Helena Mcaleer
Helena Mcaleer 15 October 2014

Brian Cannon of Microdot Speaking at 'Inspiration - The Lifecycle of Ideas' 2013

Brian Cannon founding of Microdot and Oasis Album cover Designer speaking at 'Inspiration - The Lifecycle of Ideas' 2013.

Brian Cannon founding of Microdot and Oasis Album cover Designer speaking at ’Inspiration - The Lifecycle of Ideas’ 2013.



Buy tickets for this year’s ’Inpiration-Think Again’ on October 23rd, 2014 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.


Hello, everybody.  As you can see I’ve been working as a creator in the disciplines of photography, graphic design and film for 25 years.  Wow.  It’s obviously an ideas based profession, but I think possibly one of, if not the best ideas I’ve ever had was the actual career choice in the first place.  More specifically, when I was 12 years of age, I specifically set out to design album covers. 

The next 20 minutes is going to be my life story from being 12 to 47, where I am now, what inspired me to get there and a few stories about what happened on the way. 

The first, biggest influence ever was this chap, who’s possibly the best illustrator I’ve ever seen in my life.  He never made a penny from it, though, because he was a coal miner, and that was my father.  When I was probably five or six years of age he introduced me to drawing and painting and using charcoals and such, and it just had a massive impact on me. 

I still wasn’t considering it as a career then, obviously.  At five years of age I wanted to be a train driver, that’s when the seeds were sown.  I realized very early on I had a natural talent for it, and I loved doing it.  So the train driver idea went out the window when I was about 11, when I discovered this lot, the Sex Pistols.  You’re obviously all familiar with them, but for me it was more than just the music, the fashion, it was more than a political statement.  It was bang, the doors were open, everything had changed.  The music industry, which had been controlled by massive, massive companies at the time the whole process was then demystified because the Pistols smashed the doors open, as I say, and young working class lads like myself realized this is actually feasible.  I could get involved with this now.

Initially at 11 when I heard this I thought, “That’s it, I’ve got to get into this,” picked up a guitar but I realized I didn’t have the patience to play it.  So the rock star idea went out the window.  So when I was 12, there I am, I thought I’ve got to get into it, so I’ll marry the two disciplines together that I’m good at and I love, the art and the drawing side of things and the music.  At that age I literally said to myself, “I want to be an album sleeve designer,” designing killer album sleeves for the biggest bands in the world, and quite remarkably I actually pulled it off. 

I did my research, how do I get into it.  Obviously I realized I’ve got go through school, do my A-Levels, art college, graphic design degree and I began my degree in ’85.  As a lot of you will know then, because I’m sure you’re the same age as me, there’s no computers available to students at the time, because image manipulation at the time was done via a machine called the Console Paintbox, pretty much, it cost $150,000.  I didn’t have $150,000, neither did the college, actually, for that matter.  It was all analog stuff we were doing, and as you can see it’s very much punk rock influenced.  It’s all collage work, multimedia, sticking things down, ripping things up, photocopy style.

The point of the exercise, I thought, at degree level, and I was quite disappointed with the course, actually because I thought you should be able to express and develop ideas, whereas I felt restrained because they were expecting me to do fish finger packets and wine labels.  I had no interest in it whatsoever.  I turned it into an open university course, working from home, doing all my mad shit like this, basically.  I was threatened with expulsion on several occasions.  But I passed in the end, obviously.

The point to all this was just this was my first bash at realizing ideas I have in me.  I thought of this as the first hurdle to overcome.  I’ve got the vision in my mind.  How do I physically construct this?  Of course there’s no type setting machines, nothing.  It was all hand rendered.  Everything was hand rendered, which I think in the long run is a great discipline to have, because it’s something that stayed with me throughout my career, even when it became digitized with the Mac, I still work like this.

I had this blind self-belief, I have no idea where it came from because I had not track record, never worked with anybody, certainly never did any record sleeves.  At the end of the course the teachers were like, “So what’s your plans, then?”  Are you going to go and try to get a job in an agency in London?”  I said, “No, no, I’m just going to freelance and do it on my own.”  “What are you talking about?  You can’t possibly do that.  You’ve got no experience, you’ve got no track record, you’ve got no equipment.” 

I’m like, “No, I know what I’m doing.” 

I moved to London in ’88, and that was the hardware that I had, and I’ve still got it now, a scalpel, tin of glue, cutting mat and a ruler.  Guess what?  The tutors were right, and I got bugger-all work.  I got bugger-all work for about two years, as it goes.  But I refused to give in, because I thought I haven’t got a Plan B, there is no Plan B,  this is what I’m going to do.

I was scratching around, I was getting bits and bobs of work but nothing to scream about, and by pure chance at a party in Wigan, funnily enough, I met Richard Ashcroft who was in a fledgling unsigned band at the time called Verve, and we got chatting.

“What do you do?”  I said, “Well, I’m designing records sleeves, or trying to.”  He says, “What, that’s specifically what you want to do?”  I said, “Yeah.”  He was like, “Well, that’s amazing because most lads want to be rock stars, footballers, DJs, but you actually set out to be a sleeve designer.”  I said, “Yeah, I did.”  Thought no more of it, and about two years later I get a message via a mutual friend of ours that they’ve been signed by Virgin Records and he wants me to do the artwork,  Yes!  There is a God. 

We had a chat about what we were going to do for this first single release.  Richard, in turn, informs Virgin Records, they’re a massive major label obviously, that this guy he’s met at a party in Wigan is doing the artwork.  They’re like, “Well, hang on a minute, here.  This is a major, major investment for us, and we’ve got all these other big London agencies lined up for it.”  They’re like, “No, no, no.  I trust this guy.  I think he’s good.  He really understands us, we’ve communicated well, and we’ve discussed it all and I want him to do it.”

I went for the first ever marketing meeting at Virgin Records, bear in mind I’d never worked at an agency, so I had no idea about presentation skills,  I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, basically.  The first meeting I ever went to, big marketing meeting, and all you marketing bogs will know what this is like.  I was sitting at this big board room table, and he comes, “Right, and Brian, what’s the big idea.  Let’s see the visuals.”  That was it.  Quite literally.  And that was a piece of paper that big, bear in mind.

When they said, “Well, where’s the rest of the presentation,” I said, “No, that’s it.”  I said, “Well, I know what it means, and I know how it’s going to look,” and I think I was proved right, because the first single looks remarkable like that, actually. 

You’ve got to bear in mind again that none of this is done digitally, not even shot digitally, it’s all on film.  The inspiration came from the lyrics, in this particular case.  It’s all in the mind, this sort of pea soup, Wonderwall, mad image he had in his head.  We all physically constructed this in Wigan park that day, but it wasn’t a slap shot as I make it sound, obviously, because we know we only get one shot at this, so it was all about research and preparation.  As far up front as two weeks before, there’s Richard Ashcroft shot on location so we could work out exactly how the composition was going to build. 

I got the gig, then, because they thought, “Well, he’s obviously not a total crack pot.  He can do the job.” 

We move onto the next sleeve, and what that’s inspired, the idea behind that was the lyrics.  The next song was The Sound, and this is this huge cacophony of sound this record made.  I don’t know where this idea came from, but this idea of the neon sign and a waterfall, this electric blue water, none of that was done in Photoshop.  That’s a real neon sign, and you can see the white cables running off to the side.  There was a generator powering it out of shot.  See how blue the water is, and I stood a half mile upstream with a dust bin full of blue food coloring, quite literally, and we dyed the river blue. 

But do you know what?  I think even if I’d have had the … well, I’ll show you some stuff later where I did have the capability to do it digitally, it was just such a laugh doing it.  Can you imagine, that was in the passing Derbyshire.  If you look down the valley, the whole of the valley was blue.  Just to prove that it’s a real neon sign, I dropped it at the end of the shoot and smashed it into bits, which was a shame.

Here’s the point.  I’m not a fine artist.  I do have to report to a client.  I might have an idea that I think’s out of this world, and yet they might disagree with me, which obviously does happen to me every now and again.  But this is for perhaps one of the more famous singles, The Drugs Don’t Work, certainly their first number one and that’s my least favorite Verve sleeve that I did.  I mean, I did them all in the ‘90s.  I just think it’s insipid, and it’s neither here nor there, doesn’t say anything.  Richard’s point was that the visuals I initially provided were photographed by John Horsley, who stood over there, sat over there would you believe.  He thought that the song The Drugs Don’t Work is not about narcotics, medicinal drugs, it’s about Richard’s father who died and the drugs couldn’t save his life.  He thought that the ideas that I proposed, which looked like that which I think were a far more interesting color, much to on the death trip.  That got rejected, which I was quite upset about, really.

It’s all about ideas, isn’t it?  I think no matter how good your ideas are, or how talented you are, I think there’s always an element of luck involved, and buying these trainers was a good idea.  I bought these in Rome in 1990.  I took my mother to Rome for her 60th birthday, because I’m a nice lad, and you couldn’t get them in England, they’re obscure, you just couldn’t get them in England.   Cut to the next scene, I think it was ’91, ’92, I’m in a lift in Manchester and this guy gets in, not a clue who he is, never seen him before in my life, and the first thing he ever said to me was “Where the fuck did you get them trainers from?”  And that’s how I met him.  True story.

We’re only going up two floors, and he said, “Well, what are you up to?  What do you do then?”  I said, “I design record covers.”  “What have you done?”  “I’ve done some for The Verve.”  “Oh, really?  I like them.  I’m in a band, and when we get signed I want you to do our covers as well.”  True enough, they got signed and I did everything that Oasis ever released in the ‘90s. 

It’s all very well being lucky, but you’re only as good as your last job, aren’t you?  Noel Gallagher doesn’t suffer fools, believe you me, so if I wasn’t up to it I’d have gotten the sack pretty sharpish.

The first thing I did with them was design the logo.  The top was embryonic one, that we used the Adidas font, more or less, but from a distance it looked like Oosis.  So I changed it to the bold Universe font there, but the idea for that came from a meeting I had with the whole of the band, and it’s the first time I ever met them all together, backstage at a gig in Sheffield.  I never refer to other record sleeves when designing record sleeves, because I think you run the risk of becoming derivative, doing pastiches and I’m certainly not about that.  But what I did on this occasion was I took a book full of classic record covers with me, just to see where their heads were at, where they were coming from, what they like, what they didn’t like.  As I saw that, it hit me like a ton of bricks, because if you look back in the ‘60s, the record company used to put their logo on the front, the Decca logo is the label, obviously, and I was like if you stripped all that type off, and just had that Decca logo there, but said Oasis  instead, wouldn’t that look fantastic?  That’s basically how the Oasis logo was born.  Nobody picked up on it, I can’t believe nobody rumbled me for that. 

Again, this looks like it’s just a fly on the wall shot, but it’s a remarkably posed scene is this.  The idea was it’s just them relaxing at home, chilling out, just normal people.  This is actually the guitarist’s house, and if you look all around, it is littered with little visual metaphors, if you like, the footballers, the screen, even down to the image that’s still on the TV Screen, that we freeze-framed it on that particular frame, it’s a scene from the Band of Brothers, which is an old favorite film.  A picture of Burt Bacharach who’s Noel’s favorite songwriter, and so on and so forth. 

Like I say, it wasn’t just in place.  I sat in that room, in virtually every conceivable position for a fortnight before them being photographed, and I’d get a sheet of tracing paper and trace myself over and over again into different positions, and so we’d built up the composition. 

Inspiration for it, funnily enough comes from Flemish renaissance paintings.  This is a painting by Jan van Eyck wedding.  It obviously doesn’t look anything like the sleeve itself.  The point is it turns out little visual metaphors everywhere.  There’s a narrative to the image, which is what I was trying to get across. 

Again, this, believe it or not still wasn’t done digitally.  This was 1994.  I didn’t get a MAC until ’95, so the title definitely may be been more or less my handwriting, which as you can see I’ve done some terribly bad efforts there as well, but that was the original artwork that was sent to the printers in the end.

Then, you know, it was just a dream project.  Can you image, the budgets were spectacular, the lead in times were great.  I didn’t have to deal with anybody other than Noel Gallagher, because he was just the head honcho, so there’s no decision by committee going on. 

This one was one of the more difficult concepts to actually realize, because I was in the tour bus after a gig in South Hampton, and Noel Gallagher gave me a handwritten sheet with all the lyrics to the song and said, “I want you to create an image that illustrates every lyric in the song.”  Wow.  But it’s that standing at the station, in need of education, the sink is full of fishes, she’s got dirty dishes, all around and so it went.  The most difficult bit was actually finding a picturesque disused railway station.  How we did that was I got a 1930s map of South Derbyshire, covered it with a sheet of tracing paper, marked off all the railway stations on it.  Took the same sheet and transported it to the same scale map of the same area, but of current day.  Where the Xs fell, there wasn’t a railway station, and knew that at some point or other there would have been a railway station.  We spent a fortnight driving around to all these places, most of them were just housing estates, what have you, but we stumbled upon that gem, and we obviously did what we always do, we throw it a test shot. 

That’s the scene, that’s a black and white picture, actually, that’s been hand painted, would you believe.  There’s my dad again, the one with the wheelbarrow.  That was the scene before we got … I was … I never took any of these pictures.  I do my own photography now, but back then I was just directing it.  We always just, me and the photographer would go along and photograph me along in situ to get a feel about the composition, the breakdown.  Again, that song, that was specifically about the lyrics.

There are occasions, actually, when the sleeve has no reference whatsoever to the record in terms of the music, or the lyrics or the feel of it, it’s just an image that I liked and the client liked as well.

This one was for perhaps the most famous single we ever did, Wonderwall.  It’s obviously a love song about a girl, so there’s got to be a girl in it, but the inspiration that came from this was I’m a massive fan of Rene Magritte, the Belgian surrealist, and he did a series of paintings which was an image through an image, creating an image.  Obviously you can see on that easel there there’s a painting of what’s directly out the window.  That’s the kind of idea where that one came from. 

When we had the idea for this, based on the famous story when Keith Moon drove a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool, I said, “Please, don’t tell me what I think’s coming next, you don’t want me to actually put a Rolls Royce in a swimming pool, do you?”  He said, “Well, yeah.”  Everybody knows that Rolls Royce’s cost a fortune, even old ones, and even Oasis weren’t that rich that they were going to trash the car, but it is a real Rolls Royce, and it really is in that pool.  You’ve got to bear in mind by this point we did have the digital capability to Photoshop that, but we thought, “No, we’ll do it for real.”

The difficult bit first of all was finding somebody who had a pool that would let us put a Roller in it.  So we contacted a location finding company and that’s actually a hotel in Hertfordshire which was once owned by Victor Loudens who was the playboy head man in Europe.  Wild parties went on there, so that kind of fitted with these lot. 

Then this Roller itself, there’s no engine, the back end’s all smashed in.  It’s a scrap Rolls Royce, but we still had to pay a grand to hire it.  Then, to get in set builders, basically to drain the pool.  We spent two days positioning that car in that pool.

I think looking back on it, it doesn’t look real because it looks like it’s Photo shopped, because I think it looks too small, but there’s the proof.  That car is in that pool.  It was an amazing sight, actually, to be there, to stand and see it, even though you knew it was faked, it just looked amazing. 

That’s kind of, like, ’98, I think.  Low and behold I’m doing what I set out to do, design the best sleeves for the biggest bands in the world, so where do we go from here?  I thought, well, I’ve done massive bands, how about massive brands, but I thought there’s no point approaching corporate stiff clients who wouldn’t get what we were talking about, because they’d just laugh us out the building, so we decided to target brands, I thought, whose customers would have been Oasis fans, for example, and it worked a treat.

We got loads of work off of Converse, for example, like a blind emboss project we did for them.  Another cracker that we worked on was for Absolut Vodka.  This was a dream come true, this, not just because of the vodka, obviously. 

These were new disciplines for me, because everything you’ve seen up until now was entirely image led, all right, with a bit of typography in the corner, whatever but by this point, I mean, to really get back into my roots and study typography again, bear in mind I’m 10 years out of college.  It’s a lot to learn all over again, which is an interesting process, actually.  There’s another one, same thing.  I really love that simple, clean, Swiss type style.

Worked with Levis, these are huge brands, and we weren’t even able to get into the door, because we were just a bunch of idiots from the north as far as most people thought.  There were only five of us working together.  But because of the kudos afforded to us by working with these huge bands we got into these places. 

Interesting project, this was for the Twisted Engineered Jeans.  Remember them?  This was a press kit sent out in a metal tube and the idea was it was like an architect’s drawing, ergonomic, they come up with this plan.  It’s all still ongoing, all this corporate and music work that I do. 

Another good idea I had, I came up with it about a year ago, and this is entirely self-commissioned if you like.  I do it on my own.  I go out every weekend and I photographically document the Northern Soul scene in the UK and Europe.  Apart from anything else, it’s a great laugh.  But I set up, and I obviously don’t need to tell you the importance of social media in marketing, but I set up a Facebook page, not my work in general but specifically for this project about a year ago.  Now there’s 20,000 followers, which I think is quite remarkable for a photographic project based on a minority underground interest, if you see what I mean.  It just basically took off.  I just go around, and these are dimly lit clubs playing obscure 60s black music, effectively.  But the amount of work I’ve got off the back of it, because of the exposure it’s gotten is just off the scale. 

I was in Aberdeen last weekend.  I go all over, and it’s a labor of love, but I do fully enjoy it.  Again, I was in Manchester not too far back, and that kind of takes us to present day, really.  That’s me in my studio a couple of weeks ago photographing myself. 

I suppose the point of it all is I had this mad idea when I was 12.  It probably took me till 26 to realize it, and I spent the last 21 years doing something that I love and I’m passionate about.  I suppose the moral of the story, if there is one is if you’ve got a good idea stick to it.  That’s me, done.  Thank you.  


Buy tickets for this year’s ’Inpiration-Think Again’ on October 23rd, 2014 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

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