With the arrival of the term ‘heavy metal’, all of a sudden a strange mad vogue for cartoon monsters, horror imagery and air-brushed derivative nonsense seemed to take over the art departments of the labels specialising in this musical genre as the seventies drew to a close and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal became a marketing catch all. The three albums here show labels trying to get the grips with the idea across collections, with varying results.
Axe Attack (1980) is frankly laughable, a fact perhaps explained by it’s origins on K-Tel. Where some K-Tel collections have a day-glo brashness which can be fun in a retro way, this fails on just about every level. Art and design remain uncredited while the crude painting seems to confuse glam rock with heavy metal, if the star face paint is anything to go by, and the metal lettering is a real dogs dinner. Musically the collection is actually not too bad, rounding up hits by many of the heavy-weight rock bands of the late seventies, and you can imagine young teens just getting into rock going for this as fair value for money. At least they weren’t cover versions.
If the standard of art on that was low, on Live And Heavy (1981) the cover illustration is far more accomplished but even more cliched. It would certainly have stood out in the racks but must have looked grim to anyone outside the narrow demographic Nems were aiming at. Although the illustrator is not credited, the Cream agency are named as responsible for ‘design and artwork’.
Music wise it includes several of the names who appeared on Axe Attack, with an interesting twist to the collection (and one which gives the LP it’s name) being all the tracks are from live recordings rather than the usual studio cuts.
Best of the trio by a long shot is Metal Explosion (1980), released by BBC Records. The musical link between all the tracks here is that they were recorded for Tommy Vance’s BBC radio Friday Rock Show. As such they were not generally available anywhere else. As Vance used to give up and coming bands a break, musically it varies but headlining rock outfit Gillan was happy to join in and provide the best cut here.
There is some fun to be had looking at the universally dreadful band logos which adorn the back cover. Most groups at this level seemed to be determined to have their own graphic (suitable for embroidered patches) even before they’d unwrapped their new guitars, and few had any grasp of design whatsoever.
The cover illustration though is very accomplished, and hints at a fairly decent budget for the job. It has the look of some Japanese airbrushed robotic imagery but was done in the UK by Michael Lye (with overall art direction by Mario Moscardini.) Lye did a couple more covers for BBC Records; a strange one for a collection of sporting themes (featuring a figure made up of various bits of sporting kit!) and a detailed airbrushed portrait of Tony Hancock for a reissue of old radio shows. He also did book covers for sci-fi titles and is still hard at it, with some really great stuff shown on his web site.
UPDATE – Mike Lye did drop me a line in response to my enquiry about his cover: “For your information I’m not sure at that stage in the early eighties I had seen any contemporary Japanese artists. I was far too busy to be looking elsewhere!
I had done a lot of album sleeve illustrations and later CD covers for BBC Enterprises between the years 1977 to 1991. There had been quite a cross section of subjects ranging from Charles Dickens to BBC comedy i.e. all the Hancock’s Half Hour albums and The Fawlty Towers- ‘At Your Service’ cover. I got on very well with Mario Moscadini the art director at the Beeb, we had come from a fine arts background at Art Collage – he Glasgow, me Liverpool. The way it worked, he sometimes presented me with a visual or loose sketch and I would return with a very finished drawing for approval. I had to do this as a working drawing; it was step in the airbrushing process before cutting, masking film and going on to do the colour work. On occasions the time schedule was so tight that there wasn’t enough time for this process (this was pre fax machines and computers) so he would trust me to come up with an idea and finished artwork literally overnight. ‘The Essential Comedy ‘ sound effects album was a case in point and became a successful cover design.
It was a long time ago when ‘Metal Explosions’ was commissioned but I am pretty sure that Mario gave me an open brief on this one and I came up with the idea and image. The leather clad guitarist was influenced by seeing Suzy Quatro. However, I exaggerated the folds and creases in the leather suit for rhythmic and dramatic effect and the robotic hand was a fiction influenced by an image I created for a cover of an electrical or mechanical engineering magazine some months earlier. I Illustrated many trade magazine covers in those days, some of which could be quite surreal.
You may be amused to know that the original artwork hangs above my head as I type this, I hung it on my study wall when we moved here!”.
Many thanks Michael. The BBC label was distributed through Pye at this time and operated into 1988 or so before they gave up and licensed rights to others from then on.
BBC Sound Effects albums on the site.
BBC Language albums on the site.
Mike Lye illustrations
Art of Heavy Rock book review
Thanks to Darker Than Blue for the sleeve shots.
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