1986 August: An Interview with Neville Brody, Art Director of The Face
E.M. Farrelly interviews Brody about the sources of his own highly influential brand of new wave graphics
New Spirit, New Wave, New Romanticism-call it what you will, there is a new style in graphics. Neville Brody, art director of The Face, is one of its original exponents and one of the most eminently imitable figures in graphic design today.
Not that style is a word he would willingly apply, regarding it as ‘a superficial thing, just something you use to express ideas. The really important thing is not the style itself, but that you keep moving, keep questioning your own assumptions, breaking your own rules.’ For there are, he says - in typography as in other things - no real rules; what we habitually regard as rules are really just assumptions too often unexamined. And as one who, like the punk movement itself, has gone a long way on breaking with convention, he should know.
Nor is it strictly speaking new, numbering amongst its sources many of the early modern movements such as Dadaism, Constructivism, Futurism, Expressionism and Neo-Primitivism as well as the American ’50s, the Situationists, and punk itself.
Brody studied initially at Hornsey College of Art (now Middlesex Poly), renowned for its part in the political and artistic ferment of the late ’60s, but by the mid-’70s a much quieter place. After a year’s foundation course at Hornsey he went to the London College of Printing, choosing design over fine art because he ‘disagreed with the gallery world,’ feeling that it was no more than a ‘financial larking-place’ with little real efficacy outside itself. He wanted to reach people and felt, moreover, ‘morally against the manipulativeness of advertising, so I went into design partly to understand how the form worked, and to use it against itself. I wanted to manipulate people too, but into querying, into questioning what they were being told…’
Brody felt the atmosphere at the college to be repressive and stultifying. In his first couple of years there he started to feel the influence of punk - itself then emerging from a sort of fusion between the art colleges and the street (the Clash, Adam Ant and others grew out of Hornsey, and the Sex Pistols were all ‘more or less’ at art colleges too). The movement was by no means entirely anti-commercial (‘McLaren’ says Brody ‘was always, ALWAYS aware of the possibility of commercial exploitation of any idea. I think this is one of the things people found so shocking about the punk movement; it blatantly embraced commercialism, and played the marketing games very openly’) but it was, nevertheless, anti-establishment and, more importantly, anti-TASTE.
It broke the rules. If you have no taste, you can do anything and to Brody it seemed to show that anything was possible: ‘That was the great liberation, that you didn’t have to accept things the way they were just because they were written down.’
To his tutors, however, he must have seemed perverse. If there was anything they liked about his work, he would change it. In his second year he was nearly expelled for putting the Queen’s head sideways on a stamp. Now, of course, they’re all teaching it - the style, not the ability to question - but then they wanted to throw him out; ‘no commercial potential’ was what they said. Naturally he was inspired to prove them wrong, to show that it could be done, and to help those others with the same ideals not to lose faith.
There were, however, other objectives as well. After graduating, Brody began work as a designer of record covers, freelancing for independent labels such as AI McDowell’s Rocking Russian Designs (set up by McLaren and the Rich Kids, an offshoot from the Sex Pistols), Stiff Records, already ‘over-commercialised’ for his taste, and Fetish. He was attracted by the idea of ‘using someone’s living room as a gallery’, and found that in this way he could reach some ‘10-15,000 intelligent people, outside the self-elected gallery audience.’
It was by chance that, five years ago (and some 15 months after the inception of The Face), he ‘fell into’ magazine design, attracted by the ‘idea of taking the signs and symbols of advertising, the corporate logo, and using them out of context’ and by the possibility of minimalist experiment, of ‘stripping right down to basics, and then rebuilding; what does a magazine really need?’ He was interested in the idea that people don’t actually read words any more so much as recognise them, and would experiment with running words and headlines as far as possible off the page, using them rather as symbols, or streetsigns, to direct the reader around what he calls the ‘townplanning’ of the magazine.
It wasn’t just rule-breaking for its own sake. Brody’s work as he happily admits, bears witness to the many other ideas and sources of imagery that have influenced him-all feeding into this central concern; agitating, questioning, stripping-back towards what is really necessary, really ‘real’ underneath it all.
The ruthless dynamism of Futurist and Constructivist imagery, for example - in particular the work of Alexander Rodchenko - the restless energy of Schwitters’ Merz bildern, and the powerful if perplexing attempts of the Dadaists to ‘redefine a role for art which had become inverted and self-seeking’: all of these, says Brody, had ‘a massive influence on me at college, and what I drew from it was threefold: the idea of challenge, of breaking-down established orders, the idea of the importance of movement, dynamism, change, and the idea - it was almost a slogan for me then - of “putting man back into the picture” , which the technological obsessions of the ’70s had completely lost.’
This led to an interest in Primitivism, in ‘the very basic human marks’ and in ‘reworking the found image’ - also a preoccupation of punk. He was fascinated by what he calls ‘the randomness factor’, the idea of using accident and chance as design tools. ‘Although’, he says, ‘you can’t design accidents to happen, I was thrilled by the element of chance, by what happens when you put two images together and get a third which is quite different, completely unpredictable - and in that sense, undesigned.’
He also numbers amongst his influences William Burroughs’ theory of cut-up, as elaborated in The Third Mind, and designer Barney Bubbles, whose work combines such disparate threads as late Kandinsky and ’50s American; he was, says Brody, an ‘enormous influence on me’. And then came punk - tough, grimy, streetwise - and what might be loosely called punk graphics, in particular the Situationists, who would deface and modify official posters and hoardings in the hope of mitigating the absolute supremacy of the written word. And, in the late ’70s, the fanzine phenomenon * - a manifestation of underground youth culture which bloomed briefly, setting, the precedent for independent success before being absorbed into the System, and on which many of today’s major music writers cut their teeth.
There was much experiment, with these ideas and others. Punk was at its height, providing a strand of ideological and aesthetic influence that was surprisingly compatible with other fibres of mixed origin, and easily woven into the changing fabric of Brody style. There was no bowing to external expectation, and little heed taken of received wisdom as to ‘what sells.’ The Face is a magazine run more or less democratically, and ‘for ourselves above all’ - they’re loathe, they say, even to do readership surveys, lest they should be influenced by market pressure, (herein, no doubt, lies the secret of success).
During a time of generally increasing commercialism, Brody was given a relatively free hand to do what he liked, and what he liked was to experiment, to ‘play’. ‘Seventies punk’ he says ‘was about absolute statement, not about playfulness. We’re not less serious, but we’ve accepted our ephemerality. A magazine design, after all, is around for a month, then it’s gone.’
Amazingly, perhaps, it worked. The magazine has met with - or rather generated - resounding success. With a circulation now of some 95,000 spread over 20-odd countries it is widely read, and widely imitated in art schools and advertising circles alike. This of course is one of the dangers and, for a magazine which wants to encourage people to think for themselves, one of the ironies. No magazine, no voice, however rebellious, can stay on the fringes forever and be heard. Fringe events are too easily dismissed, dealt with.
To kick effectively you must kick from the inside; in order to improvise you must first know the rules you intend to break. But it has become almost traditional for capitalism to simply swallow its enemies. One by one the subversive voices from the street - the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, Private Eye - are absorbed and rendered harmless: the rebellions of the ’60s forming the complacent commercialism of the ’70s, as indeed the subversion of the ’70s (fanzines, for example) was bought out by the System to become the music mafia of the ’80s.
And now, says Brody, the media machine, ever avid for new blood, has even evolved mechanisms for anticipating the rebellions before they happen - in utero, so to speak - so as to be ready and waiting with cameras at the birth. Theoretically, of course, such efforts should be self-defeating, pre-empting the very uprisings on which they feed. But then theoretically, as Brody points out, ‘there should be more voices out there by now, rebelling against us, challenging us. Where are they?’
Perhaps they are there, fighting to be heard. But the real challenge, for the likes of Brody and The Face, is how they meet the future. As Brody admits even The Face is not the angry young thing it was, and whether, confronted by the dual temptations of commercialism and complacency, even they can continue kicking, questioning, saying what they think must remain to be seen.
An ordinary young man sat on a bus. His Burton suit was garlanded with safety pins. Laboriously Inserted row upon row, they covered his jacket and trousers. Chains of safety pins hung across his waistcoat. Observed more closely, his hair appeared to be growing in clumps. He had put Vaseline in it.
This was in 1976, late in the unusually hot summer, but his appearance would be no less exceptional today. Bizarre and disturbing, a Man Ray exhibit that had got up and walked from the museum.
He was the first manifestation of anything punk that I had seen - outside, that is, of school playgrounds, fairgrounds and amusement parks, and dancehall queues. These were places consecrated to fun and pleasure, deemed unproductive, even toxic diversions. They were full of so-called anti-social elements. They had a strong mood of submerged violence and a gaudy atmosphere in which fantastic roles were played by boys with earrings and girls with no shame.
Within about nine months, Her Majesty ‘s 1977 Jubilee celebrations would provide an ideal backdrop for a similar sort of urchin carnival. The ringleaders were art school drop-outs with the ambition and, at last, the chance to play their dreamed-of pranks on a big scale. They put the Queen’s head, xeroxed from a pound note, on the fronts of buses. Through her nose they inserted a safety-pin. From jukeboxes throughout the country (because radios wouldn’t play it) they proclaimed her a moron.
What had she done to deserve this? It would be a few years yet before the facade of Great Britain really began to crumble, before the number of long-term unemployed under-25s reached 1.5 million and riots broke out. Yet some people foresaw this and embraced it.
‘I wanna riot / a riot of my own,’ they chanted in unison with The Clash. Their legs were bound at the knees by Vivienne Westwood’s ‘bondage’ strides and their leather jackets, derived from the archetypal American ‘punk’ look, were emblazoned with Jamie Reid’s blackmail-lettered slogans: No Future … Destroy!
Audiences ‘pogoed’ up and down, gleefully opening beer cans in one another’s faces. They ‘gobbed’ on the performers who, in turn, snarled and spat on society, articulating the jubilant disaffection of the new youth tribe, at war with its environment, at war with other tribes, at war with itself.
It was a war - as any modern campaign has to be - of image and gesture, stances and attitudes that rarely met physically, despite their threat. Like any modern confrontation, it was played out largely in the media.
The spiky, upswept hairstyles now provide caricature silhouettes against a tower block or palace railing, postcards of Britain. At the time, this look seemed technically impossible to say the least, and very repulsive - though of course, like the wearing of black plastic dustbin liners, heavy mascara, Nazi insignia and gay porno T-shirts, it was all a matter of finding beauty in decay and making protest out of self-mutilation.
It was very French Romantic, with a bit of French post-Marxist social critique thrown in. To the teenager, it seemed the height of iconoclasm to go around with pupils frozen by amphetamine and cheeks hollow from hardening alienation, hair spiked from fingers plugged into a socket of alternate urban current.
Always it came back to environment. There were few punks in hot countries. In Los Angeles, for example, it took years to transplant the lifestyle credibly onto the sunny, green suburban vista. In bus shelters and concrete walkways, however, in the rain and cold, it thrived. And in places like the infamous ‘Barrier Block’ in South London, it grew into a kind of semi-permanent encampment, with timber barricades for doors and windows and crates for furniture. Like the South Bronx in New York, these punk squats became synonymous with the urban future. Punks and their habitats were the model citizens and cities of the coming post-nuclear age, according to films like Jubilee and Mad Max.
It wasn’t what entrepreneurs like Malcolm McLaren and Bernard Rhodes, or propagandists like Caroline Coon and Tony Parsons, had in mind. They were fired by a cause: tear down the old to make way for the new. They took the loudest, dumbest, least palatable rock music and used it to pile-drive rock culture to rubble. They created two camps and fanned a conflict which caught on in the national media via the antics of those four lovable carrot-tops, the Sex Pistols.
There were those who thought the past valid and the present worth building on - and those who had no past, thought the present boring and the future unclear but probably nuclear. In other words, a generation gap: the optimism of the ’60s had swung to an equally naïve pessimism. Yet this pessimism wasn’t what the instigators wanted either…
When, in 1974, a faux New York street-tough (from a good Southern family) changed his name to Richard Hell, tore his T-shirt, spiked his hair and coined the phrase ‘Blank Generation’ he was really saying something, which it has taken literature 10 years to catch up on in the nihilism of Less Than Zero, and he was saying it outside the common terms of reference.
Who knows what constitutes a good or bad torn T-shirt? This was inspiration to many. At least it wasn’t boring. It encouraged Chelsea art students to fleck their clothes with paint like a Jackson Pollock canvas. Others wore their bras in the street or their ties like a noose and everybody changed their name: Rotten, Idol, Vicious. Taking a cue from the direct social statements of reggae music, a few began to write songs about tower block life and tangled traffic systems, speaking to people for the first time about their own lives, showing them it was possible to reshape their existence from the materials at hand essentially, garbage and ingenuity.
The idea was to place the means of entertainment what we now call lifestyle - back in the hands of the consumer. It came equally from Andy Warhol, Guy Debord and Iggy and the Stooges. For a while it was possible to say: this is valid because I feel it. And to say: capitalism enslaves with spectacle, so it can be fought with spectacle, by placing an image of starvation between the breasts of a page-three girl, or a safety-pin through the nose of the Queen.
That was punk. Everything that came after: the molecular graphic style of Barney Bubbles, the hits, misses, rip-offs, recriminations, the improved hair gel and pointed shoes, the experimental videos and pop marketing tools, the Elvis Costello albums and underground movies about junkies, the junkies and vampires themselves, the re-examination 10 years later, the historical context, the subsequent careers of most of the principals and many of the fans … All of that is New Wave.