Chances are, if you know the name United Artists, it’sbecause it’s the production company synonymous with movies like Rocky, Raging Bull, and The Great Escape. Or going further back, maybe you think of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush from 1925. In the 1970’s, United Artists’ the record label issued its fair share of James Bond soundtracks and the like, but there was also something progressive going on at the company that was a world away from its mainstream movie-making. In addition its soundtracks, UA was putting out mind-bending albums by Hawkwind, Krautrock visionaries like Can and Amon Düül, and later, punk groups like Buzzcocks and The Stranglers.
The man responsible for signing all of these groups, and many more besides, is Andrew Lauder, a Hartlepool-born record executive who now resides in the south of France where he and his wife Judith sell antiques. Over the phone, he explains how a record company enmeshed in classical Hollywood folklore came to be selling records with radical artwork on the sleeves and sounds inside that would challenge—and in many cases, horrify—the listener.
The story begins in May 1967 when Lauder started work as a radio plugger at the London division of Californian independent label Liberty Records. A fan of the West Coast sound, Lauder says he talked himself into a job when a friend who owned a record shop on Charing Cross Road inveigled a phone number from the managing director of the London branch of Liberty. Once in the job, Lauder and his flatmate Ray Williams (who famously put Elton John and Bernie Taupin together) used to go out at night hunting for bands. Their first signing was Jeff Lynne’s Idle Race (we’ll be seeing more of Jeff later) and then the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
All was rosy in the garden of Liberty, but then a year later in 1968, a holding company called Transamerica Corporation moved in. A merger with United Artists was mooted, and for a lot of people the writing was already on the wall. Lauder soon found himself manning the phones and taking on further responsibilities as record executives evacuated Liberty preemptively, rather than witness their good work overridden and undone by corporate investors. “It was a bit like rats deserting a ship,” says Lauder, “I found myself almost on my own with the finance guy and the copyright department. When people phoned in for appointments and asked to speak to the art department or the managing director or whoever else, it was all getting put through to me. I was incredibly young and inexperienced but there was nobody around to tell me not to do things.”
And so began a decade of Liberty/UA signing some of the weirdest and most wonderful bands on earth under the tutelage of Lauder who, in his early 20’s, was left to do his own thing. “Andrew just saw this opportunity as it was a label that nobody was paying attention to or cared about, meaning he could effectively sneak out all this really cool stuff,” says graphic designer Malcolm Garrett. “And so that’s what happened. Andrew had a brilliant ear for cool bands and he signed up The Stranglers, and Buzzcocks, and 999.”
Back in the late ’60s, Lauder licensed the music of stateside groups like Captain Beefheart and Creedence Clearwater Revival (the latter was a very successful, chart-topping venture), and brought psychedelia to the label via the avant-garde music and graphic design collective Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. Hipgnosis designed two of their earliest outings with UA: Alexis Korner’s A New Generation Of Blues and the eponymous first album of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. The sepia-tinted photographic style would be a far cry from the neo-surrealism they’d become notorious for in the 1970’s.
Lauder also got to indulge his love of Haight-Ashbury psychedelic surfer and Grateful Dead acolyte Rick Griffin, when he enlisted him to design the sleeve for west coast-inspired South Wales psych-rockers Man, and their album Slow Motion in 1974. Griffin’s design prominently featured Alfred E. Neuman from Mad magazine holding a fish, though remarkably Mad had not been consulted and, perhaps unsurprisingly, objected. The image was scaled down so that it just featured a hand holding the fish with Neuman’s chin unidentifiable enough to appease William Gaines’ lawyers, although the logo of the band’s name Griffin painted was arguably more than just an homage.
“Barney Bubbles was very, very adept, but he was also an acid-gobbling freak like Hawkwind, and so he was completely turned on to their world and the counterculture. They hit it off pretty quickly.”
If Liberty/UA didn’t have Rick Griffin on the payroll too often, it did have the next best thing in Barney Bubbles, working mainly with Hawkwind. In fact Bubbles would prove himself to be incredibly adaptable over the years, transitioning seamlessly as in-house artist for acid-fried, long-haired space rock pioneers to speed-driven punk rockers. Lauder and Bubbles were kindred spirits bonding over a love of Griffin, while Hawkwind became kindred spirits of Bubbles’ too, converging at Frendz magazine on Portobello Road where Robert Calvert and Michael Moorcock were contributors. “Frendz was almost the house magazine for Hawkwind for a bit, and so Bubbles is designer and art director at the magazine and starts designing for Hawkwind,” says Bubbles biographer Paul Gorman. “They share all those interests in cosmology and Egyptology and codes and signs. He was very, very adept but he was also an acid-gobbling freak like they were, and so he was completely turned on to their world and the counterculture. They hit it off pretty quickly after the first album came out.”
The second album, 1971’s In Search Of Space, would be designed by Bubbles, a die-cut interlocking foldout in the shape of an imaginary space station. “Barney was very important to us at that point,” says Lauder. “We became good mates over the years. He did all those exotic Hawkwind packages, In Search of Space with 16-page booklets.”
“Look at the use of stars on the cover,” says Gorman. “The number of stars surrounding that central roundel wouldn’t have been accidental. And it’s kind of like an American flag isn’t it? It’s a really good emblem and the packaging folds out like a hawk, which is a visual joke.”
Gorman says Bubbles studied how to manipulate cardboard packaging for retail displays whilst still at college and co-opted it in the name of rock and roll. “Album covers well before MTV were the primary source of communication. In those days music listeners looked at the gatefold sleeves because there were visual messages which fitted the music. Apart from the hit Silver Machine, Hawkwind weren’t on the radio. And so you’ve got to chuck everything at it to grab attention.”
It all sounds rather expensive. “It was,” says Lauder. “In fact, what we did that nobody would consider doing now is that we made the albums more expensive.” This would be through packaging extravagances like gatefold sleeves.
“Well before MTV album covers were the primary source of communication. Listeners looked at the gatefold sleeves because there were visual messages which fitted the music”
While United Artists experimented with packaging, Barney Bubbles called upon the spirits of fin-de-siecle decadence for the 1973 Hawkwind live album Space Ritual. It is clearly an homage to art nouveau poster art by the likes of Alphonso Mucha, with perhaps a nod too to San Fransciscan psychedelic poster art, though Gorman says “it’s also not very psychedelic because it’s geometric. That’s another thing to always consider with Bubbles. He’s quite a geometric artist and he’s very balanced and considered, whereas you think of psychedelic art as being out there and colorful, elastic and explosive. This is very contained.” Contained or not, it was still a double album that came with a fold-out sleeve.
The label tried to come up with ways to package the product without it hurting the pocket too much, such as on a sampler called All Good Clean Fun, and on Can’s second album Tago Mago, which had an alternative cover to the German version (the German artwork by Ulrich Eichberger was used for the recent reissue). The UA version used one piece of card with two notches that folded into the other, and another one over the top that kept the whole thing together; a smart solution to bringing out a double album without having to produce a gatefold sleeve. “Obviously you didn’t want to make a record too expensive for a group who were new or you were trying to get people interested in,” says Lauder, who starts to laugh when he remembers the limited success of the packaging. “Nobody else really picked up on it too much. That was one of our innovations that didn’t take off, though it worked for the things we did.”
Before Lauder signed Can, he picked up another German group, Amon Düül II, with UA properly getting behind their second album Yeti. The cover art to the 1970 album is striking, featuring a silhouette of the reaper wielding a scythe. Der Sensenmann in the picture is portrayed by Wolfgang Krischke, a member of Amon Düül’s art commune in Munich who, shortly after the picture was taken, froze to death in a case of misadventure while under the influence of LSD. Keyboard player Falk Rogner used his picture with sleeve slide projectors and lights to create what music journalist David Stubbs called “one of the most searing and enduring images of German experimental music”.
Between 1976 and 1978, United Artists licensed the music of Don Arden’s Jet Records—its biggest act was Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra. John Kosh, a London-born graphic designer who’d worked as the creative director for Apple Records for the Beatles before emigrating to California, was hired in America by Arden to design the sleeve for ELO’s A New World Record. Kosh had worked previously for Lauder back in London, creating covers for Warner Brothers’ back catalog compilations.
The idea for A New World Record’s background came to Kosh on a jet heading from London to Los Angeles via the Arctic Circle: “The pilot woke us up to say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, take a look out of your window and you’ll see something you’ve never seen before’, and I looked out and there was the Aurora Borealis. These lovely wafts of color and these beautiful stars shining through it became the background for A New World Record.”
As for the foreground, the ELO motif that we’re now so familiar with was a customized 1015 Wurlitzer from the ’40s, inspired by his father, who used to work for the jukebox company. The lettering meanwhile was a pastiche of the General Electric logo. “To begin with you had to present a ‘tissue’,” says Kosh, “which in those days were very elaborate drawings with crayons and colors or whatever else. If you presented an idea to the label or the band or whoever, you had to make it pretty plain what you were talking about. So I drew this thing out very carefully with my Caran d’Ache Swiss crayons—you can blend them and move them around and make them look very, very pretty quite easily.”
The cover itself wouldn’t be quite so easy, and this being the ’70s, everything was done by hand with cutting friskets, scalpels, and airbrushing layer after layer. “You could be there until four o’clock in the morning and all of a sudden the last color you’re putting down bleeds onto all the others and it’s ruined,” says Kosh. The final piece, at 4 ft by 4 ft, would hopefully wow the client. “And you present it to the band and there’s a gasp of breath and you know you’ve won.”
The inspiration for the followup came to Kosh in a similar Archimedes moment when he flung a frisbee featuring an ELO promotional sticker to his son in the garden. The cover of Out of the Blue featured a similar image to that on A New World Record but tilted on its axis in the form of a spaceship. In 1978, ELO severed ties with Arden and went to CBS, while Kosh moved on to other graphic design opportunities, though the same logo and the same lettering, although sometimes slightly altered, made an appearance on many of the band’s subsequent LPs and compilations. Did they send Kosh a cheque for services rendered? “If I was still getting cheques for those then I’d be calling you from the Bahamas,” he says, bluntly.
About a month after Out of the Blue was released—going on to sell 10 million records—a little known punk band from Manchester released their first single with United Artists, the followup to their self-released Spiral Scratch EP. As punk single covers go, Orgasm Addict [see the top of this feature] is a classic of the genre: a Dadaist and provocative statement of intent featuring artwork by Linder Sterling (known just as Linder). Buzzcocks guitarist Steve Diggle says that it also bears a Pop Art-like feeling, “which was quite striking in its own way. The thing about a woman being dehumanized and made to feel less than a human being.”
Was it a feminist statement then? “It was in a way. It was saying that women aren’t just objects.” The cover art concept was decided by a panel of Richard Boon, who was managing the band, Howard Devoto, who was Buzzcocks singer on Spinal Scratch but had taken the unusual step of leaving the band to co-manage them instead (later forming the band Magazine), and Sterling, then a student at Manchester Polytechnic a year above Malcolm Garrett. “We sat around and decided to use one of Linder’s montages on the sleeve and I took it away and was tasked with doing the artwork for the sleeve, so I basically put the whole thing together, brought it back, turned it upside down, photocopied it, did all the typography and everyone went ‘ooh, that’s alright’,” says Garrett.
The logo was created out of cut-up Letraset, which was as utilitarian as it was punk, though the photocopy of the image was done in blue and yellow rather than black and white, a combination Garrett can’t remember the reason for, though the color was intentional: “I didn’t want it to be black and white even though it was punk rock. We decided from very early on that punk rock was about bright, fluorescent colors and angular graphics, it wasn’t about black and white and graffiti and things being done badly. It was about things being done aggressively.”
“The pressing plant came out on strike and said ‘we’re not pressing this filth’” says Diggle, laughing. “So the release date went back three weeks to persuade the pressing plant this was artistic language and poetry.” But Garrett remembers it differently: “There’s a lot of myth. I did the artwork. It got printed. It went into the shops. I don’t recall any delay… They were signed on the day Elvis died which was August, and the record was in the shops by October. That’s super fast.”
“I was trying to create a sleeve that it would be difficult to actively like, and even to this day I like it because I don’t actually like it.”
There may have been problems had they followed through fully with the concept for the What Do I Get?/Oh Shit single sleeve, which proposed the word “shit” emblazoned on the front cover. “With Orgasm Addict we’d played around with which way up it was, and I was interested in the record sleeve as a box, not as a portrait of the artist,” says Garrett. “We were very anti-Hipgnosis and anti-Roger Dean at that moment. There was this punk ethic that they’d put two quality songs on both sides that wouldn’t then be on albums, so they were like the Beatles in that regard.” The designer suggested that the photographs were wrapped around the sleeve rather than placing a photo on either side, “so the front goes onto the back and the back goes onto the front.” However, he deemed the vertical division between the images too “boring”; hence “What” on the front and “Do I Get?” is on the other side. “The reverse was meant to say ‘Oh’ on the back and ‘Shit’ on the front. We all thought that saying ‘Shit’ on the front cover probably wasn’t right,” Garrett adds.
For the three cover designs for the band’s albums, Garrett followed the Bauhausian code of shapes: Another Music In A Different Kitchen had featured a square, Love Bites a circle, and a triangle for A Different Kind of Attention—the shape Garrett sees as the strongest . “because you can’t collapse it—but if you put a triangle within a square, it’s visually unstable. So there’s a tension there.” This tension was amplified by the color choices—fluorescent yellow, orange, and purple with black: “Then I extended it with the use of circles which are all balanced on impossibly thin rules, so visually again everything is looking like it’s held together by nothing and on the verge of collapse.”
The A Different Kind of Tension cover works because it’s challenging, Garrett suggests: “I was trying to create a sleeve that it would be difficult to actively like, and even to this day I like it because I don’t actually like it.” He adds, “It’s beautifully simple and yet enigmatically complex in the most magnificent way.”
“We were kind of sandwiched by designers. It was a very fun period.”
The United Artists party came to an end towards the end of the ’70s when Lauder founded Radar Records with Martin Davis with a roster that included Elvis Costello and the Attractions and Nick Lowe. Although Liberty/UA stopped signing left-field artists from then on, many of the constituent players involved with the label’s design found themselves in a situation where they were closer than ever. “When we broke away from UA and formed what was Radar Records, we had an office where Malcolm [Garrett] was in the basement and Barney Bubbles was working for Jake Riviera at the top of the building,” says Andrew Lauder. “We were kind of sandwiched by designers. It was a very fun period.”