Virgin designers past and present discussed the joys and frustrations of designing music artwork last night, at a talk held as part of the record label’s 40th birthday celebrations.
Roger Dean, Brian Cooke, John Varnom, Malcolm Garrett, Tom Hingston and Dan Sanders shared their experiences of designing album artwork and campaigns for artists from the seventies to the present day, including Massive Attack, the Sex Pistols and Emeli Sande. The talk was held at Victoria House in Bloomsbury, the site of an exhibition showcasing Virgin’s most iconic designs (below).
Early day anarchy
Roger Dean spoke about creating Virgin’s original logo (below) before the label was set up – not the ‘tick of approval’ now seen on planes, trains and broadband ads, but the mirror image of a woman modelled on a friend of Richard Branson’s. Dean was introduced to Branson after graduating from the Royal College of Art and his brother, Martyn, designed some of Virgin’s first shops.
“Working with Richard was insane and I love it,” he said. Recalling the company’s anarchic early days, he told tales of guerrilla marketing tactics that ended in police raids, after staff plastered rival record shops (and police cars) with with stickers announcing grand Virgin openings. But what he most enjoyed about working for the label, he said, was the creative freedom he was given by Branson, describing his time there as an escape from the constraints of “professional design”, which he said was – and still is – dominated by Helvetica. “It’s just so boring,” he said.
Sketches and final design for Roger Dean’s original Virgin logo
Brian Cooke also spoke about designing Virgin’s logo – this time, the famous ‘v’ still in use today. It was, as Branson has previously claimed, scrawled on the back of a napkin, but was based on painter Ray Kite’s logo for Cooke and Trevor Key’s Cooke Key Associates (below), which was Virgin’s design agency in the seventies and early eighties. Cooke and Key were paid £2,000 for designing the logo (top) – a grand sum at the time, but loose change compared to its worth today.
Cooke and Key, who died in 1995, worked with Varnom on some of the most iconic Virgin ads and album covers of all time, including the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bollocks (based on a concept and design by Jamie Reid), and an advert based on a public indecency charge served to the band by the Met Police, to which Varnom added the Met’s official logo and the slogan “We Know Best”, causing outrage among the force.
“A lot of our designs got banned,” said Varnom. “We always tried to have that effect. Brian and I did a poster once with the phrase, “a little something for you” and copied the corner of a £20 note. Customs wanted to charge us with forgery,” he said. When writing copy for Virgin ads, he said he “tried to avoid anything people would expect or think proper…and I did what I thought was funny. Along with Cooke and Key, he said he was left largely to his own devices – “and I exploited that to the full. I’d wrap up the artwork in brown paper, send it off and no-one knew what was in it until we all had a meeting,” he said. “We amused ourselves, and Richard.”
Virgin Records shop, 1977. Photo: Barry Plummer
Cooke, Key and Varnom’s work provoked national outrage and helped cement Virgin’s reputation as a shock-inducing, risk-taking, experimental label. Cooke and Key parted ways and stopped working for Virgin in 1981, but 40 years on, their designs remain the most famous and widely celebrated in Virgin’s 40-year-history.
The same year, Malcolm Garrett joined Virgin and in his time there, created visual identities and album sleeves for Buzzcocks, Duran Duran, Peter Gabriel and Boy George. As Adrian Shaughnessy, moderating the talk explained, he introduced Virgin to the merits of designing coherent campaigns and graphic brands for artists.
One of the first records Garrett worked on for Virgin was Simple Minds’s Sons and Fascination. “They called me on Friday and said we need a cover for Monday. I had never met the band before, but their sound was quite cinematic. I took a load of random shots of the telly, and thought ‘we’ll never get away with this.’” He did, however, and Garrett went on to design several Simple Minds covers, often using religious imagery which he said reflected their lyrics – difficult to understand, yet powerful.
While Garrett also enjoyed creative freedom, he spoke about the difficulties of acting as a diplomat between “difficult” artists and the label’s management. “I was like a secret conspirator,” he said.
The evening ended with talks by Tom Hingston, who has worked with Massive Attack since designing the cover for their 1998 album, Mezzanine, and Virgin’s art director Dan Sanders. Hingston spoke fondly of his relationship with Massive Attack, while Sanders talked about the stresses of balancing the demands of marketing staff, public relations and management in an environment where artists identities “are analysed to the nth degree” and have to be signed off by up to 20 people.
Sanders’ first cover design for Virgin was for the Rolling Stones’s Biggest Mistakes – a single from their 2005 album, A Bigger Bang. The image is “a homage to Nan Goldin without the drugs,” she says, and Sanders is featured in the photograph. She also designed the cover for Emeli Sande’s debut album, Our Version of Events, which features the singer dressed in black with her back to the camera, black roses around her shoulder reflecting the ‘gothic’ quality of some of her songwriting.
“It was a challenge – she was a size sixteen, and there was a lot of concern [about how to shoot her for the cover]. I became friends with her and suggested a haircut, and we tried to create a brand around her hairstyle,” explained Sanders. Sanders was told by her bosses that the album cover wouldn’t sell, as Sande wasn’t facing the camera, yet more than three million copies have now been sold.
The end of album art
Of course, there’s something quite alarming about this notion of moulding artists to suit a label’s commercial interests – but it’s nothing new. As Varnom pointed out, it was done with Cliff Richard in the 1950s, who was marketed as the UK’s equivalent to Elvis. Even the Sex Pistols, as anarchic as they seemed, reflected the high fashion of their time and helped promote Virgin’s aims as much as their own.
It’s also no surprise that Virgin can no longer push the boundaries of taste in the way that it did in the seventies – a label this big has shareholders to answer to and these days, experimental artwork designs are mostly the preserve of smaller, independent labels and artists outside of the mainstream. But what was revealed was just how much designing for bands has shifted from an art to a science.
Working with Massive Attack, Hingston is less restrained, partly because the band lies outside of the parameters of pop but also because Robert ‘3D’ del Naja had already created a strong visual identity for Massive Attack before Hingston started working with them. He said it is an exciting time to be a designer in the music industry, because ideas can be applied to so many different platforms. “When I first started it was limited to a sleeve and a poster campaign, and in the early days of the internet, a crude, clunky website. Now, there are so many more channels – it really is exciting – and brands still need a visual identity,” he said.
Asked by an audience member if there was much point designing album artwork in a digital age, Hingston said: “We’re stuck in a weird transitional period, where iTunes still uses thumbs of sleeves, applying something historical to digital…[because] we’re still in the early stages of that crossover.” In the future, he acknowledged that this could be replaced by animations and interactive experiences but for now, Sanders and Hingston agreed that album artwork, even in a digital age, remains the “holy grail” of creative.
Virgin Records: 40 Years of Disruptions [The Exhibition!] is at Victoria House, London WC1 until October 29, see virgin40.com
The November issue of CR includes a special feature on Virgin Records including interviews with photographer and designer Brian Cooke (who worked on all the Sex Pistols material) and video commissioner Carole Burton-Fairbrother. See our post here, or buy it from us here.