I WAS NOT A FAN OF PUNK ROCK in the 1970s and ’80s. I admired the political aspect of the punk movement in the UK and the anybody-can-be-in-a-band spirit, but I didn’t connect with most of the music. (I still don’t care for most of it but have loosened up a bit with age.) I also didn’t care for the artwork that adorned the sleeves and jackets of punk records, although I did admire the anybody-can-be-an-artist spirit. 1
John Yates was not a household name anywhere I have lived. I was turned on to his work via a link posted on Facebook by old friend Dan Styklunas. This link connected me with the I’m Learning To Share blog, whose motto is “Time for a little Show & Tell, ‘cuz all that neat stuff is no fun if you keep it to yourself.”
“Punk was just so different to me and seemed to give me a voice I lacked but didn’t know I lacked!”
I’m Learning To Share featured a selection of Yates’s work on his Punk Note project, each one of which intrigued me. The webmaster—who identifies himself only as The In Crowd—had this to say:
“The graphic design work of John Yates has been showing up on album covers and in other places since the late 1980s. His design portfolio site, Stealworks, has a section of Ideations that includes this series of Punk Note album covers [where he takes] classic punk rock albums released between 1965-1990 and re-imagines them with design elements drawn from the Blue Note jazz record label. Some of these imagined covers are ‘merely’ really fun or really good. Some of them are also transcendently f***ing brilliant.” 2
To read this article in its entirety, click HERE.
This is John Yates’ reimaging/ideation of the Damned’s MACHINE GUN ETIQUETTE album cover. This was one of the few pieces in Yates’ portfolio that presents the band members in full color that I selected. The album was originally issued in the UK in 1979 as Chiswick CWK-3011.
Put against a wall and shot
The Alternative Tentacles website has a brief biography of the artist that tells us that he was “raised incredibly bravely and unquestionably well” by a single mother after his father abandoned his family. The mother was aided by her socialist father, who taught his charge to be strong and independent and “that any working man who votes conservative should be put against a wall and shot.”
The images below are not actual record covers so you can’t buy any of them. They are works of art so you can admire them for free.
John became an artist, eventually accepting a job offer at the San Francisco office of the tiny, punk-based record company Alternative Tentacles. For this job, John emigrated from Britain and never looked back. He dedicated ten years of visual shenanigans to the pioneering record company, finally leaving in 1998.
John did a variety of art-meets-commerce endeavors, including posters, t-shirts, and the popular ‘zine Punchline. His work has been collected in a book titled Stealworks. He has also done freelance work for numerous bands and several other record companies, achieving modest name recognition. 3
To read the biography in its entirety, click HERE.
In an interview on the No Echo website, Yates claimed that the simple, almost-all-white design for Jawbreaker’s LIVE 4/30/96 was his favorite cover of those that he did for Allied Recordings. “It took until the label’s last-ever release for me to actually be happy with something I designed.”
Of course, this led me to the Stealworks site. There I found too many images to count and Mr. Yates does not include a list/index, so interested viewers just have t scroll horizontally through the window to see what he or she might see. (Yates says there are more than 200 covers so far.) While I recognized many of the groups from the ’70s and ’80s, some I forgot before I had a chance to remember them.
The designs of Yates’s that attracted my attention were those with lots of white and those with black and white photos that filled the canvas and were given a monochromatic tint. Those and daring, creative typography, which always get my attention.
To enlarge any album cover below, click on the image. If you want to see the original (non-Yates) cover art for each album, click on the record company and catalog number for each title below.
To see the 200 albums on this site, click HERE.
Title: SONGS THE LORD TAUGHT US
Record company: I.R.S. SP-007
This reminds me of the cover for the Decca UK version of the Rolling Stones’ 1966 album AFTERMATH. The guy in the center even looks a little like Charlie Watts.
Record company: Island ILPS-9573
By laying the seven purple panes or panels out in an uneven manner, it gives them a sense of motion, as though they are bouncing gaily across the canvas of the over.
Title: NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED
Record company: Stiff America USE-9
The photo of the group has a lot of busy dark and light areas and the blue tint makes it even darker. The yellow and white print could have been lost in the business of the photo but it’s not and the whole thing makes for a gorgeous image. Of course, punk bands of the time weren’t remotely interested in gorgeous images.
Group: 3 (Three)
Title: DARK DAYS COMING
Record company: Dischord 33
When I first looked at this image, I thought the group was named Dark Days Coming and the album was titled 3.
Group: Soul Side
Record company: Dischord 29
Like 3’s album above, I mixed up the two names on the cover, assuming the band was Trigger and the album was SOUTHSIDE.
Group: Dead Kennedys
Title: IN GOD WE TRUST, INC.
Record company: Alternative Tentacles VIRUS-5
A lot of people running their own blogs and websites should study this design and then rethink those blogs and websites. Including me.
Title: THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING DICKIES
Record company: A&M SP-4742
When I look at this design, I think this is what the Yardbirds’ 1966 album should have looked like. (It was released as YARDBIRDS in the UK and as OVER UNDER SIDEWAYS DOWN in the US.) The fact that the guy on the right looks a wee bit like Jim McCarty helps.
Record company: Clay PLATE-2
The original album, the group, or the artist, did not include a question mark with the title. Here, Yates has added that piece of punctuation and made it the focal point of the design.
Record company: Sire 1-25330
Like the Plasmatics design above, Yates used a photo with lots of dark areas, gave it a dark tint, and then set yellow and white type against it. This may be the most effective design in the Punk Note series.
Group: Black Flag
Record company: SST 9502
Here, the red-tinted photo of the group is broken up into nine black windows, making the cover look like a piano keyboard with a couple of broken keys. This is my favorite of the Punk Note ideations (but you probably figured that out already, nyet?)
Those are my ten selection but believe me, I could have posted fifty images here and not do justice to the Punk Note portfolio and Yates’s grasp of the beauty of the original Blue Note album covers of designer Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff. In an interview on the No Echo website, Yates stated:
“I have always been a fan of Reid Miles’s work for the Blue Note label and have tried to pay (very poor) homage to his work in the past, But decided that I’d come up with a few personal favorites for my own edification. That ended up morphing into 200 titles from 1965 to 1990, the year I decided to end with, for better or worse.”
To read the interview in its entirety, click HERE.
American Bible Belt is my favorite poster by John Yates. Given the environment we are living in here in the States (and that includes living above the belt), this poster will remain an appropriate statement for generations to come.
It seemed to give me a voice I lacked
Recently, Yates did an interview for the Achilles In The Alleyway website (“Protesting the rising tide of conformity”). In it, we learn that something positive exists in our world in some part due to the coronavirus pandemic! 4
“I discovered music, and punk in particular, as most do, in my early teens through peers at school. I remember vividly the first time I heard the Stranglers on a school trip to France via a friend at the time. It was just so different to me and seemed to give me a voice I lacked but didn’t know I lacked. Like every other teen at the time I started seeking out more and more music, and with that came the lifestyle and the mindset, I suppose.
In my time doing record cover design, I have on occasion dabbled with my version of homages to Reid Miles, the graphic design genius behind the iconic Blue Note jazz label aesthetic (together with Francis Wolff, who provided the majority of the photography).
Having lost my job in late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself with some time on my hands, and way too much time living inside my own head due to personal reasons. I needed something to do and decided to actualize some ideas I had notes on. The Punk Note series is one of them.”
To read the interview in its entirety, click HERE.With his Punk Note ideations, graphic designer John Yates takes classic punk rock LPs and reimagines them using design techniques from classic Blue Note jazz LPs of the ’50s. Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was cropped from John Yates’s 2020 (re)design for Black Flag’s DAMAGED album. It was inspired by—or at least I assume it was inspired by—John Reid’s 1962 design for Freddie Hubbard’s HUB TONES album. 4
1 Please give a look-see at my article, “Did Sid Vicious, Elvis, and Sinatra Really Do It Their Way?”
2 According to Merriam-Webster, ideation means “the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas.” Obviously, the term is used by Yates in another context, one that I have seen other artists use in their rethinking and redoing older works. A better definition of these artists’ use of the word may be found in the book Ideation: The Birth And Death Of ideas. There, Douglas Graham and Thomas T. Bachman state:
“Today, we refer to using previous works as derivative, or influenced by, or sometimes, less kindly, as plagiarism. The evolutionary idea simply takes something that already exists and improves it. Some nations have based their industrial policies on this kind of approach: improving things that already exist. Any system designed to manage innovation must recognize its elusive nature. Innovation is continually evolving and mutating, which makes it much more difficult to manage than, for instance, physical inventory.”
3 These biographical paragraphs are paraphrased from the Alternative Tentacles website.
4 According to the Achilles In The Alleyway’s webmaster, the site is “a journal of art, prose, poetry, photography, politics, philosophy, life, death, and all the sounds that lie in between, over, under, sideways, and down.”