Design guru, retail and restaurant entrepreneur, and founder of Habitat stores Sir Terence Conran died over the weekend. It’s not an exaggeration to say he changed the way the British lived, and the way our houses and flats (and restaurants) look now is in large part due to him. His philosophy was that good design should be accessible to everyone and, before IKEA came to our shores, Habitat was where we bought well-designed, modern furniture and household goods at reasonable prices. Habitat did flat-pack furniture before them too.
The first Habitat opened on the Fulham Road in 1964 just as the country was about to climb out of drab, post-war austerity and start swinging. The stores were bright and modern, played pop music, and Conran sold a type of design that was new to Brits: simple Scandinavian furniture (there was a lot of pine) rustic French kitchenware, and minimal Japanese paper lampshades which were bought by the aspirational young generation who were the first to have holidays abroad and wanted some of that Continental sophistication in their own lives, not the ugly, old-fashioned crap their parents had. He introduced the nation to exotic items like woks, chicken bricks, modular shelving, and duvets — no more nylon sheets and blankets! — perfect for the professional young boys and girls about town who were getting their own flats or shacking up together.
We had that wooden corkscrew bottom right in the above photo, and just seeing it gave me a Proustian rush back to my youth which just goes to show you how much meaning can be imbued in even the simplest objects (Conran understood that). They probably made thousands of those but it had a simple, artisnal quality that made you think it had been hand-made by some old man in a Provence cottage. I’m sure it made my mum feel positively bohemian when she used it to open a bottle of Mateus Rosé.
When I got my first flat on my own in the late 80s I bought a couch and bed (and a duvet of course) from Habitat and felt enormously proud and grown-up to be furnishing my own place. They stayed with me through the next two places I lived and, far as I know, that couch could still be where I left it in a house in Hammermsith. OK, probably not but it’s a nice thought.
The concept album is one of those rock ideas that got thoroughly shat upon by punk as an example of the previous generation’s ridiculous pomposity and became the butt of a million Spinal Tap-ish jokes regarding epic songs about wizards and elves. Even though I grew up reading Marvel comics and science fiction novels I was thankfully too young to also fall under the spell of Genesis, Yes, and all their Proggy brethren whose every album seemed to be a grandiosly conceived Sci-Fi or fantasy concept of some kind or other. ELO’s more poppy form of pretension got me early though and I fell in love with their 1974 album Eldorado which was a concept album (sorry, it’s actually called a symphony) vaguely about the magical goings on in a fairy tale dream world. I never paid much attention to Jeff Lynne’s lyrics so it wasn’t the subject matter (full of all sorts of silly stuff about knights, rainbows, and Robin Hood), I just liked the way it sounded. I also loved the sleeve which I still think is gorgeous.
In case you don’t recognize it, that’s a still from The Wizard of Oz which is also about a fantastical dream world. I thought it was very clever of the designer to go with an iconic image like that rather than other, more obvious routes like hiring illustrator Roger Dean who was the go-to artist for fantastical Prog Rock records at the time. In my research I found out that the idea to use that picture actually came from band manager Don Arden’s daughter Sharon who you would know now as Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy.
Apparently Jeff Lynne hated it but he was wrong. The image of the glittery, iconic red shoes is beautifully striking and the hazy, grainy quality of the enlarged film frame gives it a dream-like quality. Unlike a lot of other concept albums from the era it doesn’t look dated at all. The small, elegant typography looks like the engraving on an expensive invitation to a grand ball, a feel reinforced by the gold border around the edges. It’s certainly a huge improvement on the “here are our belly buttons” sleeve of their previous album.
This was the first ELO album to use a full orchestra and the first two tracks segue together to produce about the grandest, dreamiest opening you can imagine. “Eldorado Overture” starts with an incredibly pretentious spoken-word intro by some bloke called Peter Ford-Robertson who has the warm and plummy tones of an old BBC radio presenter announcing the death of the King. Then the orchestra comes in, swooping and crashing in madly baroque fashion, and the moment where it suddenly dies and fades into the shimmering “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” is sublime – probably the single most heavenly moment ELO ever produced.
Both tracks are here together in one file for the full effect.
There is some dispute about who originally coined the word “Yuppie” and when, but it first came into widespread use around 1983 and became one of the defining words of the 1980s: synonymous with “designer” lifestyles, conspicuous consumption, and Phil Collins albums.
But when Heaven 17 released their debut album in 1981 I doubt anyone knew how the decade was going to turn out. That was the year of the riots in Brixton and Toxteth, IRA hunger strikes, unemployment reaching 2.5 million, and Maggie Thatcher being the most unpopular Prime Minister in polling history. Though the wedding of Charles and Diana and the introduction of the Sinclair ZX81 home computer were signs of things to come, it’s fair to say that year the country was still struggling to escape the 70s.
After leaving The Human League, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh first appropriated the language of big business by giving themselves the corporate-sounding name British Electric Foundation (known by the faceless acronym “B.E.F”), and the sleeve of Penthouse and Pavement presents their recruitment of singer Glenn Gregory to form Heaven 17 as some kind of business merger. The copy proudly declares this to be “The New Partnership That’s Opening Doors All Over The World” in cliched, vacuous marketing-speak, while the power-suited band strike generic stock-photo “business” poses — shaking hands, on the phone — like it’s the cover of a brochure for some dreadful multinational corporation.
The Heaven 17: Sheffield, Edinburgh, London logo is apparently a Dunhill pastiche, and the same year those other Left-wing pop intellectuals Scritti Politti were doing similarly subversive, post-modern riffs on luxury brands with their own record sleeves. Heaven 17 took it even further by dressing as businessmen in photo shoots.
While this was all meant as a Lefty piss-take of capitalism and the pro-business rhetoric of Thatcher and Reagan, it turned out Heaven 17 were being unintentionally prophetic in their choice of visuals. Soon the power-suited, hair-slicked-back style of corporate tycoons made the leap from Wall Street and The City to become a mainstream, aspirational look driven by the new breed of go-getting Yuppies. Pop groups started wearing wearing Armani and pinstripes unironically, and the nation’s wine bars were full of young men looking like cut-price Gordon Gekkos in double-breasted suits from Next.
The 1980s ended when the stock market tanked on Black Monday, and coincidentally around the same time Acid House came along and the youth threw away their suits and chinos, and traded them in for dungarees and Smiley t-shirts. Personally I found that all a bit nursery school but it was better than looking like an accountant. Heaven 17 meant it as a conceptual gag but way too many people took it literally.
Originally published February 2008. Updated with more photos.
Shopping with my mum in the 1970s usually involved dull shops like C&A, Richard Shops, and British Home Stores looking at beige polyester slacks and brown nylon tank tops, but once in a while we’d go to the wonderland that was the Biba department store on Kensington High Street. Housed in the Art Deco splendour of the old Derry & Toms building, it looked like a Roxy Music album cover come to life: all mirrors, chrome, leopard skin, ostrich feathers and black walls, and with it’s dark lighting and loud rock music blaring from massive floor speakers it felt more like a nightclub than a store.
Biba started out in the 60s as a poky little boutique off the High Street selling miniskirts and skinny tops to the beautiful young things of Swinging London and by 1973 had expanded into the seven opulent floors of what became known as “Big Biba” which was like some mad Kubla Khan fantasy palace amid the dingy grayness of early 70s England. Their “look” evolved into an extravagant mix of Art Deco elegance with Hollywood glitz and bohemian decadence that defined the trashy cabaret and retro-futuristic look of Glam and the peacock style of 70s rock fashion. Not just the spangly shirts, tight pants, feather boas, and platform shoes, their dark and exotic cosmetics range was perfect for that elegantly wasted look. Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury both wore Biba’s black nail polish and a young suburban girl who would later call herself Siouxsie Sioux took the train into London to buy her red eye shadow there.
The shop’s founder Babara Hulanicki said she designed her clothes for “Fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes. Postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people” so it wasn’t exactly aimed at single mums with two children like mine, but it was a great place to take us for the day, only a short bus ride away and it was free. You could literally spend all day there and I think we often did, the store actually encouraged hanging out.
For a kid my age Biba was like a theme park, every one of it’s seven floors an exercise in high concept and pure fun, like the men’s department where you could play darts and bowl with a “Mistress Room” that sold lingerie and had a huge leopard-skin bed. For obvious reasons my absolute favourite place was the kid’s department which looked like it had been designed by Lewis Carroll, with a castle and a dog kennel that were big enough to walk into. I remember the kennel had a giant stuffed Snoopy sitting outside that my sister and I desperately wanted mum to buy for us but I think it was beyond her budget. It wouldn’t have fitted into our little council flat anyway.
But while the clothes were meant for skinny, 20-something, Nova-reading, girls about town, at Big Biba they stuck their famous black and gold logo on everything from fashion to furniture, toys, soap powder, and baked beans, so everyone could take home a bit of Biba cool — even eat it on toast. It was probably the world’s first lifestyle emporium (before the concept of “lifestyle” had been invented), you could wear, eat, wash, play, and literally live in Biba.
On the top floor was the gorgeous Rainbow Room restaurant and concert venue which dated back to the 1930s style of the original building. It was the place where 1970s rock and style collided, the clubhouse where Freddie Mercury had afternoon tea, David and Angie Bowie hung out with Mick and Bianca in the evenings, and Bryan Ferry shot his “Let’s Stick Together” video. The New York Dolls played two infamous concerts there (their only London shows I think) and it must be the only place ever to host both the Dolls and Liberace. The Wombles played there too but that’s a whole other story.
Suzi Quatro might not have been as chic as our Bryan but the video for “Devil Gate Drive” was shot at the store too (on the Ground Floor). It shows what a well-know cultural icon the brand had become that the Biba logo is shown so prominently here. Though this must be one of the few cases where a store looks more glamourous than the pop group.
Sadly, Big Biba was only open for two years and closed in 1975, the store was making money but not enough to escape the sinking gloom of the times. During those two years the miners went on strike, the country was put on a three-day work week and power cuts meant that people were living in darkness and some stores were lit by candles in the afternoon.
It’s been said that the store lived up to the rock and roll credo of “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse”, and looking back there’s something all a bit Weimar Republic about Big Biba with it’s extravagant decadence in the middle of a country falling apart — according to Ziggy Stardust we only had five years left before the end of the world anyway so why not build a monument to dressing up and looking as fabulous as possible.
The Derry & Toms building is now occupied by a Marks & Spencer which about as far from Biba as you can get. I bet they don’t sell black nail polish.
I assume most people know that the sleeve of London Calling is a rip off, pastiche of homage to Elvis Presley’s first album. You might even know that the cover’s iconic photo of Paul Simenon was taken by NME photographer Pennie Smith (whose photos of the band were collected in a terrific book that will set you back a few bob these days). But unless you’re a Brit of a certain age you might not have heard of Ray Lowry, the man who actually designed the sleeve.
Lowry was a cartoonist who regularly contributed to the NME during the 70s and 80s, including the surreal weekly strip Not Only Rock and Roll. He had a sharp eye for the foibles and posturing of music fans and rock stars and whenever they got too self-important or pretentious — which they often did in the NME in those days — you could always rely on the Lowry cartoon at the back of the paper to bring things back to earth.
He became mates with The Clash after meeting them at a gig, and the band invited him on the road with them to be what Joe Strummer called “official war artist” of their 1979 tour of the US which led to the commission to design the cover of their next album. Ray had drawn cartoons for underground papers like Oz in the 1960s so he was from another generation than these young punks, but being a lover of what he called “holy rock and roll thunder” he was thrilled by the music’s primitive energy and probably bonded with The Clash over a shared passion for 1950s rock n’ roll (and its hairstyles), Lefty politics, and a belief in “authenticity”.
Judging by the early rough on this page, Lowry had the Elvis-inspired typography before he had a cover image, and apparently the album was going to be called Made In England at one point. The final sleeve is fairly plain and basic but sometimes effective design is just a matter of picking the right picture, even if it’s out of focus because Pennie Smith (who didn’t want it used for that reason) was backing away from a pissed-off, guitar-swinging Simeonon when she snapped it — and I’m sure The Clash loved the iconoclasm of using an old Elvis sleeve as inspiration.
As far as I know it’s the only album cover Lowry ever designed which is crazy when you think how famous the one he did is. Sadly he died in 2008, though the commercial work had mostly dried up he had carried on painting and had an exhibition of his work just before he passed away. But if he wasn’t completely forgotten, he’s certainly not as well known as he should be.
I don’t think anyone needs to hear another track from the album so here’s the dub versions of “Armagideon Time” that were on the b-side of the “London Calling” 12″ single.
“Jean-Paul dug into me, bit into me, scratched and stretched me, and made very clear what the colour of my skin was” – Grace Jones
Grace Jones met French designer/illustrator Jean-Paul Goude in New York in the late 70s when he was working as the art director of Esquire magazine. At the time she was a model turned singer with three albums of swishy disco under her belt that had gained her cult status on the gay club scene. While the two partied together and became romantically involved, Goude saw her as a muse with the raw materials he could re-shape in a way that would help her become an iconic star in the coming new decade.
Grace’s previous albums had been designed by Richard Bernstein who was the art director of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and had the same glittery and airbrushed, Studio 54 style of it’s covers at the time, but the first sleeve Goude designed for her — 1980s Warm Leatherette — marked a huge change: Stark black and white, with Grace (pregnant at the time) looking sternly at the camera with a fuck you stare, while sporting her new severe flat-top hair style and cheekbones you could cut diamonds with. If looks could kill this photo would be banged up for life.
It was the follow-up album Nightclubbing that really established Grace’s new image and brought her wider fame. Wearing a man’s Armani jacket, Grace looks like some androgynous alien creature, all bones and angles, with a perfect white cigarette contrasting against her smooth purple-blue skin.
Such perfection can’t be achieved only in camera though, and the original photo is so heavily retouched and manipulated by Goude that it’s credited as a painting on the album’s back cover. This was Goude turning Grace into a work of art herself, and you wonder where the real person begins and ends. She’s become the “sleek machine” she sings about in “Pull Up To The Bumper.”
Goude called his style “French Correction”: stretching, distorting, exaggerating features, and the most extreme remixing he did of Grace was probably the picture that was used on the cover of the 1985 Island Life compilation. This was actually the first image Goude made of Grace when it was created for a profile of her in New York magazine in 1977 (you can see that she still has her old hairstyle) and these slides are a good window into his technique.
First he photographs Grace in a variety of poses, using transparent boxes to hold her legs up.
Then he slices and dices the transparencies together to achieve the “impossible” pose he wants.
Paints in the gaps by hand (no Photoshop then of course), adjusts the colours, burnishes her skin look like polished ebony, changes the background and, voila.
Goude has been accused of fetishizing Jones’ blackness and portraying her as some exotic jungle creature, and images like the one below might be seen as “problematic” today.
But Grace was always a willing collaborator and partner, saying “It was about rejecting normal, often quite sentimental and conventionally crowd-pleasing ways of projecting myself as a black singer and female entertainer.” Certainly what Goude was doing was radical in terms of the representation of black women in pop culture. Grace always looked strong in his images and more like a predatory panther than a sex kitten.
It helped that her music underwent a makeover at the same time too. Goude’s sharp visuals fit perfectly with the new, harder-edged music she was making in Compass Point with the crack rhythm section of Sly and Robbie from Warm Leatherette onwards. Disco was on the way out, New Wave/Post-Punk was the new thing, and remaking songs by Iggy Pop, Joy Division, and The Normal as cool, sexy, funk and reggae was a genius move that fit Grace like a leopard-skin glove. I don’t know whose idea it was, but it ended up being one of the most perfect ever marriages of music, image, and artist.
It takes some balls to take on a song like this, but that’s one thing Grace has never been short on.
Originally published June 2012. Now with added images.
There’s an excellent interview here with Nick Logan, the man who was editor of the NME during the punk late 70s (where he hired two unknown kids called Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons) and then went on to independently create Smash Hits and The Face which must be about as brilliant a track record you can get in the yoof culture business.
I was a keen NME reader when The Face first came out in 1980 and carried on reading them both for a few years, but increasingly it was the glossy newcomer I looked forward to getting the most. As a design student I ate up the influential, envelope-pushing layouts of Neville Brody and it’s slick production values which were a lot more attractive than a smudgy, inky newspaper. In comparison the latest weekly news about The Smiths wasn’t that interesting to me anymore and The Face just had it’s antenna and attitude better tuned to the new decade.
Looking at back issues now is like opening time capsules of the trends of the 1980s, and the contents of my own wardrobe too. The cover of the “Hard Times” issue below is exactly how I was dressing circa 1982: ripped 501s, studded belt, deck shoes, vintage 1950s shirt from Flip. Then a few years later, I (along with every hep young man in London) was wearing my 501s (always 501s) with chunky Doc Marten shoes and an MA-1 flying jacket, a look credited to the magazine’s fashion stylist Ray Petri. I still have the dark blue MA-1 jacket I bought 25 years ago, still in very good nick too.
I don’t know if Logan was a genius or just lucky, but The Face hit the streets at exactly the right zeitgeisty moment (Smash Hits too), catching the start of a style-obsessed decade when the word “designer” was applied to everything and a pop star’s haircut and trousers were considered worthy of serious notice. But the most inspiring thing I got from the interview was that The Face was never market-researched or focus-grouped or any of that bollocks. Logan just had an idea for a magazine he’d like to read himself and filled it with stuff he thought was interesting — that was the only criteria. As someone who’s suffered through hundreds of interminable and depressing marketing meetings that suck all the life out of any good idea, that seems like a dream come true and the only way anything great ever gets done.