An obvious starting point is to look at Factory Records – the indie label born in 1978 famed for sometimes producing sleeve artwork that was so expensive that it meant records had to be sold at a loss.
It’s this daftly brilliant skewed aesthetic that made indie labels indie labels, and an oft-cited anecdote that underscores the invaluable role of graphic design into the musical fabric of the last 50 years.
But things have changed somewhat since the 1970s and 80s. The majority of music lovers download much of their playlists, (whether legally or not-so-legally) – while a more casual listener is just as likely to get their sonic pleasures from Spotify or YouTube as from a record store (or, gasp, a supermarket).
For these very reasons, it’s the perfect time for Friday’s Pick Me Up talk – Music x The Graphic Arts.
Our first speaker is Malcolm Garrett – a classmate at Manchester Poly of Factory sleeve designer Peter Saville – and the creative genius behind a huge corpus of iconic sleeves including his first work, The Buzzcocks’ Orgasm Addict featuring Linder Sterling’s toothy-titted woman as its disturbingly sexualised, iron-headed leading lady.
Despite it being – as he’s at pains to point out – ‘15 years since any attempt at seriousness in the music industry’, Garrett’s perspective on the issue is undoubtedly priceless.
Garrett’s talk starts with the 1960s. ‘I was a hippy because that was the rebellious way at the time’, he says, illustrating his point with a truck-load of lysergic flower-children. ‘I had long hair. That was the sort of thing that got you sent home from school.’
Massively influenced by Barney Bubbles’ work for Hawkwind, Garrett went on to create a huge amount of graphic work for Duran Duran. This was a brave move in a time when music sleeves were characterised by the monochrome seriousness of post punk: the Ray-Bans and grey suits of the likes of Orange Juice; or the awkward art-as-life aesthetic of the KLF.
‘Duran Duran were the antithesis of post punk’, says Garrett. ‘It was about celebrating life.’
The Hungry Like the Wolf, yacht-lounging act marked a critical turning point in pop – the move towards the importance of video and merchandising as touch points, alongside records and sleeve design.
At the end of Garrett’s talk, he shows the recent work he produced for seminal Manchester post-punk band Magazine, who enlisted Garett to refresh their artwork, a good 30 years since his initial employment.
Garrett’s recent designs are a reworking of his initial creations, with the Magazine marque and colour palette from 1980 album The Correct Use of Soap accompanied by lyrics from Song From Under the Floorboards. Perhaps ironically, perhaps not – Garrett describes the work using words ‘reissues’ and ‘repackaging’ – an almost direct quote from Magazine’s fellow Mancunians The Smiths’ Paint a Vulgar Picture. Coincidence? We think perhaps not.
Music journalist and art critic John O’Reilly made the prescient point that ‘music is like an early warning system for culture.’ He takes Ghost Box as a starting point – a record label ‘for a group of artists who find inspiration in folklore, vintage electronics, library music and haunted television soundtracks.’
Aesthetics and design are the backbone of Ghost Box – which portrays its artists and philosophies through a series of carefully crafted imagery and insignia. Ghost Box’s central tenet is the idea of the relationship between technology and the occult – borrowing William Burroughs’ idea that when you deconstruct an image you’re left with a ‘ghost’.
Visual examples include work from Jason Munn for the likes of Sonic Youth and St Vincent. Munn’s designs draw heavily on images of ‘old’ technologies such as vinyl records and analogue cameras – a fascination shared with the brilliant works of Dan McPharlain, an illustrator who creates 3D paper models of analogue recording equipment.
O’Reilly rounds off his talk with the interesting observation that despite the downloading, digital music culture, now – more than ever – the direction a band takes aesthetically is very much in the hands of the designer. ‘The band has become more in the power of the illustrator than it ever was’, he says.
This notion of the desinger’s power to shape perceptions of the band is shared by the next speaker, illustrator designer and pop-aesthetics maverick Kate Moross. Her hugely distinctive designs – characterised by bright swirls and deliberately heavy bold black outlines have graced flyers, posters, and T-shirts; and have catapulted Moross from art-student flyer-doodler to a commercial artist with commissions from the likes of Cadbury’s and Topshop. Oh, and that little thing the Samsung Olympic logo .
Moross cites MySpace – a site that now seems laughably outdated in a world where things like Pinterest goes from zero to a million before you can say ‘Twitter’ – as a key player shaping in today’s graphic design/music crossover.
She points to the time in the mid-noughties when all a band needed to get recognition was a MySpace page and a logo as a key turning point in her career. ‘If you didn’t’ have a logo, you sucked,’ she says. She adopted this staunchly DIY aesthetic (despite claiming to initially know nothing of its naissance in punk and Riot Grrl) , meaning she was soon inundated with requests from bands and labels for logos. ‘It’s really exciting creating branding for bands’, she says. ‘I didn’t have a clue what say, Dandi Wind [long forgotten electro pop act] sounded like but I just though “yeah, I’ll do that bit like that, and that bit like that.”’
The final speaker is Tom Oldham, founder of London-based ‘polystylistic’ label and blog No Pain in Pop – which, for the most part, looks to the artists themselves to create their own sleeves and artwork. The result is a roster that not only encompasses dazzling, forward-thinking musical output; but some wonderful examples of contemporary graphic design.
So while we can all berate digital for superseding the days of poring over sleeve designs – reading all the lyrics and doodling the graphics onto our pencil cases – Music x The Graphic Arts proved that the age of the music/design crossover is celebrating a new, enormously exciting dawn. With fresh young labels and music-fanatic illustrators at the helm, it’s now the designers that often shape the bands, or indeed the bands that are the designers. And this – for all the vinyl mourning – can be no bad thing.