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Interview with Bill Smith - Album Cover Designer Extraordinaire!

ARKADE: How did you get into album cover designing?
BILL: I was art director at Octopus Books in 1975 and became art director at Polydor Records and worked at Polydor from 1976-78. I designed covers for Jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee as well as working on other Polydor artists such as Rory Gallagher and the Who (I was at the photoshoot for ‘Who’s last’ where Keith Moon was sitting on a chair which said ‘”not to be taken away” very apposite). In 1977 I designed covers for the New Wave artists, The Jam, who I designed all their album and single covers from In The City until the Bitterest Pill; and The Cure I designed their covers from Killing an Arab, Three Imaginary Boys and 17 Seconds. I left Polydor in ’78 to set up BSS.

ARKADE: How long have you been designing album covers and can you estimate how many you’ve done?
BILL: So, I’ve been designing album covers since 1976 and I reckon I’ve designed 3000-odd covers, not all good mind you!

ARKADE: What would you consider your best achievement so far?
BILL: No big achievements, only the pleasure of working with musicians and artists, making their ideas work, being involved in the music industry for 30 years, I’m looking forward to my gold watch!

ARKADE: What would be your desert island selection of best album covers ever?
BILL: There have been so many great album covers and my list is probably too vast to carry to a desert island, I’d probably sink the boat! However, ones that come quickly to mind and therefore are pretty memorable are – Beatles ‘Revolver’, brilliant illustration by Klaus Voorman himself a guitarist of some note and a dab hand with the pencil. Elvis ‘50,000,000 fans can’t be wrong’, fabulous sleeve brilliant surrealist image. Rolling Stones ‘Sticky Fingers’, simple idea with the real zip, just not achievable these days with record company budgets. Boz Scaggs ‘Silk Degrees’, wonderful photo by Moshe Braka. Pink Floyd ‘Atom Heart Mother’, all the Floyd sleeves have been remarkable, but then that’s what happens if you work with Storm Thorgensen, a genius! Velvet Underground and Nico, by Andy Warhol with a big yellow banana on the front which you could peel off, it only has Warhol’s name on the cover, typical of his ‘Factory’ technique, but such an arresting image. Joy Division ‘Closer’ first of the really blinding sleeve designs of Peter Saville for Factory Records, spookily apt considering the death of Ian Curtis. Blur ‘Parklife’, by Stylo Rouge, Pixies ‘Monkey gone to heaven’ by V23 fabulous image. See what I mean, I could have a stack six feet high! Finally, if I had to take one of mine it would probably be the Cure ‘3 imaginary boys’ I think I nailed it with that one.

ARKADE: Which project(s) is the most memorable and why?
BILL: See above – The Cure, the image of the 3 domestic appliances was to look like a photo straight out of Ideal Home magazine circa 1967 and was Robert really a lampstand? The Jam ‘In the City’ their first album cover, in black and white, it was supposed to look like I’d shot them in a toilet just after they had ‘graffittied’ their band logo on the tiles. I wish I’d got a couple of bob for each button badge that was bought with that logo, nearly 1 million were sold or given away! Genesis ‘abacab’, these boys were quite difficult to design for, they only ever knew what they didn’t like, anyway Mike Rutherford saw these small bits of torn Pantone swatch book colours in my sketckbook, it was about 1” square, he just said I love that, so we did use that but I made 4 different colour variations for 4 different sleeves, all embossed too, - Ah those were the days. Finally, Kate Bush ‘Hounds of Love’, just the best artist ever to work with and for, a privilege.

ARKADE: How long does it take to put an album cover together?
BILL: It really depends on whether the artist has an idea about what they want on their cover, or if I have to come up with ideas, based on listening to music, looking at lyrics etc. after this sometimes the ideas come really quickly. Then if photography needs organizing, finishing design and artwork etc. So it can take anything from 3 weeks to 3 months and even then you don’t always get it right.

ARKADE: How does an album cover get chosen and who makes the final decision?
BILL: In most cases the band have the most say, then the record company decides if the cover is right for marketing the album. These days I think most bands/artists present final covers to the record company and they work with what they’ve got.

ARKADE: What projects have you worked on recently and what are you working on at the moment?
BILL: I’m working on projects outside the music industry at present, so I haven’t had much time to design covers, but I’m working with some new artists on sleeves and a cover for Gary Fletcher who is the bass player with the Blues Band and also designing a website for a writer/producer called Peter Vitesse.

ARKADE: Do you have any advice for bands on how to choose a successful design?
BILL: The simplest ideas are the best, try and come up with an idea and stick to it and try not to get leant on by anyone to change or modify your ideas.

ARKADE: Do you have any advice for any budding album cover designers?
BILL: Ideas are the lifeblood of all design. Go and see some bands play, see if you like their music, then start badgering the manager or record company and tell them you have some great ideas for them, the best that can happen is they might use you, the worst is they’ll tell you to shove it, it’s all part of the learning process.

ARKADE: How would someone go about getting a design created by the famous Bill Smith Studios?
BILL: Sadly, I had to give up on the Bill Smith Studios name a couple of years ago, but Bill Smith would gladly design your sleeve if you call him through BSSP. The pleasure would be all mine!

To see a poster containing a wider sample of Bill's work click here.

Bill Smith can be contacted as follows:
T 00442086500673
M 00447802204551