Hitsville Punk at the Millais Gallery - Southampton - UK - 3 May 2007

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Millais galleryBefore I went to see Russ Bestley's Punk in the Faraway Towns exhibition, I had listened to some punk records but never really given punk much thought. My brothers had listened to The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and some early Cure... and so did I when I reached my teenage years. At that time, punk had come and gone - I was only 6 when The Sex Pistols released God Save the Queen. It was, for me, just another genre and I felt more drawn to new-wave and gothic than punk. I felt more at ease with a tormented Ian Curtis, disturbing Peter Murphy and a woeful Robert Smith than an angry and obnoxious Sid Vicious. So twenty years later coming to this exhibition at Southampton's Millais Gallery and talking to Russ was for me an overdue sanity check on the punk genre.

The exhibition was fun to be part of. I say part of, because when you step into the gallery's foyer you feel you've stepped back in time. Sleek mapping out of 7' record sleeves from the punk era surround you and an iMac awaits you to play your favourite punk tunes, and those more obscure ones. My eyes get drawn to the record sleeves I'm familiar with: The Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen, Siouxsie and the Banshees' Israel, The Clash's White Riot, Killing Joke's Requiem, The Cure's Killing an Arab, Stiff Little Fingers' Nobody's Heroes, Bauhaus' Dark Entries. What a trip down memory lane! The sleeves of the first records I ever listened to carefully mapped out on the walls are reaching out to me. Excerpts of my life flash before me. What was I doing in the early eighties? Well nothing much apart from going to school and getting bored at home to be perfectly honest, but in the early nineties I was at University learning about England and the English, about Thatcher's policies, the miners' strike, the Falklands war, watching Stephen Frears and Ken Loach's movies and listening to the aforementioned records. And that felt very strange.

The gallery organised a talk with Russ Bestley as guest speaker. The event was very well attended. The crowd was, unsurprisingly, eclectic: From people in formal suits to mature punk rockers with the full leather gear and teenagers. One youth tried to define punk but admitted not wanting to be too specific for fear of getting offensive. That was a shame. If you can't get offensive when talking about punk when can you?! The talk was informative and at the end of the evening, TV Smith from The Adverts treated us to a superb acoustic version of Gary Gilmore's Eyes. If the exhibition comes near you, don't miss it. And now, all you wanted to know about punk and punk arts and design...

What criteria did you apply when deciding which record sleeves to include in this exhibition?

Russ: I was interested in 7 inch singles not albums, because it's the definitive punk artefact. Many punk bands made a single or singles and then disappeared. If it can't be said in 3 minutes there's no point in saying it. That idea of DIY punk was what I was interested in as an artefact. Then I'd gone back through my own collection, as I've been collecting records for a long time, I've been a fan of this stuff for a long time, and I thought, ok, I want to categorise this as a study of punk, and that became quite a thorny issue, as to what counts as punk and what doesn't. It's always a difficult one. So there are some unusual ones in there. There are some singles in there which apparently people say: Why are Motorhead, Eddie and the Hot Rod in there? Why are the Count Bishop, the Gorillas those prog rock bands, and Dr Feelgood in there? What I tried to include was everybody listed at some point, particularly in the early years of punk, 76-77, under the punk umbrella. The Gorillas and Count Bishop played at the Mont de Marsan punk festival in France alongside the Damned. So I tried to include that and those from the labels Stiff and Chiswick.

It was a nice surprise for me to see bands, I classified as New Wave, being categorised in the wider punk genre...

Russ: Obviously the Banshees started as a punk band, The Cure started as a punk band, and there are a few others that crossed-over into new-wave or into goth, like Bauhaus. They were bands followed by punk audiences. There are definitely a lot of punks who went to see The Cure and Bauhaus at their early gigs before they moved on. I had to make a decision as to what to include. The first two Cure are there but that's it, and I think the first three Bauhaus. I had to make a cut-off somewhere. So the early established punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Stranglers, they became new wave, I allowed them to continue through the period but some bands were only included once, because they'd moved on and moved out, and become a new genre. Yes, there were some tricky decisions to make.

Here we are in a visual arts gallery exhibiting punk graphic design, but in a way we're also celebrating punk music. Do you think that visual arts gallery should do that more often, i.e. exhibit music?

Russ: I'd like to say yes, but I'm a graphic designer and I teach graphic design and I don't come from a background of art galleries and I wouldn't normally be involved in putting something in an art gallery. It's unusual for me to do that. But I do think there's been a shift towards doing that in recent years. The Barbican has got a punk related exhibition this summer, I'm talking to the BFI in London because they are having a punk season in June, so it may be going there next to the South Bank in London. There's a lot of interest. I was talking to the gallery here about this being non-exclusive, about bringing in people who wouldn't normally go to an art gallery to come and look at work because it's nostalgic or interesting or it's something that is linked to them in terms of popular culture that isn't necessarily about art. So there are quite a lot of people who have shown an interest in the exhibition who would not normally come here, and that was a key thing for me and the gallery.

Imagery forms an integral part of the punk movement, but how much, in your opinion, is genuine artistic flair and how much of it is jumping on the bandwagon?

Russ: That's another difficult question. That's good! I think there was some genuine innovation, certainly some of the smaller DIY band production was genuinely innovative, unusual and different, and the major labels managed to tap onto that. The picture sleeve was something that didn't really exist for 7' inch singles. They had been used for EPs in the 1960's in the UK but they didn't really exist through the early 1970's. So the picture sleeve in itself was an object that is very much associated with the birth of punk. Chiswick records started in 1975 and started using picture sleeves to emulate Skydog which was a French label. They were importing and selling a lot of Skydog records because they were in picture sleeve and people wanted picture sleeves. So they started putting picture sleeves on their records. There was some innovation and experimentation in DIY, but the major labels could sit back and say ...˜Oh there's something there'. This label is selling a lot of records, they put them in coloured vinyls, they put them in picture sleeves, they put them in cardboard box with a rubber stamp on it, so they thought well, could we do that and use it as marketing? Personally I happen to be drawn to the more impossibly commercial stuff, I really like the stuff that's so gritty, so obtuse and underground that it couldn't become commercial.

Examples?

Russ: Certainly from the early period, 78/79, some of the DIY records, people like Headache, The Pigs, Trash, Suburban Studs, although they were distributed by a major label. The panel with the black and white artwork... those ones which were quite low key, underground, sometimes they only made 200 copies of a record. They were quite naive, raw, and they would never cross over to a main stream audience. And that's probably where punk should be, where it belongs.

What is punk's contribution to graphic arts in general?

Russ: I've been doing a PhD about this for 5 years and that was my starting questions. I think there's a cliche that there are a number of prominent graphic designers who were born from the punk movement. Malcolm Garrett became successful during punk, Neville Brody just after, Peter Saville who's the most famous contemporary British graphic designer really established himself with Joy Division, New Order and the Factory label. They became prominent and they started design trends through the 1980's and became heavily influential, but having said that I think the real impact is the underground visual languages that are not commercial. And I think the real legacy of punk isn't Malcolm Garrett's work, Jamie Reid's work, or Peter Saville...˜s work, it's the hardcore, low key black and white brutal aesthetics which is worldwide now. I can buy a Japanese, an Australian or a South American record that emulates this. They've taken that and saying we're underground and staying underground. That's the visual language that hasn't impacted on commercial graphic design but it is the visual language of punk and that's the legacy of it.

But it's within the music, staying with the music. Has this gone outside of the music industry?

Russ: The high profile design of the late seventies has filtered into the main stream. You can now see posters for banks that use this street cred, youth style which is drawn from punk. But there's a brutality, especially from the hardcore and anarcho-movement that just couldn't do that. You couldn't see a Nike advert that's dressed up in those colours, that'd be just too hard.

Today, looking at all those sleeves on the wall, which one jumps at you and why?

Russ: The early Sex Pistol's work designed by Jamie Reid is very interesting. He was using the principles of detournement, he was taking an iconic image and subverting it: Cecil Beaton's photograph of the Queen and tearing out her eyes and putting swastika and safety pins on it. Quite an abrasive thing to do! There was a group of teenagers from Torquay in the West Country who made their own record in 1979. They were in a band called Das Schnitz and they had made a single and only made 200 copies but couldn't afford to get sleeves made, so they went to their local market stalls and they bought a lot of record sleeves from contemporary charts hits. They took these records back home, took a marker pen and crossed out the titles and put their own titles on them. To me, it's the perfect graphic design for punk movement, which is completely naïve. They're not trained arts students, they don't know anything about Jamie Reid's sophisticated approach to detournement. They took sleeves from The Darts, various disco bands, anything they could find that were charts hits, scrubbed them out and put their own titles. To me that's an eptitomy of a punk sleeve.

You've made the association between punk and the politics, you've avoided any political judgement, you've included the far left and the far right. Do you think this might upset some people and actually do you care if it does?

Russ: I don't really care if it upsets people so much. Part of my argument in my PhD is that there's a cliché about punk. My starting point was that I kept reading published histories about punk that said it was contained, it happened for a year and a half in London, it didn't happen anywhere else, it was narrow and it was just the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux or something, and that was it. In my experience, I'm not from London, I grew up in the South East and I moved to Portsmouth and I knew lots of punks around the country going to punk gigs and forming punk bands and making punk records all over the country and they were not being included in these histories. And also the other cliché that punk was anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-politically correct. It wasn't. It was everything. It reflected a wider society. They were left-wing, they were right-wing. There were sexist bands, there were racist bands. There were anti-sexist bands, there were anti-racist bands. It just reflects a wider culture, a wider society. I just wanted to reflect and include that. And say that's an interesting talking point, otherwise it becomes tightly defined and clichéd. It would recognise the fact that there were disparate opinions and voices that were being expressed.

Do you think that this exhibition could help us remember our past?

Russ: It does. In some ways it's an academic study, in some ways it's a visual celebration of a period in time and a movement, and in some ways, it's a nostalgic trip for me and for a lot of other people. They come here, a lot of my friends have come here and have said ...˜this is great, I remember a lot of these records'. I...˜ve also included on the timeline a series of key dates, which are linked to events concerning punk, political and social events. Things like the riots in Brixton, Margaret Thatcher's election, Sid Vicious' death. I'm interested in how they impact on sleeves and graphics politically, but also it's a kind of way-marking of looking back. I can remember where I bought most of those records. I can remember buying them, and now I can say, well that's the week Margaret Thatcher was elected, and I even didn't know that at the time! Well I probably knew that, but it didn't trigger. Now I can look back on this and put it into place and understand how those things all fit together.

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Photograph © Andrew Heather 2007