involvement of acid house pioneer Genesis P-Orridge and his band Psychic-TV. Genesis was a friend of Leary and Learys influence is obvious on tracks such as Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out, which samples Tim, or the Tablet of Acid series of albums. This is interesting because in the mid-Sixties, following advice from Marshall McLuhan, Leary made the conscious decision to use his own smile - a classic shit-eating grin if ever there was one - as the marketing brand for LSD. This is why he always smiled when cameras were around, and that smile, especially when seen against the dead faces of law enforcement officers taking him away in handcuffs, was a wickedly clever and hugely successful method of promoting his beliefs and lifestyles. So this is why whenever I see the acid smiley face, I see Tim.

And this is why I have to laugh when I read about Wal-Mart's court case. It looks to me like they are spending a fortune on lawyers in order to legally be allowed to dress every member of staff with a large portrait of Timothy Leary on their back.


Blogger Jeff said...


8:46 PM


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