Oi Polloi

An Interview with Brian Cannon

Published: Fri Dec 21 2018

This article is taken from the latest Pica~Post, but seeing as Brian had some good stuff to say it made since to upload it to the internet too. So here you go…

This is probably a pretty obvious statement to make, but there’s more to music than just the music. Things like melody and chords and all that are fairly important, but there are a thousand other factors that help turn a song, track or album into something more than just a bunch of sound waves smacking into your ear drums.

Record sleeves are one such factor — and not many have created quite as many stone cold classics as Brian Cannon.

As the man behind the infamous Microdot agency, Brian was responsible for looking after the visual side of both Oasis and The Verve, as well as designing covers for bands like Suede, Cast and Inspiral Carpets.

Here’s an interview with him about doing graffiti in Wigan, his trademark ‘in-camera’ style and the logistics of putting a Rolls Royce in a swimming pool…

Maybe an obvious first question – but how did you get into designing record covers? What were you into when you were growing up in Wigan.

I specifically set out to design record sleeves, because I was a fan of punk rock. I was 11 in 1977, when I first got into it all.

Do you remember the first time you saw ‘punk’?

I’m the eldest in my family, so I didn’t have the influence of an older brother – but I did have an older cousin called Tony who was 15 at the time — and when you’re 11, that’s a massive difference. I’d heard about this phenomenon from Tony, and then I saw the Buzzcocks on Top of the Pops — and to actually see it in the flesh — it blew me away.

Why do you think it had such an impact on so many people? Was it because it was so different.

Exactly, it was totally different. At that time, Top of the Pops was your barometer, and glam rock was pretty much all you had — things like Sweet and Mud — long hair, flares, platforms and mad outfits. But then all of a sudden you had these lads who looked like your mates, with short hair and tight pants, making this fast, aggressive music. And I loved it.

How did this lead into doing design?

Me and my mates thought, “We’ve got to get a band together.” So we met up at my mum’s house in Wigan, and I realised instantly that I couldn’t play guitar. I just couldn’t get my head around chords.

But I’d always been good at drawing. My dad was a fantastic illustrator, far better than me, but the opportunities for illustrators in Wigan in the 1940s were zero – so he worked as a coal miner and never did anything with it. But he was very much in favour of me doing drawing, and he always encouraged me.

And with punk, if you looked at the graphics and the visual identity, it felt like it was in reach. I think that was the point of it. Before punk, bands were like creatures from another planet — but with punk, the whole process was demystified – the man in the street could get involved. That was a massive inspiration to me.

So I married my love of the music with my talent for art, and thought that I’d become a sleeve designer instead.

It’s interesting how even in your early teens you knew exactly what you wanted to do.   

I remember doing this art foundation course, and the tutor was going around, asking us what we wanted to do when we finished our education. He came to me and I said, “I want to design record sleeves.” But straight away he said, “No, no, no – you can’t be so specific, you need to get a job in graphics and learn your way.”

“Before punk, bands were like creatures from another planet”

I was almost derided for it – because not only was I going to do record sleeves, but I was going to go freelance from the get go. I think anyone can do it these days, because you just get a laptop and then you’re a graphic designer all of a sudden. But back then, not only was there no social media and no internet, but the equipment required to do the job of a graphic designer, the forerunner to Photoshop, cost £300,000. It was this machine called Quantel Paintbox.

What was that?

It was a computer, about the size of your house, with less power than your mobile phone. It was way out of my reach — I could hardly afford a paper and pencil.

What did you do then?

This punk style was really stark, with high contrast black and white, degraded imagery, and it just so happened that if you photocopied an image over and over, it went like that. And that was handy, because all I could afford to use was a photocopier.

There was a little print shop at the bottom of Library Street in Wigan, and I’d be in there all day, with a scalpel and a tin of glue, putting these things together in the shop – and that’s how it all started.

How did your first sleeve come about? Was that the Ruthless Rap Assassins one?

Yeah — I did a graffiti mural on the side of a warehouse in 1984, and it was noticed by a guy called Greg Wilson, who was a very influential DJ at that time. He’d thought to himself, I’m going to see this New York style graffiti in London or Manchester or Birmingham at some point, but he couldn’t believe it that he’d seen it in Wigan. He sent word out on the street that he wanted to meet whoever had done it, and I was summoned to his house. We ended up becoming friends and I did this sleeve. And then off it went from there.

What happened next then?

I then met Richard Ashcroft at a party and got chatting, but then The Verve got signed and I didn’t see him for another two years. I ended up bumping into him in a petrol station at six o’ clock in the morning. He said, “Wow, you’re that sleeve guy. We’ve just been signed – do you want the gig?”

So I went to London to have a meeting with Virgin, who The Verve were signed to. Vigin obviously had some big London agency lined up to do this work for The Verve, so they were horrified when Richard Ashcroft said he wanted this unknown student he’d met at a party in Wigan to do the artwork. But they were cool enough to think, “Well, this is what the band wanted.” And then after the first single came about, they were like, “Sorry we doubted you.”

What else were you doing at that time?

On the back of doing the stuff for The Verve, Suede got in touch. And then I met Noel Gallagher. I used to have an office in Manchester on New Mount Street in the same building as the Inspiral Carpets office, and I got chatting to him in the lift about trainers.

What were they?

They were a pair of adidas Indoor Super. I took my mother to Rome for her 60th birthday, and I found these trainers in some tiny backstreet shop.

Wasn’t the Oasis logo based roughly on the adidas logo?

The original was kind of the adidas font – but we binned it, because with the adidas font, the ‘A’ is just like an ‘o’ with a line on the side, so it just looked like ‘oosis’.

I did the logo in ’93, and then their first album came out in ’94. After Oasis it went buck-wild... Ash, Cast, even Atomic Kitten… it was mental.

Was it hard to keep up with it all?

No, because if you think about it, even a busy band back then would only put out three singles and an album out per year – so even if you’ve got five bands a year, that’s only twenty jobs a year. Mind you, it was labour intensive as there was no Photoshop.

I was going to ask you about that. As a lot of your images were done without Photoshop, ‘in camera’, how did you go about getting them? Creating an image like the Oasis Be Here Now cover doesn’t look easy.

This is a very important point to make. Because it was all shot on film – we didn’t have the luxury of looking at the back of the camera and seeing what we’d got. We had no idea what we’d got until we got the photos back from the lab. Imagine putting a Rolls Royce in a swimming pool and realising the photos weren’t exposed correctly.

Before the shoot, there’d be a massive process of research and preparation, so when the day comes, nothing was left to chance.

“It was a scrap Rolls Royce, with no engine in it, but it still cost us £1,000 to hire it. And then we had to get a crane and dangle it in.”

Were you given free reign with all this?

Yeah, it was a beautiful situation. With both The Verve and Oasis, the record companies just let us get on with it. All they did was pay for the bills. And that was great, because we knew what we were doing.

A lot of the Oasis ones are particularly complicated. What was the hardest one to pull off?

Putting a Rolls Royce in a pool was pretty tough. Finding a pool that someone’s going to let you put a Rolls Royce into was the hardest part. And then we had to find a Rolls Royce that wasn’t worth £50,000 – because Oasis weren’t that rich. It was a scrap Rolls Royce, with no engine in it, but it still cost us £1,000 to hire it. And then we had to get a crane and dangle it in.

How many shots did you take of that one?

That one was ridiculous, because like I said, we didn’t have the luxury of seeing what we’d shot. For that shoot there was something like 30 odd rolls of film, with 36 exposures on each roll – so it was almost a thousand frames of something that’s really just a still life. That’s excessive.

We stayed there that night, and then we got the films processed in London. Then there was the wait, like an expectant father.

How did you work out which was the best one, when you had a thousand pretty much identical photos to look at?

It was like snow blindness. We’d start with the obvious non-starters, and whittle it down and down. It was a very laborious process of elimination, but we didn’t know any other way.

Do you think this real life, ‘in camera’ method of creating these really detailed images helped elevate them a bit?

By that point we could have easily Photoshopped it, but we just did things for real because it was our trademark, and I enjoyed doing things that way. We started doing it that way out of necessity, because we couldn’t afford computers – but even when we could afford them, we still did things the real way as we preferred it.

And it must have been more fun that sitting around staring at a computer.

Yeah – I loved it. Just to see a Rolls Royce in a swimming pool – it looked amazing.

What about the Definitely Maybe cover? Obviously now that’s talked about as being one of the best record covers of all time, but were people saying that when it was released?

No, they weren’t. It’s all very well saying things with the benefit of hindsight. It’s just been voted as one of the top 70 record sleeves of all time – and do you know what? I’m not going to rain on my own parade, because I think it’s a great sleeve — but had that been for a band you’d never heard of, it wouldn’t be in the top 70.

I suppose there’s a lot that’s tied in with that. The memories that come with it and everything else – it’s a full package. What was the story behind the Definitely Maybe cover?

It’s an anti-band shot. That was the idea. There’s a Beatles album called A Collection of Beatles Oldies (but Goldies!), and on the back there’s this shot of them in this dressing room in Japan. And I just loved the fly on the wall nature of it – none of them were looking at the camera. And whilst it looks nothing like Definitely Maybe, that’s where the inspiration came from.

That documentary style?

Precisely. The band are having their picture took, and they’re all watching the telly.

It’s designed to look candid, but what was the reality of it?

It was incredibly staged. It’s too perfect of a composition to just happen. We positioned everyone very carefully. Even the still on the television was specifically chosen – it’s the shot in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where he’s got him by the face. It was paused on VHS. That’s how meticulous it was.

A lot of your sleeves are photography-based. Was there a particular reason for this?

My favourite record sleeves, with the exceptions of Never Mind the Bollocks, are photographically based. I just think it’s the best way of doing it. And that’s why, in the cases of both The Verve and Oasis, there’s very little intrusion with type or logos.

With The Verve, the logo would be in the shot, and with Oasis, the logo would be in the top corner. We’d spend ages coming up for the idea and staging the shoot, we didn’t want to ruin it by plastering a logo in front of it.

It seemed like there was definite styles for each band you worked with. Your covers for The Verve always had real text in the photo. Was that a faff to do that? Setting the letters on fire on the Storm in Heaven cover looked tough.

Yes, it was. I had the letters made by a steel fabricator in Oldham, and covered them with this cladding that street jugglers use when they’re juggling fire, and then poured paraffin onto it. The only downside was that the letters gave off loads of smoke – and because we were in a cave, it just wouldn’t clear. We were having to wait about half an hour in-between each shot for the smoke to clear.

Where did the idea for that one come from?

I’d never seen letters set on fire and photographed before, but I just thought it’d look good. I do a lot of lecturing at colleges, and I always say, much to the chagrin of the lecturers, that you don’t have to explain everything away. Some things you just do because they look good – there’s no further explanation required.

Very true. Maybe a tough question, especially considering what you’ve just said… but what makes a good record cover?

What makes a good record? You just know, don’t you? There can be a thousand reasons why one might be bad, but I can’t think of one reason why one will be good. There’s no formula to it. It’s down to the individual too – it’s all opinion.

What do you think the purpose of a record cover is? Is it marketing, or is it art?

I don’t think it’s a marketing tool — I’d regard it as a bonus for the fans. I don’t think it sells records. I’ve bought the odd record because of the sleeve, but then again, I’m a sleeve designer.

Were the covers always influenced by the music – or sometimes did you just have an idea you wanted to use on something?

No — that never happened. We were quite vehement about that. Every sleeve was like a bespoke suit, cut for that particular piece of music.

From what I’ve read, you weren’t just some guy in an office sending off designs to the bands – you were involved with the bands a lot more, going on tours and things like that.

I was of the opinion that the more I got my head around what the band were into and how they thought, the better the visuals could be… and hanging around with a rock and roll band is good fun. I toured American with both Oasis and The Verve, but it was mad, because I was the only person on the tour-bus who had nothing to do.

What was it like being around those bands when they suddenly became massive?

It was all a bit weird really. Anybody will tell you this – the best bit of any band is that bit when they just start taking off. The best bits are when it’s still pretty innocent.

Did you have a few people working for you by that point?

Yeah – but it was never massive. At Microdot’s peak, there was five or six of us. In the late 90s we started branching out into all sorts of mad stuff. We were running night-clubs, we were publishing magazines, we were managing bands… at one point there was talk of importing Volkswagen Beetles from Mexico.

A brilliant idea.

I’d gone to Mexico on holiday, and I kept seeing these old Beetles. They were still making them there, and we’d worked out that if we shipped them back to England, and even if we turned them right hand drive, we could still make £2,000 on every one we sold. If we sold 500 of them, we’d make a million quid.

We were all set to go, but Volkswagen head office in Germany had told the Mexicans they couldn’t sell us the cars, as they reckoned it’d harm the Golf market in the UK.

But it would have been mint.

I know. So we then tried the Brazilians as they were making them there too – and this was so Microdot it was untrue. On the street in Shoreditch where we had our studio, there was a little café called Franco’s that was run by a Portuguese family. Now they don’t speak Spanish in Brazil – they speak Portuguese, so I went in to Franco’s one day and I said I’d give the man who worked behind the counter a tenner if he’d come to the office, and speak down the phone to Volkswagen HQ in Sao Paulo. He did it, but it still didn’t happen.

What do you mean by things being, “so Microdot.” Was there a certain attitude there?

Absolutely. The reason why it was like that was because I didn’t have any experience of working in an agency. I had no idea how things should be done — we were just making things up as we were going along.

It was bonkers. When we moved to London, we had enough money from Alan McGee to buy this computer, and to set up a studio in Shoreditch. But in this mad rush to move to London, I’d forgotten that we needed somewhere to live, so me and Matt, the lad who worked with me, had to live in the studio. There was one room, and a toilet, and we lived in there for four months. We had a couch that you could take the cushions off, and we’d take it in turns every night – one of us sleeping on the couch, one of us sleeping on the cushions on the floor.

“I had no idea how things should be done — we were just making things up as we were going along.”

And we could party hard, because we knew that the only person we had to answer to the following day had been out with us previous night – there was no way Noel Gallagher was going to ring us at nine in the morning, because we’d just left him at seven in the morning. There’d be occasions when a client would turn up, and there’d be somebody asleep on the floor in the studio.

Nowadays you do all sorts of stuff – and amongst various design bits, you’ve been photographing northern soul nights. How did this come about?

That was a massive project for me. It started in 2012, when the renaissance was under way. A friend of mine from Wigan said that I should go along to this club run by these kids who were into northern soul.

I was very aware that when you take photographs of people dancing in dark rooms, they just look like statues at a wedding, but I wanted to get some soul or some atmosphere into the shot, so I thought I’ll use an off-camera flash.

I went to this club-night with my mate John, who was going to be my lighting guy, holding my flash in his hand, at a 45 degree angle to me. But when we get there, his phone rings — his wife was pregnant and her car had got a puncture — so that was my lighting gone. So I just put the light on the stage or on the floor, and worked around that, and the results I got were astonishing, purely by accident – I got these massive long shadows, cast from behind.

I suppose that comes from the same place as your record covers – you’re a fan.

Absolutely. Growing up in Wigan in the 1970s made it kind of inevitable to be a northern soul fan.

Alright, I think I’ve pretty much ran out of questions now. Have you got any wise words or anything to finish this off?

Never give in.