Action Time Vision features a wide range of punk and post-punk 7″ sleeves and contains essays and interviews with people associated with the movements, such as Garrett, Sniffin’ Glue zine editor and musician Mark Perry and Mute label founder, Daniel Miller.
In ‘Orgasm Addict Unplugged’ Garrett describes how he first worked with the band Buzzcocks and pursued a visual identity for them which incorporated logo and sleeve design, art direction and photography – a combination that sought to move onwards from the punk aesthetic, much of which had by then become clichéd. Punk scholar and writer Russ Bestley also interviews Garrett in the book – and the conversation is presented here alongside several examples of his work. Garrett’s essay sheds light on how he came to work with Buzzcocks, who hailed from Bolton and made their name in nearby Manchester, and how a ‘considered’ DIY approach led him towards a new kind of visual expression for their music.
Garrett will also be appearing at the forthcoming Unit Live! Design + Music event which is taking place on November 10 at Logan Hall in London. Details of how to win one of ten tickets that Unit have offered up for CR readers are at the bottom of this post.
Orgasm Addict Unplugged by Malcolm Garrett, from Action Time Vision (Unit Editions)
I met Buzzcocks early in 1977 through a mutual friend, Linder, who was an illustration student in the year above me at Manchester Polytechnic. I was midway through the second year of a BA in Graphic Design, and had become very excited by Punk, the Sex Pistols and The Clash, following a short stay in London at the end of 1976. The energy of the movement provided a ready vehicle of expression for me, previously stimulated as I was by a passion for music, pop art, anti-art and particularly the typographic manifestos of the various -isms of early 20th century art.
After an introduction to Buzzcocks’ manager, Richard Boon, I was initially asked to design a poster that could be used to promote live appearances. This was to be a ‘blank’, on to which venue details etc could be handwritten as required. I took the opportunity to use Art School facilities to screenprint a small run of posters in various colourways, having spent considerable time in the print room in the Fine Art department learning screenprinting skills during my first year.
In this way I’d already resolved to develop a graphic style for Buzzcocks that was as distinct from what was the visual norm in the rest of music and pop world, as it was from the rough and ready, cut and paste vernacular of the Sex Pistols. I wanted to set Buzzcocks apart from this Punk look, which merely exploited a style that was already proving clichéd and consequently locked in time.
This poster saw the first appearance of the Buzzcocks logo, with its distinctive double-Z. The logo itself was produced in a very DIY manner, from Letraset rub-down transfer lettering, modified and redrawn to achieve the desired edginess and individuality. The main image on the poster was a very low-resolution line drawing taken from a small ad in a weekend newspaper (for one-legged tights!) and enlarged to such an extent that the shaky line quality became a key feature.
Following the band signing to United Artists in mid-1977, my next brief from them was for the sleeve for the single Orgasm Addict. UA was a label we all liked because it was also the home of most of the best bands from Germany, whose music influenced many Punk and post-Punk bands in sublime ways. Despite the relatively sophisticated look of this sleeve, all aspects of its production drew on materials and opportunities to hand in a very ‘bedroom style’. In fact, it was completed and marked up for the printer on a small portable drawing board in my bedroom at home in Manchester.
The logo on the sleeve was tweaked slightly from the poster version. The other lettering on the front was hand drafted with an architectural stencil I had found whilst on a summer work placement in the drawing office at Chloride Technical, a company based in Bolton that developed electric vehicles. The sleeve montage of the iron-headed woman was created by Linder. The iron came from an Argos catalogue and the female torso was lifted from a men’s photographic magazine.
At Chloride I had access to a photocopier, a relatively rare facility at that time, which I used to scale the image to the correct size. I also chose to place the image ‘upside down’, questioning which way up the flat, square ‘box’ of a record sleeve, housing a round object with no discernible ‘right’ way up, should be viewed.
Given that we only had two colours to work with (record company budgets were very restrictive for seven inch single sleeves), reducing the image to monochrome using the photocopier was both a necessity and a bonus. It imbued the image with what I thought was a pleasing texture, and of course facilitated its reduction to one colour for printing. I chose dark blue rather than black to give the sleeve a ‘pop’ flavour while also maintaining the necessary image contrast to remain legible. Blue combined with a quite specific choice of yellow was a clear reference to De Stijl or Bauhaus purity, with a nod towards a more contemporary and ‘industrial’ palette.
Extending the DIY ethic, again in a semi-professional but down-home manner, the lettering on the rear was hand typeset, letter by letter, in ‘cold’ metal in the typography department at Manchester Poly. I’d already spent a lot of time in this department exploiting my interest in lettering, language and typography with experimental posters and handbills for fictitious art events, so taking control of all of the minor typographic details demanded by the record company, such as the catalogue number, copyright and publishing details was a natural part of the job for me. I subsequently extended this controlling ethos into the design of the record label, where I tried to graphically juxtapose linear text within a square frame in the circular format. There was also no ‘B’ side, only ‘A’ and ‘1’.
The photograph was remotely art directed by me, and shot by a young local photographer, Kevin Cummins, who went on to make his name documenting the Manchester music scene. This was my first attempt at art direction. Given that the sleeve layout demanded a very geometric approach, with lettering legible from all four directions, whichever way up the sleeve was viewed, photographing the four members of the band through the distinctive four glass panels of a Manchester bus stop was suitably urban and most importantly gave me the necessary rectilinear definition to square up the image and align the band members with the relevant lines of text on the sleeve.
Nothing was left to chance in Buzzcocks world. All elements were ‘considered’. This became the norm for all subsequent record releases, and marketing materials, which I continued to develop in close collaboration with Richard Boon and the band members.
Russ Bestley in conversation with Malcolm Garrett, from Action Time Vision (Unit Editions)
Russ Bestley: The subsequent single and album sleeves you designed for Buzzcocks extended some of the visual games that you had started with Orgasm Addict – all Buzzcocks singles featured a Side A and Side 1, rather than a B side, and your designs sometimes followed suit, notably on the next single, What Do I Get?. Did you discuss the development of a visual accompaniment to the group’s own concept of themselves?
Malcolm Garrett: There were a variety of considerations which led to there being an A Side and Side 1, not least because with Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle Buzzcocks always had two great songwriters who were forever competing to deliver the song for the main side. For each release, the careful combination of two songs was a crucial creative decision made by the band, management and record company. I was not really a part of that process, but was naturally keen to find out the pairing as soon as possible, and discuss the rationale behind the selection in order to find a sympathetic visual representation.
RB: In keeping with the design approach above, you have often stated the importance of the design of the back covers of records, the labels and other graphic material within the complete ‘package’. Why do you think these essential elements are often overlooked?
MG: Yes I was always just as concerned with how the ‘reverse’ of the sleeve looked as I was the front. They were always considered as a pair, each playing an equal role. Many other designers would see the reverse as an afterthought and pay most attention to the front, for obvious reasons I guess, as that’s the principal focus of the marketing and visibility of the record in store, but my attitude was that the sides were complementary facets of a single structure. I really saw the sleeve, and the label in fact, as different parts of the same ‘box’.
In my eyes, the whole package was doing the same job in creating a graphic world in which the recorded music lives. Many designers were more concerned with making pictures, or two dimensional images and labels, that could be attached to front of a record in the conventional sense, but for me the visual atmosphere across all components was most important to address.
RB: You say that you were keen to avoid a ‘Punk’ visual language that was already becoming clichéd and redundant, even very early in terms of public awareness and the popularity of the movement. Were there other sources of inspiration for your design ideas?
MG: It was remarkable how quickly the DIY graphic look, taken mainly from the London scene: Sex Pistols, The Clash or Mark Perry’s fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, became the ‘look’ of Punk. Coming from Manchester, there was an inherent difference that we brought to the table. I was a student of graphic design and beginning to discover some fantastic reference material by typographic designers from earlier in the century.
Richard Boon brought references from Fine Art, some of which I knew, others I didn’t, and in the places where the two overlapped we had fun exploring a hybrid graphic language that was replete with the kind of detail not often found in music packaging up until that point. Whilst we were also cognisant of a rich musical heritage, especially from the immediate past of the post-psychedelic era – and we gave an occasional nod towards The Beatles it must be said – we were subconsciously always striving to work in a space that no one else had occupied.
RB: Are there other designers or design examples from the punk movement that you feel were also successful in avoiding the pitfalls of Punk stereotypes? And beyond punk, are there particular designers or studios that you think were particularly important in terms of music graphics?
MG: Well, Barney Bubbles was the standard by which we all were judged, and Alex McDowell’s Rocking Russian studio was a personal favourite of mine, but to be honest it was the post-punk, indie era that really saw the golden age of music industry and lifestyle design with Vaughan Oliver, Peter Saville and Neville Brody much to the fore of course. There were many others and we don’t really have space here to discuss them in the kind of depth they’d justify.
RB: On Buzzcocks’ third single, I Don’t Mind, you chose to give visual prominence to the United Artists label identity and the catalogue number of the record. What was the idea behind this decision?
MG: The Punk ethic had been to give value for money, and the idea of putting out singles from albums didn’t sit well with that idea in Buzzcocks’ mind. Consequently, when United Artists put pressure on them to release I Don’t Mind as a single from the first album, I decided that we should use the United Artist corporate colours and put just the UA logo large on the ‘front’ of the sleeve.
Sadly the UA art department, or the printer (I never found out which), thought it was a mistake and switched the two sides around before going to press. The advertising for this single carried the copy line “This single out now. New single out soon”, almost challenging the audience not to buy it.
RB: You used figures from the Letraset architectural illustration series on the cover of Love You More. Those rather cold, mechanical illustration styles became heavily associated with the growing electronic music scene over the following couple of years (through Daniel Miller’s Mute identity along with sleeve designs for the Human League, Fad Gadget and others). Was your choice to use those illustrations simply an extension of the Letraset ‘industrial’ style that you had been working with from the outset with Buzzcocks?
MG: I guess so, yes. I was always very interested in industrial and hi-tech graphics, architectural and technical drawings, and formal, corporate typography and branding of all kinds. It was natural for these influences to find their way in to my work. One of the things I brought to this techno/typo-constructivist world was a Pop Art aesthetic, where the work of painters such as Peter Phillips also gave me some pointers to work with.
RB: From Every Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) onwards, your Buzzcocks sleeves adopted a less rigid graphic style, often with hand-rendered typography and an increasing use of collage-based illustration, notably on the Part 1/2/3 series of singles during 1980. Was this a conscious attempt to move the group’s identity toward a more relaxed, ‘human’ style in keeping with the changing times at the turn of the decade?
MG: There had always been a balance between hand-drawn and mechanically produced elements in my work. As noted earlier, Orgasm Addict utilised hand-stencilled lettering, hand typesetting, and cut up Letraset, as well as the deliberate rough-edged degradation of Linder’s image using an early photocopier. With Parts 1–3 there just came a time when it seemed right to do some more hand-rendered work. Nothing was ever conscious in quite the way you suggest, however, and I don’t think humanism was something that concerned me at all at that time.
Whilst everything we did was considered, it was also for the most part instinctive. We didn’t over-analyse and very often implemented the first ideas at any point during those few years working together. Sadly, though, this was the point at which Buzzcocks imploded for a while. Had I continued to work with Pete throughout the recording of his solo albums with Martin Rushent (which I love), I’m sure the influence of computers and technology would quickly have been reinstated.
RB: You also designed sleeves for Magazine, the Yachts and other artists on the Radar Records label, and then subsequently with Duran Duran. Was it a challenge to build strong and unique visual identities for different artists at the same time? Did the groups have a similar level of input as had been the case with Richard Boon and Buzzcocks?
MG: The best relationships came about when I felt I was given access or insight to the thinking and working processes of the bands I worked with. Suffice to say I worked with some bands for up to 7 or 8 years up to the end of that decade, and in that time it is inevitable to be given the opportunity to get to the very heart of a band, implicitly absorbing the essence of what any group of musicians is about, as well as discussing ideas and creative direction, both in general and in considerable detail when a new release was imminent. It was that kind of immersion that ensured I was able to illustrate essential differences between, say, Culture Club and Duran Duran, and that they were presented with individual and appropriate graphic identities.
Action Time Vision: Punk & Post-Punk 7″ Record Sleeves is published by Unit Editions; £35. The above extracts are republished with permission.
Malcolm Garrett will also be appearing at Unit Live! Design + Music, a forthcoming event which will include Kate Moross, Vaughan Oliver in conversation with Unit’s Adrian Shaughnessy and a punk/post-punk panel discussion featuring Garrett, Russ Bestley, Mark Perry and Tony Brook of Spin/Unit. Full details are here. Tickets are priced at £14.50 – but Unit has kindly offered up ten to give away to CR readers. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org to register your interest – and if you’re one of the first ten people to do so, you’ll receive a ticket to the event.