I missed tarot shopping in the 1970s by only a few years. Only now do I see it as a very distinct phase in tarot history. Only now does it seem to me increasingly, distortedly romantic, something which – if I’m honest – is simply the vessel into which I pour a more general nostalgia and malaise. If it weren’t tarot cards it would be toy cars or children’s TV programmes or breakfast table ceramics, things that immediately conjour up the cliché of more innocent times. But I have seen, over the last year or so, a core group of decks consolidate into the very essence of what I think of as my five definitive 1970s deck which I love more and more. The reality is that although I was buying tarot decks shortly after the decade finished, these decks (with the exception of two) weren’t really on my radar and I didn’t buy them until much later. The unromantic truth of the matter is that I bought the Grimaud Grand Etteilla, the 1JJ Swiss, the British Blue Box Rider Waite Smith deck, The Cagliostro, the Grimaud Tarot de Marseiles with its English titles (“Queen of Coins”) and a pastel coloured, inoffensive deck called The Prediction Tarot which I once thought was beautiful but which I now find rather vacuous. The Thoth (it would have been the famous “greenie”) was also often on the shelves, high up like porn, exuding devilishness.
It took me a long time to appreciate these decks which I have come to think of as the defining decks of the 1970s and, as in all trends, what ultimately matters in the long term is often that which we overlook at the time. You look back – the 1960s, the 1950s, the 1980s – and can guarantee that most people were not listening to the quality music that is so revered today, but the excrutiating, forgettable pap that it pains us to remember and which we deny ever having listened to. Our memory is selective. We can look back on our youth and console ourselves by thinking we detect our former self at the very cutting edge of cultural history and hope that there are no witnesses nearby to contest it. However, when I started buying tarot in the very early 1980s, I wasn’t interested in acquiring a copy of the Morgan Greer. I remember seeing it in Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume I and finding it embarassingly old-fashioned. Those moustaches, that hair! The children’s storybook colouring that I had long since grown out of, the faint air of laughable disco in its pompous poses. Nothing was funnier for me at the time than the tasteless, inelegant 1970s and I pointedly avoided the deck. I wanted my tarot decks to be mysterious and spooky and the Morgan Greer felt like a clumsy, brown, unrefined deck that made me cringe a little. I didn’t buy it. Then there was Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot which – again – I remember from Kaplan’s Encylopedia. I found The Fool rather striking (I remember this much). It reminded me of that Portrait of King Edward VI by the studio of Holbein. But the rest of the deck seemed drab, uniform, po-faced and inexpressive. The deck draws on that late 1960s deco revival and the 1980s was also referencing the 1920s again, but to my mind, it was doing it so much better. The deck seemed cold and flat and – again – just not mysterious enough for my burgeoning gothic tastes. I wanted “old” and old – as I understoood it – wasn’t the decade before. Then there was the Hoi Polloi which I also knew from Kaplan, but I hadn’t seen any images from it in colour (how quaint life was in the pre-internet world). If I had, I would have found it daubed and pink and rather felt-tipped and I would have sneered mercilessly at its children’s birthday party colours.
The only two decks out of my canonical five which I actually bought at the time were The Balbi and The Royal Fez Moroccan. I erroneously include this latter deck as a 70s deck, even though it was created in the 1950s by Roland Berril. However, it was in 1975 that it was published as a mass market deck by AG Muller/U.S Games and so I think of it as belonging to that decade. I bought this deck 8 years after its publication. I didn’t often see it in shops but one day I saw it and decided to buy it as I had seen it in a list of “most popular” decks – that used to come on the extra 79th card – so assumed it must be good. However, I was dismayed when I opened it up; so monochrome and uninspiring, with some sickly dabs of yellow. It seemed unfinished,with its scribbled hatching, unlaminated cardstock, sketchy details and no titles. I tried hard to like it, but its figure-drawing looked stilted, some of the backgrounds were virtually blank! And so it languished for many years in it’s slightly-too-tight orange box until I rediscovered it years later and let it slowly work its charm. All that I had dismissed it for was subsequently reason to love it.
Then the Balbi, which I only bought because it was cheap. Decks at this time were expensive for me with my pocket money. The Balbi was the cheapest deck in the shop and I bought it on one of those days (circa 1984) when I simply had to take something home with me to appease that throb of tarot craving. I took off the shrinkwrap and knew that this deck felt like a deck for children. The colours felt like those of a cheap board game; too childish, too plastic. The faces were all wrong, the Minor Arcana too modern (nobody made the distinction between Minor Arcana and Pip cards then; all books refered to them as The Minor Arcana). And what was with the butterflies in the Cups suit? A deck for girls. The Wands didn’t look like Wands, Death certainly didn’t look like Death (too strolling, too comical). Too much purple; purple was for 70s jump suits, not tarot decks. So, snuggled up with the Royal Fez Moroccan, it slumbered in a box while I busied myself with school, college, university and beyond, and thought of the 1JJ Swiss as the only true tarot deck.
Then something happened. Trends changed, tastes changed, I changed and came back to tarot with a different eye and, after a few years of rediscovering tarot art and what had been published in the intervening years, decks from when I was younger suddenly seemed desirable, somehow summed up the magic, effervescence and wonder of those years. After some experimentation, I have distilled 1970s tarot into these five decks. In order of publication; the Aquarian (1970), the Hoi Polloi (1972), The Royal Fez Moroccan and Balbi (both 1975) and finally the Morgan Greer (1979). In a sense it’s strange to think of the Morgan Greer as very 70s when it comes right at the end of the decade. It’s virtually 1980s and yet looks so much earlier. I come to appreciate different things; the feel of cardstock from that time counts for a lot now. I find myself wishing that all decks had the cardstock of the Royal Fez Moroccan. I think that half of what I love about the Hoi Polloi is simply the size of it and the broadly rounded corners resting in my hand, the brownness, the LP-cover, gentle lamination which you feel will crack like varnish.
All of these decks have an atmosphere which musters up childhood for me, even though I didn’t have these decks as a child and as an adolescence I positively rejected some of them. But what I once disliked in them – for being uncomfortably near to me in time, cramping my style – I now rejoice in. The colours in the Morgan Greer are now sweetly autumnal and could not have been produced in any other era. The Balbi captures something of the exuberance of pop art like no other deck I know. The Royal Fez Moroccan is more captivating than other decks by dint of having no names, no words, just the images seeping into one another without boundaries or restraint, with fairytale characters leaping off the blank backgrounds and blending into a haphazard narrative. If this deck were produced nowadays it would be glossed and plastified and titled and keyworded. The Morgan Greer would bordered and digitally retouched and the stars on the backs made uniform (lest the more anxious among us feel unsettled by their lack of symmetry and sue). The Hoi Polloi – which I still think of as some parlour game relic – would never see the light of day, encroaching as it does on a complex copyright saga I do not even pretend to understand. And perhaps the Aquarian could be made a bit more cheerful, to draw in a younger crowd? All of these decks now strike me as even more beautiful because I overlooked them at the time. I like them because they remind me of a time before tarot was expected to cater for every single whim of every single reader. We were not offended if it wasn’t Wiccan enough. We didn’t expect miracles. I don’t know what we expected really; and that’s the magic; tarot was mysterious; we didn’t know what to expect. Feeling on the edge of things, up against the mainstream tide and conventions, any tarot deck you found was a treasure. I have come full circle and braving the onslaught of deck gimmicks and fads, know that I have found my treasures. They’ve been here all along.