an introduction to the punk note ideations of john yates

Es­ti­mated reading time is 9 min­utes.

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.


JohnYates PunkNote Damned MachineGun 600

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.


JohnYates PunkNote JawbreakerLive 600x

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.”

Steal works?

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.




JohnYates PunkNote Cramps SongsTheLord 600

Group: Cramps
Country: US
Year: 1980
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.


JohnYates PunkNote .jpgSlits Cut 600

Group: Slits
Title: CUT
Country: UK
Year: 1979
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.


JohnYates PunkNote Plasmatics NewHope 600

Group: Plas­matics
Country: US
Year: 1980
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.


JohnYates PunkNote DarkDaysComing Three 600

Group: 3 (Three)
Country: US
Year: 1989
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.


JohnYates PunkNote Trigger Soulside 600

Group: Soul Side
Country: US
Year: 1986
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.


JohnYates PunkNote DeadKennedys InGod 600

Group: Dead Kennedys
Country: US
Year: 1981
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.


JohnYates PunkNote .jpgDickies IncredibleShrinking 600

Group: Dickies
Country: US
Year: 1979
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.


JohnYates PunkNote Discharge Why 600

Group: Dis­charge
Title: WHY
Country: UK
Year: 1981
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.


JohnYates PunkNote Replacements Tim 600

Group: Re­place­ments
Title:  TIM
Country: US
Year: 1985
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.


JohnYates PunkNote BlackFlag Damaged 600

Group: Black Flag
Country: US
Year: 1981
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.




JohnYates poster BibleBelt 600

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

FreddieHubbard HubTones m 1000

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.”


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Hello Neal, how are you? You seem okay. The purple lp cover (The Slits) re­minds me of the first USA Yard­birds cover (For Your Love). I never no­ticed how much the old Blue Note logo re­minded me of the Epic records lp logo. Anyway, I hear the Golden Gate is lovely in the spring!

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I wanted to add here, The Plas­matics sleeve re­minds me of the one Stones 45 pic­ture sleeve for which single? The pix where they are dressed up as women. I’ll have to check. It is one of the last with the great Mr. Jones, only it is in full color. Thanks.

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