Five Things recently had the privilege and having a interesting and insightful phone chat with iconic music designer Rob O’Connor. Rob has designed album covers and advertising campaigns for some of the biggest recording artists from the last three decades. from Blur to The Rolling Stones, his CV is pretty impressive and during the course of our chat we tried to find out what it’s like to design for world famous bands, what his famous designs are and also uncovered some pretty cool stuff about the cover for Blur album Parklife.
Five Things: Where did you learn your craft?
Rob: I went to Brighton Polytechnic, as it was then, nowadays its Brighton University. I went to do a foundation course in general art but the intention was always to go into graphics because it was always my passion, in school I had a very encouraging art teacher who introduced me when I was 16/17 years old to a friend of his who was a graphic designer. I set my heart on it in those days and was always into typography and that kind of stuff. The following year I actually wasn’t accepted by Brighton, so I spent one year in Coventry studying graphics. The minute I arrived in Coventry I applied for a transfer back to Brighton and thankfully was accepted into the second year there. I actually didn’t do a masters or anything like that.
I left college wanting to hang about a bit in Brighton because it was a nice summer. In those you didn’t have to pay off a student loan, in fact the last year of college I did quite well financially by doing private work and also by djing in various clubs and in college discos. I did alright actually just hanging out for a month then someone mentioned there was a job going locally so I applied for it, even though it was asking for 3 years experience and I had no experience. A little cheeky and they probably knew that the minute I went through the door; amazingly though they offered me a job at half pay and I decided maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to take it. I worked there for a few months until one of the leads I developed in college got in touch – I sent out my portfolio to several people whilst at college. He phoned me and asked me to apply for a job they had, which was very nice of them, so I applied and got the job. This was 1979 and the job was working for Polydor Records.
Five Things: Was it always your intention to try work within the music industry?
Rob:I hate the word dream or passion, but in an ideal scenario I did want to work in the music industry. It wasn’t a deal breaker, I was quite happy to work in any media I’m interested in, I liked TV and I liked film. I wasn’t interested in advertising very much as I knew you’d end up selling things that people didn’t want. I was so obsessed with music and I knew that if I did work in music that I would love in every minute of my job because I wouldn’t feel guilty for selling something to someone that had no value, because even if you don’t like the music your advertising, everyone knows the power of music and it’s a great emotional product. It’s not really like a product.
Five Things: Which work are you most proud of?
Rob: Quite often the work I’m most proud of might not be the best known or have the highest profile. I like some of the stuff we [Stylorouge} are doing now that doesn’t really get a lot of attention. One cover that I’ve always liked looking at and thinking ‘did I do that?’; is an album cover for a band called Diesel Park West. This was done way back in the day. It’s an album called Shakespeare Alabama, it was a terribly literal cover, a picture of Shakespeare and a map of Alabama stuck together in a screen print. What I like about it is that we used to get our hands really dirty in design, getting on and doing it in an old fashioned way, it was pre Apple Mac but not pre computer. If we wanted to use computers we used to have to hire computers, using what was called a Quantel Paintbox, which in those days was £350 an hour – big money. Doing things the old fashioned way seemed a lot more fun. We only did 40 of these (14) colour screen prints and most went to the band to give out to people, the band signed it and I signed it and the whole thing paid for itself. We photographed the print with a gecko on it and that’s what became the cover. I don’t know why that springs to mind; they were quite a credible band too. We do loads of things we really like that not many people get to see.
Five Things: I suppose you get a lot of attention due to the really famous artists that you have designed for?
Rob: People always associate us with Blur or with George Michael etc. Occasionally you work with an artist who may be high profile but the product ends up being a bit of a disappointment. We did a design for a live album for The Rolling Stones and not many people even know the album never mind the design. Live albums do tend to get a bit lost though. However, it was a nice project to do, it was quite involved and I was really pleased with the result and it was a great experience doing it.
Five Things: You mentioned your association with Blur; obviously the Blur brand is very striking and hasn’t changed at all since their first single. Do you think branding is important to a band?
Rob: Branding for bands has been in and out of fashion really; I think branding is much more of a complicated thing in the music industry than it used to be. The most important thing for me is the record cover; it always was, if that carried a logo that translated in anyway at all then great. If it then appeared on merchandise then all well and good. So if you have a band with a vey strong logo – rock bands do it well –such as Motorhead, AC/DC and in the past Queen; they are the brands that become strong because you see them outside the context of music design. You see them on the train and nowadays you have twelve-year old kids wearing Ramones t-shirts; who wouldn’t wish that they had designed the Ramones logo, people have now worn it for over forty years.
I remember listening to a couple of kids talking about music, one was talking about a Kylie Minogue single and the other said “what’s your favourite Kylie single?” and the other girl couldn’t remember the name of it but said, “it’s the one where Kylie is walking down the street?” Suddenly it was all about the video, that was around 15/20 years ago and I thought this was an important turning point in music. The girl couldn’t even say it was the one where Kylie is wearing a pink hat on the record sleeve; suddenly it was all about the video and the whole extended media surrounding an artist. Kids were discovering new places to get their music and similarly these days’ kids get their music on YouTube and consequentially they aren’t buying any music anymore. The branding process has changed an awful lot.
I also heard a rumour recently that One Direction did some kind of poll of their fans in a questionnaire; one of the questions asked the fans to rate what they liked most about One Direction. The top thing was the boys, the second thing was videos, third thing was merchandise and so it went on; the sixth thing was the music. It shows there are kids out there that want a One Direction bedspread but have never bought a One Direction album; they are quite happy to align themselves with the brand and aren’t fussed about the music.
Five Things: Parklife is an iconic album that would have been a defining moment for many teenagers in the 90s, myself included. The concept for an album such as Parklife; does that come from the band, the record company or from you as the designer?
Rob: Bearing in mind Parklife was blur’s third album, when we first met them they were quite opinionated as people and as a band, but also were quite young and didn’t have a lot of power. By the time they got to Parklife they were much more involved and clearly Damon had become the leader of the band, he was very much spear heading the way things were going. We were always given a very good amount of respect by the band and their record company, who at that time were Food, distributed through EMI. EMI like all the major record companies were trying to get their hands all over Blur because they were proven to be a successful act, the people who ran Food, particularly Dave Bowell, were very influential and although he would frequently have arguments with ourselves and the band, the results were normally very successful. You always felt at the end of the day, we got the right result because you had been through a process of distillation and irritation, but you got something that everyone had input into.
The album originally didn’t have a title, the first title was London and other title for it was Soft Porn, they were just working titles. No ne really knew what was happening. At the time a book had been published by Martin Amos called London Field, and it told the story of a guy who deliberately lived a life below his social status, so started going to darts matches, hanging out in pubs with villains and with unemployed people and that world became a very potent, evocative place visually for Damon. I had been reading the book as well so we went out and took photos of London, as if seen through the eyes of a tourist who has went off the beaten track. We went round London one weekend on a tour and went slightly off the beaten track, slightly off Hyde Park, slightly off Madame Tussards and trundled into more residential areas and documented what was going on in the back streets; it was an interesting exercise and we came back with lots of pictures. There was something there Damon liked but one day he phoned me and asked us to meet the band for coffee one morning at William Hill’s on the Kings Road, Chelsea. So Chris Thompson, the designer who was heavily involved with Blur at Stylorouge, went and met the band at the betting office and it was a very strange and bizarre meeting. There were only about two other people in the place. We hung around for a bit and picked up some betting slips, took some Polaroid’s then went down the road to a coffee shop and that’s really where the idea started. We wanted the cover to look like the William Hill’s betting shop, William hill was quite dated and I think they still are. At that time they had loads of out of date imagery in their windows; for example they still had images of Alan Shearer wearing a Blackburn Rovers kit and he hadn’t played for Blackburn in quite a few years. They didn’t care, there was something interesting about this out of date imagery. We quite liked the nature of this, so we rebuilt a betting shop window similar to a William Hill window and created a logo for Parklife that was not dissimilar to the William Hill posh scripted logo. That was our first visual, probably one of half a dozen that we did, the others that we did weren’t anything like that… there was posh looking tennis player and also a Rolls Royce grill. It was really going down the posh London route. At the end of the day it was the original William Hill thing that won out as it set the stall for the whole campaign. The single covers all eluded to the leisure pursuits of the proletariat. Beer glasses, for the single ‘Girls & Boys’ we used the Durex label and the couple on the beach. Cheesy advertising imagery. That seemed to work for Blur. That’s how it came about.
Thing: Are there any artists still on your design wish list?
Rob: Yeah there are actually. I’ve been really lucky, if anyone asked me to make a list of my heroes I actually would be able to say that I have worked with quite a few. For example The Rolling Stones was my first musical as kid, I got to work with them which was great and also Dusty Springfield, Dr John and quite a lot of bands I really like I’ve ended up working with. The ones that are left… Captain Beefheart, which isn’t going to happen of course, Joni Mitchell and also id love the chance to work with Arctic monkeys.
Because of the way design is now, we [Stylorouge] take what comes along, which may sound a little unambitious and we also no longer pitch for music work. The figures for that don’t stack up. We find however if people come to us they really want to work with us, the mutual respect and working relationship is much better. The decision making process for the pitching process is flawed and is a lazy corporate way of doing things. Although I do have people I’d like to work with still I’d happily finish my career not having worked for them if it means not having to go looking for the work.
Thing: Your favourite album cover?
Rob: There’s so many aren’t there. I get lazy about this as I always say the same ones. Joni Mitchell – Hejira, its very sophiscated, black and white and its got a beautiful image of her on it. It’s got a sophiscated fantasy image created pre computers, which is great. Another cover I love is Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica.
I’m a big fan of record covers and I’ve got a huge amount of vinyl
Thing: Your favourite band of all time?
Rob: My favourite band of all time is possibly Jimi Hendrix and in recent years almost definitely Arctic Monkeys. Recently I have also been listening to Drenge, The Wanting Bishops, Savages, Small Faces, some Jazz and blues, John Coltrane, The Strypes and David Bowie.
Thing: What did you make of David Bowie’s latest cover design?
Rob: I like the cheekiness of it, but I don’t think I’d like it if I were a twenty-year old fan. I bought the deluxe version online which was even more minimalist and I was actually quite disappointed by it. I get disappointed quite a bit when buying packaged music recently so I tend to buy most of my stuff as downloads.
Big thanks to Rob for taking the time out to chat to Thing. Check out Rob’s work at Stylorouge.