Today, 17 July, marks World Emoji Day, and with that in mind, 909originals examines the origins of arguably the most iconic emblem of the acid house scene, the Smiley. 🙂
The simple, grinning face can be traced back to a myriad of origins – it appeared on the poster for 1953 academy-award winning movie Lili, and was also used by the State Mutual Life Insurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts in the early 1960s, as part of a promotional campaign.
However, the familiar yellow smiley that we know today can be traced back to January 1, 1972, and its appearance on the cover of French newspaper, France Soir – the work of artist Franklin Loufrani.
Sensing the opportunity, Loufrani trademarked the emblem, creating The Smiley Company, which remains the custodian for the brand around the world to this day (check out their impressive range of Smiley-themed merchandise; everything from berets to biscuit tins).
In terms of its dance music links, however, multiple sources combined at roughly the same time (1987/88), to create an association that remains strong more than 30 years later.
Having made occasional pop culture appearances over the years – appearing on Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer EP in 1977, and again in DC Comics’ Watchmen series in 1986/87 – Danny Rampling’s Shoom is undoubtedly where most clubbers first experienced the Smiley in an acid house context, with the yellow face plastered all over the club’s flyers and posters.
But as Rampling himself revealed previously, the idea to use the Smiley emblem came from encountering fashion designer Barnzley Armitage decked out in a shirt covered in “a lot of smiley faces”.
Armitage was a regular at Soho clubs such as the Beatnik Club and The Wag, forerunners in a ‘Sloane Ranger’ kind of way for the scene to follow.
As he told The Culture Crush: during the mid 80s, “Kids would just go out dancing every night. I guess it was the tail end of the new romantic thing, right before hip hop happened. They loved to dress up and go out.
“Looking back at it right now, we were really like degenerate teenagers, but it was loads of fun!”
By the time Shoom opened in 1987, that ‘fun’ had magnified ad infinitum.
Credit for the Smiley’s association with acid house should also go to i-D magazine for its now famous December 1987/January 1988 cover, subtitled “Get Up, Get Happy”, which shone a light on the emerging scene.
And by the following February, and the release of Bomb The Bass’ Beat Dis, the first record to feature the Smiley on the cover (albeit the blood-stained Watchmen version, rather than the ‘happy happy’ Shoom variant), the Smiley’s migration into acid house culture was complete.
But as Bomb The Bass’ Tim Simenon told Radio.cz in 2016, his breakthrough, sample-heavy record almost didn’t happen.
“I was at a sound engineering course when I made that record and I was quite happy just to work as a tea boy and work my way up in a studio,” he explained. “During that time I was looking at different studios that I wanted to apply to.
“Then the record came out and the reception was just phenomenal. Eventually, the fact that it did as well as it did, meant that all of sudden I was a music producer.”
An honourable mention should also go to D-Mob’s We Call It Acieed, released in October 1989, which was the first track to bring the Smiley-acid house connection into the MTV/Top of the Pops mainstream.
The video was, as you can imagine, banned by the BBC, while the now-ubiquitous Smiley was also incorporated into articles on the ‘horror of acid house’ by tabloids such as the Daily Mirror.
But by that stage, the stage had already been set, and the Smiley would be a mainstay or dance culture for more than a generation… and then some.