British punk gave a sound, a voice and a visual currency to the disenfranchised and remote. Overlooked, uncelebrated and difficult – the output of the anonymous artworkers who packaged the vinyl spewed out by punk’s first waves captured the oppositional (and occasionally political) spirit of the time.
By Russell Bestley and Ian Noble
Most visual histories of punk rock have emphasised the work of now famous graphic designers, such as Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville, Barney Bubbles, Russell Mills and Jamie Reid.(1) Yet the greater impact of punk on the hearts, minds and attitudes of the youth at that time was through a provincial second wave, or the beginnings of the ‘punk diaspora’(2) as Jon Savage has called it, more related to the suburbs and towns of Great Britain. Provoked by the received view of punk via the sensationalised reporting of the mainstream press, local scenes grew up across the nation, each with highly individual interpretations of the music and variations in attitude and approach.
Far from the metropolitan / London axis, this provincial interpretation of punk, as fashion, as music and as graphic output, adopted a range of individual approaches based on the part played by the music press – in particular the NME (New Musical Express) – the airplay given by Radio One DJ John Peel, the national press, and local cultural history and aspirations.
The mainstream press, almost entirely opposed to the movement, played a large part in the way punk was to be adopted and re-interpreted in regions geographically too distant from the major cities to have a direct connection or a word-of-mouth familiarity. More difficult to define, but no less significant, were those deep-seated feelings of frustration and rebellion reflected in the local culture – a regional fan base was established which took a distinctively parochial reading of the genre.(3) This is significant – for local history, provincial attitudes, and a distinctly popular culture played an equal part in the construction of this ‘second wave’ as did the suggested (‘serious’ or ‘art-house’) influences of the official history of the genre (Velvet Underground, Stooges etc.). Outside the larger metropolitan areas of the big cities, deep-seated conservative attitudes were rife – following the recession of the mid 1970s under a failed Labour administration, Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister to a far-right Conservative government in the Autumn of 1979. In smaller communities across Britain, this reflected a return to more hardline Victorian values. Though punk was becoming a fashion cliché in London, being a provincial punk was a political statement – a ‘leap of faith’(4).
For punk to have survived it needed to react to a particular social and political climate. Worsening unemployment, Northern Ireland, [Ronald] Reagan, Thatcher, the nuclear threat and the resurgence of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), the emergence of gay rights, the undermining of the trade unions and later the jingoism of the Falklands war, all contributed to the climate of engagement. Some bands became identified with single issues, such as TRB (the Tom Robinson Band), whose ‘Glad To Be Gay’ (EMI, 1978) became [an] anthem for gay liberation. The Au Pairs, comprising two men and two women, became associated with a newly defined approach to the concerns of women and the feminist movement, particularly with the release of the single ‘Diet / It’s Obvious’ (021 Records, 1980). Though the group achieved some success in the post-punk independent market, they were to be defined by this early approach in all their later work. The Slits and the Raincoats established a new position for women in the male-dominated rock music scene. The period also marked a new range of interpretations of punk’s employment of shock tactics, challenging middle-class norms and values. The earlier knowing dumbness of, for instance, the wearing of swastikas by Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux had been balanced by the proactive movements within the scene: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. With the right wing appeased by a sympathetic government, the more political sections within the scene were forced to fragment their activities to address specific issues. A range of tactics were adopted by the new generation of oppositional groups, and the employment of visual codes became more critically targeted.
The geography of the UK meant that punk was able to spread quickly and found a sympathetic audience already inclined towards the feelings of rejection and alienation that characterised much of the music. More local aspirations and interpretations of the punk ethos were played out in smaller towns and cities across the country, deeply affecting many of the people involved – bands, fans, designers. This led to a resurgence of the cottage industry, the skills-building of independent businesses and many innovations in marketing and production. This significant but largely undocumented influence spawned a large number of smaller-league bands, labels and networks of activity. Bands from these towns were part of extended local networks and often toured together to other towns, pooling resources and equipment. In this way an alternative version of punk was propagated and local exchanges were built up.(5)
The look of much of this recorded work in the form of twelve-inch LP and seven-inch single and EP sleeves, and echoed in fanzines, advertisements and flyers, was often anonymous or uncredited, and a celebration of the low-tech production values of necessity. The output of many of the untrained or non-professional artworkers, band members or friends of the band (often at local art colleges) produced unusual collaborations. The Human League’s line-up involved at least one band member who did not have a musical role: Adrian Wright originally provided slide projections on stage, an integral part of the Human League’s early live appeal. This also reflected an attempt to create multidisciplinary live performances in the true punk spirit – filmmaker Mick Duffield provided projected backdrops for live performances by the band Crass. Many other groups (notably Wire) incorporated poetry and performance art into their live shows.
The grassroots approach centred on the relationship between the audience and the groups – often the fans were the bands and the bands were the fans. The spirit of ‘everyone can be in a band’ grew into ‘everyone can release their own record’ and ‘everyone can have their own label’ and this extended to the production of the sleeve artwork. The (initial) rejection of the large or major record labels as possible benefactors is exemplified in the impossibly uncommercial nature of the record sleeves.
This activity involved design strategies that, although based on limited budgets, were in many cases inventive, sophisticated and engaged in deliberate decisions concerning the ‘hard-edged’ employment of particular images, anti-typography and production processes. These attempts to capture, and communicate, the aggressive or discordant tone of the lyrics and music position much of the work as important examples of how a surface may indeed capture the experience or emotion of a musical form. Importantly, these could not have been produced by anyone other than those directly involved in the scene.
The subcultural codes contained within the sleeves and band ‘identities’ acted as factors in defining the sense of belonging and membership both in a local and national sense. These codes often took the stereotypical devices of punk – hand-rendered and stencilled typefaces, ransom-note typography and photocopied imagery, often borrowed from newspaper stories of the day and related to the topical nature of the lyrics. In other cases the look or feel was less deliberately DIY [do-it-yourself] and employed images of local significance and genuine low-tech production such as the use of typewritten text and crudely rendered images. This approach exemplified a persistent refusal to engage in sophisticated design values despite subsequent commercial success. These designers and artists went on to produce work that refined the style of earlier production, but maintained its raw disregard for more mainstream commercial aesthetic values.
Some independent labels became very successful, often making use of innovative marketing strategies and corporate styles. Early leaders in the independent sector, including Chiswick and Stiff, both born out of the pub-rock scene in London, were to figure less prominently as tastes changed rapidly in the late 1970s, and the search for a genuine ‘alternative’ scene exemplified by the likes of Rough Trade, Mute and Cherry Red records in London, or by Factory in Manchester, FAST Product in Edinburgh (ref to box??), Zoo in Liverpool and Crass in Essex (ref to box??) took hold.
Taken from eyemagazine.com/