Any fan of the birth of punk in the UK and America (and its aftermath), should check out the show of posters and fliers at the Steven Kasher Gallery titled Rude and Reckless: Punk/Post-Punk Graphics, 1976-82. Divided into two sections — the promotional material created by the music labels and the gig fliers cranked out the venues (by hand, with a xerox machine from the looks of them) — it’s a fascinating retrospective of the eye-popping graphic design that was created for (and sometimes by) these ground-breaking bands. The historic influences are abundant and cleverly re-invented: Russian Constructivism for Kraftwerk‘s ‘The Man Machine;’ Chinese propaganda for The Clash‘s ‘Sandinista;’ the surrealist collages of Max Ernst for Buzzcocks‘ ‘Orgasm Addict;’ the decadence of the Weimar Republic for Lou Reed‘s ‘Rock N Roll Animal;’ Mid-20th Century Atomic Age for Devo; and even 19th Century French Still-life painting for New Order‘s ‘Power, Corruption and Lies.’ As a fan of the music as well as the graphics, and as someone who came of age as both were developing, I selected six iconic pieces that are as noteworthy for their appearance as for the sounds they represented.
SEX PISTOLS · GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
The official start of the face of British punk, and that face was none other than Elizabeth II’s. Jamie Reid’s infamous re-purposing of a Cecil Beaton photo of HRH hinged on using ransom-note typography to obscure her eyes and mouth, set against a background of a distressed Union Jack. This was as much a visual violation as the music was an aural one, and remains an icon of contemporary British unrest.
JOY DIVISION · CLOSER
Despite its classic beauty, this design became notorious before the album even came out. Because of its depiction of funereal statuary, it was seen to be a ghoulish exploitation of the suicide of the band’s lead singer, Ian Curtis, two months previous to the release date. But evidence has since surfaced that this early hallmark in the career of designer Peter Saville was approved by Curtis and the rest of the band before tragedy struck. The conceptual approach itself is all about context: if this was for Verdi’s ‘Requiem’, it would be merely beautiful. But for a punk band it takes on a whole new meaning, raising the question of reconciling seemingly juxtaposed form to content.
PATTI SMITH · ARISTA RECORDS PROMO
Just as notable for the young aspiring photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, as for the subject. As chronicled in her National Book-award-winning Just Kids, Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s rags-to-richer-rags story is an exhilarating fable of counter-culture success marked by ground-breaking music and pictures; though ultimately marred by Mappelthorpe’s untimely death from AIDS. But this strikingly defiant and dignified image is important to the punk era as a new idea of women’s empowerment (no make up, grooming or pretense of slick presentation). And I love that her shirt has a monogram on it (!!) — a prime example of what Lisa Birnbach termed “The Punk-Prep Connection.”
XTC · DRUMS AND WIRES
Introducing a long-overdue dose of Abstract Expressionist painting into alternative music graphics, this design stands out for its sheer exuberance of form. XTC expertly sold themselves as a thinking man’s new wave band, and and this shows one of the many ways they earned their reputation.
ELVIS COSTELLO · MY AIM IS TRUE
The birth of the “Nerd as Cool.” Is there a more famous pair of knocked knees in the history of rock and roll? Whether by coincidence or intent, Costello’s image unmistakably recalled that of Buddy Holly, only this time with an edge. Barney Bubbles created brilliant designs for this equally-brilliant artist.
PiL · POSTER
And yes, the album was called Album and the single was called “Single.” If any one piece in the show signals the end of the punk and post-punk era, I would say it’s this one. Even if it wasn’t marking the latter arc of Johnny Rotten/Lydon’s career (which started with the Sex Pistols), the meta-ironic “generic” concept and approach is as clean and deadpan as punk was messy and cathartic. But that was okay, it wouldn’t be long until grunge brought it all back and then some.
RUDE AND RECKLESS: Punk/Post-Punk Graphics, 1976-82 closes August 19th.
Chip Kidd is a graphic designer and writer living in New York City and Stonington, Connecticut. His novel, The Cheese Monkeys, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. USA Today called him “the closest thing to a rock star” in graphic design. He is the lead singer/songwriter of Artbreak, a new wave band.