New Stüssy book celebrates cover art of UK label Greensleeves

London-based DJ and graphic designer Alex Newman (aka DJ Al Fingers) was approached by clothing label Stüssy to produce a mix CD back in 2008. Two years later he has delivered not just the commissioned mix CD but a book which showcases the first 100 record sleeves released by UK reggae and dancehall record label Greensleeves, plus a range of limited T-shirts that display elements of some of the record sleeves included in the book…

London-based DJ and graphic designer Alex Newman (aka DJ Al Fingers) was approached by clothing label Stüssy to produce a mix CD back in 2008.

Two years later the mix CD is ready and it features 56 tracks from UK reggae and dancehall label Greensleeves‘ back catalogue – but the project has grown in that time to include a book that Newman has put together on the record label’s history and which showcases the first 100 record sleeves released by the label (including gems such as Scientist Wins The World Cup, 1982, shown above). The project also includes a range of limited edition T-shirts and pin badges for Stüssy that display elements of some of the record sleeves included in the book…

“When you do a mix that is going to be sold commercially, you obviously need to clear the rights to use the music,” says Newman of the project. “I decided that approaching just one label would make things much easier so I got in touch with one of my favourite UK labels, Greensleeves, to see if they would let me use music from their catalogue,” he continues. “Greensleeves is one of the greatest reggae labels of all time and Stüssy has always been strongly influenced by reggae, so the combination seemed to fit.”

“After Greensleeves had given the go ahead, Nick Bower, the guy who originally commissioned me at Stüssy, said that they’d like to do some tees to go alongside the CD, so I started sending him jpegs of classic Greensleeves album cover art. When he realised that I’d written a couple of books before, he suggested we do a book too. It just seemed to grow naturally like that. Because I’d been sending him the cover art pics, I said, right let’s do a book on the covers! At first it was going to be 16 pages, but by the end was about ten times that. There were just too many classic covers to feature – and too much history of the label that had never been told before.”

Newman met up with the founders of Greensleeves (Chris Sedgwick and Chris Cracknell) – and began to document the history of the label – which began life in 1975 as a record shop in West Ealing before the owners realised they wanted to specialise in Jamaican music and release music on their own label. Being a graphic designer, Newman was also a big fan of the label’s record sleeve design – much of which is attributable to one man, Tony McDermott, who remains Greensleeve’s main cover designer to this day and, as Newman’s’ new book, Greensleeves; The First 100 Covers, reveals, McDermott has helped shaped the record label’s aesthetic since its inception in 1977.

Knowing from first hand experience what a gargantuan effort is required in putting a book together, we can appreciate that this project really has been a labour of love for Newman.

Here are some spreads from the book (which features a foreword by Paul Simonon of The Clash) and some of our favourite Greensleeves covers included therein – along with an extract from Newman’s interview with Greensleeves record cover designer Tony McDermott:

Above: Vernon St Hilaire’s photograph showing Capital Letters signing recording contracts  at the Greensleeves Shepherd’s Bush shop with the label’s founders Chris Sedgwick (far right) and Chris Cracknell (third from right) in 1979.

Al Fingers: How did you start out in design?

Tony McDermott: As a kid I liked drawing. I’d draw all the time, like lots of kids. My dad was keen on the idea of drawing so there was always paper and pens in the house.

AF: Was your dad an artist?
TM: Well, he was a keen amateur artist, but he just encouraged us to draw. There was also that business at school – who was the best drawer in the class. Even at that age it gets you some kudos.

Left hand page: Englishman by Barrington Levy (GREL 09), 1979. Design: Bloomfield / Travis. Photography: Alain De La Matta. Right hand page: Big Showdown – Scientist v Prince Jammy (GREL 10), 1980. Design: Tony McDermott.

AF: Where did you grow up?
TM: In Oldham, just north of Manchester. Later, I moved to London and from 1978 to 1981 I trained in graphic design at the London College of Printing. Around that time I began doing cartoons for Black Echoes magazine. I was very into music; mainly soul and funk, but also reggae, which fed into that.

AF: Tell me more about the Black Echoes comic strip.
TM: It was a weekly cartoon strip called Shades. That was the name of the lead character, a know-all, been-there-done-it-all character. After seeing that, Greensleeves asked me to do some cartoons for the front of the Jah Thomas Stop Yuh Loafin album.

So I did that and they thought I had an idea of how things should look that they weren’t getting from some of the other people they were using. They asked me to do some more sleeves, and I started doing covers in general for them. The first few were the Scientist series. They were more cartoon-style, especially the earliest of those, the Big Showdown album, which was much more like the cartoons I’d done for Echoes – more comic cartoon.

AF: There’s a lot of detail in many of your illustrated covers, they must have taken a while to do.
TM: Yeah, a couple of weeks each time, definitely, of intensive drawing and inking.

AF: For the Scientist series did you have contact with him and suggest ideas, like: “This is what I’m going to do, are you into it?”
TM: No, funnily enough never. It didn’t work that way with Scientist. He was just treated by the producers as being an in-house engineer and if it wasn’t him then it would have been somebody else who’d have mixed those tapes. In some respects, his persona and image was really built by the releasing companies.

AF: So Greensleeves came up with the titles, like Scientist Wins the World Cup and Scientist Encounters Pac-Man?
TM: Yeah. I thought the first title, Big Showdown, suggested a boxing match, so we had a boxing ring on the cover. We’re talking about the LP era here, where the impact of album cover art was far stronger; it just pulled people in. Greensleeves then determined the following titles. The next was Heavyweight Dub Champion and the notion was that Scientist had beaten Jammy’s, or not necessarily Jammy’s, but all comers, and was the all-conquering hero. So that cover followed on with the boxing theme. Then it got to a point where I’d be having discussions with Chris Cracknell and we’d be trying to think of what was happening in the world, what were the current fads, and we came up with Space Invaders. Space Invaders had just arrived in pubs in this country, the start of the video-game era, and we thought that was pretty wacky so we went with that. Scientist Meets the Space Invaders was the first of the themes where we said, “Let’s choose a subject and see if we can work it.” Next in the series was Scientist Rids The World Of The Evil Curse Of The Vampires. Chris came to me and said: “We’ve got this idea, how about vampires?” I don’t even know where they pulled it from. It wasn’t like horror films were particularly big at the time.

AF: I thought Scientist would have come with the concept, I mean that album for example has horror sound effects all over it…
TM: But a lot of that was added afterwards. I think there may have been some effects on it already that made Greensleeves think it might lend itself to that, but a lot was added post-production. They may have been added by Scientist, but the commission would have gone back to Jamaica: “We’re going to call it this… so maybe you can add in sound effects to that degree.” So Scientist wasn’t thinking “scary” or “vampires”. Greensleeves brought the concept to him. After that, World Cup and Pac-Man were again what was happening at the time. I remember there was a tentative notion that we would do a cricket one as the cricket world cup was on at that time, but by the time we got round to it, that had been and gone. There could have been loads of them.

AF: I noticed Kevin Keegan and Glenn Hoddle on the World Cup cover.
TM: Yeah, let me think who else was there? Ray Wilkins could have been. They weren’t all named players but there were a few recognisable ones, certainly Kevin Keegan.

AF: I heard that Scientist wasn’t into was the Pac-Man sleeve, because it looks like he’s being defeated.
TM: Well, not really because it’s called “Encounters”, and it’s left “to be continued…” It was never meant to be the end of the series. If you look at the back cover (below), the end of the cartoon strip says: “Is this the end of Scientist…” but the full expectation was that six months down the line or a year later we’d be coming up with the next concept album. However, markets and trends moved on, so things changed. We never had any intention to disrespect him, although we found out later on that he felt that way. Really, it was never the intention.

Above left: Mister Yellowman (GREL 35), 1982. Design: Tony McDermott.
Above right: Hugh Mundell (GRELL 36), 1982. Design: Tony McDermott. Photography: Roger Cracknell.

Above left: On The Rocks by Wailing Souls (GREL 59), 1983. Design: Tony McDermott. Photography: Tim O’Sullivan.
Right hand page: Forward (GREL 60), 1983. Design: Tony McDermott.

AF: Around that time you also did the first twelve-inch bag with the illustrated crowd scene (shown above).
TM: Yeah, I think we started using that around 1979. They didn’t want a standard disco bag, and I came to them with a few concepts, but that was one of them. I guess it was this notion of doing a kind of history, but also a journey, taking reggae from Jamaica in the late 1950s/early 1960s through to Shepherd’s Bush in 1979.

AF: What is the band at the very top?
TM: Well, the characters aren’t all famous, but at the top it’s definitely the Wailers. So the Wailers actually appear twice. A Wailing Wailers at the top wearing black ties and white shirts, and then further down as Bob Marley & The Wailers. But, I mean, they could have been any generic vocal group. There were a lot of them around – The Gaylads, The Techniques…

AF: I recognised Johnny Rotten on there. Who’s the other white guy?
TM: Oh yeah, that’s Joe Strummer. Because those two were the big promoters of reggae within punk circles. At least, that’s certainly how it seemed to me as an observer.

Above: Two more of McDermott’s proposed ideas for the label’s “disco bags” which would house 12″ singles. The idea with both is that the white circular space in the middle would be cut out to reveal the record’s label. Nice!

Left hand page: Mouseketeer by Eek-A-Mouse (GREL 65), 1984. Design: Tony McDermott. Photography & tinting: Sue Lanzon. Right hand page: 100 Weight Of Collie Weed by Carlton Livingston (GREL 66), 1984. Design: Tony McDermott. Photography: O’Neil Nanco

Left hand page: Wa-Do-Dem by Eek-A-Mouse (GREL 31), 1981. Design: Tony McDermott.
Right hand page: DJ Clash by Nicodemus / Toyan (GREL 32), 1982. Design: Tony McDermott.

AF: Your work seems to be generally quite informed about the music and the whole scene. Did you used to go to dances?
TM: I used to go to dances regularly enough to know what was going on, certainly in terms of fashion and style. Also, I was living near Vauxhall at the time, so even just on the streets, people were walking past wearing the fashions all day long. I was across the road from Southbank Polytechnic and on the estate I lived on it was all around me. I’d probably gone to dances more regularly in Manchester, though.

AF: Did you ever go to Jamaica to get involved in any of the cover shoots?
TM: No – there were opportunities, but things would always happen at the last minute and I never made it out there.

Left hand page: Fire House Rock by Wailing Souls (GREL 21), 1981 – sleeve design by Tony McDermott.
Right hand page: Sons Of Thunder by Dr Alimantado (GREL 22), 1981. Design: Tony McDermott. Photography by Anthony & Marcia

AF: For the albums were you usually sent a rubbish photograph and that’s all you had to work with?
TM: All the time. I think it’s a parallel to the music in a sense – needs must. If somebody sends you a rubbish photograph you just have to work harder. If somebody sends you a brilliant photograph then I tend to want to leave it alone and put minimum typography and design into it. In later years, since the digital era especially, it’s been much more that way. We get much better photographs these days. Sometimes on a project nowadays a photographer will send you three or four hundred photographs of an artist for one project. Talk about going from one extreme to another! But yeah, back then I would receive really poor photographs. Take the Fire House Rock photograph for example (see above spread, left). It was so out of focus, both front and back cover. When we reissued it they rang me about it from the printers to say: “You do realise that photo’s out of focus, don’t you?” I said: “It’s been out of focus for thirty years, don’t worry about it!” But I wouldn’t want to offend the photographers. Sometimes they were working under really difficult conditions. I mean, I’ve set up photo sessions where I’ve spent days getting it ready and had everybody on board from stylist, to make-up, to all kinds of stuff and the artist will turn up and say: “You’ve got ten minutes.” These are artists who don’t see the need to be photographed, they think it’s a waste of time… it’s a power play really. They have an attitude, a bit like in the punk era, that the labels are a necessary evil, to be tolerated at best. So the notion that the shoot’s set up by the label, again they’re like: “Well I’m going to give you the bare minimum cooperation I can.” And that’s usually because the advance hasn’t been paid yet!

Above left: The Very Best Of Wailing Souls (GREL 99), 1987. Design: Tony McDermott. Photography: Eye & Eye.
Right hand page: People Of The World by Burning Spear (GREL 100), 1986. Design: Michael Hodgson. Illustration: Scott Baldwin

AF: Were there many times when an artist or producer would come back and say: “I’m not into that cover”?
TM: A couple of times artists came back and they’d have a general comment which was: “I don’t want no cartoon of myself, I want a photograph.” I would say that, from the early 1980s onwards, that was increasingly the mood amongst artists. They didn’t want illustrations of themselves any more.

AF: So that’s really the reason you went that way, design-wise?
TM: Yeah, because of demand. The artists didn’t want it. It was an ego thing, especially because they felt they had more control of how they looked in a photograph. They would know what they were wearing, they could show off their jewellery, their new hairstyle. Also I think Jamaica has always looked to America to see what they were doing and US covers were using more photographs, especially in the early 1980s. Hip-hop covers began to show artists posing on the cover with all their jewellery in their penthouse with their fine girls and stuff, so in Jamaica, as much as there’s a tug towards roots and culture and pan-Africanism, there’s that tug towards being aspirational as well: people wanting to project themselves as people who are successful. Fair enough, I wouldn’t argue with that.

Above left: Big Ship by Freddie McGregor (GREL 39), 1982. Design: Tony McDermott. Photography: Tim O’Sullivan.
Right hand page and below: Hi Yo, Silver Away! by The Lone Ranger (GREL 40), 1982. Design Tony McDermott

AF: A lot of your covers feature interesting type. Do you have a strong interest in typography?
TM: Yeah, the illustrations tended to have the type incorporated, in which case they were hand-lettered. While I was doing my graphic design degree the people teaching typography virtually put me off the subject, so it took me a while to get into type and really enjoy it.

AF: You must have used a lot of Letraset?
TM: In the early days, yeah. Letraset was a big part of it back then. Detailed text you’d use photoset or IBM set, but for headline fonts you’d use Letraset. A lot of time was spent in the Letraset showroom. And lots of money spent there, too. Letraset used to be damned expensive. For doing body copy, you’d always run out of a’s and e’s, because they’d only give you so many letters in an alphabet and once you’d done ten credits you’d suddenly realise you hadn’t got any y’s left, or you needed another d! It was around £10 a sheet for Letraset back then, which was a lot of money. The budget for an album may have been around £200 all in, so another £20 for Letraset seemed like a lot.

AF: The Greensleeves Rhythm Album series has a very iconic look to it. Tell me about those.
TM: Yeah, that series is approaching ninety now. They were meant to be throwaway bulletins, capable of being produced very quickly. Because it was supposed to take from three to four weeks from the point a producer would turn up with tapes to the album being released on the streets. We were producing around twenty in a year and nobody wanted to get involved with photographs for those albums. The first few were abstract illustrations; they weren’t supposed to be thematic. We’d have kept them that way as well, but the producers themselves then started coming to us wanting something more literal to the subject matter. We tried to resist it, but often they said: “It’s got to have this on it.” Overall, I had great fun doing that series, though.

AF: In general how have people compared your later work to your early work?
TM: Well, it’s strange. An awful lot of people tell me they love the sleeves I did twenty-five years ago, but seem to have a different relationship with the photographic sleeves. A lot of people liked the rhythm albums. I think people appreciate graphics more if it’s more obviously graphically generated. But the truth is, some of the photographic sleeves have taken as much if not more work to get the final image right in Photoshop. Some of the Greensleeves Sampler sleeves, involving cars, girls, interiors, etc, have taken vast amounts of work to get to where they are, but at the end of day, because it looks like a unified photograph, people would never know that you’ve got three different girls from three different photographs, a background that they were never in, all merged and combined. People just accept it for what it is and think that’s how it was done in the first place.

AF: That means you did your job! For me, one of the biggest pressures on a print designer is whether the product is going to come back from the printer looking good. Have you had many disasters there?
TM: Really big mess-ups haven’t happened that often. I do remember one time, though. It was a Freddie McGregor twelve-inch single for Jetstar. I’d put quite an accurate cut-out guide for his head – you know, Freddie’s a dread, he’s got locks. But the printer obviously didn’t look at the instruction, it was quite a dark print, and they just did what they thought and gave him an afro. They printed five thousand. It was a joke! It was a proper big afro, too. I don’t know what they were thinking… “Oh yeah, he’s a black guy, he’s probably got an afro…” Jetstar were horrified, I was horrified, and they didn’t have the time to redo it, so it just went out in a plain bag.

“[This cover] was a lot to do with Godzilla,” explains McDermott. “Big things clashing over cities. I was given the title Two Giants Clash, so it just felt right to stick them over an urban environment bashing into buildings. It was that whole King Kong, Godzilla thing. Looking at it now, I like that cover, but I’m not mad about the lettering.”

Above: UK reggae artist Gappy Ranks models one of the nine limited edition Stüssy T-shirts that sport elements of Greensleeves record cover art. Photograph: Al Fingers

To read the full interview with McDermott, track down a copy of Greensleeves: The First 100 Covers, ($40 / £70 – the mix CD comes with the book in the UK) published by Stüssy Deluxe. The book is available from Stüssy stores and stockists (including Urban Outfitters and Size?) and also from here:

Creative Review subscribers will find a selection of McDermott’s Greensleeves album covers (as shot by Angelo Plantamura specially for the book detailed above) in the forthcoming September issue of Monograph.

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