Review by Des Cowley.
Soul Jazz founder Stuart Baker has teamed up with punk historian historian Jon Savage.
Punk 45: the Singles Cover Art of Punk 1976-1980 – Edited by John Savage & Stuart Baker (Soul Jazz Books)
London-based Soul Jazz Records is known primarily for its pioneering anthologies and re-issues, covering everything from jazz, soul, funk, reggae, ska, Latin, electronica, roots and hip-hop. While the label’s roster of releases can look unruly at first glance, the unifying factor behind Soul Jazz’s mission lies in its unerring ability to unearth forgotten classics, along with an impeccable sense of design and cover art that makes you want to dive head-on into genres you might have previously skirted around.
Aside from issuing music, Soul Jazz Records has also released a number of books documenting the cover art of classic and collectible recordings, ranging from Studio One Records and Bossa Nova, through to Free Jazz and New York Noise. For its latest publication, Soul Jazz founder Stuart Baker has teamed up with punk historian historian Jon Savage, author of the classic England’s Dreaming, to explore the cover art of punk singles.
Jon Savage’s introduction describes punk as “a kind of living collage, both in fashion and music”. In many ways, it was the iconography of punk – whether it be dyed or spiky hair, ripped clothing, safety pins or razor blades – that defined it as much as the music. Similarly, the graphic artwork featured on punk single and album covers in the late seventies – the visual equivalent of three chords – helped define how we ‘hear’ this music, and would have a profound impact on the look and style of music over the following decades. Emerging out of fan culture, punk design boasted an anarchic and experimental DIY ethos. As Jon Savage states: “Punk was from the off a self-starter culture, born out of scarcity and honed with a laser-like focus. It was based on amphetamine logic and encoded an extraordinary acceleration that threw off the uncommitted and allowed it to make an extraordinary impact in a very short time”. Aside from making up the rules as they went along, some designers, like Peter Saville – perhaps the most genuinely talented of the bunch – also had the good sense to rip-off the pioneering style of early modernist typographers. Saville’s designs for Factory Records, over three decades on, are without peer.
The 7”single remains the perfect medium to explore the look and design of punk – “seven inches in diameter, housed in a square, usually pictured sleeve: 7” x 7” in 77”. Again, Jon Savage: “Nothing facilitated more easily the insistent impulse to make your statement immediately, before the opportunity disappeared. You’ve only got two songs and a few hundred quid? Fine. Nothing encapsulated better punk’s speed and compression: ‘1977’ lasted only 102 seconds, yet said more than most albums of the day”. Just as you didn’t need musical prowess to play in a punk band, you didn’t need professional training to design a punk record or flyer: “if you wanted to release a record, to write a fanzine, to design a record sleeve, then you could just go ahead and do it. You didn’t need to wait for a publisher or a record company – the means of production were, with a bit of saving and a bit of luck, within your grasp”. Before punk, most singles came in plain paper sleeves; and, by the early eighties, with the rise of dance-floor culture, the 12” single was on the rise. The brief timeframe represented in Punk 45 celebrates the heyday of the 7” single.
Punk 45 features artwork from America, Britain, France, Japan, Italy, Sweden, Australia, Spain and elsewhere. While the focus is on the period 1976-80, it also includes earlier cover art for bands that influenced punk, such as MC5 and the Stooges. While the emphasis of the book is visual, the editors have seen fit to include a number of interviews with label founders, including Marc Zermati of Skydog Records, Seymour Stein of Sire Records, Dave Robinson of Stiff Records, and Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. There are also interviews with and essays by musicians like Dave Thomas (Pere Ubu), Richard Hell, Richard Kirk (Caberet Voltaire), and guitar maestro Glenn Branca; and profiles of designers, such as Peter Saville, Jamie Reid, and Malcom Garrett.
Beyond this, the focus is visual, squarely on the design of punk in its formative years. As could be expected, the seminal bands of the period are well represented: the Buzzcocks, the Ramones, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Wire, Ian Drury, Pere Ubu, Magazine, the Saints, Radio Birdman, the Damned, the Jam, Blondie, Gang of Four, Joy Division. But punk was never just about the celebrated and successful. Equally well represented are the reams of lesser known or forgotten bands: the Snivelling Shits, the Nasal Boys, the Lurkers, Venus and the Razorblades, the Weirdos, the Valves, the Urinals, the Nipple Erectors, the Flesh Easters; all of whom provide further testament, should we need it, of the manic underground productivity of the punk scene during these brief few heady years.
For every 7” single illustrated in the book – and there are hundreds of them – full details are given of the songs, the band members, and details of the artwork and designers. While the key albums of the period are familiar to most of us via CD re-issues, it’s fair to say that the majority of these artworks will be new to most readers. Singles, by their nature, are an ephemeral artefact, and Soul Jazz has managed a heroic feat in tracking down and documenting such a vast array of underground music. While punk is by now a ‘historical’ genre, it’s fair to say there is a timeless contemporaneity to much this artwork. To coincide with the book’s release, Soul Jazz – never one to miss a marketing opportunity – has released a CD of rare punk singles from the US: Punk 45: Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself! The American Nation Destroys Its Young – Underground Punk in the United States 1973-80 and a second volume from the UK: Punk 45: There is No Such Thing as Society – Underground Punk in the UK 1977-81.