Notebook: 25 February 2017 | MUSICAL INTERLUDE | ALBUM COVER DESIGN
A tale of two albums
In June 1979 I graduated from my graphic design course at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry and took a flight to New York with my college mate John. We were on our way to work for three months at a summer camp in Massachusetts and our job would be to mow the lawns of the sports pitches, clean the toilets and showers and carry out any minor repairs on the camp.
We were joined by two American students from Boston and we all shared a cabin together. John and myself were both big Clash fans and we were determined to convert out American buddies from Country Rock to Punk Rock. We had no music cassettes and even the Sony Walkman was a year or so away from making its first appearance and so we listened in vain to the local radio stations hoping to grab a snatch of the music we loved.
We were given one day off a week and at the first opportunity, John and myself hitch-hiked down highway 90 into Boston and there, in a music store I picked up a copy of the Clash’s first album (titled simply The Clash) which had been released two years earlier in the UK. But unbeknown to me, this was the US version that had just been released in July 1979, and which came with bonus tracks including the brilliant Complete Control and White Man in Hammersmith Palais, both of which never appeared on any of the Clash’s UK album releases. Result!
Back at the summer camp our American buddies Sean and Bob had rustled up an old record player and speakers from somewhere, and fuelled by illicit alcohol which we’d sneaked on to the camp, we bunged the vinyl on the deck, turned up the volume and Sean and Bob looked on in astonishment as John and myself pogoed with absolute joy around the cabin. A few plays in and the yanks were converted and joined us jumping around the hut like maniacs to Complete Control, Janie Jones, White Riot and, of course, I’m so bored with the USA…
Late August and camp was finished for the season. John and myself bought a one month Greyhound Bus pass and headed west to explore the rest of the US. We had very little money, slept on the buses and seemed to survive on a diet of peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I had my precious Clash album stuffed in my bag and it travelled with us for 4,000 miles as we made our way across and around the USA – Kansas City, Denver, Yellowstone, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, El Paso, New Orleans, Miami, Washington and eventually back to New York and on to London.
I still have the album, dog-eared from its travels – and when my children were younger we’d occasionally dig it out and pogo around the kitchen together. The cover photo of the band: Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (drummer Topper Headon was still to join the group) was shot near the Roundhouse in London’s Camden Town by photographer Kate Simon. The back cover features a picture of the Notting Hill Carnival riots from 1976 which Strummer and Simonon attended and which influenced their songwriting. The inner sleeve photos were by Pennie Smith.
Arriving back in the UK in late September 1979 I was penniless and in search of my first design job and my time was spent hitch-hiking between my parent’s house in Leicester, my friend Dick’s flat in Coventry and job interviews in London.
In the spring and summer of 79, The Clash had been in and out of the studio recording their third album which was released in December that year. London Calling marked a musical change in direction with its reggae influenced tracks and it was to become heralded as the band’s masterpiece. The now, so familiar cover, features a striking black and white photo of bass player Paul Simonon smashing his guitar on stage in New York, evidently angry at the wide distance between the band and the audience. The picture was captured by Pennie Smith who was the Clash’s on tour photographer and the shot has since been voted the greatest rock and roll photo of all time by Q magazine. The cover design was by the NME cartoonist Ray Lowry (Guardian obituary here) and the green and pink lettering deliberately payed a blatant tribute to Elvis Presley’s first album. Musically, it’s a brilliant LP and in 2003 it was ranked number 8 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of all time.
In February 1980 London called for me. I bundled my clothes and Clash albums into Dad’s car and I took up my first design job at the book publisher Mitchell Beasley based in Soho – and the Clash’s iconic third album became the soundtrack to my fledgling career as a young designer in London.