Great Hooters: How The Owl Became Britain's Hippest Beast

From album covers to t-shirt designs and football logos, how the owl has held it's own to become an icon. Britain has talons...
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From album covers to t-shirt designs and football logos, how the owl has held it's own to become an icon. Britain has talons...

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They’re everywhere. Their numbers might be dwindling in the wild, but in modern culture birds of the order Strigiformes are positively thriving. Have a gander at the hepcats treading your local hot-spots, chances are they’re ‘owled up’ to the eyeballs, with their La Roux and BMTH tawny tees. Take a swoop down to Paperchase and eyeball the racks of owl-related stationery. One of the most amusing virals at the mo (on Poke.co.uk), features a, you guessed it, barnie playing ‘catch-me’ with a cat. If you want to get on, in modern Britain, then you need to hook up with old featherbags.

It seems that animal fashions come and go. The mid-90s was the heyday of the monkey and gorilla. The Beastie Boys’ X-Large label used an ape as the public face of its company, an homage to blue-collar blue-denim veterans Ben Davis (former business associates to Levis Strauss) whose lines featured a demure ape. Partridge and ‘monkey tennis’ were the talk of the pubs, and anything remotely simian was gobbled up by a hungry public. There were computer games, DJ troupes, Planet Of The Apes remakes… the primate had never had it so sweet. Or so it thought…

As the Noughties kicked off, Man wasn’t sure which of the woodland animals was going to be fronting the catwalks next. Chris Packham and Bill Oddie would bang on about otters, kestrels and curlews, but the street just wasn’t feeling it. Bears had their day walking on two feet during the red-neck revival of the mid-noughties when all things wolfie were shifting units. But no British animal had yet to size the gauntlet. The badger wasn’t going to appeal to the youth and the fox had burnt its bridges by eating it.

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If you look closer at the trends and movements of the four decades, however, one animal has always been there. You might not notice it at first – after all, it’s a master of camouflage – but once you’ve started spotting them, you just can’t stop. Give it up for the owl.

You could point to Harry Potter’s snowy for being the major catalyst in all this owl madness, but that would be churlish. Owls have been rinsed by album cover designers, album cover namers and T-shirt designers, for quite some time, but it’s never been publicly acknowledged. Until now. The face of the Northern Soul movement of the 60s, the owl has always been perched at the forefront of fashion. The rock and roller of the hedgerows. The master of the barn dance. The up all night raver. Britain has always had talons.

Rateyourmusic.com has listed just under 500 album covers featuring owls (sterling work, sirs). There’s heavy metal eagle owls, hip-hop tawnies and cutesy caricatures from the world of techno and dance. Just note how many of them are from the last five years. It’ll turn your head 360, son. Drive By Truckers, Aerosmith, Howling Bells, Barclay James Harvest (nearly everything they did had an owl on it), Deftones, Hoosiers… it goes on and on and on. And which animal did Sky turn to, to promote its latest products? Hooo?

So what is the allure of the stout one? Why would the fashionistas and doyens of rock and roll want to get into a mouse-strewn bed with this, the most mysterious of the birds of prey? Well, as Agent Cooper was want to say in Twin Peaks ‘the owls are not what they seem’.

The owl for most of us, is out of sight and out of mind. But trawling through the art, music and poetry that these beasts have inspired, you realise there is something more. Something deeper. To some it’s a return to old England and its bearded folksters and hankie-waving wenches. To hip-hop’s Courvoisier crowd the snowy owl makes for a fine fashion accessory sitting perfectly still on the shoulder of a pure white suit. To many it’s not even a bird at all, but a giant beaked cat blessed with the power of flight. The owl contains mystery.

Of course the owl is not especially wise, after all it coughs up horrible food for its kids as it’s incapable of cooking, but it is a knowing, rather humbling animal with a bewitching stare. For the farmer it represents protection against the barn rat and mouse. For the child, it’s a cute animal beloved of storybooks. Maybe in these economically-challenging times, the owl has become our nation’s torch-bearer. Our hope. The dinner plate eyes observing all danger. The imperious fluffed breast feathers keeping out the cold, the owl has no truck with austerity measures. You better hold onto your wig Cameron.

So, keep your eyes peeled for the winged one and dive two-footed into the owl scene. Seems that the Eagle owl is particularly hot right now, according to our sources. And – as that famous Wigan Casino ‘night owl’ kept on howling – “Keep The Faith!”

ROCK AND ROLL OWLS

NIGHT OWL by Gerry Rafferty


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Look at Raffers sprawled across the back of that giant barnie. Must be quite cosy in there amongst the dorsal feathers.

SCARS by BASEMENT JAXX


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Taking the owl into the next Millennia this robotic, cyborg eagle owl seems to be some sort of futuristic warlord. Inspired by the Blade Runner bird?

FLY BY NIGHT by Rush


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Simple, brutal, and beautiful. Look at the feet feathers on this prog rock hunter of the night.

SEVENTH TREE by Goldfrapp

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A craft-fair owl this one. Similar to the owls featured on fellow trip-hoppers Moloko’s Things To Make And Do LP.

WIGAN CASINO OWL


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Looks like a barn owl but can’t be sure. But it’s blindin’, whatever it is.

THE OWL & THE PUSSYCAT

Owls can be funny too. Lookee here.