Art School, Brighton. Student. Main-lining music without frontiers. Captain Beefheart, Joni Mitchell, Velvet Underground, Dylan, Roxy Music, Bowie, Frank Zappa, Toots. But finding gold in the crevices. Peter Tosh, Brian Eno, Winston Rodney, The J.B.s, Lee Perry, Fela Kuti. I loved the line, “The matchless privacy of the obscure.” Now I can’t remember if it was Peake or Joyce.
Nigh-time DJ for Soul Society and Friday Night Club in The Basement. Playing Funk not Disco and clearing the dancefloor with a compulsive obsession with Dub Reggae that I used to buy in a record shop in Brixton Market that was the size of a phone booth. Putting Stevie Wonder on to get them back dancing. I hated Glam Rock. They were all a bunch of over-weight Kwik-Fit fitters in glitter. But Bowie and Eno, they were the real deal. Exotic explorers.
And there I was one day with performance artist, Charlie Hooker, listening to Eno’s solo album “Here Come the Warm Jets” and I was away. Unusual, pioneering and no big fan base intruding in my private pleasure. “Taking Tiger Mountain“, “Before and After Science“, the playful, determined, occasionally bonkers vocal albums. It seemed most people just sniggered when I went on about it. And, clutching the purist badge of the completist, I took to the early Ambient Work.
Blissful, straining, serene, epic emotional landscape . . .
Anyway, back on earth I am to be found later working for a living at Pan Books. The logo (called a ‘colophon’, in Publishing) was a hairy-legged fellow with a flute. To me it was Pan as in Panorama. Breadth, Scope. Jackie Collins’ “Hollywood Wives” in the morning and Samuel Beckett in the afternoon. The Becketts, and many other design projects were collaborations with my 80s soul-mate Russell Mills. More of that another time. But the initial bonding with Russell was music (and Guinness). He was the first person since Charlie Hooker that ‘got it’ with the Brian Eno thing.
Excuse the fan bit here but Eno’s music was ubiquitous for me. “On Land” in particular seemed to just be around, like breathing. It influenced me in haunting ways. When I could escape meetings and the cacophony of studio days, I would slip into my office and listen on the Walkman as I worked. Shifting between Eno, John Hassell, Harold Budd, mixed in with Ennio Morricone, I worked on my personal passion, and challenge, on the Pan Catalogue – Picador.
I struggle to relate this without sounding a bit of a tosser. If you think that, tough. This my story and my truth, so blame the writing not the wiring. So there.
A new writer to Picador. Graham Swift. Publisher, Sonny Mehta and editor, Tim Binding had impressed on me how highly they rated his new novel “Waterland“. You become immune to pressure. It doesn’t produce results with Literary Fiction in the same way as it does for Mass-Market Properties. Great writers have a unique voice. I had to ‘feel it’, become attuned to it. There was an elusive atmosphere to this novel I was struggling to identify. Frequently attempting, with Picador cover designs, to avoid the graphic mini-poster of the mainstream. Seeking the sense of expectation as the house-lights go down and the curtain rises . . .
With “Waterland” I found the muse in music. In an early morning black-bean soup of a fog, driving at a snails-pace, “On Land” loud and all-pervasive on the stereo, all the windows open in the BMW320 with my future wife, Sandy and Russell & Annie Mills, off for a weekend in Norfolk. This atmospheric moment was the inspiration I needed and I commissioned photographer, Charlie Waite. Murphy’s Law stepped in and Charlie had the misfortune of beautiful weather. We had to grossly over-enlarge a detail for one shot to get the effect we needed. Charlie is one gracious gent and he went along with it. The result was a piece of work that pleased the author and sold very successfully. That year, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Graham Swift referred to me a the ‘genius who produced his cover’. And I nearly died with pride. Good times.
Later, I was able to feature Brian Eno’s installation work on the Picador catalogue above, and I went on to design the original Opal Records branding, for Brian, which Russell Mills developed beautifully. Graham Swift’s writing continues to be true ‘genius’.
If you design book covers don’t look at other book covers for inspiration. Look outside.