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Punk iconography: Scott King

Professor Matthew Worley discusses punk art and the style of fanzines with Scott King, a graphic designer informed by Punk.
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Now I’m talking to Scott King, an artist and graphic designer. We’re going to talk about the way in which punk isn’t just about the music but also had ramifications in other creative areas. So Scott, punk’s not just about the music. No, not at all. I mean, I think in looking back on what is now well over 40 years, in many ways, many respects, some of the music is the weakest link really. I think the music was a kind of catalyst for all sorts of other things– fashion, politics, obviously graphics, a lot of graphics.
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I suppose the most enduring and really cliched design aspect of punk, in graphic design terms, is the ransom note lettering that famously is associated with the Sex Pistols. Even last year it was used in McDonald’s adverts. A few years ago it was used on NatWest’s bank adverts. So it has this, what would you call it, the kind of semiotic power, this kind of suggestion of anarchy in the UK still. And when anybody, whether it be McDonald’s or NatWest, want to appeal to youth, they still drag out the kind of ransom note lettering. So graphic design aspect of punk is still with us. And I think it is enormously influential.
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And the thing that’s really important is there’s a huge difference between corporate design and this kind of independent design. Because– and I get asked, irregularly now, but I used to get asked a lot by students about designing record covers. Because they’re under the assumption that there’s a correct way to design the CD cover, or there was. Even now, the revival of vinyl. And of course, the answer is, there isn’t. There’s what you imagine you should be doing, which is the same as EMI or Parlophone would have imagined you should do.
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And if you work for any record company today, as a marketing person who imagines what you should do– and of course it’s never what you do do, or what the band want you to do– they want you to be an artist on this blank space, and put something, make something that they could never have thought of that aligns with their music, or with their attitude, what they want to say, what they want you to say for them, or whatever it is. And so just seeing the space as potential for art is what people, I think, felt empowered to do within punk. But they weren’t the first to do it, and they weren’t the last.
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What role do you think the framing of the music by people like Jamie Reid, or by people later on like Peter Saville, what role does– why does that work? I hate to use the ransom note lettering again, but I suppose that’s the greatest graphic design contribution punk made to the broader culture. So, if you think about what it is, if you think about what the suggestion of that is, it is called ransom note lettering. So the suggestion is obvious. This is on the back– this is when there’s still Baader Meinhof, this is when the kind of Patty Hearst thing had happened, and the idea of extreme, leftist guerrillas within Western capitalism was still a reality.
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So punk, that kind of typography, the politics, the certain aspects of punk, kind of aligned itself with, that all comes out through the kind of ransom note lettering, in a way. But also, I think the most charged thing, ultimately, is the DIY nature of it. Anybody could do it. So if you look at a record, even now if you look at The Fall’s record covers, for example, the early ones that were designed, I think, by Mark E Smith– if you call it design– they still look perfect and correct for that music, don’t they? I think what the best punk graphics did was they did– and it sounds trite– but they did actually capture the music.
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Because they were created within the same spirit, maybe on a photocopy, or hastily pasted together, like the music was. So there’s that kind of synchronicity between the music and the graphics often. What’s interesting with Jamie Reid’s stuff is he kind of tells you the story of that appropriation and depowerment through the different covers he does. Yeah. The Pistols from the black flag of anarchy to flogging a dead horse. Yeah, exactly. And they’re literally playing it through. And they’re all great in their own way, I think. There’s some duff ones. But I think it’s different because Jamie Reid was older. And he had an art school education. And he’d already had this kind of apprenticeship on the Suburban Press.
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So, he had a chance to work out with this kind of iconography. And of course, a lot of the stuff you see on the Pistols’ sleeves really appeared first in the early ’70s in the Suburban Press, they did. So he’d had a chance to– and there was some political thought to what– obviously, McLaren and Jamie Reid– and it was built on this kind of their love of the Situationists and all these things. So it had some depth already. And I think that’s quite obvious when you look at the sleeves, or when you look at the Sex Pistols.
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You can see there’s a greater depth than just four 17-year-olds from Watford deciding to– what they want to do with the Sex Pistols, or they want anarchy in the UK. And it’s quite a different thing, isn’t it? Obviously, Jamie Reid has a long time to develop his politics of protest and his iconography before the Pistols came along. So for your own work, are you– if somebody’s writing an article in Creative Review and they talk about Scott King and they said, informed by punk, does that make you wince, or do you think, OK, that’s fair enough? Well, again, it’s this– it depends who’s saying it and how they’re saying it. I mean, for a long time, it was a pain.
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Because obviously, what I do is informed by punk. But obviously, what they’re doing probably is as well. They maybe don’t think– they don’t think about the medium so much as I do. They might not be able to write in their magazine if it wasn’t– in their zine. [LAUGHTER] So I think it is, obviously– what I do is obviously still now, you know, but I’m just, now I’m old enough, I’m just hanging on to thinking it might come around to where it’s cool where I might look cool rather than some sort of sad, past thing.
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[LAUGHTER] But it’s very, I think for me, I think it’s absolutely fair in saying that for me, obviously, stylistically what I do is the elements like fluorescent colours. But I always took great care to– even though I think some of the attitude was informed by punk, I would never make it look like that. For me, it was always about making something look brutal, simple, and modern. There’s no– I would never allow myself to do ransom lettering or wobble a photocopier or anything like that. To me, I’m quite true to the medium, or true to the process, which is, how can I– for me, it’s always an idea. I have this idea.
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How can I communicate this idea most quickly, effectively, without stylizing it, or blah, blah, blah. But that said, the idea itself might be quite informed by that book cover, informed by what people understand to be punk.

How did punk influence art and design? Listen to Scott King explain how ransom note lettering – one of punks major contributions to graphic design – can still evoke a suggestion of anarchy and youth.

In the video, Matthew and Scott discuss various designers, artists and events of the time. We’ve included links to their sleeve designs and to find out more about them here:

Jamie Reid sleeve designs. And Taking Liberties – an exhibition of his political work.

Peter Saville.

Mark E Smith: Totale’s Turns (It’s Now Or Never), Totally Wired, Room To Live.

Baader Meinhof was a far-left militant organisation associated with bombings, assassinations and kidnappings in the 70s and Patty Hearst was an American author and actress kidnapped by another far-left militant group called the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Scott mentions Jamie Reid’s ‘politics of protest’ and the development of his iconography in line with that. What kinds of art and design would you choose to reflect causes that are important to you?

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Anarchy in the UK: A History of Punk from 1976-78

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