Music and fashion are two of punk rock's most lasting legacies. A new book from Omnibus Press explores a third: artwork. From graphics to flyers to album covers, The Art of Punk is a comprehensive survey of an overlooked aspect of popular culture.
Bands like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks and The Clash are known for their rabble-rousing, anti-authoritarian spirit, but in art circles, they are just as celebrated for their use of graphics and artwork. The book examines these, along with lesser known examples of international punk rock art, demonstrating the breadth and reach of a movement that encompassed much more than mohawks and sneers.
The Art Of Punk (Omnibus Press) features 900 illustrations from a host of celebrated artists and graphic designers who contributed to the visual identity of the punk movement. Works by artists like Jamie Reid (whose graphic work for The Sex Pistols, including a safety-pinned, swastika-eyed Queen Elizabeth, came to define much of punk's early visual identity), Malcolm Garrett (who designed the famous cover of The Buzzcocks' 1977 single "Orgasm Addict"), Barney Bubbles (who designed covers for The Damned, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and many others, as well as directing music videos), Raymond Pettibon (whose brother founded Black Flag -Raymond went on to design the band's famous four-barred logo), as well as previously unpublished images by Arturo Vega (The Ramones), and Peter Gravelle (The Sex Pistols/The Damned). Along with insightful interviews and quotes, the book also features contemporary street art that's been influenced by punk rock designs, including famous works by Banksy and Shepard Fairey. The movement from basic cut-and-paste collage to figurative, illustrative designs as well as reappropriation of older images and pop culture influences (media, comic books, films) is covered with a litany of colorful photos and deeply informed text.
Authors Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg come by their punk rock love honestly. Bestley is the Head of the Postgraduate Graphic Design course at the London College of Communication. Along with doing his PhD on punk graphics, Bestley curated an exhibition called "Hitsville UK: Punk in the Faraway Towns." Ogg is a celebrated music writer, and the co-editor of Punk & Post-Punk, a journal; he's also authored the Mojo Award-winning No More Heroes: A Complete History of UK Punk from 1976 to 1980(Cherry Red Books), as well as a number of other music-related books, including The Hip-Hop Years: A History Of Rap (Fromm International) and Independence Days: The Story of UK Independent Labels (Cherry Red Books). Ogg and Bestley emphasize how vital it is "to question the notion of a direct association between work by prominent early punk designers and the emergence of a radical new visual language of parody and agitprop" -which helps clarify connections (however tenuous, or not) between artists like Reid and Banksy. On the surface, the book may seem to make for some heavy reading, but in fact, The Art Of Punk is a very approachable work that is deeply informative, shot through with the passion of its authors and the quality that defined an era -one that continues to inform and shape our own.
As they point out in the book, “there is no one standard punk visual language" -an idea born out by Bestley and Ogg's exhaustive work in surveying international punk aesthetics. “(A) notion of a pure or authentic punk style is difficult to justify," they write, and so The Art Of Punk presents a beautiful, varied collection of global punk art that is as anti-mainstream and rooted in its time, as it is utterly recognizable and timeless.
Bestley and Ogg recently shared their thoughts on punk, art, history, academia versus fandom, and why they decided to cover the art of post punk in their book.
"Directness, wit, playfulness, irony, parody, humour" are, according to The Art Of Punk's co-author Russ Bestley, punk art's enduring appeal, along with the an element that "encourages the viewer to get up and do something for themselves. To me, punk was always inspirational and empowering, and I truly believe those values are followed through in much of the artwork as well as the music."
Why do you think the visual history of punk hasn't been fully explored before?
RB: I don’t think it has ever been appreciated on its own merits, either by the art and design establishment or within academia. Maybe that’s because of the inherently provocative style of much punk visual material –it may be seen as base and thuggish, lacking in aesthetic value or whatever. However, it’s interesting to see how many contemporary designers and artists actually draw upon punk heritage within their work, or the range of academics who pledge some kind of allegiance to the subculture, particularly in their less guarded moments!
Having said all that, I think we only need look at the wealth of punk graphic material to appreciate its dramatic impact and visual style –and the range of themes that cover everything from fantastic branding and graphic identities to sophisticated political sloganeering and a playful and ironic sense of humour.
You explore the various fissures in the movement as well as their effects; how did this splintering express itself visually?
RB: Different sub-genres of punk evolved following the initial burst of activity in the mid 1970s, and each developed a quite sophisticated set of visual codes that are quite recognizable when you look closely at the record sleeves, posters, flyers or whatever for each grouping. Some of these ‘visual languages’ (sets of visual elements, colour schemes, typographic styles etc) are quite self-evident to the viewer –think of Anarcho Punk and the Crass-inspired black and white sleeve, often with stencil writing and bold circular frames, immediately comes to mind. Hardcore and Thrash have always had a tendency to utilize black and white artwork, often with documentary photography or line drawings based on themes of war and destruction.
Reverse of album sleeve by the band Crass, called Yes Sir, I Will, Crass Records 1983. Design by Crass.
Your book has a mix of academic and diehard-music-fan to it; how hard was this tone to achieve?
RB: I think that mix directly reflects the authors themselves! We are both diehard-music-fans, which was really the reason we got together to write in the first place... neither Alex nor myself are in many ways ‘traditional’ academics, though we have both found outlets for our writing through some academic channels. The Punk & Post Punk Journal, where Alex is Co-Editor and I am an Associate Editor, and through my own PhD which focused on an analysis of UK punk seven-inch single graphics.
AO: That’s kind of who I am. I am involved in academic studies of punk, but the only reason that happened –indeed, the only reason I ever wrote anything about anything ever –was because punk had such a liberating impact on me. I did not come from a background where writing was considered an option... and punk, to me, despite its resolute anti-authoritarianism, always carried with it an implied message of responsibility towards others. We can, and should, be better than this. So the tone of the book, or the parts I wrote, for good or ill, is actually a very natural one.
In terms of writing about something as supposedly "street-level" as punk from an academic standpoint, I have no problems with it at all. I edit an academic journal that looks into the ways in which punk impacted on everything from ballet to fashion to literature to comedy. I find that shit fascinating.
Album cover for Buzzcocks third album, A Different Kind of Tension, United Artists 1979. Design by Malcolm Garrett.
Where do you see the punk aesthete now, in 2012?
RB: Well, it’s still used extensively as a visual signifier of "cool," of street, urban style, particularly by branding and advertising agencies. Punk has always had a love/hate relationship with commerce and the mainstream, and each time its visual styles became accepted in consumer culture, a subset of punk art and design went one stage further to create visual messages that were more awkward, more challenging, and more difficult to appropriate. As such, while I admire the graphic work of Jon Barnbrook (who collaborated with Damien Hirst, and designed the cover of David Bowie's 2002 album, Heathen) Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Stefan Sagmeister (who's won Grammy Awards for his work, and has collaborated with David Byrne and Lou Reed, among others), all of whom draw upon punk aesthetics in one way or another, I like the fact that punk’s true underground visual language still occupies the punk underground and remains as deliberately awkward as ever.
Why did you decide to feature international punk artwork along with the mainstream stuff?
AO: To me, that’s been the most fascinating and illuminating part of the book. I knew a fair bit about the international punk scene, and had done since the early 1980s. However, once we scratched the surface, there was simply so much more. The international chapter of the book was co-written with a really lovely guy called Josef Loderer, whose name deserved to appear on the book’s cover. It couldn’t, for complex contractual reasons. He, in turn, delivered us into the hands of a cabal of international contributors who had real expertise and were only too happy to share it. Their voices are absolutely vital in terms of what we were trying to achieve.
The first punk compilation from Kyrgyzstan was a seven inch EP by various artists called Underground Kyrgystan: Bishkek is Burning! It was released on the Tian An Men 89 label. France, 2004. Design by Luk TAM.
Who's one punk-era artist you wanted to interview but didn't?
AO: We got just about everyone. There was due to be an interview with Ray Pettibon that didn’t in the end take place because he’d just become a father; that was a shame (the book’s own designer, Paul Palmer-Edwards, is a huge fan). All the people we approached were pretty supportive once they realised we were serious.
RB: Barney Bubbles, RIP 1983. He was an inspiration to a generation of British music graphic designers, particularly within the punk movement. And Bob Last, founder of the Fast Product label – some graphic genius at work within his early output.
Flyer for gig by Youth Brigade, USA, early 1980s. Designer unknown.
You've included a fair amount of post-punk design here too as well as the reach of punk all the way to the aughties; why?
RB: We took a simple approach to our subject –we wanted to try to include a broad spectrum of punk sub-genres, some of which might be called post punk. However, if the definition of post punk is, 'music and graphics which followed on from punk’s first incarnation, drew inspiration from it and evolved it into new sounds and styles,' then that definition would also include Anarcho Punk, Oi!, Thrash, Hardcore, Ska Punk, Pop Punk, Comedy Punk and all the rest. It’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that "post punk" has become an easy tag for a supposedly-more sophisticated and intelligent form of punk. Books on the subject even rather strangely date it back to the early 1970s, with Bowie and Roxy Music, so apparently post punk was somehow also pre-punk; they must have had some pretty good time machines in those days!
AO: Myself and Russ are innately suspicious of the assumption that "punk was great and all that, but then the really creative people popped up and post-punk became this far more articulate, literate response." Remember, "post punk" is a very retrospective tag, (and) the dividing lines are less clear.
At the recent panel discussion at LCC we had a nice array of people who actually worked within the art departments of major labels during the uptake of punk-inspired acts within the burgeoning New Wave movement, and they were very honest about the way that they marketed punk to the mainstream. We’re talking here about Magazine, Skids, (Siouxsie and) the Banshees, The Cure, and so on. I loved all those bands, but I understood them –and consumed them –through a pre-existing notion of punk. I am resistant to propositions that they belong to an elite sub-set of artists who completely transcend punk; I just happen to think that they were part of its continuum.
As for the contemporary representations of punk: it may be yesterday’s chip wrappers in terms of mainstream reportage, but punk continues to thrive –both as a music and a lifestyle –and we wanted to show that.
The Sex Pistols, wearing Seditionaries clothing, photographed by Peter Gravelle prior to the press conference announcing the group’s signing to record label A&M March 10 1977.