Artwork for Parklife courtesy of Stylorouge
Blur’s Parklife : The Story behind the Sleeve with Rob O’Connor
Rob O’Connor started his career as in-house designer at Polydor Records but left to start Stylorouge in 1981 taking some of his existing clients with him such as Kirsty MacColl, Stiv Bators (The Dead Boys), Level 42 and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Attracting more work as it developed, Stylorouge employed at one point over sixteen people working on mostly music related design but also marketing campaigns for films. First in a series leading us through the process of designing iconic covers, Rob O’Connor describes how it went designing one of the most significant UK LP’s of the 1990s.
You know, from my experience, socially, nothing’s changed. You really get your best work when you’re working with a client who really cares. There’s lots of time wasted trying things out that end up being dead ends, and you have to come back and go again and again. But if you’re prepared to take that journey with them, you get really good stuff.
We were approached to work for Blur as soon as they’d been signed. At that point they were called
Seymour but David Balfe and Andy Ross from Food Records wanted a new name and identity for the band. We’d already designed covers for Jesus Jones and Diesel Park West for them. They were completely 100% into whatever they were doing and they just had a way of pushing you. Ironically, it wasn’t always into the realms of creating beautiful artwork – they always wanted to end up with something original as we did, but it was more a process of distilling concepts down into a hard-hitting piece of marketing imagery.
The band were really involved in the process. They were only kids at that time – all in further education when they met – I think Graham had been studying fine art at Goldsmiths college. They were so closely involved – even came to all the artwork meetings… that’s not always the case in my experience!
The first thing they needed was a T-shirt design because they were doing some live shows – their first tour as Blur and as part of this they wanted a new logo. So there was pressure to come up with something strong. For a few months we tried out different psychedelic and pop art typography, but it ended up being something way more simple and almost consumer style you know – basic and bold – treating Blur more like a product than a band.
Re-drawn version of the original shirt design in which the Blur logo appeared for the first time. Courtesy of Stylorouge.
The first single that Blur had out was a double A side release:
She’s So High/I Know, and it was through working on that really where we really clicked and sparked off a visual world which we were all happy with. We actually appropriated the image from a painting by the American pop artist Mel Ramos of a bathing beauty on a hippopotamus. Food Records and the band loved it and as soon as we’d acquired the agreement of Mel Ramos to use it, huge fly-posters were produced and pasted around major locations; London, Birmingham and Manchester. It got as much criticism as it did plaudits though, especially as Blur were touring universities and all the women and feminist societies tried to get people to boycott the gigs. They were pulling down the merchandise stands and stuff – completely missing the irony. But then irony is very difficult to pull off when people feel that strongly about something.
Poster in street for Blur’s ‘She’s So High/I Know’ single. Image courtesy of Stylorouge.
The cover sort of set the ball rolling though and we thought we were going off to do more in that pop art direction. And in a way I suppose we did because pop art is about appropriation of consumer imagery and re-editing it – taking the piss out of the fact that it’s commercial imagery and elevating it to an art level which it was never destined for. Artists like Peter Blake were just so clever at doing that. So in a way, if we go back to the visual campaign for Parklife, it ends up being a complete distillation of advertising visuals for gambling, drinking and sex basically.
I remember Martin Amis had a book out at the time called London Fields. His books are generally a bit odd and I’d recently become a bit of a fan. The narrator is a failed writer who’s from a kind of middle class background, ill and down on his luck, arriving in central London. He starts to frequent pubs and watch the guys playing darts and he wallows in this seedy world of people enjoying their leisure time with more working class pastimes, unaware that he is a key player in a crime yet to be committed. So, it triggered a theme really, and Damon had also read it. He wanted London to be at the core of the album sleeve concept.
We produced heaps of visuals and photographic references and had a meeting with the band at Maison Rouge in Chelsea where they were recording. They were saying about how they felt that everything about London was so cool at that time – even though places like Chelsea were really changing. I remember there was even a point when they wanted to include ‘London’ in the name of the album. We had to work with working titles at this point as the band hadn’t yet settled on Parklife.
Below : Unused visuals for the Parklife album; The European version of the singles sleeve for Parklife the single; Unused visual for the Girls and Boys single.
Following that meeting my fellow Stylorouge designer Chris Thompson, a photographer called Rick Mann and I planned to go out separately with our cameras on one weekend and just shoot London as we saw it, in a warts’n’all kind of way. After that we printed all the stills up as contact sheets and marked up about 100 of our favorite images and took them to the band for a follow-up meeting. There were some shots of a betting office in amongst them and I think those images became lodged in Damon’s mind.
Later that week he called and said, ‘I’m getting the band together for a meeting. Would you guys meet us at William Hill’s in King’s Road?’ So the minute the shop opened we went in and just hung around the place, snapping pictures and taking in the atmosphere. Damon felt the place was sort of epitomizing what he felt was going to be good for the project and for us that was a pretty good starting point.”
Below: Polaroids of William Hills, Kings Road, London taken by Stylorouge.
As the song Parklife developed, it became such an important song during the making of the album that they decided to call the album by the same name and everything started to gel. The vibe also fitted the sort of London vernacular of Parklife especially with Phil Daniels being involved and injecting a bit of ‘Cockney geezer’ to proceedings.
The final album cover image was actually inspired by a shop front window in a William Hill betting office. The image that we wanted to create was a pastiche of the shopfront with a designed montage of several sports; people throwing darts, swimming, horse racing, playing football… all that would be going on as you walked past a betting shop window. But the thing that jumped out of it all was one of the strongest images which were these greyhounds. Dave Balfe’s distillation process took hold again. By the time the artwork had bounced back and forward, all the other pictures were pulled out and it got down to the nitty gritty… we were down to a single image!
Below: The distillation process. The busy shop window pastiche becomes a powerful single image. Courtesy of Stylorouge.
We licensed the final image from a photo library – one of those smaller photo libraries that that was very specific and focused just on sports. It was taken by a guy called Bob Thomas. And that’s kind of how it ended up being so powerful in a way and shows how popular that kind of advertising picture can be, and for once the involvement of several creative heads had worked in a positive way.
I think it was a very successful collaboration. David Balfe had alot of influence and I think the band were quite happy to go with it because by this time, they trusted Food Records too. Having said that, Blur had to like it too though as they’d never have allowed anything to go through that they didn’t approve.
ALL IMAGES AND ARTWORK COURTESY OF STYLOROUGE. NOT FOR REPRODUCTION.