Getting a large group of creative students excited about painstaking research and precision planning sounds virtually impossible – unless you are Brian Cannon! But then when you are the man behind seminal designs for The Verve, Oasis and Suede and have worked for an impressive catalogue of major brands, you have their attention and respect.
In a riveting talk on 23rd March, packed with familiar visuals and unexpected anecdotes, Brian charted his progress working with top bands and organisations in the 21 years since he established Microdot. At the outset, Brian assured the students, “There is no right or wrong way of doing it – it is about creativity at the end of the day – this is just my way.”
Brian highlighted pivotal moments that had culminated in his impressive career, beginning in 1973 when his father, who he described as “an incredibly talented illustrator” who worked as a coal miner, had introduced him to paints, pencils and charcoal and his love affair with art began. A second great love was music and a definitive moment for him was when he first heard the Sex Pistols in 1976. The demystification and inclusion this represented inspired him and he was also captivated by their record designs featuring Jamie Reid’s typographical work, which he reckoned had never been bettered. Against the advice of a teacher who thought his ambitions too narrow, Brian sought a career which married these twin passions. “As early as eleven I set out to design record sleeves. I wanted to get involved in the music industry through design. All great music has an art movement associated with it” and after punk, Brian got into early American hip hop and graffiti art.
Brian explained, “Throughout my career there have been three milestone lucky meetings. The first was in 1984 when I attempted graffiti pieces on a wall in Wigan before I started my degree in Leeds and the DJ Greg Wilson happened to see it as he was playing in Manchester. That got me a job for a Manchester rap band called the Ruthless Rap Assassins. I started developing a style - all image based with a narrative. I was scratching a living then had a second chance meeting - this time with a bloke I met at a party. I told him I wanted to be a sleeve designer and he told me about his band.” Richard Ashcroft and The Verve were just starting out and Brian made his name doing all their record sleeves.
Brian explained how his established way of working grew out of working with film and with minimal budgets. “I didn’t have a Mac until 1995 and by then I was so into doing real things.” Brian then showed all the amazing images for each record cover and explained how he created them without any enhancements during the making or processing of the film. “You only got one go at many things so research and preparation was 90% of the battle. On film you have no idea what your shots look like until later. Everything needs to be researched meticulously as you have no room for error.” Brian described how he took test shots from every angle days before each shoot; improvising to achieve dramatic effects, for instance having blue cascades by tipping blue food colouring in the water upstream; or using family, friends and acquaintances as models rather than professionals.
“My way of working with The Verve was to immerse myself in their work, so I was there during the recordings as well at taking inspiration from the music itself.” Brian made many of the props he used himself and recommended the merits of this approach. “These days everyone is computer obsessed. Look beyond it, physically make things and get your hands dirty.” While viewers would never have imagined the lengths he had gone to in constructing many of his shots, Brian was bemused by the subliminal meanings that fans had mistakenly read into many of them. Brian recalled his dislike of the sleeve for The Drugs Don’t Work and suggested that this was a useful lesson for the students. Although Brian was engrossed in the life of The Verve and had exacting standards, he recalled how his own idea was side-lined for an idea Richard Ashcroft wanted. “You will all encounter this. You work on something for ages and love it but the client does like it. Get over it; you are not a fine artist! I have worked with lots of bands and with The Verve I was almost the exclusive creative force, whereas with Suede I was almost a technician replicating what Brett Anderson wanted.”Brian then showed described his third serendipitous encounter. “I took my mother to Rome for her 60th birthday and bought a pair of shoes there. I was in a lift in Manchester and a man asked ‘Where the f*ck did you get those shoes?’ We got chatting, he loved told me he loved my work for The Verve and he said ‘I am in a band and when we get signed I want you to do all our covers.’ The man was Noel Gallagher and Brian went on to do famous work for Oasis. Brian described how he had devised their iconic logo and style based on the original Decca logo and its positioning. He then showed images and discussed the creation of the covers and bespoke labels for the vinyl records for each single release. “I spent so much time staging these shoots that I didn’t want to obliterate the photos with type on the front, so they have no title even, just the logo.” The intensity of his preparation was apparent from his description of how the casual-looking still for the album cover Definitely Maybe, which reveals nothing was far from spontaneous. Inspired by Van Eyck’s The Amolfioni Portrait and a love of the narrative detail in Renaissance art that Brian had acquired when doing his A Level Art, he constructed the scene weeks before by shooting pictures of himself posing in every conceivable position in the room. These were traced and marked out on a plan of the room, trying different permutations on a paste up board. Every seemingly incidental object, such as the image showing on the TV, which was a still from Noel’s favourite movie, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,or the poster of Burt Bacharach (another Gallagher hero) was deliberate. The title script was actually Brian’s own handwriting. continued