Factory Records: the Complete Graphic Album

This month our panel discuss new book Factory Records: the Complete Graphic Album and the label’s artistic legacy

Rob O’Connor founded design studio Stylorouge  in 1981. Since then his company has worked for numerous music clients and now also creates film and multimedia work.

Dilly Gent is a freelance video commissioner and producer who has worked extensively with Radiohead.

Chris Thomson is one half of design consultancy StudioThomson. Previous to this he co-founded Yacht Associates with designer Richard Bull.

CR: What were your initial impressions of the Factory book?

Rob O’Connor, Stylorouge:
I like the look of the book, it’s exactly as you’d expect it to look – it’s very respectful of Factory. I really like that it’s non-judgmental, it isn’t discriminating as it has some not-quite-so good work in there as well. For the completist it’s great to see what you might have missed. It’s a really good overview; some of it I’d forgotten, some of it I’d never seen.

Dilly Gent, video commissioner/producer:
I think it’s well designed – about 80 per cent full of great pieces of design. Peter Saville’s work stands out a mile for me – all of his work is perfect and I love a lot of the Central Station work as well. It’s just an amazing standard of work over such a long period of time.

Chris Thomson, StudioThomson:
I found it fascinating. To me the best thing is to see how Factory was such an education for many designers that are so well respected now – Mark Farrow, Trevor Johnson/Tony Panas, Martyn Atkins, Ben Kelly, Peter Saville – through trial and error, good and bad, it’s very apparent that Factory was brave enough to let designers, and musicians, experiment. It’s wonderful to see Mark Farrow’s progression from shaky hand-drawn type to more refined works.

CR: Were you aware of the work when it originally came out?

RO: My career started in 77-78 at Polydor so it was at about the same time as Factory began. As a southerner, however, I wasn’t quite so aware of what was going on in Manchester. I was very aware of Peter though and we knew each other through his work for people in London. We didn’t collaborate but we had to discuss jobs that he was doing the covers for. The first thing I noticed from Factory was OMD’s Electricity 7” (designed by Saville, shown, 3) and I found that very exciting and annoying at the same time because, working at a major commercial record company, who had just put out John Travolta and Slade – pop music – it was inconceivable that you could get away with something like that. My immediate reaction was jealousy – I was in awe of it, I thought it was beautiful.

CT: It seemed to me at the time that the confidence of the music grew with the confidence of Factory as a movement – Joy Division’s paranoid bleakness grew into Ibiza sun-kissed beats. I think the book shows that Factory was determined to make a mark on history – the work here shaped the Manchester it is today. I was at art college in Manchester 1987-89 and being there, feeling the cockiness, that Manc swagger, that “fuck you” attitude – Factory had that attitude. It was such a dead, rainy place before them and to have anything flourish so magically visually and aurally was a miracle to behold – it really inspired my work: to create something out of nothing.

CR: Much of the Factory catalogue is very familiar now: did you find there were any pieces in the book that you’d never seen or at least hadn’t seen for a long time?

RO: Absolutely, quite a lot I hadn’t seen. Although there’s one comparison in the book between Factory and 4AD, they basically say there are very few independent record labels that have placed the same onus on the importance of the design. The thing is, with Vaughan Oliver’s work at 4AD – although there’s no bigger fan of Vaughan than me – he did always make it very clear that this was the 4AD stamp, the 4AD branding, so there was a sense that everything could have been related in some way, but with Factory I don’t think that was quite the case. Tony Wilson recalls that story in his foreword about James coming in and saying “this is what we want” and he says “you know what, it’s rubbish but why not? It’s James, it isn’t another band, it isn’t A Certain Ratio, it isn’t Joy Division.” I’m sure at the time he was pretty bloody angry but the fact is James were hot and they were going to sell records and he was a businessman, he needed to make money.

CT: The range of work is so diverse it’s staggering – from slick classicism to Playdough mess, good design to bad design. Reading through I kept thinking “why put that rubbish in?” I would have hidden that – but then I admire the completism and honesty of the book. Each item adds to the story as a whole. I love to see the whole package, the tiny details that make up something. It’s great to see the front, the back, the flyer, the video box.

CR: What did you dislike about the book?

RO: The forward is a bit of a tease really: you read it and you think you’d like to know a bit more about what was going on at the time. My minor criticism would be that it would be nice to see that, although then it becomes a book about the whole of pop culture history rather than just about Factory. By ignoring the context in which these covers were designed it suggests in a way that Factory was a bit of an island. Well it wasn’t – a lot of the humour you get in the early Factory stuff comes from the people who’d gone before, like Barney Bubbles.

CR: Which pieces stand out for you?

DG: I think New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies (by Saville) and the Transmission 7” by Joy Division (by Peter Saville Associates) are both beautiful pieces of work. They also fit perfectly with the titles.

RO: The New Order Low-life sleeve with their portraits on it (by PSA, photography by Trevor Key). At the time there must have been huge commercial pressure to play the game that most pop artists have to play, which is having their images on the cover. Whether that had anything to do with it or not I don’t know but I did like that because Peter handled [Trevor Key’s photographs] so well. The images were distorted, they were abstracted and they were slightly disguised with the tracing paper.
CT: My favourite piece is FAC-201, the Dry bar. I was there the day it opened through to the hedonistic highs of Madchester. The place summed up the Factory ethic: creatives and scallies mixed together. On any day you would have a shy Vini Reilly sat on his own whilst Shaun Ryder fell down the stairs into Johnny Marr. The design and detail was beautiful in there – the matches, the beer mats, the engraved glasses were instantly nickable. Ben Kelly’s interior was and is the coolest I have ever seen – the 50-foot-long bar and the old red plastic curtain kept there from its previous incarnation. It’s pure Factory: beautifully designed and for the people. I bet Dry was their best money-making project.

CR: What did Factory do that was so different?

DG: I think that they put design as an equal to the music. They were and still are on their own in that respect – but, obviously, this doesn’t always make financial sense. Now it seems that design is bunged together at the last minute, with a designer having to satisfy half the record company, the artist and a manager. Hence the shocking amount of bad sleeves out there.

CT: They were passionate and obsessive about creating something new. They were art lovers and music lovers. They were determined to do something from the North, for the North and drag London screaming and kicking to its door. The fact the Blue Monday 12” was so expensive to produce it made a loss on each sale fills me with admiration – it’s crap business but it’s still being talked about now.

RO: With FAC-2, the first sampler release, no one would have known the bands particularly but the way they packaged it was special enough for people at that point. I mean, in 1978, even picture sleeves were in their infancy so to do something like that, that was something special. The way they treated different formats was fascinating: from a marketing point of view, it was suicide. They had a 7” single that looked like one thing (Section 25’s Girls Don’t Count 7”) and then you’d see the 12” and it’s totally different! You’d think “I won’t buy that because I don’t think that’s the same as the single I’m looking for”. So they were prepared to take those risks. It was really brave to do what they did, and maybe it was stupid in the long run because ultimately a record company that runs as a maverick organisation for so long is bound to fall at some point. How they went bankrupt I don’t know, because a band that sold as many records as New Order should keep you afloat. They must have been making some fairly bad decisions, the Haçienda probably being one of them.

CR: Tony Wilson mentions that Factory was an example of a label based on a marriage of music and design. Contemporary bands, like Radiohead for example, seem, again, very much in control of their image/visuals – is it rare for an artist to be so involved?

DG: I’d like to hope it’s not that rare, but I guess it is – but some bands just don’t have the visual talent or the interest or, worse still, they have the interest but no visual talent. Radiohead have extremely good taste and allow a lot of time for the designer or the filmmaker to do their jobs.

CT: It’s wonderful to see a successful fusion of sound and vision: it can create a whole new set of emotions and attitudes that can work to lift a product to a higher level. I’ve found that the strength of the creative process is to keep it simple – just musician(s) and designer and a record company to market that strength in a sensitive and appropriate way.

CR: Factory now has mythical status: how does that affect our evaluation of the design work in its own right?

RO: The myths help people to believe that everything surrounding Factory is automatically good. One of my initial reactions was surprise that there’s actually some work in there which, if the book were a critical selection of graphic design work, wouldn’t have made it in. But I think that is testament to the power of myth. No one disrespects Factory, even people who weren’t born when they were starting up would know that Factory were serious contenders, they were renegade.

DG: Peter was certainly lucky in meeting Tony when he did and vice versa. Peter is an outstanding designer and, on top of this, he was given great artists and the freedom to do his work, which amounts to a great body of work. Maybe the myth inspired a film but you can’t take away the fact the creative work is in a league of its own. But I have to agree with Rob, there is some pretty lame stuff in there from other designers – excluding Central Station – which is kind of overlooked as it came so long after Peter had established Factory’s sleeves as being untouchable. God I’m sounding like a sad Peter fan here…

CT: I think myths are good, if you’re young you need to set your sights on something to drive you on. Peter wanted to live in the glamorous world of Bryan Ferry – Tony Wilson wanted something to rival the Sex Pistols. The two of them made me proud to be a Northerner. They shaped the way I think and work and helped set the level of taste and style that still applies today. We’ve worked with Hydrogen Dukebox Records and they still exist in the Factory mould of experimentation and creating a cult.

CR: What do you think design students will get from this book?
DG: I’m not sure what they can learn as there are so few places where they can be given the freedom and artists that Peter was given. I guess if you’ve got the talent, somehow seek out the good clients, be choosy – pretty idealistic I know…

RO: What I hope they would get from it is the attitude of Factory Records themselves. That if they’re out of college and looking for design clients they would do themselves a favour to do exactly what Peter did early on and walk up to someone in the street – who they think is a like-minded decent geezer, who’s got some money to spend – and say “I want to work for you”.

CT: They’ll see how Factory created designs that still look great in 50 to 100 years; that it’s important to read more and learn from the past; that reappropriation is a powerful tool. That it’s important to take a good idea and work it down to its purest, but strongest core. And that you don’t need to put type on it.

CR: With both the canvas for sleeve design and the budgets for design work becoming ever smaller, will such a body of work as this ever be replicated?

RO: It’s not commercially viable anymore and I think that’s a real shame. But I’ve long since accepted that the golden era of the record cover is kind of over and has been for some time. Maybe the golden era of graphic design is over as well to a certain extent – it doesn’t have the ability at this point, for me anyway, to shock. I’ve become much more interested in film and moving image as I think we’re living in much more of a television culture than a print culture. Print’s become junk mail. Look at the new Universal Records releases which are literally taking the original album covers, scanned in, shrunk down to what’s nothing more than a wallet. I think that suggests to me that that era is kind of all over, so this stuff is fantastic. Some sleeves are over 20 years old but this [points to Saville cassette boxes] could be 100 years old.

DG: I hope that the true fan will always want record sleeves though: you know the more creative bands will have had a massive input into the sleeve, even if it’s just the notes. I think that you want to feel that you’re a part of that, however small.

CT: I think work like this is still out there and still relevant because many of the Factory creatives are still working and still making an impact and, today, it’s as important as ever for bands to have a powerful image visually. The mediums have shifted somewhat but then people still want to be part of a movement and still want to own tangible things. Even in this “downloadable” age I design more vinyl than ever. It’s become as desirable as it is unfashionable.

RO: But nowadays, visual media is expanding way beyond the record cover. If I was the manager of a new artist now, I’d be less worried about the way the record cover looks – I’d want to have a website that looked and worked amazingly well. I think making good videos, documentary films about people and sticking them online to let people find out about a band is much more important than a record cover. A record cover is just a romantic notion now. At best it’s a central marketing image. When I was teenager, if I didn’t like the cover of a record I’d bought, I’d go and design my own. It’s easier to do that now; maybe that’s the future?

What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

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