Crate Digger

Letterform Live returned last week with a record spinning evening of typography and vinyl, as always it was a night full of variety... Theo Inglis reports.

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Last Wednesday saw the first Grafik Letterform Live event of 2017, presented in partnership with our good friends at Monotype and the ISTD, and hosted by Protein Studios in Shoreditch. The theme this time was “Vinyl” (records rather than flooring…) and our five speakers for the night each presented a short talk to the sold-out audience, interpreting the theme as they wished, with a loose focus on typography. Freda Sack, our co-host and ISTD board member, began by reflecting that record covers weren't always visually interesting. 78's often had plain or generic sleeves, well-designed covers came much later with LP's. Caroline Roberts, MC for the night and co-editor of Grafik, concluded our intro by reflecting that although 2016 was a bad year in many ways, it was a great year for vinyl, with sales up fifty three percent the previous year — the highest they have been since 1991.

Up first, kicking off the evening, we had Jonny Trunk. Jonny is the owner and founder of Trunk Records, the host of radio programs on both NTS and Resonance FM, an obsessive vinyl collector and the author of many books, including two which have been published by the imprint of FUEL design. Trunk began his presentation by explaining that he hadn’t really read the brief, and was planning on bringing records to show us. In the end, however, he only had the one record and a few slides, but a fantastic story to tell us. The one vinyl he had brought in person was a very good one — Midnight Blue the 1963 album by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, released on Blue Note records with a great typographical sleeve designed by Reid Miles.

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Jonny explained that he studied advertising art at Watford College, then had gone on to become a copywriter at an agency in the West End of London. Which was fantastic for him, not the job itself… but the offices' proximity to the myriad of record shops at the time. An obsession was born, and every lunch hour was spent crate digging. Eventually, Jonny found that he had all the records he wanted, and desired something more challenging to collect. Which brings us on to his chosen letterform, an intriguing i/m ligature-esque logo on a record sleeve, under which is written ‘the label of modern rhythms’. All lower case, white on black, very minimal and clean, but also with no sense of what the record actually is…

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Jonny explained that on records like this one “the front is on the back” so it is hard to tell from the cover exactly what the record is, or will even sound like. The reason being that these records weren’t supposed to be available to the public or found in everyday shops, it is an example of what is known as “library music”. Trunk explained that these records were available direct from the “libraries” that were producing them, for use on television, radio, and film. It was more economic for broadcasters to buy these generic tunes, sounds or “mood music” from the various libraries than to commission their own unique compositions. Luckily for Jonny, at the time when he was working in the West End, many broadcasters were throwing out these records on mass, and they were turning up as oddities in record shops (or in skips), ready for Jonny to avidly collect.

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Fast-forward a few years and Jonny’s library record collection had grown a lot, meanwhile in 2004 he was at the Edinburgh festival performing a hit stage show about the true story of how he came to run the fan clubs of various glamour models. No explanation of this situation was given to us… but he caught the attention of FUEL design, who told him that they would love to make a book out of the material in the show. Unfortunately for Fuel, HarperCollins had beat them to it, but luckily Jonny had another book proposal for them. He turned up at their office on Fournier Street in Spitalfields with ten library records in hand. All of which had interesting and unique covers. FUEL were convinced that there absolutely needed to be a book about library records, and so they made it happen. The result was The Music Library, which turned out to be a surprise hit, selling out its first 5000 copies. It was the first book to bring to public attention the secret world of library music, and the interesting covers that these records were afforded.

Jonny then concluded his talk by showing us some great examples of library music cover design, including High Speed Jazz, Tastiere, Tropical and Many Moods. Because of their singular commercial position, library records had no real obligation to explain themselves, either visually or in their choice of name. The results are subsequently pretty strange and interesting, sometimes they evoke the mood of the “mood music” they contain, but often they don’t even do that. Jonny’s final record sleeve for us was for an album called MA-GI, which he didn’t quite know how to pronounce… but described as sounding like a ‘Spaghetti Western on the Moon”. Which sounds pretty exciting to me! Jonny admitted that this interest in non-commercial music is “pretty geeky”, but that he has found an ever widening audience for it, especially among designers who often love the type-only approach taken to library music cover design.

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Up next we had Alan Dye, co-founder of the branding and communication studio NB. Alan admitted that he wished he could say it was the trendy and much-admired record sleeves of Peter Saville that got him into graphic design and were the first albums he bought. But the reality was far more embarrassing, his first purchased records had been a bizarrely diverse pair, Imagination and Iron Maiden, both of which have frankly horrible covers. Alan then revealed that his first memory of vinyl was a record of the soundtrack to the Magic Roundabout movie Dougal and the Blue Cat. Which despite being music from a children’s film “scared the heck” out of him, and led to young Alan seeking refuge behind the sofa.

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For Dye, music is all about "feeling and memory" and his record collection was subsequently "not very cool", in fact, Alan admitted that he no longer has a vinyl collection after his offended friends at university threw it onto a fire in disgust. But regardless Dye still finds music and album cover design very evocative of the past. Giving the “2 Tone Records” logo as an example that transports him back to the past, when everyone was wearing white socks, black loafers and Harrington jackets to school, and forming bands… Which Alan did with two friends, but found didn’t get anywhere due to a “lack of ability”.

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Alan admitted that his own lack of musical taste has been helped out a lot by Ross, one of his oldest friends, who had thousands of albums as a teenager and acted like Alan’s “Spotify” in the days before accessing music became so easy. In fact, Ross still guides his music taste by constantly sending him YouTube links to interesting music and taking him to gigs. When Alan told Ross that he was doing a talk about vinyl and typography, he sent Alan a link to Alex Steinweiss, the designer who is often credited with inventing the idea of album cover art. However, Alan's collection is now just drawers full of CD's that "never come out anymore", but there is inspiration to be found in the design of their covers, especially the way they often use pastiche.

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At this point, Alan got round to his chosen letterform, a distressed stencil W in black on a red background, which comes from the record sleeve of West Side Story — the soundtrack to the 1961 musical film. Dye remembers this film being on TV a lot and often watching it, and that the title sequence by legendary designer Saul Bass had a big impact on him. As well as the Bass designed end credits, which feature the names scratched or graffitied onto the walls of the set used throughout the film. Alan then revealed that his mum owned a copy of the West Side Story vinyl, and played us a video of her where she explained that she had seen the film in the West End of London when it came out in 1961, and had thought “WOW, the best start to any film I’d ever seen before, it was amazing”. So there you go, Saul Bass earned many accolades throughout his career but now we can add praise from Alan Dye’s mum to the list.

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Continuing our Vinyl night, we had Lucy Bourton, who is a staff writer at It’s Nice That and record seller at Rough Trade at the weekends, alongside contributing a column to their print magazine. Lucy began her talk with her chosen letterform, or in this case letterforms, a collection of simple sans-serif capital A’s. She then revealed the source of these letters — a slightly faded and awkwardly designed sleeve from a cassette tape, featuring red Helvetica on an orange background, and the name of an artist that I’d never heard of before.

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Next Lucy explained the story behind this tape, telling us the tale of “Awesome Tapes from Africa” a record label which was started by an American called Brian Shimkovitz. After spending his whole life without ever leaving the country, Brian a DJ based in New York, had the chance in 2002 to travel to Ghana for musical research on a scholarship. What he discovered there was that in most of Africa tape was still the most common and economical way that people listened to and shared music. He got really into “hiplife” and highlife, a local Ghanaian take on hip hop, and ended up buying as many of the strangely designed, but musically interesting tapes as he could.

In 2006 Brian started a blog for the tapes he had been collecting and called it Awesome Tapes from Africa. On the blog he would share the tape artwork and made the music available for listeners, Lucy pointed out that although sharing music online is generally considered piracy, in this case people would really have no other way to hear the music if not for the blog, and it wasn’t damaging the artists’ sales in any way. The site proved very popular, attracting many comments from listeners who absolutely loved the music Brian was sharing. So he decided to figure out a way to give the artists from West Africa something back, and started a record label, releasing the music from the tapes on vinyl and faithfully reproducing the original artwork. The profits from the vinyl sales are split 50/50 with the artists receiving one-half, and the other half keeping the label running.

Lucy continued her tale of Awesome Tapes from Africa by explaining that a big issue for Brian had been tracking down these often obscure artists in order to get their permission. One of the most interesting stories was that of Ata Kak, a musician that Brian described as “frenetic leftfield rap madness” adding “You may never hear anything like this elsewhere.” In fact, a song by Ata Kak was the very first post on the blog, Brian held his music in that high esteem. However, tracking down Ata Kak proved nearly impossible for Brian, he had come across the copy of his tape Obaa Sima totally by chance (only 50 were ever released), it wasn’t well known in Ghana and seemed to be the only release by the artist. There was no trace of Ata Kak anywhere else online either. The search needed to step up a notch or two…

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Brian ended up travelling from LA to Ghana, then Germany, Canada and back to Ghana again (all at a large personal expense…), but the trail had dried up once again. The BBC happened to be making a radio documentary about Brian and Awesome Tapes from Africa at the time, and the producer had the idea of posting to ask if anybody knew where they could find Ata Kak on an unofficial fan page. His son replied, telling Brian that his dad was in Ghana and eventually Brian managed to meet him, 12 years after originally buying the tape! They managed to agree on a vinyl reissue, which was a huge success, and even more unexpectedly Ata Kak decided to perform live, touring around Europe to excited audiences. Following 23 years of obscurity after his debut, he has even released a second album. Lucy’s story about Awesome Tapes from Africa, and especially Ata Kak, was a really interesting one and so full of strange chance and joy, the design of the tapes is pretty charming too, in their own wonderfully weird DIY way. Just as we had found earlier with Jonny Trunk’s library music cover art, sometimes outside of the mainstream is where the most interesting things happen!

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Now, time for something different… Craig Burston is a graphic designer and educator, currently course leader of BA Graphic and Media Design at LCC, and as we were about to learn, a massive music fan. Craig began with his chosen letterform, an “o with a line through it” (which he explained for the typophiles out there, is “the official name for it”) — ø, in white on a black background. Usually, the ø is found in Scandinavian languages, like Danish, Norwegian and Faroese, but Craig’s example of it in use is a stylistic device rather than a linguistic one.

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This letter comes from the cover of Dirk Wears White Sox, a 1979 album by the British new wave band Adam and the Ants which had a profound effect on a young Craig, both musically and from a design perspective. He loved the use of typography — a light cut of Futura, tightly kerned, with a backwards D, a backwards Z as an S and that O with the line through. All of which really intrigued and mystified Craig, he was captivated by the sophistication of the albums design and use of photography. But the music also made him think, he found it so surprising how intelligent the lyrics were, having previously thought that “clever was what teachers are, not pop singers!” The lyrics also made a lot of references to things that Craig hadn’t yet heard of, and he wanted to find out more about, the Italian Futurists and their manifesto for instance. Thus he headed to the library in search of answers, and found them through a helpful librarian who happened to also be a design historian and pointed him to right books on the subject.

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Craig then revealed that he has ten different copies of this Adam and the Ants album on vinyl, it had sparked off something of an obsession at an early age and held a special place in Craig’s heart, in fact his kids “know it like the back of their hands” and have started to appreciate it too. The record at the time was a cult hit, rather than commercially successful. Paul Morley writing in the NME at the time “slated the record” but a 12-year-old Craig “knew better”, and loved it. Craig's vinyl collection at its height was around 14,500 different records, until he decided to downsize, became a seller and bought himself a VW Golf with the proceeds, not bad going!

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Next, Craig discussed one of the singles from the album, specifically Zerøx which he rates as “the best song ever.” The cover once again used a classy all-caps light Futura, the O with a line through and black and white Futurist photography. The single's B-side Whip in my Valise also had an impact on Craig, the lyrics clearly allude to S&M… he was still 12 at the time and had no clue, but he loved the music anyway. He was a bit disappointed that the design of the vinyl itself didn’t use the right type and was pretty ugly in comparison, showing the early signs of perfectionism common to many future graphic designers…

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Next Craig discussed the record sleeves and music that Adam and the Ants released after Dirk Wears White Sox, including the rubbish cover for the single Car Trouble which “aesthetically didn’t work”, although this time the vinyl used the right band logo! After this Adam Ant developed the flamboyant “new romantic” look that he is now famous for, featuring military jackets, face paint and extravagant accessories. His record sleeves began to always feature Adam and his outfits, but have a charm in their own “pop overload way”, although Craig couldn’t get his head around the whole “prince charming thing.” Craig ended by pointing out that on these later records the clothes designers, make-up artist and hairdresser are credited above the graphic designer, which shows how Adam's priorities had shifted.

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Our final speaker for the night was Adrian Shaughnessy. Adrian is the co-founder of the design publishers Unit Editions, Senior Tutor on the Visual Communication course at the Royal College of Art, an author of many critically acclaimed books and a writer for the likes of Design Observer, The Wire and Creative Review. Adrian began his talk with a capital R on screen, inviting the audience to guess what the typeface was, then scolding those who shouted Helvetica. The correct answer was Akzidenz-Grotesk and Adrian explained that he is a “compulsive doodler” especially in meetings, and finds that a lot of his typographic doodles feature a capital R, which made him wonder “why this letter in particular?” Shaughnessy’s theory was that he liked the asymmetry of it, and he then shared three great quotes on the subject, including “consistency is the enemy of enterprise, just as symmetry is the enemy of art” from George Bernard Shaw. Who Adrian described as a “vegetarian fascist”, next Shaughnessy did a quick analysis of the alphabet and which letters have horizontal symmetry, vertical symmetry, or both.

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Continuing his talk Adrian introduced his “album cover quiz” featuring thin slivers of record covers, with letters visible, from which we in the audience had to recognise what the record was. The first one was an easy one, the distinctive punk typography and yellow and pink colour scheme of Jamie Reid’s album cover for the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. Described by Adrian as “incendiary artwork.” The next one was a little more challenging, but there were a couple of right answers shouted out. It was Rick Griffin’s totally psychedelic album cover for the seventies San Francisco band the Grateful Dead.

Next, we had our second Reid Miles cover design for Blue Note of the night, this time for Sidewinder by Lee Morgan. Adrian revealed that despite capturing the atmosphere of jazz so well, Reid Miles didn’t actually like jazz and never listened to it. Following this in the quiz we had another easy one — Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. There must have been lots of fans of “The Boss” in as many voices shouted out the right answer. The next one was a real tough ask, and our audience full of typophiles couldn’t guess correctly, so Adrian revealed that it was a cover for Nice Guys by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, designed by a fantastic but little known Polish designer called Barbara Wojirsch.

The next two record covers were a little more iconic, and both were guessed pretty easily by the audience. We had Cabaret Voltaire’s Micro-Phonies designed by Adrian’s RCA colleague Neville Brody, and Substance 1987 by New Order, designed by Peter Saville. The following question was a bit harder once again, but somebody guessed that it was Broadcast’s 2000 debut album The Noise Made by People, released on Warp Records and designed by Julian House, a “wonderful designer” who Adrian worked with at Intro, the design agency where Shaughnessy was creative lead from 1988 to 2004. The final two questions were far more contemporary and had many people shouting the right answers out. First we had the rough hand lettering of Drake’s If you're reading this its too late, which Adrian described as “pretty shitty artwork” and last of all was Royal Blood’s eponymous debut album, which someone guessed from a thin slither showing just a tiny capital R. Proving that typography on album covers still has the power to be memorable and distinctive. And thus, both Adrian’s quiz, and our presentations for the night were over.

As always we ended our night with a short audience Q&A with our speakers. Giving our panel a chance to talk best and worsts, and about the work of Neville Brody and Barney Bubbles, as well as giving Craig another chance to go on about Dirk Wears White Sox… One lucky question-asker won a bag of Monotype goodies, then everyone retired to the bar to chat over drinks.

Big thanks to all of our speakers and to Monotype and the ISTD for their ongoing support. Watch out for a future announcement about the next Letterform Live. Please feel free to tweet us to suggest themes you would like to see covered. So far we have done: Books, Magazines, Posters, Cycling, Architecture, Art, Food, Music, Film & TV, Advertising, Fashion, David Bowie, Brutalism, Experimental, Games, Beer and Vinyl… so get your thinking hats on.

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