From the Archive; Malcolm Garrett interview

Screen Shot from Malcolm Garrett's website, showing Buzzcocks graphics, photographed by Nick Harling

Screen Shot from Malcolm Garrett’s website, showing Buzzcocks graphics, photographed by Nick Harling

I love collections, and exhibitions of collections, especially when they inspire designers and their work, so I would very much like to make the journey to Manchester (which I wrote about, here) to see Collecting Malcolm Garrett, part of the design festival, Design Manchester 17. In celebration of Malcolm Garrett and his work in the music industry (which he spoke about at Pick Me Up, reviewed here), I’m posting another previously unpublished interview from the British Council exhibition, Sound Design. Malcolm mentions his old school friends, Peter Saville (read that interview here) and Keith Breeden, who I also interviewed, so watch out for that interview too.

Malcolm Garrett, interviewed by Liz Farrelly on 12/7/2000.

Liz Farrelly: Where did it all start?

Malcolm Garrett: The Buzzocks was 23 years ago. It came about because I wanted to do a sleeve that wasn’t just a piece of cardboard and I was always interested in corporate graphics, as opposed to corporations, and subverting corporate graphics and systems graphics too, because a record sleeve is fundamentally information. So I was looking at it from an informational standpoint, as opposed to an art gallery standpoint. We were selling something so much more ethereal than say, banking services, so there was a frisson there. And because, with the Buzzcocks, some of their songs were looking at the nature of society and relationships in quite a detached way, it seemed appropriate to misappropriate some form of informational graphics.

I was talking to their manager, Richard Boon, about this. He was a Fine Art graduate and very interested in the graphic tools of communication and how they could be utilised to further advantage the whole message on offer. The carrier bag came about because I was a customer at NatWest Bank. I choose NatWest because I liked the grey chequebook, the totally anti-picture cheques, minimal, industrial, straight forward. They’re a bank and they look after my money; I don’t want pictures of bunny rabbits on my cheques, thank you very much. And as a new customer at NatWest, they give you a pack of info on their services in a very nice plastic pack with a zip at the top. I thought, fantastic, the album sleeve is going to be a plastic sleeve with a plastic zip, and I mentioned this to a flat-mate who was on the Fine Art course, and he said, oh, like a carrier bag, and I said, that’s even better, a carrier bag. So Trevor Green gave me the inspiration to put the album in its own carrier bag. That meant that even though punk was about destroying the whole music industry it still relied on the whole distribution network, but this was one step towards bypassing that. Yes, you had to be distributed by Virgin or HMV or whoever, and you had to go to those shops to buy the stuff, but you didn’t have to advertise the fact. So you’d come out of Virgin with your Buzzcocks carrier bag, not your Virgin carrier bag.

The carrier bag itself and what we chose to put on it reinforced the idea. It was done as cheaply as possible, but that said, it was a very expensive package. The band wanted their faces on the sleeve and would have preferred a sleeve like the Ramones. To be fair to Pete Shelley, he was much more open-minded, so we were able to compromise on the bit of cardboard and put the picture in, but the bag, they didn’t understand or care about that, and so Richard and I were able to play with it and I chose to label the bag. Really the industry doesn’t care about music; it cares about profit and in order to achieve profits it cares about efficiency of distribution. So the notion of putting on one side of the carrier bag ‘product’ was very tongue-in-cheek, saying that we know this is just consumer stuff, and on the other side, equally large, the catalogue number. We were saying that we also knew that the music industry doesn’t care about musicians or songs, it cares about the catalogue number; that’s the most important piece of information on the packaging because without that you don’t get it to the shops. So you may as well not exist. So that’s the carrier bag, ‘Product UA30159’. It was silver plastic, fluorescent orange, and basically wrote the rulebook for everything Factory records did after that. Even the posters I decided would be like hazard warning posters; silver, fluorescent orange diagonal stripes. I wrote the rulebook for the Hacienda. Ben Kelly designed the Hacienda, and I’d been informed by work he was doing elsewhere. We were all interested in this thing called High-Tech, which was about the reappropriation of industrial fittings into a domestic environment. The whole thing that started at that point, with a number of people having similar thoughts in parallel areas, and its still going strong.

I was at school with Peter Saville. We were compatriots, sharing ideas and thoughts and visions. Although we were inspired by the same things, different aspects of the same thing would inspire us and our ways of working, and our particular aesthetics were different. So we’d have the same starting points and share the same thoughts and ideas and discuss them to death, but after we went away to do our respective things, the end products were really pretty different. Peter’s aesthetic was very reductionist and he’d strip things away and end up with the thing in the right place; my aesthetic was much more eclectic, more about, I really like this, and what about that, and combining elements from disparate sources in ways that hadn’t been seen before so as to create something fresh, and completely different.

LF: How did you make the move from the Buzzcocks to Duran Duran?

It was very easy. Andrew Lander had been the label manager at United Artists, who had signed the Buzzcocks and interestingly enough signed a lot of musicians before and after who are some of my favourites and very influential, including the Stranglers and 999. The Buzzcocks were the first punk band to put out a single on their own label, at the end of December 1977. I was really into punk. During my second and third years at college I was out at gigs every Friday, Saturday and Wednesday, and some Mondays. My degree show was work for the Buzzcocks and Magazine.

Andrew Lander left United Artists and set up a company in association with Jake Riviera (who was managing Elvis Costello); it was Radar Records, effectively a vehicle for Elvis Costello. Andrew had brought Barney Bubbles with him; he had previously done all the Hawkwind sleeves, which were immensely influential on me. And he’d done the early Stiff sleeves, which were also influential at the time, but I hadn’t recognised that they were from the same source. Andrew contacted me in Manchester because he liked what I was doing with the Buzzcocks, and asked me to take some of the weight off Barney Bubble’s shoulders at Radar Records because he was getting overwhelmed with work. So I moved, it was 1978 and I’d just left college.

Fast-forward two years, another important input was a person called Rob Waugh. He’d been the manager of Gang of Four, a band from Leeds who put out a fantastic EP on Fast Product, an early independent set up by Bob Last in Edinburgh; he put out the first Human League single too. Gang of Four supported the Buzzcocks; they always brought subversive bands with them on tour. Then, when Rob left off managing the Gang of Four, when they signed to EMI, he got a label manager’s job there and employed me to design records. He called me up one day and said, I’ve got this band, they’re going to be massive, come and see them. It was December 1980 at the Virgin Venue in Victoria. So Rob Waugh imposed me upon Duran Duran and I worked with them continuously until 1986, and a bit after that.

I saw what we did with Duran as a complete and logical development of what we had started to do with the Buzzcocks, which was also for me a complete and logical development of what Barney Bubbles was doing with Hawkwind. It was the notion of a commercial entity that is music-based, that operates within the music industry, but as a unit outside of it and controls its own visual and marketing environment – everything. Hawkwind were a complete unit. They started out as Ladbrook Grove hippies, made inroads on the festival circuit, but would play on the back of a lorry outside the Isle of Wright Festival as a kind of protest against having to pay to get in to festivals. They played the first Glastonbury Festival, and then out of the blue they had a massive hit with Silver Machine. They were like an enclave, a life-style, and so were the Buzzcocks.

The way Duran’s deal was structured with EMI, they worked very closely with their managers, who moved the unit from Birmingham to London, they financed everything at the beginning, paid for everything and then licensed their stuff back to EMI, so they controlled everything. Ultimately, they sold it to EMI, and they were very concerned that if a product said Duran Duran on it, it had to go through their office and I became closely involved in everything, from the fan club and merchandising, and all the international releases, in a way that was much bigger than we ever did with the Buzzcocks, because they were an English phenomenon, but Duran Duran were massive, with different sleeves for Europe, USA and Japan. Duran picked up lessons that the Buzzcocks hadn’t. The Buzzcocks had formed because of the Sex Pistols and Ramones and wanted to emulate them musically. Duran formed because of the visuals that existed around them, and the Buzzcocks and Pistols were a visual reference point for Duran; they wanted to control their entire visual environment.

LF: And their image in promo videos? How did that fit in with your work on the graphics?

MG: Unfortunately, the graphics were retro-fitted; I was concerned with coordinating the entire image, but video directors, what do they care? They’re called in two weeks before the release; they’re told, here’s a big budget, what are you gonna do? They say, oh, I’ve got a vision…and they’re ego-maniacs and they go out and shoot something. I was trying to take whatever was coming from them and make it fit, using pieces of film as transparencies.

Duran, for me, were very frustrating. I had to realise their vision on their behalf; I saw my job as being inclusive and to be as invisible as possible. So I had to work with video material, which was very important, when the video director was doing everything to be anything but invisible. I worked with material that wasn’t conceived to fit and had to make it fit, so I had to create spaces within which I could give myself some flexibility to move in whatever direction these external inputs would take me.

The other frustration was, I was a young lad, about the same age as the guys in the band, and they were very aspirational and so I had to remind them from time to time that the reason they liked David Bailey, or whoever, was because he’d made his name working alongside his contemporaries, and the Rolling Stones had made David Bailey as much as David Bailey had made the Rolling Stones. And it was their job as musicians to work with their contemporaries to realise a vision that was appropriate to their time. But Duran were aspirational and would wanted to work with David Bailey, hoping that some of that would rub off on them. Of course Malcolm Garrett was not David Bailey, he was one of the unknowns, so I’m not saying they didn’t value me, but they didn’t hold me or my work in the same esteem at the time. I think they’ve revised that now. At the time I had to fight and if I was a more sensitive person, then I’d have been upset. But I realised that I was there every day and twenty years later, you’d be talking to me about it.

I was also very frustrated that we didn’t have a budget. Generally, music packaging has had no value; we were part of a thing that was proving its value, but why would the music industry pay more for something. They were not going to volunteer more money, but I was getting frustrated because increasingly we were a component that added value.

I had a company called Assorted Images and was paid by Tritec [Music], Duran Duran’s company, and I attempted to negotiate with Duran Duran to give them all their design for free in return for a very, very small percentage of sales, which they wouldn’t agree to. On one hand they said, yes, what you do adds value, but no, we’re not going to pay you for that value, nobody else does it and we could quite easily sack you and anyone else could step into your shoes and do just as good a job. They were selling enough records for me to calculate that a quarter of a per cent of their album sales would pay me and my team of five or six people working continuously for several years, and be paid much more handsomely than the pitiful fees we were being paid, and ultimately I knew that I had to get out of the music industry. Assorted Images was mainly music, arts and entertainment. We designed for Simple Minds and Culture Club too. There was generally a lack of awareness and inertia; in the 1980s pop stars weren’t really bothered who did their graphics. I tried forever to get out of the music business and kept getting drawn back into it.

LF: So how does good design get through?

MG: Because there are enough hungry, young people with great ideas out there. Behind me there are a thousand kids ready to step into my shoes; in the wake of the creative freedoms that were enabled after punk there was an explosion of the number of bands creating their own musical product and the notion that the visual presentation of it was an important component.

LF: Do record companies know that now? Has it changed their attitude?

MG: No, their view is that everyone wants to do this and we can get it for free. Students from Saint Martins will do it for free, a. because they love it and b. because they haven’t learnt the value of what they’re giving away yet. The music industry has become quite confused as to what it’s doing. Thanks to mergers, buy-ups and the Internet, the industry is in turmoil. They didn’t know what to do when this MP3 thing happened. How do you hang on to the notion that the label has a value anymore? What is the label when methods of distribution are changing? What happened throughout the 1980s was that labels homogenized. So the idea that a label offered some kind of brand recommendation is gone and the irony is they need that to exist. I coined a phrase only this morning, convergent diversification; as things increasingly come together it’s the ability to offer yourself as a niche offering, to be more facilitated, that is necessary.

LF: There’s another designer in this exhibition, Keith Breeden, who you also knew at school?

MG: Yes, he was at school with myself and Peter Saville. Out of the three of us he was the talented one. Peter was a strategist, and I was an eclectic doer, a Dada anti-artist. Keith Breeden, he could draw and paint anything. He was driven; he really took his work seriously and was the archetypal tortured artist. His worse work was better than my best and he’d tear it up. He helped me out at Radar Records, after I bumped into his sister in the street, years after school.