“Punk posters sold the reality, not some idealised dream”: Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die charts the graphics of punk
Andrew Krivine, collector of punk graphics and author of a new book on the subject, selects six pivotal images in the era’s history and explains their impact.
- Jenny Brewer
- 2 April 2020
- Reading Time
- 7 minute read
Andrew Krivine started collecting punk memorabilia in 1977 and has since built one of the world’s largest collections of graphic design from the punk and post-punk movements. These have been curated and packed into a new tome from Pavilion Books with cover artwork by two of the era’s most influential designers, Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett. Inside, there are essays putting the artworks into context by other huge names in the industry such as Steven Heller, Russ Bestley, Rick Poynor, Michael Wilde and Sebastian Conran. Spanning all the major musicians of the genre, from The Clash, Buzzcocks and The Ramones, to Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Devo, Blondie and Joy Division, it’s comprehensive and dutifully designed compendium in homage of the era. To mark its release today (2 April 2020), Krivine has hand-picked six images from the book for It’s Nice That, and explains their impact on the visual universe of punk below.
The Clash Cost of Living EP poster
This poster is a rare example of the excellent designs by Alex McDowell who founded the design agency Rocking Russian. Too Fast To Live, To Young To Die: Punk & Post-Punk Graphics includes a number of examples of his work including a 2nd Cost of Living EP poster issued by CBS Records and posters for the Rich Kids, the power pop group Bram Tchaikovsky, the Au Pairs and the Scars. Of note, I believe it is one of just two examples of Clash record graphics which reflects Pop Art influences. The second example is the front label of the Clash’s 45 White Man In Hammersmith Palais, released in 1978. The White Man label is based on Roy Lichtenstein’s Pistol painting, which appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1968.
For me, the two Clash Cost of Living EP posters really stand out. From the Sandinista LP onwards, the Clash embraced martial and agit-prop graphical elements in their promotional materials and clothing, which are indelibly associated with the group’s image. Here is a bit of train-spotting on my part: I believe the logo Alex created for the Cost of Living EP was lifted from a popular British soap powder of the time, Daz – flogging the Clash’s music as laundry detergent. Applied Pop Art!
What I find most interesting is that Alex masterfully created a geographical rendering of the inflation fuelled economic crisis which had crippled the British economy in the late 70s. Both America and England were grappling with runaway inflation and devastating unemployment – the ideal “kindling” to ignite the Punk Rock Explosion. I consider his superimposed stacks of coins on several major British cities to be a brilliant touch.
Lastly, I chose this poster because the record includes what I consider to be THE greatest cover song of all time; Sonny Curtis’ I Fought The Law. Has any other cover song come remotely close to this sublime rendition?
Damned /Dead Boys tour poster
In the fall of 1977 one of the great punk double bills toured the UK, noteworthy for being an early Anglo-American punk venture. The Damned were touring in support of their 2nd LP on Stiff Records (Music for Pleasure) and the Dead Boys had just released their debut LP, appropriately entitled Young Loud & Snotty.
I chose this poster mainly because of the shattered mirror effect used by the designer – with shards of image bleeding into the poster border – which I believe reference the poster designs by Saul Bass for Alfred Hitchcock’s films during the 1950s.
I also savour the use of Courier lettering, which may have been a conscious rejection of the ubiquitous ransom style lettering associated with punk. As you can see, the poster is screen printed and has layers of neon green and yellow on top of a black ink base. This is one of several examples of tour blank posters which can be found in the book. Prior to the start of a tour, local promoters were sent a roll of posters which included a blank space where they could then affix the date and venue in the lower right corner.
New York Dolls flyer (1975)
This flyer is a critical artefact in the genealogy of punk rock, promoting a series of performances in NYC during February – March 1975 at the dinner theatre/cabaret space, The Little Hippodrome in Manhattan. With supporting acts Television and Pure Hell (the first African-American punk band) as well as Wayne County as DJ, this brief residency marked a pivotal moment, the end of the proto-punk era and the emergence of punk.
So much for my brief clinical analysis of this flyer. When I first showed this flyer to my friend Peter Groff (Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University – no slouch!) here was his response:
“Wow, talk about a pivotal night! That's arguably the origin of the NYC and London punk scenes in a nutshell. I vaguely remembered that Television opened up for the NY Dolls in their final 'red patent leather' days (and that McLaren tried unsuccessfully to enlist Richard Hell in his next project and ultimately ripped off some fashion ideas from him), but I didn't know about Pure Hell opening too. There's a band that has become a bit of an obsession with punk historians these days (in part because of the dearth of black punk bands, but also because they were just really good and have remained almost entirely off the radar for decades!).”
OMD, Dazzle Ships
I selected this poster because it is a superb example of Peter’s design work for OMD. He is closely associated with Joy Division and New Order, but Peter also did several wonderful designs for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and several other bands. This Dazzle Ships LP poster is, in my opinion, the finest of his OMD designs. The main element in this poster is a stylised image of a Morse code apparatus, invented in the 1850s. This image was also used for the OMD single Telegraph.
This poster was also chosen because it includes a range of ever-so-subtle colour transitions, which may only be apparent when viewing the poster up close, in person. It is such a high-quality poster, an example which illustrates the degree to which major record labels were prepared to lavish resources on promising groups. As we all know, record labels are notorious for screwing bands financially, but in the 1970s and 80s they did not stint on promotional materials.
As an aside, I believe that (with a few exceptions), the 1980s witnessed the decline in music poster graphic art. The ‘culprit’ was without question MTV. Videos broadcast 24/7 displaced the poster as the principal promotional medium for the music industry. Creative destruction, or just plain destruction?
Ramones' Leave Home poster (Phonogram/Sire Records, 1977)
In contrast to the US poster which is simply a rendition of the record sleeve, the UK record distributor Phonogram commissioned an entirely new design. The elements of this poster are quite perfect – an iconic image of Johnny Ramone on stage, rendered in saturated, neon green and orange colours. The colour combination creates a visually pulsating effect, straddling psychedelia. Johnny brandishes his Mosrite guitar as a Sonic Weapon. For me, this poster evokes newsreel footage imagery seen in the classic 70s ITV series World At War, of a Wehrmacht soldier marching across the Ukrainian Steppes circa 1942, complete with assault rifle slung across his shoulder!
When I look at this poster, I can hear the Ramones tearing into the song Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment. The music literally emanates from the poster! One of the things I fervently believe is that, in contrast to posters promoting cars, liquor, travel and cinema during the pre-war years in both Europe and America, most punk posters sold the reality, not some idealised dream. Great punk posters succeed in capturing the music graphically, and this poster is a flawless example.
The Skids Days in Europa
This poster is a sophisticated example of what I would call “graphic design provocation.” In post-war Britain, two revered cultural reference points were (naturally) Queen Elizabeth and the Septred Isles’ magnificent stand against Hitler in the summer of 1940. Jamie Reid skewered the Queen in his iconic God Save the Queen 45 poster, and in this poster, the Skids are slyly glorifying German dominance of the Common Market – a Europa where Great Britain was, at best, a second-tier member. By the late 70s, Germany was the acknowledged economic powerhouse of the EU.
Promoting the initial release of Days in Europa in late 1979, the poster features a pair of idealised Teutonic athletes – clearly referencing the poster art created by Ludwig Hohlwein for the Berlin Olympics in 1936, accented with German Gothic lettering for the band and LP title.
When the record came out, the Nazi overtones of the cover were highly offensive to Britons of the Greatest Generation, and Virgin hastily withdrew the design and re-issued the LP in early 1980 with new art.
Just as the Civil War is living history in the minds of many Southerners in the United States, older Britons today still cling to WW2, and when this poster came out 40 years ago there was still considerable antipathy towards the Germans – as so perfectly captured in the classic Fawlty Towers “whatever you do, don’t mention the war” episode.
Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett: cover artwork for Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die by Andrew Krivine