An exhibition of punk record graphics held in that hallowed hall of musical taste, the Royal Festival Hall? Unlikely… but true. Opening tomorrow, Destroy: Punk Graphic Design in Britain is the Seventies instalment of the Royal Festival Hall’s “All that glitters…”, a series of annual exhibitions which, decade by decade, counts down to the millennium.
Destroy comes as less of a surprise if you take into account the South Bank Centre’s refreshingly left-field curatorial policy, and that punk was the only memorable cultural event of the Seventies. What is a shock though, is just how good the stuff looks. All this innovative design, and not a Mac in sight.
First seen hot off the presses and on the racks of such essential Saturday cruising spots as Virgin Records (the New Oxford Street shop, pre-Megastore), Portobello’s Rough Trade and Small Wonder Records, in deepest Walthamstow. Last seen dog-eared and discarded, under a layer of dust. Viewing these sleeves today, en masse and seductively encased in clear PVC, brings back a flood of memories, for I’m old enough to have witnessed the heyday of punk.
Add that dollop of nostalgia to the fact that curators, Paul Khera and Maria Beddoes, have assembled an aesthetically diverse selection of seven- and 12-inch singles, LPs and posters, ranging from ripped ‘n’ torn to neo-conceptual. I’ll hazard a guess that the Royal Festival Hall will be inundated with both musical and designer trainspotters, cooing over collectable artefacts and surreptitiously plundering ideas into sketchbooks.
The selection does indeed include some real gems; the Peter Saville-designed Factory Sampler (stolen, without fail, whenever it is exhibited), Barney Bubbles’ origami-esque Armed Forces cover for Elvis Costello, and Terry Jones’ newspaper facsimile for John Lydon’s first release as Public Image Limited.
Destroy grew out of a rambling conversation graphic designer Khera had with his South Bank Centre clients, over the proposed Seventies exhibition. “I was saying that I’d grown up with these sleeves, which taught me more about graphics than any college project, because I was more interested in music than in re-designing packs of frozen peas. For the first time I saw how design could represent content – the music – and I remembered that my local record shop in Manchester was like a public art gallery. I thought I’d better shut up, but then they asked me to write a proposal. “
This may be ancient history but, to recap, Jon Savage, in his comprehensive tome of the proceedings, England’s Dreaming, Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (1991), names the decisive moment: “In the autumn of 1975, British Punk had begun at 430 King’s Road.” The movement emanated from Sex, Malcolm McLaren’s revamped retail headquarters. By the following spring the antics of his musical protÃ©gÃ©s, the Sex Pistols, were making headline news by annoying the likes of the NME’s Nick Kent while entertaining up-for-it audiences in London’s sweatier venues. Within two years the scene had gone ballistic, with the Sex Pistols’ album Never mind the bollocks – here’s the Sex Pistols, entering the BBC’s chart at number one, despite being banned by WH Smith, Woolworths and Boots.
As controversial as the lyrical content was, what truly annoyed the moral majority was the visual style of this youthful rebellion. With this explosion of raw musical talent came a barrage of incendiary graphics; proselytising posters, rabid flyers, Xeroxed and scrawled fanzines, certain “cowboy” T-shirts which were declared pornographic (prompting police to arrest the wearer). Once-innocent record sleeves, were transformed into a hard-core marketing tool.
Dick Hebdige, in his seminal study, Subculture: the meaning of style (1979), had this to say about punk graphics. “Cut ups and collages, no matter how bizarre, do not change so much as rearrange things… no amount of stylistic incantation can alter the oppressive mode in which the commodities used in subculture have been produced.” What Hebdige failed to take into account is the fact that the most radical (ie authentic) punk products were created outside the established media. Recorded, pressed, designed and funded by the bands, and their closest cohorts, these subversive seven-inches were distributed via a new breed of independent labels, many of which evolved from the back-rooms of sympathetic record retailers, including Rock On, Beggar’s Banquet, Rough Trade and Small Wonder.
“Punk represented a sudden burst of freedom. It was so fantastically do-it-yourself,” remarks Khera. “No one even knew what production values were. They had brilliant ideas, but badly executed. So, my criteria for selecting sleeves was to show those brilliant ideas, regardless, especially if they illustrate the music well. It was all about energy.”
That’s as maybe but, the question is, why should we write punk into the canon of graphic design history alongside the great and the good? Should we bother re-visiting this ephemera, considering that records such as, Oh Bondage, Up Yours (X-Ray Spex), We Are All Prostitutes (The Pop Group) and Reality Asylum (Crass), were originally intended as guerrilla attacks on taste, quality, longevity and every other value espoused by the cultural establishment?
Here’s why. The underlying thesis of Destroy is that, just as the music produced by indie labels caused a revolution in the record business, the graphic content of punk similarly redefined the design industry, in terms of aesthetics, personnel and working methods… Welcome to the first, and sometimes faltering steps of an entire posse of today’s major-league players. It’s no secret that the punk era saw the likes of Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville, Mark Farrow and Sebastian Conran, among many others, make their first mark. And now we may inspect the evidence first hand, and in the context of a whole bunch of other stuff, rather than glorified by the white-space of a respectful, retrospective design article/annual/monograph. ©
Savage hit the nail on the head when he noted, “this graphic experimentation was not conducted in a vacuum. After McLaren and Bernie Rhodes (The Clash’s manager), young managers like Al McDowell (Rich Kids and Generation X), thought in terms of a total package. ‘It was important to make an impression… we set up our own design company… called Rocking Russian… There were several of us: David Dahlson, Clint Hodder and Neville Brody, who was doing a London College of Printing project on fanzines’.” Brody went on to The Face – and the rest is history – while McDowell helped out at i-D before relocating to LA to direct videos for, among others, Madonna.
Designing music graphics to this day, Malcolm Garrett doesn’t mince his words about the era and its influence. “Punk was the cornerstone of my entire career. I was half-heartedly trying to find an experimental sense of purpose and create a new Dada movement, then it started happening all around me. I was in my second year at Manchester Poly when another student, Linder (Sterling, montage artist) introduced me to her friends the Buzzcocks.
“Their manager, Richard Boon, had just graduated from Fine Art at Reading University. Together we plotted their graphic direction. You can’t do good work for a client who doesn’t want it, but I had a client who did. I wanted to work with clients who were the content providers, not merely the distributors.”
Unselfconsciously quoting radical art movements, seizing the means of production, remaining proudly regional, and never compromising, even when major record companies came begging for their services, these graphic designers were a new breed. Mark Higenbottam, who went straight from college to Town and Country Planning in 1982, admits to only ever being into music: “Martyn Atkins, who I worked with, was like a ‘professional friend’, the fifth member of the band, he knew everything about music, and everybody”. With graphic designers mimicking the antics of pop stars, the industry was never going to be the same again. The idea that designers and clients could share attitudes and values, recast design, in the eyes of public and clients alike, as a means of creative communication rather than simply a humble commercial service.
Town and Country Planning was responsible for the early Echo and the Bunnymen sleeves. Higenbottam recalls, “we worked really closely with their manager Bill Drummond (later to become a pop star himself as half of KLF), to take a simple idea to a logical limit. Everything related to everything else, so that when you walked into a shop you immediately spotted the Bunnymen record”. The idea of the band as brand had been born, and the anonymous corporate designers were doomed. “Within four years of punk,” remembers Garrett, “all the in-house design departments were dead. Now the majors are trying to replicate the punk model by teaming their current in-house designers with young bands.”
In Garrett’s opinion, “the legacy of punk will be revisited on the Internet. It’s a logical extension of what punk tried to do, giving control to the content creators.” For Higenbottam, the current resurgence of “little” labels and new bands, “is a reaction to ‘manufactured’ dance music, the best new music is a cross-over though, and it’s still underground.” He’s seen punk’s spirit literally come full-circle. Working with Naked Records, Higenbottam is honing style books for new signings which he regularly sees gig on London’s club circuit. Why Destroy, why now? Isn’t it obvious?