Part of the Seeing the Scene Series
I first met Russ Bestley six or seven years ago at a Punk Scholars Network (PSN) conference in England. Russ helped found this organization to bring professors, students, independent scholars, writers, and other punk fans together who are interested in writing and talking about punk’s unique histories and contemporary cultural experiences. He also edits a journal called Punk & Post-Punk, which has been an important outlet for punk research. Russ’s specialty is graphic design, and I was excited to have an opportunity to talk with him about the integration of photography into some historical U.K. punk records.
As I’ve written in some of the other introductions to columns that moved away from interviews with photographers about their photography, my hope is that this series can be a space to consider punk photography from multiple angles. I’m not a graphic designer, so I learned a lot about design elements during this conversation with Russ. I assume readers who are in the same place will have a new appreciation for nuanced choices that go into making punk record sleeves. Readers with design experience will learn about some unique historical design choices that helped shape some of the most important U.K. punk records.
Daniel: How did you discover punk?
Russ: It wasn’t a big musical household, and I didn’t have any older siblings. I had two or three Queen albums, a bit of T. Rex. Punk hit me at the right time to start obsessing about music. I was fifteen in 1977 and I learned about punk through the press. For me, it was reading the horror stories in my mom and dad’s newspaper. They used to read the News of the World, which was a kind of sensationalist Sunday newspaper. There was a lot of shocked horror at all these people sticking safety pins through their noses, wearing rubbish bin bags, swearing, and being really offensive. My parents were working class conservative and very strict. They thought this was appalling and awful. There was nothing more appealing to a slightly rebellious fifteen-year-old than being told: “Well, this is what you mustn’t do.” For me, that was the trigger and then I just started to seek it out.
One of my theories is that there’s really a tight set of ages related to punk in the U.K. at that time. Those of us born in the early to mid-’60s, we are kind of a bit in between. Punk is happening at the time. We’re not old enough, to a certain extent, to get to a lot of the gigs. I couldn’t see the Sex Pistols because I was only fourteen or fifteen. I did get tickets for the Banshees’ first tour and my mom burned the tickets. She read that they were Nazis and didn’t want me to go. I was going to slip up to Lewisham to see them, which probably would have quite literally been a riot. There was a lot of violence around that time. It would have been inadvisable for a fifteen-year-old boy from the sticks to be heading off to London. I was determined that that was what I wanted to do, but my mom destroyed everything. She also burnt my clothes. I rescued them out of the dustbin and wore them just to annoy her. For me, it was a rite of passage.
Daniel: You said, “A boy from the sticks.” Where did you grow up?
Russ: I grew up in Kent in a place called Tunbridge Wells; it’s about thirty miles south of London, which was thirty miles going on a million miles, basically. My parents didn’t drive. We were restricted to public transport and the last train would run back out of London at 11 o’clock at night. If you did go to a gig in London, which I started to do soon after, you’d have to leave early to try and get a train home or you’d be sleeping at the station and then try to get back the next day, much to the annoyance of my parents.
Daniel: Can you talk about the transition from discovering punk to becoming involved in some way?
Russ: I ended up moving to Portsmouth in 1980 to go to college. I didn’t get a place at university or polytechnic, but my twin brother did. He was going away to Portsmouth to study geography. I was a bright kid, but I couldn’t be bothered at school. I was in the British team as an athlete, long distance running, so I was a good sportsman. I didn’t get into college, but then I realized I’d be stuck at home with my mom, who I wasn’t getting on with. I phoned a lot of colleges to see if I could get a place through what was called the clearing system and I got offered a place to study engineering at Portsmouth. I left in the first month. I just couldn’t hack it. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And I was also an awkward little shit. I was insecure and naïve, and thought I was a rebel. If I had been the tutor, I wouldn’t want to work with me.
You got student grants in those days to go to college. I spent the grant in the first three months on records and then lived on porridge and ended up living in squats. I started working on gigs in Portsmouth, initially as a roadie and then doing lighting and sound for bands. That was everything from The Clash, The Stranglers, and The Damned to Iron Maiden, Depeche Mode, and Motörhead. Every night was different. I also put on some low-key gigs, including Vice Squad. I got more into the scene, but behind the scenes.
I worked in record shops through the ’80s, which was fun. At one shop they couldn’t afford to keep me. The manager needed me to work but couldn’t afford to pay me. “I’ll just work for records. However much you would pay me, I’ll take that value in records.” I spent about six months just working for records and I went back to starving again. I’ve had a habit all my life of starving based on buying records. But I’ve got a great record collection. [laughs] Then I ended up driving a forklift truck doing warehouse work.
I was made redundant, so I went back to art college, which is what I should have done in the first place. I tried to change from engineering to art in 1980 and they wouldn’t let me. They said, “You’ve not done a foundation course.” As a mature student in my mid-thirties, I went back to do an art foundation course with a bunch of sixteen year olds. I was old enough to be their dad. I went through that and then did a degree in the mid-’90s and then ended up working in academia. It kind of all comes together, since I ended up studying graphic design and teaching graphic design theory, history, and practice.
I did a Ph.D. about punk graphics in the early 2000s. People would say, “Oh, you’re interested in punk. Read Dick Hebdige.” And I was saying, “Yeah that’s interesting, but it doesn’t really touch on what I’m interested in or my experience.” I wanted to tell a different story about punk in the provinces, punk that was further afield, the DIY scene. Hebdige was saying it all died in 1978 and I said it hadn’t. To bring this back to finding punk, sadly, my mom died a year before I finished the Ph.D. "I told you I wasn't wasting my time all those years ago."
Daniel: I assume that when you started working on your Ph.D., neither academics nor punks knew what to make of the work you were doing. How did you bring your life as a punk together with your research interests?
Russ: As I said, I went back to college as a mature student. I had been playing in bands for quite a few years at that point. We made our own flyers, posters, record sleeves. We DIYed it in a completely untrained way. We appropriated a style that was emblematic of what we want to be, but that also fit into a visual language that the other people would understand. This is a punk record, not a metal record or a disco record, because of the color scheme, the typography, or whatever. I was already doing that without understanding what I was doing.
Going back to college, I learned more about graphic design and design history. I found that an awful lot of the early punk graphic designers, such as Peter Saville (Factory Records) and Malcolm Garrett (Buzzcocks, Magazine, Heaven 17), were either at art college or they knew the band and had a visual sense that fitted the moment.. One of my colleagues often says that designing posters is the closest a designer gets to doing a painting, something big that goes on the wall in a frame. Similarly, designing record sleeves is a key area for a lot of graphic designers. When you think about some of the classic punk album covers—The first Ramones album, The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks—you can imagine it straight away. There’s a shorthand: you know the color and what it looks like typographically. It’s just embedded, and it’s become so closely attuned to the music. That was the art that I liked. I didn’t really understand painting and I didn’t really understand contemporary art. Still don’t. But I understand album covers, posters, and the popular culture end of graphics. I think those things are incredibly important, but they are almost invisible to most people while at the same time incredibly evocative and powerful.
Daniel: I assume flyers are somewhat similar. There are punks who collect flyers, who pay attention to the design and differentiate among flyer designers. But a lot of punks grab the flyer, fold it up, shove it in their pocket, and rely on a social media source as a reminder about the next DIY show.
Russ: Yeah, I suppose I’ve come full circle. At one stage, I probably would have been the collector who would collect all of those flyers. And now, I think maybe because of age or maybe because of experience, I recognize that an awful lot of flyers are just horrible. [laughs] You can see why a Raymond Pettibon flyer is so visually strong and so important. When you understand visual language and how design works there is a tension. When I was working with bands, some things were demystified, which was a shame.
For example, when I worked an Iron Maiden show, the roadie dressed up as Eddie, this eight-foot mummy, and ran around the stage. When I saw the roadie putting the outfit on, it took away the magic. You see how the show works. Or when you study film production, and you understand how they made that thing appear in a certain way, it takes away the magic. But it does add something else. With graphic design, when you understand how somebody assembled something, it takes away a bit of the magic. At the same time, I think it makes the experience more interesting.
Daniel: I understand that contrast, but I’m hoping [laughs] that our focus on some specific record sleeves helps us appreciate punk records from another perspective. I think it will be interesting to learn about some records that you think present a unique graphic design. And given the focus of this series, it will be cool to discuss some records that you think integrate photography into a broader graphic design in unique ways.
Russ: I think we should start with Gang Of Four’s Damaged Goods EP. It’s an odd one because it’s not a photograph that’s been shot for the record cover. This is the front cover.
Russ: There’s a guy running a label called Bob Last. He used to be a roadie for the Rezillos and he was producing a kind of arty fanzine when he started this independent record label called Fast Product. He was an untrained designer but was interested in art and the visual. He started the label and the first record he issued was by the Mekons, Never Been in a Riot. He also signed Gang Of Four and issued this record, which is a classic piece of post-punk.
What I find really interesting in terms of photography is the band sent him this photograph, which is a cut out clipping from a paper. They also sent him a letter with an explanation of what they want it to do. They want the matador and the bull to be cut out from the background with the caption, “Olé! The feminine touch from Seniorita Maribel.” Bob can touch it up, but they want this photograph. And what they’re talking about is a dialectic. Two of the four Gang Of Four members were art school students, and they were interested in this Marxist reading of the image of the bullfight.
But what Last does is he designs the front cover, which is a classic; it’s a great piece of typography. Then he puts the photograph and their letter on the back. I think this is a brilliant piece of punk, post-punk graphic design. I know that I am straying a little bit from the focus of your column on photography, but it’s using photography in a way that is a lovely example of the intelligence behind post-punk. As I said, the band had this understanding of how images work. And they had this concept: Okay, we found this image of this female bullfighter and we want this dialogue to happen between the bull and the bullfighter about entertainment and about the corruption of the entertainment industry. They’re also saying that the matador and the band are both in the entertainment business and they have to give the audience what they want. The bull is saying to the matador that there’s a point when we have to take responsibility for our actions.
Again, Last goes one step further and just reproduces the instructions they’ve sent him. The Damaged Goods EP is explicit about the production process. There’s also an aspect of punk that is explicit about the audience/producer relationship. The first single that Last did with the Mekons included this type of message. This is the back cover that included a collage and graph paper.
The band, and other bands at that time, was very much building on an ethos of anyone can do it—DIY. They were breaking down barriers between performer and audience. The Mekons used to change instruments between songs because none of them could play any instruments anyway. And they would invite people on stage from the audience to come and play. The Slits also did this. Famously, The Slits were doing a gig and they walked off stage and invited people to get up and play the instruments. They danced around at the front in front of the people who went on stage. So, this whole idea about breaking down performer-audience barriers is what’s going on with that Mekons graphic. And, again, I think that’s also what’s going on in the Gang Of Four record; they’re trying to bring you, the audience, into the conversation.
Daniel: I know you said that you’re kind of straying a little bit from the focus on photography, but I think beyond all of the really great things you’re sharing about the graphic design of these two records as embodying DIY, there are some interesting things to consider with the specific photo on the Gang Of Four record. The more common music industry move would be to include a photograph of the band, not to cut out (in a jagged way) a photo from a newspaper and then use that image. Professional bands put themselves front and center. To extend this idea of industry standard, Fast Product was an upstart label. Most label owners don’t want to cover up their name in the production credits as we see on the back of the Gang Of Four record.
Russ: While we’re on this issue of what is supposed to happen, let me share another favorite of mine: XTC’s Go 2. This was designed by Hipgnosis, which were the design group that worked on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin, and the biggest prog bands of the early ’70s. They were commissioned to do the sleeve for XTC’s second album. XTC went to visit them, and they couldn’t agree on anything but in the corner of the room was a mockup of a cover. The band’s members asked about it and the Hipgnosis designers said that it was something they made on a whim, as a kind of design exercise that they thought was fun. But they didn’t have a home for it. XTC chose it for their album cover.
It is one of my favorites because it does exactly what is said on the tin: “This is a record cover. This writing is the design upon the record cover.” It’s an essay about what a record cover does. It’s trying to pull you in as if you’re the victim who will buy this record, but you’re much more intelligent than that. As a reader, you understand this process so you’re going to stop reading, but, actually, you know you’ve been tricked and you’re going to continue to read it and you’re going to buy the record. The design presents us with the dilemma between consumerism, marketing, and product. Later on, Flipper did their Album —Generic Flipper with that text on the cover. Public Image did their album in ’85 with just Album, Compact Disc, and Cassette on the cover. Everything was just typographically described.
They’re an interesting bunch, Hipgnosis. On one hand, they were a very famous design group. On the other hand, Sleazy Christopherson worked there as a photographer. He was in Throbbing Gristle. You’ve got this weird post-hippie art thing crossing over to punk. In my journey since I wrote The Art of Punk book in 2012, and talking to some of the designers, I found out a lot more about the professional photographers and professional designers who created different punk aesthetics. I’m talking about the bands that were big: The Clash, The Damned, The Stranglers rather than the DIY scene, which I’m sure we will discuss later. I should add that I personally don’t make a big distinction between punk, new wave, and post-punk. But I know that in America, there is a much harder distinction with new wave.
Daniel: Well, new wave existed on a spectrum in terms of sounds and a scene. There were smaller local bands that fit well with punk and post-punk bands on a bill and have garnered new fans via blogs and reissues. And then there would be a band like The Motels that became very popular and garnered attention on par with mainstream rock bands. Also, the spectrum of punk changes. Once hardcore emerges in the ’80s, both here and there in the U.K., the scenes change. Many of the first wave of punk bands in the U.S. and in the U.K. worked with major labels. When the sounds became harsher and harder, the corporate labels weren’t going to touch those bands.
Russ: When you look at the design, the visual aesthetic, there is something similar. Uglier and more discordant designs are used to get away from commercial appropriation. But the further it goes, the more it gets appropriated. The major labels just do more and more ugly stuff. It’s impossible to get away from this. That’s commerce, isn’t it? When Discharge and others create a U.K. hardcore aesthetic, you end up with the big labels tapping into that and signing their own versions of those bands.
Daniel: A cycle of creation and then integration, or co-optation. Which record or records do you want to discuss next?
Russ: Let’s do the Ramones and The Clash. There is a tradition from the 1950s onwards that you put a photograph of the artist on the cover of the record: the Kinks, Small Faces, or whoever. The Beatles kind of moved away from this norm with Sgt. Pepper’s and the White Album. Punk bands also were divided in their approach. Jamie Reid, who worked with the Sex Pistols, said there would never be a photograph of the Sex Pistols on a record cover. That’s a deliberate move away from photography. Jamie Reid said, and I think Malcolm McLaren also said this, people can get photographs of the band in magazines and newspapers. We don’t need to do that on the record cover. You end up with a lot of punk record covers that do not have photography on them. But there is also a strain of record covers that do have photography. The first Ramones album sets the standard for a particular visual style for punk.
Russ: Roberta Bayley did the photograph. It projects low rent, of the street: a decayed brick wall with graffiti on it. The black and white photograph is grainy. The uniform that Johnny wanted to the band have—the jeans, sneakers, leather jacket—projects the essence of what it means to be a punk band. And we can see how the first Clash album does something similar.
This is a Kate Simon photograph and was taken on the steps outside Rehearsal Rehearsals, which is the warehouse space in Camden where the band had a rehearsal room. It’s become a location for punk tourism. People stand on those steps, trying to look mean, and then take a photograph. The photo is even more grainy than the Ramones cover. The Ramones had a halftone aesthetic, and this has been really bleached out; it looks like it’s gone through a very cheap photocopier. It’s actually been treated, I think, on a PMT (photomechanical transfer) camera. This was before the time when photocopies were widely commercially available, and they certainly weren’t used for artwork created by major label design studios. They’ve treated this in a way that makes it look like it’s torn out with ragged edges, much like the Gang Of Four newspaper photograph. It’s very hard black and white, but it’s a four-color process print. It’s on proper card album stock and it’s printed in high quality, but it just looks low quality.
My Ph.D. was focused on punk aesthetics, punk visual style, and punk typography. One of the things I found is that you get an awful lot of records like this that look like they’re really cheaply reproduced but they used the same technology, the same printer, and the same mechanical processes as something that’s super glossy. This could be four color with a full color, high resolution photograph, and then go through the same printing process to look like mainstream albums. However, they deliberately chose to make this Clash album look DIY, or cheap. But they’re printing this in the hundreds of thousands.
To bring this back to the Ramones, they set the aesthetic: hard-edged, grainy black and white, against a brick wall in an urban area. That visual style becomes a convention that plays out through a particular strand of punk, especially in Britain in the ’80s, with bands like Chron Gen. Black and white, against a brick wall, four lands with their best outfits on. Or you’re going like that [middle finger pushed out and toward the camera] and you’ve got a mohican.
As a designer I’m interested in this becoming a kind of standard aesthetic that followed in the tradition of the pop bands of the ’50s and ’60s because it’s still an image of the band; it’s still about what they’re wearing, their haircuts, and how cool they look. Whereas the other stuff, again thinking about the Sex Pistols, the typography or the design is doing something beyond what the band looks like. I feel like I’m talking about everything other than photography.
Daniel: I’m really enjoying this conversation and learning a lot. This series has run for nearly two years, and I have only focused on photography. I think it’s interesting to understand how photography fits into graphic design, but in order to understand that link, it’s important to contextualize design in early punk more generally.
Russ: I think Malcolm Garrett and his work with Buzzcocks provides a nice meeting point. The albums had photographs of the band. Malcolm didn’t want photos of the band, but the band insisted. The singles Malcolm designed didn’t have photographs. Malcolm’s work was quite clever, ironic, and more about engaging with the manufacturing process and trying to talk about that rather than an image of the band that’s projected.
There is pure graphic design. Malcolm was designing a record sleeve for the fourth single: “I Don’t Mind” and “Autonomy.” All the Buzzcocks singles didn’t have an A side and B side. Each side was treated as the same, a lead track. A side and an AA side. This is what became the front.
Again, he was playing visual games. I’ll show you what Malcolm wanted on the front.
Malcolm wanted the catalog number and the record company logo. He went to visit the United Artists factory where they pressed the records. This is the United Artists logo and all the records in the pressing plant are known by the catalog number. They’re not known by the title or the name of the band. UP 36386; that’s the product. When Malcolm designed the first album, it came in a plastic bag that just said “Product” on it. Again, all about commercial buying and selling. With this single, he was really playing games with Buzzcocks marketing.The record label decided to use two tracks from the album to release as a single, much to the band’s disgust. They thought it wasn’t good value for money for their fans who have two tracks that are already available on the album. Malcolm didn’t have any titles on it, just the catalog number. There you go. There’s your answer. The record company rejected it, and they turned it around the other way, putting the titles on the front and then the United Artists logo and number on the back of the record. I also want to show the ad for this record.
A lot of punk graphics and post-punk graphics, which I find fascinating, include this idea of biting the hand that feeds. And there is also another entry point, which is interesting in a different way. I mentioned the Art of Punk book earlier. When I was doing the research from 2010 to 2012, I met a lot of designers. Jo Mirowski was working at Polydor Records in their house studio. He did the first two Sham 69 albums. Prior to that, he worked with Slade. He said it was just the same thing; it was just another band that was just like Slade, but they were a bit noisier.
A woman called Jill Mumford worked with XTC and Siouxsie And The Banshees. At the same time, she was doing an album cover for the Royal Marines Marching Band in Portsmouth. I mention this because I was always kind of cynical. I was this purist DIY punk who thought the people who work with the bands were punks. There was no kind of commercial operation behind it. Bill Smith did The Jam logo on In the City with the spray paint on the wall. I said, “Where did you do that? Was that in the toilet at the Roxy or something?” He said, “No. No. We went to the photography studio, and we tiled a wall. Then we smashed the titles up, and we sprayed The Jam.” It kind of demystifies, but, actually, they’re very clever people. They can do an album cover for a big selling artist like Frank Sinatra and they can do Sham 69.
Jamie Reid and Malcolm Garrett were kind of embedded with the bands, so they had one aesthetic and one band to work with early on. But these commercial designers are interesting because they had to do a disco album one day and then a punk album the next day. I have a lot of respect for them as to how they managed to break that down. It’s a skill and very much part of the tradition of graphic design. I assume this is the same for photographers. One day you’re shooting a wedding, the next day you’re shooting a road crash, and the next night a punk gig.
Daniel: Among the people I have interviewed for this series, some shoot punk shows only, others shoot music and documentary stuff for fun or to participate in a scene, others try to make a living from music photography, and another group works full-time with photography (workshops, ceremonies of different kinds). The people in that last group tend to tell me that they bring the same style across contexts.
But back to the Buzzcocks. I didn’t know that they had different design strategies for their singles and their albums. I’m not a collector of singles, so I only own their full lengths, all of which included photos.
Russ: This is the first album.
The band wanted a photo of the band and I think the label also wanted a photograph of the band. All the singles up to that point had been typographic. Although the first one, Spiral Scratch EP, had a Polaroid photograph of the band. Buzzcocks graphics were quite sophisticated, and, in some ways, I always thought, not very punk. I never knew, until I talked to Malcolm years later, what was going on here. Then I started studying the work from a different vantage point and realized the games that were being played.
Here is the second album.
And then the third album is this one.
I never realized this, but Malcolm said it was square, circle, triangle. He had this idea of the Bauhaus and the geometry of design. He wanted to do three albums with this geometry. I’ve had arguments with people online about this as well. Bauhaus square, circle, triangle. And they wouldn’t believe me. I said, “Well, Malcolm told me.” That’s what his concept was that he wanted to work with.
The covers get more obscure and the aesthetic changes. I think the photograph is awkward on the first album. It’s not a great shot.
Daniel: But it’s an interesting shot. There is a documentary, candid feel to the photo even if it is posed portrait. There is slight movement, and the band members aren’t perfectly arranged, blocking each other. There is also a graininess to the image that makes it more interesting aesthetically, especially compared to Love Bites, which is, for me, the least interesting of the three.
Russ: The first album photograph is not a million miles away from the Spiral Scratch EP, their first DIY EP.
This was a Polaroid shot by Richard Boon, the band’s manager. It was taken around central Manchester. Spiral Scratch was one of the first DIY punk record releases in the U.K. in January 1977. There are contradictions with the DIY lifestyle that gives the impression that you do everything yourself. There’s an awful lot of it that you can’t do yourself: you can’t press a record yourself, you can’t print thousands of sleeves yourself. Well, you can, but they didn’t. They’ve gone to a recording studio, then to a pressing plant, and then to a commercial printer to get the sleeves printed. It’s not DIY in the full sense of the word. This is as DIY as you’re going to get in the late ’70s.
In some ways, the photograph on the first album is paying tribute to Spiral Scratch: the way that it’s been casually framed. Love Bites includes what is obviously a professional photograph.
Daniel: But much less interesting.
Russ: Yes, although it was a textured sleeve as well. Malcolm used to play a lot with materials. The third one is where Malcolm is working with the triangle. It’s a lot less crisp. The circles were cut out with a pair of scissors; they’re not neat circles. And the lines are hand drawn, not really crisply. There’s a kind of sloppiness to this; it’s less mechanical than the first two albums.
Daniel: I’m also interested in the links between the sound and the image to reference your point earlier about Never Mind the Bollocks artwork being linked to the sounds in our collective imagination. The sound of this record is very different. This was the first Buzzcocks record I bought as a kid. The other two albums were imports. I was ten and didn’t know at that time where to find imports. That would change a year or two later. The album didn’t sound as punk to me as the other records from other bands that I bought prior to this album. And the photo of the band looks like something you might see on an Echo And The Bunnymen cover: a little mysterious, seems like there is some fog from a fog machine.
Russ: I think by that point the tensions were starting to show and they were on the verge of splitting up. They started out with some ideals: no A side and no B side, two strong songwriters and two singers in Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle. By the time they’ve done the first album and the first run of singles then there was a Shelley side and a Diggle side on the singles. It’s the classic McCartney-Lennon situation. By the time it got to that third album, things were becoming much more polarized. Pete Shelley really wanted to do pop songs and songs that are inspired by Can and kraut rock and repetition. The song “I Believe” just repeats the words “I believe” about two hundred times and it’s about six minutes long. It’s beautiful, but that’s Shelley going back to his love of prog rock. Diggle wanted to be in The Who. So, you get this tension between the mod outfit that Diggle wanted to be and the more experimental prog outfit that Shelley wanted.
Ultimately, the band was torn apart. I think that third album is an interesting one because those tensions are starting to show, but there are some beautiful pop songs on there. I also think they’re tired. It’s the classic punk band third album. So few bands got to that point. When I did my Ph.D., I studied 7” singles. Even though a lot of U.K. punk bands never made a single, a lot more made a 7” single than made an album. The number that actually got to the point that they could get the label backing to make an album was tiny. And do they have the songs to make an album? If you can record two songs, you’ve done well.
Daniel: The hunt for private press singles and albums has shown that more bands recorded in the US than people might have thought, but I think your overall assessment is mirrored in the US. Most punk bands didn’t record.
Russ: I’d been collecting records for thirty odd years. Going back through my own record collection and studying the U.K. punk, new wave, and post-punk singles from 1976 to 1984 was an excuse to add to the record collection. [laughs] I started to see the unique graphic design across media. The Jamie Reid “God Save The Queen” single is one of the most iconic and important punk record sleeves of all time.
It was going to come out on A&M and then they got sacked. It got melted down, which makes that version one of the most valuable records of all time. Then it was issued on Virgin. So many times I’m told, “Oh, what Jamie did was put a safety pin through the queen’s mouth.” If you look at the record cover, there is no safety pin. He’s got these torn strips with the ransom note lettering for God Save The Queen and Sex Pistols.
The poster had a safety pin.
One of my projects included mapping out 1,500 U.K. punk singles. I looked at the print techniques, how the type had been created—whether it was Letraset or whether it was hand-rendered, handwritten, typed, or commercially typeset. I looked at whether it was printed in one color, two colors, three colors, or four colors. Was there a photograph of the band or was there a hand-drawn image? I mapped it all out.
I found that things we associate traditionally with punk graphics—the ransom note type with cut out letters or the use of graffiti—a tiny number of record sleeves did that. Pretty much just the Sex Pistols. There were a couple of people who parodied the Sex Pistols that did it. But very few because it was so embedded with Jamie Reid’s aesthetic and was so tied to the Sex Pistols. You had to do something different. They were the first big punk band in Britain, the major players. If you’re a cool band, you don’t try and copy the Sex Pistols. I’m a big fan of Jamie’s work, but he kind of sewed it up. This is the visual style and nobody else could go down that route. The closest to kind of touching that came along a few years later—Winston Smith with the Dead Kennedys—but that’s on a different continent and it’s five years later.
Daniel: That’s a good point. A lot of smaller bands could make that move prior to the Pistols' explosion had there been more time, but once the Sex Pistols helped change music and music culture, they own that aesthetic.
Russ: Part of my obsession is to look at these things carefully and to figure out what is going on there, what decisions have been made. Bringing this back to where we started the conversation, graphic design could be a technical process of creating images. Or it could reference putting words and images together to project meaning as a form of communication. Graphic design is the process through which those decisions are made. The actual making is part of it, the way that you conceptualize, the way you frame. This is the same as photography. There are decisions you made prior to clicking the button on the camera. Those decisions are part of the photography. It’s not blindly going like that [imitates moving the camera around to make photos] and seeing what comes out. This whole technical process that considers depth of field, aperture, light, framing that go into the construction of a photo. It’s the same thing for design: choice of typefaces, the choice of print method, the choice of materials, the choice of framing or cropping. All those considerations influence the assembly of this thing. The designer often worked through a whole series of iterations before the final design was chosen for the records we love.
Daniel: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, Russ. I’ve enjoyed learning about some specific design choices that were made to shape some of punk’s foundational releases. And I’ve learned a lot about graphic design more generally.
Russ: Punk opened doors. “I can be a designer” is the same as “I can be a musician.” You didn’t have to go to music school to become a musician. You didn’t have to go to art school to become a designer, a filmmaker, or a photographer. The “anyone can do it” ethos is about, “Well, now you try. Let’s show you how this thing has been made so that you can make it yourself.” I can’t think of any other music genre that does that. A lot of what appeals to me about punk graphics, that’s magical about it, is that it’s either ironic and humorous or it is self-reflective and critical. It’s telling me something about process. I can read it. And that’s what sets it apart from so many other graphics, including other music graphics.
Malcolm said that when he did the “Orgasm Addict” sleeve, he used a photocopier to distress the image. He gave it to the printer and the printer said, “No, that’s too low quality.” It’s got to be done with a PMT camera on film at high resolution. There was a set of tools that the printers were used to working with. Then these kids come along with their photocopied artwork, their hand-rendered type, or their badly aligned Letraset/rubdown lettering that was anathema to the printers. There are also parallels to photography with this. The boom of home photography in the 1960s and the affordability of the instamatic that challenged professional photography. Design in the U.K. was going through very much the same thing in the late ’70s. All these kids associated with bands, who were working with cutting edge punk graphics, were fighting against an industry that was already set up and embedded with a set of rules.