If you were a teenager in the 1980s, Malcolm Garrett’s iconic record covers most probably crazy-paved your bedroom floor. Inspired by a love for electronic music and a hefty dose of early punk, his revolutionary design ideas reverberate to this day

Boring. That is perhaps the kindest way to describe the UK charts in September 1975, dominated as they were by innocuous family favourites like Rod Stewart, David Essex and Leo Sayer, alongside novelty acts such as Showaddywaddy and Jasper Carrott. Popular music was stale and uninspiring – nothing to set your granny’s pants alight. 

It was against this subdued and dispiriting backdrop that the 19-year-old Malcolm Garrett headed off to Manchester Polytechnic for a degree in general design, a course aimed at art students who didn’t have a clear idea of the route they wanted to take. 

Much like everybody in the music world.

“A year later, lo and behold, what should explode around us but the fucking Sex Pistols, quickly followed by Buzzcocks,” recalls Garrett. “What I wanted to do suddenly presented itself. The search for a meaningful life was over.” 

It was the start of a hugely influential career that has shaped design and branding across the music industry and beyond, fuelled by a creativity that has refused to draw any distinction between sound and vision.

“If I’m frustrated by anything in the music industry, it’s the tendency to compartmentalise,” says Garrett. “You either make the music, or you make the sleeves. In reality, there’s often an overlap. One informs the other. I’ve always instinctively understood the interconnection between a simple visual thought and a complex musical environment.”

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Malcolm Garrett and his Assorted iMaGes agency, which he started as a student in 1977, on the creative scene of the late 70s and early 80s. He was responsible for the sleeves of countless singles and albums, channelling references from pop art to fine art, and defining how we see that period and groups like Buzzcocks, Magazine, Simple Minds and Duran Duran.

Garrett’s passion for design grew from his love of music.  At an early stage in his career, his close connections to the bands he was working with led to him making tracks of his own. In 1980, he formed The Pathfinders with Roger Cleghorn, one of the first people to join him at Assorted iMaGes. The Pathfinders’ recently unearthed experimental album, ‘Imagine Something Yesterday’, is a collection of electronic sounds baked in the raw heat of punk and a testament to Garrett and Cleghorn’s unswerving DIY attitude to creativity. 

Born in 1956 in Northwich, Cheshire, Garrett’s interest in music was sparked by the very same records that inspired those he later collaborated with. But it wasn’t only the slabs of vinyl that attracted him. He was also increasingly fascinated by the packaging that the records came in. It was poring over the sleeves designed by Barney Bubbles, most famous for his groundbreaking imagery for Hawkwind, that ignited his passion for art.

“I was listening to Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, to Tonto’s Expanding Head Band and White Noise,” he explains.  “I was also being drawn towards the counterculture, to groups like Hawkwind and Amon Düül, where electronics were being brought into the rock world and vice versa.” 

In the early 1970s, Garrett attended St Ambrose College, a boys’ grammar school in Greater Manchester, where he shared an O-Level art class with two friends who would also become hugely influential designers – Peter Saville, later one of the founders of Factory Records, and Keith Breeden, who went on to work with ABC, Scritti Politti, Bryan Ferry and The Cult. When their teacher suggested they all go into graphic design, however, they were initially bemused.

“Peter went, ‘Err, what is that? Can you do it at college?’.  I looked through the university handbook and found a one-year typography and graphic communication course at Reading University. It was the only one that spoke to me. During that year, I found out what the role of graphic design is in society. It isn’t creating art. It’s a job in the service of information.”

Garrett was in the final year of his design degree at Manchester Poly when he started working with Buzzcocks, the pioneering punk outfit with whom he established his reputation. He met them through the artist and photographer Linder Sterling. She was in the year above him at the college, where she was studying illustration.

Sterling was one of 40-odd people who had attended the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 – “The one everyone claims they were at,” laughs Garrett – the night that started the punk explosion in northern England. The gig had been staged by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, two Bolton Institute of Technology students who thought it would be a great vehicle for Buzzcocks, their own nascent band, although they weren’t actually ready to play when the time came.

Some six months later, following the release of Buzzcocks’ influential ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP, Sterling introduced Garrett to Devoto and the band’s manager, Richard Boon. This led to Garrett designing the sleeve for their next single, ‘Orgasm Addict’, based on a montage of images from an Argos catalogue and a 1950s porn mag.

The result was distinctive and arresting – not least for its bold yellow and blue toning. The choice of just two colours was purely financial, though. Buzzcocks had been signed to United Artists as part of a label bidding frenzy for punk outfits in the first half of 1977, but UA were wary of shelling out money on a potentially unsafe bet, so Garrett was given a tiny budget.

“The whole thing was pulled together between myself, Linder, Richard and the band,” he says. “Linder produced a number of montages and we all sat around the kitchen table at Buzzcocks’ shared house in Salford to choose one. It was the summer of 1977, right before my third year at Manchester Poly started. I had a holiday job with access to a photocopier, so I copied the image to make it a bit more hard-edged. It was punk, but it was also beyond punk. I wanted it to feel a little more sophisticated, more self-aware.”

It wasn’t long before his career shifted up a couple of gears. Howard Devoto had already left Buzzcocks by this stage and had formed Magazine with guitarist John McGeoch, who was Garrett’s flatmate. Magazine were hot property and when they signed to Virgin they brought Garrett with them as their designer, giving his newly established Assorted iMaGes agency two punk clients before he had even graduated. His output for Buzzcocks and Magazine became his degree show.

Leaving Manchester Poly in 1978, Malcolm Garrett  was almost immediately contacted by Andrew Lauder,  the A&R man who had signed Buzzcocks. Lauder had parted company with United Artists to launch Radar Records with Martin Davis, UA’s former managing director, and the pair wanted Garrett to work with them in London. It was a tempting offer, not least because Barney Bubbles was also involved with the new label. In fact, Bubbles had designed the Radar logo.

Garrett arrived in the capital with nowhere to live, so JC Carroll from The Members let him sleep on his floor. He’d been close friends with Carroll’s brother since his time at Reading. In between working with likes of The Pop Group and Yachts at Radar, Garrett ended up creating the sleeve for The Members’ first Virgin single, ‘The Sound Of The Suburbs’. 

Virgin subsequently became one of Assorted iMaGes’ main clients, with Garrett handling seminal releases from John Foxx, Devo, Heaven 17, Simple Minds and Culture Club. He also received commissions from EMI, starting with the sleeve for the debut Duran Duran single, ‘Planet Earth’. He worked with Duran Duran for the next five years, designing their first four album covers and countless single. 

Even in London, the Manchester art school web continued to weave its magic. In 1981, Howard Devoto’s girlfriend introduced Garrett to Kasper de Graaf, the one-time production editor of Smash Hits and by that point the driving force behind New Sounds New Styles magazine, who invited the designer to head up his art team. It was an ambitious publication, made more so by Garrett’s insistence they redesign everything except the masthead, completely from scratch, every single issue. 

“I soon realised why magazines don’t do that – it’s a fucking enormous amount of work,” he laughs.

Garrett needed help to achieve his audacious mission and it was around this time that Roger Cleghorn, who had also been at Manchester Poly and was now studying for an MA at Chelsea School of Art, joined Assorted iMaGes.  

“I’d ended up with a load of Malcolm’s old LPs,” remembers Cleghorn. “So for a joke, I started sending him blackmail notes made with cut-up letters saying, ‘I have some of your records… If you ever want to see them again…’. We had a bit of a laugh when I revealed it was me. A little while later, I moved into his flat on the Isle of Dogs.”

Among the possessions that Cleghorn brought with him was a Yamaha CS-10, which he’d bought after seeing a Human League gig. Garrett owned a synth too, an ARP Axxe he’d acquired from JC Carroll’s brother, and the flatmates began making noises, largely for their own amusement. They called themselves The Pathfinders. 

Only one track by The Pathfinders came out at the time, ‘Long Shadows’, which appeared on the ‘Meridians 1’ cassette compilation issued on Touch in 1983 alongside artists such as John Foxx, Test Department and Ludus. The latter were fronted by Linder Sterling. The rest of their material, noisy sketches reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle and experiments in playing Black Sabbath through synths, remained unreleased until last year, when The Tapeworm packaged it all up under the title ‘Imagine Something Yesterday’. It’s a fascinating album, not least because it highlights the inseparable relationship that Garrett has always perceived between sound and vision, as well as his wilful refusal to be compartmentalised.

Roger Cleghorn is a first-hand witness to what Assorted iMaGes came to represent to the music industry. Even the most casual record shoppers of  the 1980s could identify a Malcolm Garrett cover as they looked through the racks in Woolworths on a Saturday afternoon.  It was usually because of his distinctive use of colour and form, which reached all the way back to ‘Orgasm Addict’.

“I think that it was an unconscious reaction to the kind of economic times we were living in,” suggests Cleghorn.

Garrett, however, has a different perspective.

“It came from Andy Warhol and pop art,” he counters.  “But the fluorescent colours were from psychedelia and taking acid as a teenager!”

Another Assorted iMaGes signifier was immediacy. 

“When people go to a record shop and flick through the racks, the sleeve has to make them stop and think, ‘Oh, this looks interesting’,” says Cleghorn. “So the design has to work on that very simple level. It’s a piece of commercial art and you’d always want the artist’s name to be prominent, ideally at the top. You’d want people to know what they were looking at.”

Assorted iMaGes only ever had to compete for one job – a Bow Wow Wow cassette box for Malcolm McLaren – and it was the only one they didn’t get. Other than that, everything Garrett and his agency did was commissioned on reputation alone.

Malcolm Garrett closed the doors on Assorted iMaGes in 1994. By then, he’d come to believe that his best record covers were behind him.

“There comes a point where you are just an onlooker,” he explains. “You’re a good record sleeve designer when you’re 17, 18, 19… when it’s your life. Because music is life. Following Buzzcocks, being a punk… that was my life then and it’s what came out in the work I did.”

Awarded an MBE for services to design in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours list, Garrett is now the creative director of the London-based agency IMAGES&Co, which he runs with Kasper de Graaf. He is also an ambassador for Manchester School of Art, co-curator of the annual Design Manchester festival, and a sought-after lecturer on branding.

“From day one, I always saw record covers as being all about branding,” he says. “It was never about making a piece of square art. It was being part of something beyond a bit of plastic. In my classes, when I put ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ cover on the screen, everyone knows what it is. I say to students, ‘Can you hear the record?’, and they go, ‘Yeah!’. Then I say, ‘OK, well, the reverse is also true. If I played it, what would you see? You’d see that prism’. For me, it’s proof that sounds and visuals are indivisible.”

‘Imagine Something Yesterday’ is out on The Tapeworm

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