INTERVIEW : Malcolm Garrett speaks to Paul Hanley about his ground breaking artwork for Duran Duran
‘Somehow I’ve managed to make it look effortless!’ How Malcolm Garrett’s Assorted IMaGes helped make Duran Duran a global brand.
A big part of the appeal for those of us who counted Buzzcocks as our favourite band at the end of the seventies was their amazing aesthetic, which encompassed not just their single and album covers, but their tour posters, the advertisements in the music press and even the odd carrier bag for good measure. Key amongst the groups’ iconography were the badges – crucially, these were hard to come by, which gave them status and collectability. But more importantly they were wittily and faithfully designed, a world away from the cheap Underground Market knock offs most groups afficionados’ had to content themselves with. Buzzcocks’ carefully coordinated brand was the work of Malcolm Garrett, and his Buzzcocks logo and the Assorted iMaGes that surrounded it remain their definitive image. One of Malcolm’s school friends was Peter Saville, the in-house designer for Factory records, and between them they created some of Manchester’s most recognisable pop art.
After working with Buzzcocks Malcolm went on to form a similar relationship with Duran Duran, a relationship that helped them become the biggest group in the world. And his images and designs were as key to Duran Duran’s success as they had been to Buzzcocks. I was intrigued to know how he managed to maintain such a singular aesthetic in the face of deadlines, world tours, global markets and vastly expensive videos. So on the 40th anniversary of the release of ‘Planet Earth’ I spoke to Malcolm about his designs for the group, and how he went from ‘Orgasm Addict’ to ‘A View to a Kill’. Oh, and how three South Manchester school mates happened to find themselves amongst the finest designers of their generation.
PH: You designed for Duran Duran right from their first single, how did you come to work with them?
MG: I went to see them at The Venue – it was a Christmas show, and the reason I went is connected to Buzzcocks. Buzzcocks were always bringing bands they thought people should see to the pop world’s attention. Bands like The Fall, Penetration, Gang of Four and Joy Division, They were all invited to go out as support bands. Gang of Four were managed by a guy called Rob Warr, and Rob got them signed to EMI, then stopped managing them and became a label manager at EMI. I get this call from Rob Warr at some point in December 1980 and he says ‘We’ve just signed this band; they’re going to be fucking massive and I want you to see them. I think it would be a good idea if you can work with them’. So that was it. I went to see them, wasn’t overly impressed, and then in January ’81 they’re recording ‘Planet Earth’ and they need a sleeve, so I pulled one together, I think before I even met them. In the same way that I did the first Simple Minds sleeve before I met the band. I was put in the frame by the record company in both cases.
So is it normally important to you to get to know the band before you design for them?
Well, it’s important for me to get to know the band eventually. I was never one for thinking about record sleeves as icons or standalone things. I didn’t even really think of them as a vehicle for a single image. For me it was a flat box with a round thing in it and the product was intangible, it was the audio, the sound. So I was always interested in finding a way of having all of the visual components link together, and connect to one another, so that when they’re taken in their entirety they come to represent the image the band presents, rather than the song, or the song title. There are all sorts of ways of approaching that, as obviously you don’t get to know a band overnight. It’s interesting comparing Simple Minds and Duran Duran because I started working with them both around about the same time. And if you look at their early sleeves, in some ways they’re more me than they are the bands, they’re white, and quite open ended. But by the time you get to the second album, Duran Duran’s Rio; and Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream, as I’ve hit my stride, they’ve hit their stride. And if you ask their fans what their iconic sleeves are they say Rio and New Gold Dream; because by that time, it wasn’t that I’d got to know the bands per se – you don’t get to know them, because they’re always away on bloody tour. The only time you do get to meet them is in the recording studio, where the last thing they want to do is meet some graphic designer to talk about bloody stuff that they’re not interested in. So it’s not so much that I got to know the band, but I got imbued in the feelings surrounding them that I felt I could represent. With Simple Minds it’s Jim Kerr’s words, Charlie Burchill’s guitar sound and Steve Hillage’s production that kind of floats and moves along – that’s what you’re trying to capture. With Duran Duran it was more like ‘hey we’re selling you luxury goods’, so I tried to think of it in terms of something more global, more international. I hate the word ‘aspirational’ but that was it.
Was it Thatcherite, do you think?
No, I never saw it in quite those terms. Because Thatcher was really quite greedy and all about the self, but if you talk to John and Nick, they’re very generous people. You know, John Taylor’s own description of what he wanted when he formed the band was a merger of Chic and the Sex Pistols. When you get an understanding of where the band are, you know that they’re not Thatcherite at all. Yes, they wanted success. but they wanted success on Sex Pistols terms, which is why they paid for all their own recordings and licensed them to EMI, and why I was given so much control. Because I worked directly with them and their management and then eventually their merchandising guy and we controlled everything, to the full extent that we could.
So there wasn’t any pressure from EMI?
Well the pressure came from Rob Warr -and he’d put me in the frame in the first place, so he was defending my corner. He knew what they were looking for, and that’s why he recommended me, because he knew that working with me would be better for them than working with an in-house art department.
I always thought it was amazing that their picture wasn’t on the front of Rio, because that must have been the only blank space in the whole of that year that didn’t have a picture of Duran Duran on.
Well there was pressure on the first album, but my attitude was they can get their faces on the front page of any magazine they wanted, they didn’t need to be on the sleeve. I was always of the view that their packaging, product, and so on should be akin to the kind of things that they would buy for themselves. It was their idea to commission Pat Nagel to do a painting, and, of course, he thought it was going to be full bleed (the entire cover), and I was having none of that.
I’d learned that I need a lot of graphic components to play with in order to carry the press ads, the posters, the tour materials, the merchandise, and all the other offshoots and singles from the album. I was at that point in my design career where I was completely averse to the idea of an album sleeve being a picture. It was totally the opposite to what Factory were doing. Peter (Saville)’s sleeves are so often just a picture on the front, with nothing on the back, it’s always about the front image. Mine was always about the front, the back, the inner sleeve, the label – the way that the whole thing felt like a package. I had this smart idea that instead of taking that Pat Nagel image and putting it in full bleed I’d actually shrink it and wrap it over the opening so there’s a little bit of the picture on the back – it was like a conceptual thing – you’ve got to go through the picture to get to the album. And initial quantities of the album had a little sticker, a seal you had to break to get the record out. Rio as a title felt quite exotic, ‘We are flying down to Rio’ Roxy Music kind of thing. And it felt like a cigar brand: ‘Rio Cigars’, and so that little sticker was like the belt you get around a quality cigar. It was a really cool package, really high quality. If I brought anything, it was an ability to think ‘It’s got to be timeless, and it’s got to be connected’. I took that from Frank Zappa. He always said that everything he did was connected and he called it ‘conceptual continuity’.
Speaking of Peter Saville, they actually worked with both of you for the ‘My Own Way’ single, didn’t they?
Well, when they made the video for the second single, ‘Careless Memories’, I was sharing a flat with Perry Haines, who worked with them as a stylist. He shot, directed and produced the video and they didn’t really like it, and they also hated the idea that they could be accused of being styled by somebody else, and so Perry has been written out of history. As his friend I was slightly tarred with the same brush. So come the stand alone single ‘My Own Way’ the band were saying ‘we really think those sleeves that Peter and Factory are doing are really cool, let’s ask Peter to do us a ‘Factory’ sleeve’. They weren’t aware of the connection between Peter and me. Peter rang me and said ‘I’ve just had this call, but aren’t Duran Duran your band?’ So we said we’d do it together. Peter suggested the theme of the bullfighter, but then if you look closely, the grid structure that I devised for the previous three singles is the same grid structure for ‘My Own Way’. So there’s an underlying connection, but the graphics are completely different. I did a little kind of a cattle brand logo over the ‘DD’ and crazy hand-drawn lettering and so it’s Peter’s image, and my delivery. Whenever Peter and I have worked together I’ve always tended to be the person who sees things through, but the idea is generated together.
I’m intrigued to know the process, and which comes first, because if you look at the whole Rio project, you’ve got videos in really glamorous, far off climes, matching the sleeve’s aesthetic, and they’ve got somebody who looks like the girl on the front of the album In the ‘Rio’ video. How do you coordinate it all? Or do you not, is it just luck?
Well, that comes down to me post-rationalising. As I said that’s why I always gave myself enough bits and pieces, enough hooks in the design, so that no matter which direction they went in I’d have something that I could utilise that would have a connection back to what I’d done previously. Music is unique as a brand; in that you don’t know what they’re going to do next. If you’re branding paint, it’s always the same; a bank does the same job all the time, and branding Coca Cola, well it never fucking changes. But a band can change from one week to the next – especially if it’s The Fall! So I had to work out ways of combating that and give myself the wherewithal to accommodate the moves. For instance the video for ‘Careless Memories’ was shot on 16mm film and I used actual frames from the film on the inner sleeve of the first album. So I was already thinking about connecting what they’d done on video into the packaging and not vice versa.
Because when they started working with Russell Mulcahy, people like him are megalomaniacs, all they want to do is make feature films. And they go in with some treatment, or some crazy story. Like ‘put these five blokes on the yacht and get someone with weird make up’, that’s all from Russell Mulcahy’s mind. So what I had to do was work out how to make it look coordinated. So I would do the legwork and then use the material from the videos in the packaging. There was only one time where it went the other way. On ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’ the sleeve has this blue and yellow cube and Russell Mulcahy brought the blue and yellow cube into the video in post-production and actually used it, that’s the first time where they actively made a connection, because the sleeve was done before the video. The sleeve always comes before the video unless it’s the second or third single from the album. For ‘Save a Prayer’ I was able to go to the video and take stills from it.
It’s amazing how well coordinated it all looks.
I know – somehow I’ve managed to make it look effortless! (laughs) I learned my trade with Buzzcocks, I did ‘Orgasm Addict’, sat back and went ‘yeah that’s working- great job’ and then I looked across the street and they’d put up posters, and they’d turned the image upside down and they’d done some typography trying to match mine, which I hated, because it wasn’t me and it was done badly. So I complained to Richard Boon (Buzzcocks’ manager) saying ‘we can’t allow this to happen, next time we’ve got to do it ourselves’. So that was how I cut my teeth in learning how the music industry worked, the opportunities we had for extending the graphic idea. I always took the view that if it says ‘Buzzcocks’ on it, we do it. And the same is true, if it says ‘Duran Duran’ on it, we do it, but with Duran it was much bigger because there were more territories, there were more formats, they had much greater success, so there was bigger merchandising opportunities. But I took all the lessons I learned from Buzzcocks and totally exploited them with Duran Duran. There’s lots of connections from punk straight into Duran, in the same way that there’s loads of connections from punk back to the counterculture and the hippies.
By the time of ‘Seven and The Ragged Tiger’ the budgets were colossal, weren’t they? There were rumours they were going to hire Sydney Harbour Bridge for the photoshoot!
No, the photograph, I think it was Rebecca Bailey, they took it on the steps at Sydney Art Gallery – I think they had to borrow a tiger from the zoo though.
So there wasn’t one just lying around?
It’s like all these things, people hear half a myth and then they want to embellish it, they want to believe it. The budgets weren’t that big, even going to Sri Lanka to film three videos was cheaper than shooting one video in the UK. They did it with the Sri Lankan tourist board, so they spent less money there, but it was invaluable to their image. So when people said ‘Wow, God it’s so expensive’, they just kept their mouths shut.
if you look at the video for ‘New Moon on Monday’ it’s completely tied in with the sleeve, there’s an aesthetic there that matches. The logo from the sleeve is on the flyers and the flags they’re carrying, so that has to be more than just you playing catch up.
Yes, by that time I was better at knowing what was going on, and we were spending more time talking about stuff, they were listening to me and I was actually working with them. For the first album I was really working on my own, for the second album they got Nagel in and then they saw that it was all fitting together and I was doing a good job so for the third album it was ‘let’s work on this together’ and then they loved it. Keith Breeden painted that map on Seven and the Ragged Tiger.
Another Ambrose lad!
Malcolm, Peter Saville and Keith Breeden were contemporaries at St Ambrose College, a Catholic all boys school in Altrincham. Keith is also a highly successful designer who has worked with ABC, Pink Floyd and Scritti Politti amongst many others. He’s also a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. St Ambrose clearly had some art department. Amazingly, neither Malcolm nor Keith get a mention on St Ambrose’s website, though fellow old boy Lonnie Donegan does.
Yeah, we shared a studio, he was more my friend at school than Pete was, because Pete never went to school! And actually he was in the year above, but Keith was in my class.
It’s incredible that the three of you were all there at the same time.
It is amazing, but it’s also that we were able to give one another opportunities and feed off one another. if you take the three of us together, Peter’s strengths were ideas and vision, my strength was practicality and a little bit of anarchy, and Keith’s strength was just sheer fucking ability. He could paint like no fucker else. An incredible draughtsman. I was in awe of his stuff, and I’m sort of a copycat so I took lots of influence from Keith and I certainly took lots of influence from Peter. We’d have lengthy conversations about stuff, and we’d come up with something similar but because Peter’s came out later people who didn’t really know the relationship said ‘Peter’s always copying you’. But actually I was copying things that he and I had discussed, and I just got to the paper before he did.
That’s not copying, though, that’s almost collaborating.
It’s collaborative thinking, but observers like to see silos. In college I was obviously a hardworking, industrious and anarchic person because they could see all the shit and the paint and the mess. Whereas they didn’t see Peter, Peter worked at home, and he just turned up with something amazing. He didn’t show them anything, he would only show perfection.
You designed Arena for Duran Duran on your own, that was a whole multi-media package in itself.
That was massive – we even did a board game for that with MB games. We’ll have a conversation about the board game another time – that’s a whole story in itself!