One of the key factors which accelerated Stiff Records past all-comers in 1977 – whether established majors or the new wave of indies launching in its wake – was the quality, wit and invention of its music press advertising.
Cut-out-and-keep Elvis Costello poster constructed from Stiff adverts in Melody Maker, NME and Sounds, July 1977.
As explained in Reasons To Be Cheerful, this was a result of the winning combination of Barney Bubbles’ graphic genius and commercial experience (principally with Conran) and Stiff founders Dave Robinson and, in particular, Jake Riviera‘s pithy and provocative promotional nous.
Stiff Records DPS adverts, New Musical Express (top), Sounds (bottom left) and Melody Maker, all published July 23, 1977.
Jake’s progress in London’s hidebound advertising scene on leaving school in the 60s had been stymied by lack of qualifications. Come the 70s his substantial creative capabilities locked in with Barney’s arsenal of references and willingness to play games to provide series after series of individual ads for each of Britain’s music publications: the five weeklies Disc & Music Echo, Melody Maker, NME, Record Mirror and Sounds and the monthlies Let it Rock and ZigZag.
Stiff Records ad detail. Assembly instructions, July 23, 1977.
A fabulous example is the batch of three cut-out-and-keep double-page spreads announcing the release of Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True in the summer of 1977. Pieced together and clipped, these created a poster of Keith Morris‘s image from the front of the album.
12in sleeve. Back and front cover, My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello, Stiff, 1977.
“Our credo was that people are more intelligent than politicians or big business gives them credit for,” says Jake. “We wanted to really engage with fans and, since there were so many music papers, why not come up with a collectable series? Better than the same old ad for the latest Genesis album; hold me back, you know?”
Jake Riviera with point-of-sale Elvis Costello cut-out figure, outside Stiff offices, 32 Alexander Street, London W2, 1977. Photo: LIFE.
This and the image on the back had been carefully selected after a photo-session in which Barney and Jake were both involved to ensure that Costello’s transformation from country-rocker DP McManus (at the time holding down a day-job as a computer operator in North Acton with cosmetics manufacturer Elizabeth Arden) was complete.
Meanwhile retailers were provided with in-store cut-outs of the back cover shot; I coveted without success the one which occupied pride of place in my local record shop, Manzi’s in Finchley Road, north London.
Full-page adverts for Bongos Over Balham, Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, Mooncrest, 1974. Left: artwork for Let It Rock. Right, artwork for ZigZag.
Barney and Jake had been finessing this approach for a couple of years; Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers benefited from a wide range of stickers, cut-outs and other promotional ephemera, and, when second album Bongos Over Balham was released in 1974, it was “presented” in the music press ads by a variety of items, including a pig’s trotter and a vibrator.
Contact sheet, My Aim Is True photo-session 1977, Keith Morris. (C) Keith Morris Estate.
And the objective of introducing the then-totally unknown Costello as “Buddy Holly on acid” with a sackful of songs driven by guilt and revenge was achieved in the time-honoured fashion of maintaining tight rein over available imagery while word-of-mouth was built.
My Aim Is True colour variations, 1977/78.
Morris’s two cover shots were used repeatedly in posters as well as ads, and Barney adopted a Warholian approach by chopping and changing the eye-popping overlaid colours of the album sleeve over the course of several print-runs.
Elvis Costello posters promoting live appearances (left) and his debut album, 1977.
With the initial pressing containing the “Help Us Hype Elvis” leaflet offering free copies for those who could turn their friends on to the album, it’s likely that there were at least 30 different coloured sleeves.
Full page adverts: (left) NME August 6, 1977, Melody Maker, August 13, 1977.
Of course it’s impossible to calculate what would have happened had Elvis Presley not died on August 16 1977 just as the My Aim Is True campaign got underway; the album’s prospects certainly weren’t hurt by the public attention directed to such elements as the near-sacriligeous phrase “Elvis Is King” Letraset-ed into the cover’s two-tone boxes by Barney.
By the autumn Costello was proving he was not only one of the greatest songwriters of his generation but also a fearsome live prospect, having hooked up with The Attractions and started to perform some of the stunning tracks to appear on follow-up This Year’s Model.
Once again, this was heralded by a campaign based on more spectacular advertising, including a music press series of three ads (NB: we’re advised there were at least six – see note below) featuring various headings including “Drugs”, “Fads” and “Commodities”.
Barney chose not to lay the titles across the gutter (the central margin separating type and images) to increase legibility for the reader holding the paper open. Laid out flat this would be nearly 2ft wide and was often a source of discomfort for those trying to read the “inkies” on cramped public transport.
DPS advert for This Year's Model, NME, March 25, 1978.
These ads are packed with puns and inside jokes: Patti Smith is miscaptioned as Patty Hearst, Chilli Willi as “saccharine”, Troggs’ singer Reg Presley as Elvis Presley, The Attractions as much-maligned budget label K-Tel and the recently arrested Roman Polanski as Charles Manson (the man, of course, responsible for the death of his wife Sharon Tate).
DPS advert for This Year's Model, NME, March 18, 1978.
And Costello was not spared: a photograph of Buddy Holly was placed next to his name. And a banjo lying on the ground lays the ghost of DP MacManus to rest with the caption: “Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass”.
As detailed in REASONS, Barney Bubbles’ 1977 sleeve for punk band Generation X’s debut single Your Generation was a key inspiration for a new wave of young designers applying the principles of the early 20th century art movement Constructivism to their work.
In March 1977 John and fellow manager Stewart Joseph were actively searching for distinctive art direction for the upcoming record deal with Chrysalis (the group’s founder/guitarist Tony James and singer Billy Idol were all the while designing their own t-shirts in a pop and op-art style).
El Lissitzky: The Constructor 1924; Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge 1919
The managers paid a visit to Joseph’s friend, the art historian, exhibition curator and author Michael Collins. “Michael gave us a crash-course in Constructivism,” says John. “He talked about Rodchenko, Malevich and, of course, El Lissitzky, who really nailed us because his work is so geometric. We were particular struck by Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge.”
Cover, The First Kestner Portfolio, 1923; Design for Mayakovsky's For The Voice, 1923.
The artist born Lazor Markovich Lissitzky in 1890 revolutionised graphic design during its formative stages. Critic Max Bill’s famous summation of Lissitzky’s book About 2 Squares – “Typography is a game that leads to communication, and it all began with Lissitzky’s tale of two squares” – had long struck a chord with Barney.
Globetrotter In Time 1923; Flying From Far Away, About 2 Squares 1922.
A couple of days after their encounter with Collins, John called his girlfriend Suzanne Spiro, then workingat Stiff Records, where Barney had taken up residence as art director just two weeks previously.
Stiff in Melody Maker 1976 (note Barney-designed Naughty Rhythms tour poster): Jake Riviera, Suzanne Spiro, Dave Robinson.
“I was telling her about our conversation with Michael and these books I’d bought on the subject,” says John. “Suzanne repeated the name El Lissiztsky out loud. The next thing I heard was Barney’s voice shouting from the back room: ‘What’s going on? Why are you talking about El Lissitzky?'”
As detailed in a letter to his friend Lorry Sartorio, March 1977 marked Barney’s return to the fray of the music business. He struck a deal with his pal, Stiff co-founder Jake Riviera, whereby he lived at 32 Alexander Street in Paddington (which housed the label’s offices) in return for designs.
(c) Lorry Sartorio/Reasons 2009
The letter refers to Riviera looking “like a public school-boy”. Riviera laughs: “That was down to a ‘Man From British Steel’ haircut I had at the time.”
“Barney grabbed the phone out of Suzanne’s hand and demanded to know about my interest in the Constructivists,” recalls John Ingham. “I explained what was going on with Generation X and off we went; we had our art director.”
Within a few days Stewart, John and Barney were sat on the stoop outside Stiff discussing options for Your Generation. “We talked about the music we liked, “says John. ” Barney was a big Who fanatic and he told a story I’ve never heard from anybody else. He was a regular at their ’64 residency at The Marquee and talked about this bit when they went into a noise sequence with feedback sounding like bombs dropping.
“Somewhere in the middle of it Townshend would inevitably hit a member of the audience over the head with his guitar, and we laughed about how people used to fight for that particular spot. I’d heard that story but Barney was the first and only person to reveal that the ‘song’ was called World War II.”
Once they had established common ground, Barney produced an idea for the sleeve: the numerals 45 in direct reference to the rpm of a 7in single. ” We had another session sitting on the stoop on a sunny mid-day and out came the spiral-bound notebook with these precise 2in sq ideas,” says John. “One of them was exactly the front and back cover of Your Generation, down to the last detail.”
Quarter-page advert in NME, September 10, 1977.
For the advert for trade paper Music Week, Barney urged the band and their managers to keep it simple: “He said that it was a waste of time trying to be clever, that we should just say: ‘Buy this record’.”
In the event they settled on “Our record in your record shops on Saturday” placed in the white space left by a trompe l’oeil rip Billy Idol appears to have torn in the photograph by Ray Stevenson. Signifying the amount of time the band had taken to reach their first release – rivals the Pistols, the Clash and The Damned had knocked out at least a couple of singles each by this stage – the ad featured a typical Barney pun: “Worth it’s wait”.
Barney adopted the more blunt approach for the August 1977 music press campaign for Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True, with its exhortation “Buy It.”
Chrysalis half-page advert, Sounds, September 10, 1977.
Barney’s ad also appeared in the NME but Chrysalis replaced it in other music press titles with a spot-colour one generated by their own art department, bowdlerising Barney’s graphic and utilising corny lettering for the band name.
Two of four matching posters for Marquee residency, September 1977.
On the single’s release in September 1977, Generation X played a series of four gigs at The Marquee promoted by monochrome Barney-designed posters. These were based on stills from a performance clip made for a pilot music TV show directed by the veteran Mike Mansfield (who also helmed the clip for the Pistols’ God Save The Queen that summer).
“Barney and I spent a morning in an edit suite running the video,” says John. “Every so often he would freeze the frame and take a photograph. What delighted me about the final design was that he incorporated the lines of static as graphics. When all four were posted together, the lines matched.”
In December 1977 John exited the UK punk scene for the balmier climes of Los Angeles. Stewart remained as manager of Generation X. In a future post we shall explore how Barney and the band hooked up once again.
Neville Brody's Red Wedge logo, 1985.
Interest in Lissitzky and early 20th century Russian design burgeoned, via the likes of Neville Brody. He was at the forefront of 80s designers channeling the movement, notably in The Face and also for his logo for music/political movement Red Wedge ( the name of which resulted from a conversation between Barney and founder Billy Bragg).
Curiously online images of the logo are currently extremely rare; we’ve scanned the one above from our archive.
A Proun, El Lissitzky, 1925; Front cover, Michael, Franz Ferdinand, Domino 2004.
Saks Fifth Avenue campaign, Shephard Fairey, spring 2009.
As Patrick Burgoyne has pointed out, Constructivism is “the ism that just keeps on giving”. However, it’s interesting to speculate on the look of music through graphic design had Barney Bubbles not overheard a phone conversation between a young manager and his girlfriend in a mouldy Paddington basement 32 years ago.