Who designed punk rock?


For those of you too fresh of face and short of tooth to remember, the punk movement spewed into the mainstream from the basements of Soho and shops of the Kings Road during the feverish summer of 1976. For many, it was the most radical and exhilarating injection popular culture had experienced since the birth of rock 'n' roll in the Fifties. So, unsurprisingly, its most influential figures became household names: Johnny Rotten (nee Lydon), Joe Strummer, Siouxsie Sioux and even Billy Idol.

However much punk was a musical overhaul, it was also a visual revolution. The hacked, coloured hair, the torn and painted clothing and, yes, the safety pins, were just as significant as the roaring sound. The clothes were largely the creation of Mclaren's partner, Vivienne Westwood  (who you know), but the graphic design was the work of Jamie Reid (who maybe you don't).

Reid was born in 1952 and educated at John Ruskin Grammar School in South London. But it was at Croydon Art School, while taking part in a protest sit-in, that he met the young Malcolm Mclaren. As well as a huge enthusiasm for anti-authority activity, the pair shared a fascination with the Situationists.

Founded in 1957, The Situationist International  group was made up of revolutionaries and artists, hitting its peak during the unprecedented French wildcat strikes of May 1968. This movement is worthy of an article in its own right, but for now it is sufficient to say that Mclaren and Reid saw a real connection between the civil unrest of Paris and the dire state of British society in the mid 70s. Initially the two were simply friends  Malcolm's ambitions lay in shop and band management, while Jamie became involved in the subversive newspaper Suburban Press. Nevertheless, it seems their careers were destined to intertwine. When Malcolm pieced together and launched Sex Pistols from his shop 'SEX  in Chelsea's World's End, he knew exactly who to recruit as the in-house graphic designer.

I've always thought Mclaren had no real idea just how explosive his band would be and he certainly found their immediate notoriety quite worrying. So it's safe to say, Jamie Reid was equally unaware of the incalculable influence his work would have, long after the demise of the Pistols and punk itself.

Reid's creativity and anarchic flair are so impressive, it's very difficult to single out one aspect as the most important. That said, the ransom note' typography , used almost every time punk is referenced, was Jamie's concept (from his publishing days) and instantly lashed itself to the language of punk as the Sex Pistols' logo and on the sleeves of their early singles. But there can be very few British people over the age of 40, who do not recognise Cecil Beaton's photographic portrait of the Queen, photocopied and corrupted by a safety pin jammed through her mouth.

Of course, we're somewhat unmoved by anti-monarchist sentiments these days, but the strikingly rebellious and outright dangerous nature of this work at the time, cannot be underestimated. If Sex Pistols built their fame and power on a mixture of anger and outrage, Jamie Reid's designs doubled their potency. He created sleeves for the monumental singles: 'Anarchy In The UK' (a shredded and defaced union flag), 'God Save The Queen' (a version of the Beaton' montage), 'Pretty Vacant' (a bus with its destination showing Nowhere' and 'Holidays In The Sun' (a mocking cartoon vacation brochure)  each as provocative and challenging as the single within.

In 1997, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks' album (another Reid masterpiece of violent yellow and shocking pink), Jamie released limited edition prints of his best known punk designs and has, more recently, produced artwork for the fusion band Afro Celt Sound System. He is still a working and highly regarded designer and artist, mounting exhibitions like Peace is Tough at The Arches in Glasgow and the Microzine Gallery in Liverpool, where he now lives.

A career retrospective, May Day, May Day, was held in May 2007 and his work can also be found at L-13 Light Industrial Workshop in Clerkenwell, London.

Perhaps inevitably and rather pleasingly, Reid was also a leading light in the campaigns against Clause 28, The Poll Tax and The Criminal Justice Bill.

Sean O'Hagan of The Observer once described the 'God Save The Queen' sleeve as "the single most iconic image of the punk era€.  For me, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to adjust that to any era.

Magnus Shaw - copywriter, erstwhile punk rocker and blogger


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