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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Jamie Reid, 1998

WITH BOB NICKAS
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVID ORTEGA


Record collectors often buy records because they're attracted to the art work on the sleeve, and I'm no exception. I bought a big part of my collection between 1976 and 1979, when there was an almost endless, giddy flow of punk singles. But back then, the look was deliberately undesigned; predominately black and white, it was less the product of art direction than the nearest Xerox machine. The look fit the roughness of the music, but didn't exactly stand out in the racks. The records were all about the anarchic, messy sounds pressed into the vinyl itself, and the sleeves were just something they were slipped into.
But then came Jamie Reid. His work for the Sex Pistols single-handedly defined punk's visual aesthetic, and was instantly absorbed. With their ransom note lettering, acidic fluorescent colors and cartoonish Pop-barbs, you could see the records a mile away. What Jamie Reid did was give an image to the attitude behind the music that made them inseparable: you could almost hear the song when you saw the sleeve.
Fast forward to the present, and a Jamie Reid retrospective in New York, and his work is still as compelling as it was nearly twenty years ago. And so is Reid himself. The story he tells turns out to be much deeper than the few wild years around punk, a scene that certainly had its share of casualties. The fact that Jamie Reid is still around says something about the man as well.


BOB: You were saying that you're only being asked questions about the Sex Pistols, that people aren't asking about the art work you did for them, but just about the band?
JAMIE: Yeah.

BOB: So we can talk about ...
JAMIE: You can ask whatever you want.

BOB: Well, I'd like to start at the beginning, which is 1968, with the strikes and protests by workers and students that swept Europe in May of '68. Let's take it from there.
JAMIE: When I was 16 years old, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I didn't enjoy my experiences at school, apart from sports, which I loved. There I was, 16 years old, decided, really on an impulse, to go to art school - in Croydon, where I was born. Didn't have any qualifications. But then, you could receive a grant and go to an art school. Nowadays, very tough qualifications and you have to pay. That's where I linked up with Malcolm McClaren, in April of '68, when I was 18. And there was also a painter called Sean Scully.

BOB: I've heard of him.
JAMIE: But none of us now would even be allowed into the education system, which is quite interesting.

BOB: And you and McClaren were among the students who occupied buildings and closed down the school, and later got thrown out for that?
JAMIE: Yeah.

BOB: Well, that makes sense.
JAMIE: And then drifted into various jobs - building sites, demolition work. But then, in the early '70s, myself and a group of friends formed a collective to start a community printing press.

BOB: And that was Suburban Press?
JAMIE: Yeah, which was producing quick and fast - leaflets, pamphlets, books, anarchist cookbooks, things for the women's movement, the black movement, squatting. And in terms of graphic design, I probably learned more from the printing press than I did in art school. You start developing an appreciation for what actually looks good - out of sheer necessity, from having no money. Some things gain qualities, some things lose qualities. We had to produce things really fast.

BOB: So design "ideas" were coming from deadlines, whatever ink's available, deadlines, accepting fuck-ups simply because you couldn't go back and do it again.
JAMIE: Yeah. In very many ways that was the look that later became associated with the Pistols and punk. Its whole base was anarchist community situations and the printing press. And then just moving it into popular culture, which was quite a conscious thing on mine and Malcolm's parts. That's what we did.

BOB: I've heard a little bit about your family, who seem to have had a real influence on your work.
JAMIE: I lost both my parents quite recently and have just really come to terms with how much they gave me. They were diehard socialists. My family has always been involved with the druid order. I myself am a druid, and it's very much a part of my work now. But I was always dragged off to peace protests all through the '60s, from the age of five, and it sort of had a big influence.

BOB: It seems almost natural for kids to reject what their parents gave them when they were growing up - even if it was radicalism.
JAMIE: But it was never preached at me. It was just there in the background.

BOB: Of course, one kid goes to art school and becomes Sean Scully, and another does what you went on to do.
JAMIE: Yeah.

BOB: He's painting stripes and they're selling for $100,000 or some overinflated pile of money.
JAMIE: And not doing very much different to what he did back in school, actually. Quite interesting.

BOB: Well, even if I like people being consistent, you're not doing what you were doing back then.
JAMIE: I've got a very high boredom factor. I really like new challenges, new directions.

BOB: Some of your early work reminds me of all that great English Pop, '60s artists like Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. You must have been aware of them?
JAMIE: Sure. I mean, those people were actually teaching at the time - Bridget Riley was a visiting lecturer, and Richard Hamilton, I started to see.

BOB: You can trace a line from mid-'60s Pop to late '60s radicalism, to the early '70s - with people wondering where to go from there - and on into punk. I mean, nobody knew that punk was coming, but in a way, many of the things that you were doing in the years before it hit were going to really define, graphically and philosophically, define punk.
JAMIE: I can only speak for myself and what influenced me, where I was coming from. The whole Situationist, anarchistic element that's within all that - Suburban Press, the Pistols - I mean, it's like a re-evaluation of history, which, to a big extent, is what the '90s is very much about. History has just gone out the window. You can look at 20th century art, and it's all pretty much unrecorded both on a spiritual and magic level, but also on a political level. From the Surrealists and the Dadaists, to the Situationists and the whole movement of community agit-prop politics, down into punk, and then into all sorts of things. It's a continuing story.

BOB: Well, let's hope it isn't going to be made into a movie by Oliver Stone.
JAMIE: God forbid. I mean, that's where I was coming from, and the move into the punk thing was a sort of disillusionment with the whole over-intellectualization of what happened with the Situationist movement and the politics of the '70s. It was an attempt to take those movements into popular culture.

BOB: At the time, I think there was a strong sense of - in quotes, at least - the "failure" of '68.
JAMIE: Not a failure, a reinterpretation.

BOB: I mean "failure" in the sense that some people really believed they were going to change things quite dramatically, and were later ... well, disappointed probably doesn't describe how they felt.
JAMIE: The odds stacked against you of doing anything - it's amazing any of these things happened at all. But we're not living in a society that's going to celebrate that.


BOB: Didn't you print posters that were put up anonymously or surreptitiously - things like, "Keep Warm This Winter - Make Trouble" and "Save Petrol - Burn Cars," the LIES stickers that were pasted over advertisements?
JAMIE: Oh there was all sorts of stuff. It was a whole group of us in London. I mean, you've got to remember that there were community presses all over Britain. People were out doing stuff, sending stuff to each other. Pranksterism was very much a big part of the whole thing, a lot of humor as well.

BOB: And although it's easy to mistake it for vintage punk, this was all done well before punk.
JAMIE: Yeah, this is '69, '70 ... '73, '74.

BOB: And you actually went around at night and put posters up that said, "Shoplifters Welcome" - in the windows of department stores?
JAMIE: On department stores, yeah.

BOB: And people would be on their way to work in the morning and see them all over the place?
JAMIE: Yeah, right. It caused lots of little problems.

BOB: Did anyone ever get caught putting them up?
JAMIE: No, we got away with murder. And it's still something that's continued. It hasn't gone away. There's been probably more with direct action and the political process in Britain in the last four or five years than ever before. With the road protests - against the overbuilding of roads in Britain - which comes off the festival and rave scene, and the whole animal rights movement. The animal rights movement would stick labels up all over the McDonald's - "Next Monday there's a special, if you get down here at nine o'clock in the morning, you get (inaudible) burgers."

BOB: So it just goes on?
JAMIE: Did before and it always will, I think.

BOB: So when did you meet up again with Malcolm McClaren? Was he aware of what you were doing?
JAMIE: Some friends of mine who ran a political press in Notting Hill wanted to have an entirely different culture within Britain, wanted to get out of the city. And they eventually ended up in the Isles of Hebrides in northern Scotland. This is about '73, '74.

BOB: That's really getting out of town.
JAMIE: And I went there to help them set up a croft, a small farm. It was like going back home in a way, because my family is from the highlands, from Scotland. And I ended up staying there a year. I'd kept contacts with Malcolm, and one day got a telegram saying, "Come down, we've got this project in London we want you to work on" - which happened to be the Sex Pistols.

BOB: But you really had no idea what was waiting for you in London?
JAMIE: I was living in the middle of mountains and lochs and, suddenly - boom - I started working with the Pistols.

BOB: And that was '75?
JAMIE: Yeah. I got a job at a printing press in South London, which was actually a labor party printing press. That's where we were doing all the early Pistols stuff.

BOB: What was it like working with them?
JAMIE: We just went for it. It was like that for four years. An enormous amount of spontaneity. And it was a much more collective situation than probably Malcolm or John Lydon are willing to acknowledge. It was sort of fan-based, about 50 people who were every much as important a part of it as the band were.

BOB: One of the things people may not realize when they see the ads and the sleeves for the records, is that you were also writing copy, coming up with phrases and slogans as part of the whole graphic design.
JAMIE: Yeah, but it was everybody influencing everybody else.

BOB: Weren't some of your record sleeves for the Pistols banned?
JAMIE: Yeah, and interestingly, with the two or three times that the art work was actually banned and the records went on sale in white bags, they didn't sell.

BOB: Wait a minute, when the art work was banned, the records were put out in blank sleeves?
JAMIE: Yeah, they were sold in blank sleeves.

BOB: In the show there's a public notice from the police that has something to do with the prosecution of the persons responsible for the Sex Pistols material.
JAMIE: That came out when we were taken to court for Never Mind the Bollocks.

BOB: So it's not a real sign?
JAMIE: No, we did it ourselves. That was the shop display for that record. It's a spoof on the police sign. But the vagrancy and obscenity laws in Britain, which that refers to, were actually ...

BOB: They're real laws?
JAMIE: They're left over from the Napoleonic wars, when all the soldiers came back to Britain. No jobs, nowhere to live. So people were on the streets. And they brought in those laws about palm reading, astrology, vagrancy, obscenity, prostitution. I mean, those laws still exist and they relate back to those times.

BOB: It must be handy, if anyone does something that offends them, but they're not exactly sure how to deal with it, they just reach back a few hundreds years, and say you've broken the law - of course, it's from your great, great grandfather's time.
JAMIE: Yeah, yeah. But for me, it's just part of the continuing story. You might have noticed the stuff done with Boy George, the Clause 28 thing.

BOB: The anti-gay bill?
JAMIE: Right. And the fight against the Poll Tax, the whole anti-Criminal Justice campaign. There's an underground in Britain that's never been more vibrant than at the moment. But the Pistols thing, it's really odd, it's become so iconized. I mean, it's really part of a much larger thing. So many people looked on what we were doing at that time, and moved it into different times. There was the whole birth of the Rai movement in music and culture. Massive thing in North Africa, very inspired by punk, that made a significant cultural change in Northern Africa. But I mean, the Pistols ... it's far less significant than actually the look, the fashion, the sleeves, the music, and the attitude - which was like, 90 percent of it - which went off in all sorts of directions and changed culture quite fundamentally.

BOB: So what music are you listening to now?
JAMIE: I listen to all sorts of music. World music, an awful lot of jazz, a lot of Mingus and Coltrane.

BOB: And what about current English pop?
JAMIE: I think it's sad that you've got a whole nostalgic youth culture now - bands like Blur and Oasis and British indie. Most of the western music scene is purely nostalgic anyway. And I find it sadder that young people are doing cover versions of the '60s and the '70s now, when some of those old bands are reforming. I mean, that's okay, they've done their time, might as well make the most of it. But you've got an Asian music scene in Britain now, the whole Bhangra thing that outsells the charts. You've got music that's come out of the festival and rave movement that's not selling through mainstream record stores, but that's selling massive amounts, and it's not even charted.

BOB: Yeah, but if it's music that's more than three minutes long, or in some way "exotic," they won't make room for it no matter how popular it becomes.
JAMIE: You know, I've been involved with Afro Celt, which is basically a fusion of African and Irish and Scotts music. It's dance music. They've been playing all over the world, and they're selling bucket loads of stuff, but they don't get mentioned in the music papers.

BOB: Maybe it's better that way.
JAMIE: I think it's brilliant.

BOB: The English music press has a way of absolutely loving something one week, and then trashing it the next.
JAMIE: Yeah.

BOB: And what are you doing with them exactly?
JAMIE: Technically I'm a band member. I'm the art director. I do hangings, paintings, film shows, slides. And interestingly enough, the whole concept of Afro Celt was formulated at the Strongroom recording studios in London, which is a very big project that I'm involved with. It started in '89 and it's a big architectural interior project. It has quite a magic, druid, astrological base to it.

BOB: Those are the pictures that I saw?
JAMIE: Yeah. You have bands like the Prodigy, Orbital and the Orb being very much a part of that, the Chemical Brothers, Spiritualized and all sorts of people. It goes right back to that whole Situationist critique of modern architecture. Most 20th century architecture is about enslavement. But at the Strongroom there are studios and leisure rooms, an acupuncturist and a masseur. We're going to have flotation tanks. We're creating architectural interiors that inspire you. And you know, it's the biggest independent recording studio in Europe now, which means it's not in the palm of the record companies.

BOB: They can't be very happy about that.
JAMIE: Yeah, it's a major project. It probably won't be finished until the next millennium.

BOB: I'm wondering what you think of seeing all your work brought together? Although it's at least in a big rough space. I'm sure if it was shown on white gallery walls it would look much more respectable.
JAMIE: Most art galleries are the most appalling, boring, sodden places. And the things I want to do, you can't do in existing gallery systems - to 24 hour access, and take it through the night. With this show in this space, I've got people dancing at 3:00 in the morning. I mean, the way we've done shows before, the wall's meant as a performance space. Maybe there are people here in New York who can use it. We've got to work on all that.

BOB: It seems that you like to work collectively, and for your work - whether it's a record sleeve or a big show like this - to be circulating in the world, to be a part of life, and to be able to generate other things.
JAMIE: Yeah, very much so. And the show is going to travel, the show itself will change. It depends upon the place. And different people will be involved, coming in and out as well. And although my name's on the poster for this show here in New York, I'm working with a group of people in Liverpool called Visual Stress. There's ten of us over here doing this thing, of which I'm just one member. I've got my name on this one - sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

BOB: Finally, and I hope you can forgive this last question, the MTV question, but what did you think of the recent Sex Pistols reunion tour?
JAMIE: I wish them all the best ... in many ways.

 

 
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Jamie Reid by David Ortega, 1998

 

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