Punk graphic design at the Festival
"The rip-off riff's authentic ring
A singer who can't really sing
Can only mean one fucking thing
Punk rock revival
Affect the look of a man obsessed
Predisposed to the predistressed
Now you know you're properly dressed
Punk rock revival" 1
Following a stint of trouble-making
at Croydon Art School, Jamie Reid began production of the Suburban Press,
a publication which resulted from his disillusionment 'at how jargonistic
and non-committal left-wing policies had become'2
during the early '70s. It was while working on the Suburban Press that
Reid made his most significant attempts to break out of the mould of Situationist
artiness and the Left's agit-prop in-fighting. Four years later, his 'rip
off' graphics and Helen Wellington-Lloyd's 'ransom note' lettering were
the benchmarks of 'punk design'. Reid's graphic experiments did not occur
in isolation. In general, the 1970s saw a steady growth in 'radical amateurism'
as montage techniques were adopted by photoconceptualists, community photographers,
feminists, and anti-fascists alike. MINDA's photomontage designs for the
Campaign Against Racism and Fascism3
confronted the rise of Fascism by drawing allusions between the images
of the Conservative Party, the National Front and the Nazis. Reid, meanwhile,
was carrying out an assault on the iconography of fascism. It would seem
that for him, MINDA's strategies were examples of the simplistic propaganda
they opposed. From placing a swastika in place of the Queen's eyes (God
Save The Queen) to forming a swastika from marijuana leaves (Never Trust
a Hippy), Reid ridiculed fascist iconography by striking at its very heart,
de-centring its power by problematising the meaning of its imagery.
The curators of Destroy: Punk Graphic
Design in Britain--an exhibition of 400 record sleeves, posters and fanzines
at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank--have made little concerted
effort to locate punk's contributions within a heterodox range of visual
practices. However, this exhibition isn't about punk. It's about 'punk
graphic design' and their histories are not necessarily identical. Writing
in 1980, Peter York noted that the 'main thing that punk introduced was
the idea of cut-ups, montage--a bit of Modern Artiness--to an audience who'd
never heard of eclecticism. Punk was about changing the meanings of things'4
a view which has been dusted down to champion the exhibits in Destroy.
A problem here might be that such blow-dried approval was clearly intended
to celebrate punk's recuperation into the spectacle against which--disciples
of its mythical origins cherish to enlighten us--it ought to have rebelled
against. Of course, as everyone is also advised, McLaren and Reid recognised
from the beginning that delinquent subcultures, since created through the
channels of the mass-media, could only simulate revolution.
Perhaps, then, it is reasonable
to claim that punk's anti-design stance had always made the whole enterprise
peculiarly arty. Not according to another popular myth currently being
rehashed, this being that punk designers were untrained, anonymous figures,
their designs raw and uncouth, using anything that came to hand--their aim
being to deface the designs of happy hippies trained at art school. It
is true to say that many designers remain anonymous while designated designers
such as Sabastian Conran, who produced promotional material for The Clash,
were self-taught. Yet many celebrated punk designers were trained at art
school, and for them plagiarism was more of a carnivalesque prank than
political art terrorism directed against Western property values. Malcolm
Garrett began designing sleeves for the Buzzcocks while still a student
at Manchester Polytechnic, where he had developed a taste for International
Constructivism: 'I began merging a number of things I liked, the pioneering
type of graphic experiments like Futurism and Bauhaus from earlier in the
century with stuff from pop art and Andy Warhol.'5
In the summer of 1977, Garrett's fellow student (and future Assorted Images
co-designer) Linder Sterling was finishing her dissertation on the sanitisation
of punk. Her photomontage for the Buzzcocks Orgasm Addict (1977), while
having obvious precedents in dada and surrealism, most closely mirrored
the kinds of anti-consumerist montage produced by mail artists and feminist
community photographers in the '70s, satirising imagery from magazines
such as Woman's Own. Certainly such punk 'designs' were formally chaotic,
irregular and harsh, while as 'cultural productions' they appeared subversive
in intent. All laudable credentials for any aspiring subculture, but wasn't
a very similar 'anti-aesthetic' to be found in the converse Hegelian logic
of grunge-formalism which had demarcated 'fine art' from 'design' in most
art schools since the late 1960s? Destroy is testament to such a view,
given that it was not organised by anarcho-syndicalist employees of the
Royal Festival Hall, but by Maria Beddoes and Paul Khera, a duet of sentimental
graphic designers who, as students, had been inspired by punk to cast aside
their airbrushes and set squares in revolutionary ferment: 'This is The
Evening Standard. This is Fiesta. This is a pair of scissors. Now form
an advertising Consultancy.'
'The idea that you can still go
out and do what you want is coming back at last', says Ben Kelly sleeve
designer for Godley & Creme, A Certain Ratio, and The Cure among others.
'I still count myself as one of the lucky generation', fortuitously suggesting
that some 'punk' designers were luckier than others.6
If anything, the cult of the individual designer was reinforced by punk's
'version of the credo quia absurdum est: you don't like it but you do it
anyway; you get used to it and you even like it in the end.'7
Copyright, an issue previously of little interest to graphic designers,
became the hot topic, (battles continue to take place over the attribution
of many Pistols graphics.) Who was the best designer outlaw; who was the
least individual? Generating such contradictions, of course, was the whole
point. However, given its pedigree, is it still possible to relish the
'irony' of such ambivalence? Adopting a visual vocabulary and style which
was entertaining, yet acidly absurd, Reid famously recorded attempts to
erase the Pistols from cultural history (Never Mind the Bans, 1977), before
interminably representing their demise in posters and merchandising, much
of which is represented in Destroy. Yet Reid's fear that 'the posters would
end up as decor for trendy lefties' bedroom walls'8,
was misplaced, for this is one of many times in which they have found their
legitimate home in a vinyl sleeved cube, the art-gallery-as-record-fair;
legitimate since, according to Reid's version of punk, assaulting the pop
scene head on, simply gave the Pistols a lot of publicity, enabling them
to make 'Cash out of Chaos'. Khera has an analogous incongruous fable:
'The Pistols were playing on a boat across the river and were banned from
coming ashore by the police. We knew that the show would get more of a
reaction here and it seems an ironic venue because of punk hating royalty.'9
One end product of this version of events is Saatchi art. Literally. New
Labour, New Danger (1996) saw Reid's Readers'-Wives style letterbox eyes
and rip-off-style-ripped-off by the Right. To complicate matters, New Labour
themselves appear to have heeded McLaren's 10 lessons in how to mask reaction
in the cloak of youth and revolt.
Like New Labour, Destroy is also
about what it excludes, reminding us that cultural history results from
a suppression of possibilities. It would have been interesting to have
seen Genesis P-Orridge's Paranoia Club business cards here ('E know you
don't write back because you hate us'), or perhaps a few posters such as
Gainsbourgh's Blue Movie Boy, and Gary Gilmore Memorial Society. It seems
unfortunate to have missed such an opportunity to have presented Throbbing
Gristle's proto-punk work as COUM Transmissions, much of which has far
greater appeal than Reid's numerous homages to the Motherfuckers. Unlike
many punks who were relatively new to such matters, TG/COUM had been practicing
for seven years as performance artists. They had also spent a great deal
of time developing punk's deliberately offensive fascination with murderers
and criminals, although in this, they were far from alone.10
TG were particularly adept at arousing an extreme response, leaving people
in a dialectical position where they could not switch the situation off
as a joke. Many of their record sleeves which are on display, on first
inspection seem bland, a banal photograph of an everyday location, but
to the initiated the spot is the scene of a crime, usually a rape or grisly
murder. Re-presenting the shock effects of sex crime, thought designer
Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson, would provide an effective route to challenge
the hegemony of the mass-media's manipulative sensationalism. With a heady
mix of urban decay and accounts of the last murder and subsequent apprehension
of the Moors Murders,11
TG pushed sado-masochistic performance to its limits: "Is it only legality
that prevents the artist from slaughter of human beings as performance?
... Ian Brady and Myra Hindley photographed landscapes on the Moors in
England where they had buried children after sexually assaulting and killing
them. Landscapes that only have meaning when perceived through their eyes.
Art is perception of the moment. Action. Conscious. Brady as a conceptual
performer? ...What separates crime from art action? Is crime just unsophisticated
or 'naive' performance art? Structurally Brady's photos, Hindley's tapes,
'investigation' into the links between art, sex, prostitution and crime,
provoked press malpractice and misinterpretation at a time when most of
their short attention span was focused on the Pistols.13
As a result, P-Orridge received a number of death threats. Satirically
exposing the hypocrisy of this situation, Death Threats appeared as a track
on Dead on Arrival: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle (1978).
The record sleeve dryly alludes to child pornography, involvement with
which P-Orridge was also being wrongly accused of at the time.
COUM's feud with the 'straight'
artworld was clear, as P-Orridge encouraged the use of text as purely graphic,
verbal abstraction, stating that: "In much contemporary art words are juxtaposed
with images and photographs. I do the same in a small exchangeable format.
(It amuses me to parody real world / art world).'14
As for many punk designers, radical amateurism demanded a humorous assault
on categorisation and intellectualisation. In many ways this served to
challenge the pretensions of semiotic art and rectify the solicitous nature
of educational photography by transforming them into humorous forms of
insubordination. Early punk graphics derided the vogue for appending abstruse
theoretical texts with fetishistic imagery: 'COUM have nothing to say and
they're saying it. Make your own theory. COUM have no game to play and
they're playing it.'15
However, by maintaining a contradictory
and absurd stance, much punk design refused to establish the wider contexts
in which it might retain a critical stance or challenge viewers to shift
the goalposts for themselves. The punk fascination with highly conventional
textual and visual cues of crime stories and pornography tended to disallow
the ability to manipulate words and images to suggest new meanings: 'To
suggest that the prerogative of art is simply to touch on possibilities
without comment surely shows an insufficient grasp of visual rhetoric.
...Surely he must see that no amount of manipulation of context can redeem
the use of the [Auschwitz] gas-chamber logo; in purely artistic terms,
which he cannot escape, there are such things as a sense of diminished
responsibility and a law of diminishing returns.'16
While the arbitrariness of verbal and visual language allowed for graphic
artist's manipulation, their control over what was ultimately signified
was tenuous at best. For better or worse, punk designers were unwilling
to fully manipulate their audience's conclusions, that is, the artist's
authority, once the work was in production, was ignored. Yet, even this
much was never quite certain with TG. As a riposte to their tarnished image,
TG appeared in Arran knit sweaters with Land Rover on an English coastal
hillside for 20 Jazz-Funk Greats, one of the highlights of Destroy.
Given that playing games is the
major design concern here, the emphasis in design of the later '70s and
early '80s shifts away from 'punk' bands, towards New Wave and New Romantic
bands. From the point of view of designers in 1976, such designs would
not be 'punk'. This, however, presupposes that punk graphic design was
primarily a question of form. It may seem absurd today to think that punk
imagery could still be valued for its 'subcultural' status, but it remains
clear that it contributed more than a little to changing the social, economic
and political topography of Britain. Nonetheless, for many in the late
1970s, regarding record sleeve designs as possible solutions to the problem
of the artist's contribution to the perpetuation of an oppressive system,
would have made them guilty of the egotism and elitism they deplored: 'If
they did anything, they made a lot of people content with being nothing.
They certainly didn't inspire the working classes.'17
Such New Wave sensibilities therefore tend to dominate a great deal of
the designs exhibited in Destroy.
In all, this seems to have been
particularly pressing given that Destroy is the third in an annual series
of exhibitions at the South Bank Centre entitled Towards the Millennium,
each of which aim to capture the 'zeitgeist' of a decade through its art
or design. Hence, we are are given the impression that, from 1978, a greater
number of sleeve designs became more absolute, while others look like baroque
creations fit to challenge the collection of souvenirs of art history that
inspired them. In most cases, however, the carnivalesque and agitational
side of punk seems to convert to an emphasis upon record-design-as-commodity.
Given that many sleeve designers had quickly abandoned the anti-aesthetic,
the emphasis on commodity fetishism was an ingenious means of ensuring
that records did not loose their newly acquired art status.
The sleeves selected for the later
section of the exhibition explore the ways in which designers sought to
correlate style and function when both were in an indeterminate context,
producing designs without being preoccupied with the appearance of making
or effacing art. The ironic 'Industrial' style which had been initiated
by TG in the lead up to the 'Winter of Discontent', was reformulated and
taken literally by technological determinists such as Cabaret Voltaire,
Brian Eno, and Ben Kelly. Ultra-elegant Industrial sleeves inspired a plethora
of designers to lovingly refine the utopian aspirations of ubiquitous modernist
schools of design. Drawing on Garrett's successful appropriation of International
Constructivist styles, Peter Saville turned his back on felt-tip and photomontage,
and injected a melodramatic sentiment of romantic disintegration into the
late 1970s by highjacking modernist design for a new generation of 'pale
boys' raised on Kraftwerk and Berlin Bowie. Saville elicited a busy abstract
sublime, activated by an engaging tension between a mass-produced look
and a painstakingly handworked feel to the finished products for Joy Division,
New Order and The Durutti Column. The operative tone of Factory designs
remained hopeful and visionary, but exuded a powerful lack of meaning and
place, creating an look which was neither critical nor nostalgic, but evolutionary.
Prophetically, Peter York once regarded
punk designers as a important guides to this new Leisure Class, a new moneyed
class which rejected the academic values of the middle-classes, replacing
the pedantic rationality of 'good taste' with 'a pluralism of pleasure.'18
Certainly, Thatcher's emphasis on self-fulfillment, authenticity, and freedom
of choice had an obvious appeal to participants in the sixties cultural
revolution, many of whom were impresarios. Hence, in liberal post punk
design, the consumer was king, driven by the desire to maximise pleasure.
New Romantic design was a part of the raw, uncouth, socially, psychologically
and sexually insecure new elite who were either unable or unwilling to
attain the 'academic values' associated with Old Labour, values which had
secured some members of the excluded a safe path to success since W.W.II.
Such designers were set to take the lead in the corporate image-centred
world of the 1980s. New Romantic sleeves openly celebrated the erasure
of historical claims to knowledge made by the academic estate, while maligning
of the nihilism and amateurism of Punk by re-establishing a perfectionist
emphasis on image and 'product'. BOW WOW WOW's sources are absurdly eclectic.
See Jungle.... (1981, RCA), Nick Egan's translation of Manet's Luncheon
on the Grass, made the pointed suggestion that style and content were both
subservient to the vagaries of fashion, stirring up a superficiality that
would often border on neurosis. Following a similar line of reasoning Steve
Strange, ex-frontman of punk outfit The Moors Murderers, formed the 'collective
studio project' Visage in 1979 with Blitz DJ Rusty Egan, Midge Ure and
Billy Currie of Ultravox, and John McGeoch, Dave Formula and Barry Adamson
from Magazine. Announcing it 'leisure time for the pleasure boys', they
quickly found themselves invited to all the right cosmopolitan parties
with rich high profile social termites so despised by punk, and henceforth
became the music press' whipping boy. Robotic beats, banks of varied synthesisers,
flattened vocals, and the message of terminally repeated choruses concealed
the void between dead-end daily jobs and night time fantasies of The New
Darlings of Decadence, who, deriding the conventionality of fashionable
outrage, heralded the new order of posing: "New styles, New shapes / New
modes, they're to roll my fashion tapes / Oh my visage / Visuals, magazines,
reflex styles / Past, future, in extreme / Oh my visage."19
Strange's desire to substantiate and enrich his own image by depicting
his own body as the source of his style was quintessentially New Romantic.
The 1982 retrospective album The Anvil (Polydor), named after New York's
infamous leather 'n' bondage dive, was launched at Strange's very own Paris
fashion show. The album cover saw Strange in a Luchino Visconti movie-still
photographed by the master of soft porn and presentation incarnate, Helmut
Newton. Inevitably, Saville was responsible for the ceremonial graphics.
Despite being responsible for the
slick consumer packaging of Public Image LTD's Public Image (1978), the
typewritten amateurism of punk fanzines such as South London Stinks (Anon.
1977) remained in the early issues of Terry Jones' iD. This magazine was
quickly transformed into a market leader, as the editorial emphasis switched
entirely to fashion, its punky credentials distancing it from advocates
of the heinous 'graphix' style found in late '70s fashion journals such
as VIZ: Art, Photography, Fashion. With Garrett occasionally helping out
with design, iD succeeded to switch the British Fashion Press' emphasis
away from prosaic interviews with 'Them' designers such Zandra Rhodes and
the Logan Brothers. Instead was lucid reportage of the outrageous fashions
being worn 'on the streets' and at venues such as Blitz, St. Moritz, Hell,
Le Kilt and Le Beetroot where nightclubbers had been turning up as living
works of art. Here was a sharp, timely contrast to the grubbiness of punk.
Theatrical get ups; swashbuckling pirate clothing, Kabuki masks, make-up,
and transvestites were all welcomed. There were sad Pierrot clowns, majorettes,
toy soldiers, puritans and Carmen Mirandas. VIZ went into receivership,
while Strange's Eighties Set took off. Following two entire editions of
The Face (English for Visage) devoted to them,20
The Now Crowd suddenly became an international movement, 'The Cult with
No Name', with an article in Time, and lavish spreads in Continental magazines
from Stern to Vogue.
Not all New Wave design was as slick
and polished as the airbrushed glam that punk rebelled against; nor was
it all obsessed with mannerism and the sound of commodities fucking. One
direction was the theatrical engagement with 'class' taken in designs such
as Barney Bubbles' numerous editions of Ian Dury and the Blockheads' Do-It-Yourself
(1979, Stiff). Far from being alienated youths, Dury and the Blockheads
were ex-art school students (Dury even taught at Canterbury and the RCA)
and greatly accomplished musicians. Consequently, Bubbles, another punk
designer who had been to art school, took this opportunity to make a humorous
jibe at the affected amateurism of de rigeur DIY punk graphics, designing
a number of sleeves which resembled school books covered in scraps of flock
wallpaper from the early '70s. Similarly, John Cooper Clarke, once heralded
as the New Wave George Formby, is a poet who, like Ian Dury, had been around
for some time but only started to come into his own with the advent of
the New Wave: 'You can look at things like Dada and Surrealism and reject
it for being a middle-class phenomenon. I think people in the New Wave
have done the smart thing and walked into those areas. Now you've got a
kind of working class vision of things. I don't think I've ever seen a
punk rock group that didn't have something very imaginative about it. It's
not being a traitor to your class to go into those areas. It only widens
Saville's sleeve for Snap, Crackle & Bop (Epic, 1980) represents Clarke's
trademark three-piece suit complete with tab collar, shades and JCC punky
lapel badges. The 'pocket' comes with book of poetry styled like a Telephone
Directory, the lyrics overlaid on pages listing the names Cooper or Clarke.
With music handled by The Invisible Girls (experienced Mancunian hands
Martin 'Zero' Hannett, Pete Shelley, Bill Nelson, and Vinni Reilly) the
New Romantic stance as a parody of design, utilising theatrical breaks
with 'straight' culture, was both pointedly mocked and cherished: "Don't
doubt your own identity / Dress down to cool anonymity / The Pierre Cardin
line to infinity / Clothes to climb in the meritocracy / The new age of
The intellectualisation of youth subculture was one of many targets of
Clarke's drollery: "Twin wheeled existentialists steeped in the sterile
excrement of a doomed democracy 'oose post-Nietszchian sensibilities reject
the bovine gregariousness of a senile oligarchy."23
While Destroy is warts and all--including
ABC and Duran Duran--it would be unfair to say that the 'punk artifice'
parable has been allowed to run unhindered. The curators, perhaps daunted
at the number of previous attempts to analyse punk, have settled with displaying
everything taxonometrically and in approximate chronological order. This
modernist hang was not entirely a contemptible suppression of contingency,
given that it gave scope for critical acknowledgment that cultural artifacts
are the products of competing value-systems. Hovering in their transparent
sleeves, 'punk' graphic designs are bracketed as open verdicts, allowing
full criticism to run as the final, unwritten chapter. Visitors can examine
stylistic shifts and provide monolithic theoretical justification for them,
or openly consider the indeterminate relationships between the different
factions involved without adopting the pretense that anything is capable
of resolution. When beginning to consider if Reid's work has been juxtaposed
with the first twelve felt-tip pen and typewriter script issues of Glasgow's
version of Sniffin' Glue to emphasise or undermine Punk professionalism,
tacit acknowledgment that the hang functions as a reminder that the culture
of our age is one that is never finished. Since rules change in accordance
with the needs of time and situational modalities, it would seem fair to
say that exhibitions such as Destroy are one of a series of games played
according to undetermined rules. The speculation never ends.
1 John Cooper Clarke, 'Punk Rock
Revival', Specially commissioned for The List in 1997.
2 Jamie Reid in Jon Savage, Up They
Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid, Faber & Faber, London, 1987,
3 Minda, "Minda", in T. Dennett,
D. Evans, S. Gohl, AND J. Spence, (eds.), Photography / Politics: One,
Photography Workshop, London, September 1979, p125.
4 Peter York, "The Clone Zone (Night
of the Living Dead)", Style Wars, Sidgewick & Jackson, London, 1980,
5 Malcolm Garrett, quoted in 'Graphics',
Creative Review, February 1998, p37.
6 Ben Kelly quoted in Domenic Cavendish,
'The Great Rock & Roll Exhibition', The Independent (Style), 31st January--6th
7 See footnote 10.
8 Jamie Reid in Jon Savage, Up They
Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid, Faber & Faber, London, 1987,
9 Ben Khera quoted in Attitude,
10 'The passive nihilist compromises
with his own lucidity about the collapse of all values. Bandwagon after
bandwagon works out its own version of the credo quia absurdum est: you
don't like it but you do it anyway; you get used to it and you even like
it in the end. Passive nihilism is an overture to conformism. ...Between
the two poles stretches a no-mans-land, the waste land of the solitary
killer, of the criminal described so aptly by Bettina as the crime of the
state. Jack the Ripper is essentially inaccessible. The mechanisms of hierarchical
power cannot touch him; he cannot be touched by the revolutionary will.'
RAOUL VANEIGEM, 'Desolation Row' (1967), translated in King Mob Echo, No.
1, April 1968, Pygmalion Press, London, p7.
11 Throbbing Gristle, 'Introduction'
(1.01), 'Very Friendly' (15.54), Throbbing Gristle Live Volume One 1976-1978,
12 Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson,
'Annihilating Reality', Studio International, July/August 1976, p44.
13 Tony Roinson, 'Moors Murder 'Art'
Storm', Sunday Mirror, 15th August, 1976, p9.
14 Genesis P-Orridge, 'Statement
by Genesis P-Orridge to his Solicitor April 5th 1976', G.P.O. versus G.P-O:
A Chronicle of Mail Art on Trial Coumpiled by Genesis P-Orridge, Ecart,
15 COUM Transmissions, 'What Has
COUM to Mean? : Thee Theory Behind COUM', Typewritten Statement, Undated,
COUM Transmissions/Throbbing Gristle Archive, National Art Library, V&A,
16 Stuart Morgan, 'What the Papers
Say', Artscribe 18, July 1979, p18-19.
17 Ian Birch, 'In The Beginning',
The Book With No Name, Omnibus, London, 1981, p11.
18 Ian Chambers, 'Urban Soundscapes
1976-: The Paradoxes of Crisis', Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture,
Macmillan, Hampshire, 1985, p199.
19 Visage, 'Visage'.
20 The Face, Nos. 7-8.
21 John Cooper Clarke, New Musical
Express, January 28th, 1978.
22 John Cooper Clarke, 'Euro Communist
/ Gucci Socialist', Ten Years in an Open Neck Shirt, Arrow/Arena Books,
23 John Cooper Clarke, Psycle Sluts,
Part 1', Disguise in Love, Epic, 1978.