You would have been living under a rock (and roll) not to know that Charlie Watts, drummer with the Rolling Stones died last week, aged 80.
Whilst we love the music, what interests this column is Watts’ training as a graphic designer, influencing the Stones in two ways: album covers and concert stage design. Both of which we’ll explore in coming weeks.
Watts was born into working-class London in 1941, grew up in a miserly prefab house, as much of his suburb of Wembley had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe during WW2. He took up the drums at the age of 13 (converting a banjo into a snare drum) and explored jazz with his lifelong friend and bass player, Dave Green.
After school he enrolled at Harrow Art School, studying graphic design. In 1959 he made a 36-page cartoon book dedicated to his hero, jazz great Charlie Parker, whose nickname was ‘bird’. Called Ode to a High-Flying Bird and intended as a children's book, he depicted him in a simple graphic style as an anthropomorphic bird, with narration handwritten around the images.
It took an unvarnished look at Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, both his unbounded creativity and alcoholism, with a sweetness similar to John Lennon's drawings in two books: In His Own Write (64) and A Spaniard in the Works (65). It was the success of those two books, and a desire to capitalise the fame of the Rolling Stones, that took the book from the bottom drawer to publication, albeit in a small run, and sold out instantly. You can buy a copy today for about $2,000, or you can find it as part of the Charlie Watts Quintet album From One Charlie to Another.
Returning to pre-Stones time. Having graduated as a graphic designer in ‘60, Watts worked for advertising company Charlie Daniels Studios in London. In ‘61-2 he worked as a graphic designer in an advertising agency in Randers, Denmark and played with local jazz bands. On returning to London, he was invited to join Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated through which he met Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. In January ‘63 he agrees to join the Rolling Stones and the rest, as they say, is musical history.
The early album covers reflect the influence of the A&R men: they feature a single photo of the five members of the band in various poses, not unlike the early albums of the Beatles. They use the best photographers; 12 x 5 and Out of Our Heads were shot by David Bailey who would rise to fame for his work with Vogue. Notice however that in every album cover, save the sixth, it is Brian Jones to the fore.
That 1967 album, Between the Buttons, is not so well-known as it has no ‘hits’ but it does have some interesting stories. The photo was taken by Jared Mankiewicz, replacing David Bailey when Charlie Watts was looking for something more mysterious and enigmatic than the well-posed ruffians of the early album covers. The shot was taken 5.30am in Primrose Hill after an all-night recording session at Olympic Studios. Mankiewicz used a homemade camera filter with black card, glass and Vaseline to give the fuzzy edges of the band dissolving into their surroundings.
In Mankiewicz words the goal of the shoot was "to capture the ethereal, druggy feel of the time; that feeling at the end of the night when dawn was breaking and they'd been up all night making music, stoned." Brian Jones is at the back of the group for the first time, looking disheveled, and described by music critic David Dalton as “like a doomed albino raccoon”. Watts contributed more than just the buttons on his tie - he drew cartoons of the band, in a style similar to his art school days, for the back cover.
As good as ‘Buttons’ was, the next cover was a disaster, even if the music was much better. For Their Satanic Majesties Request the band’s publicist hired photographer Michael Cooper, who had recently finished designing and shooting the cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the Stones were not the Beatles, almost an opposite, and the concept was a pale imitation, a half-baked embarrassment. And Watts’ look says he wanted nothing to do with it.
Beggars Banquet returns to form, with the Stones scribbling graffiti in grimy toilet (no Banksy here). Decca, their record label from the beginning, refused to release the album. The Stones repost was a cover so bland it seemed a joke: a guilt edged wedding invitation. Years later the graffiti cover, that the Stones themselves had made, was released.
The next album was to be called Automatic Changer, and Robert Brownjohn, a graphic designer friend that Keith Richards brought in, had the idea to stack a group of off-beat items onto a record changer: a pizza, a bike tire, a film canister, and a cake baked by Delia Smith (future British TV legend). The name is changed to Let It Bleed, but the cover is kept, and the assemblage is destroyed to make the back cover with the title tracks
In 1970 David Bailey reconvenes with Charlie Watts in an abandoned military airport near London, along with a donkey called Jack (they'd originally wanted an elephant) for Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. Said to being inspired by the lyrics of Visions of Johanna by Bob Dylan this take by Bailey has Watts in his stage clothes and one of Jagger's hats (holding guitars?), with Jack draped with drums and a guitar,
There is no more famous album cover than this one from 1971. But it could have been very different: it was originally intended to be called The Big Yawn with a traditional band shot by photographer Peter Weber. The band suggested co-opting Andy Warhol, one of the great artists of the era, and he makes one of his best-known creations, Sticky Fingers.
The first tranche has an actual working zipper (which reveals briefs when opened) was a huge production issue, not only for cost, but shipping and stacking were difficult; the Stones were convinced and fought for it all the way. A traditional 2D version was inevitably created; the one that is most widely known and sold. It was also the album that introduced the Stones’ open mouth logo (guess where that’s from).
The double album Exile on Main Street emerged from a turbulent time when the Rolling Stones were tax exiles, recording music in drug-fueled high energy sessions. The album cover brilliantly captures those times with chaotic collages featuring more than 230 images, some taken from a 1958 book of photographs by Robert Frank titled The Americans, including ‘three ball Charlie’, a 30s circus star. Jagger features 48 times the same as all of his bandmates combined.
Goats Head Soup was named after the local gumbo the Stones enjoyed during a stint in Jamaica. Designer John Pasche, creator of the Stones mouth logo, had the idea for a goat's head boiling away in a steaming cauldron, but the label baulked. The Stones approached Hipgnosis, then becoming famous for creating iconic covers for bands including Pink Floyd. But their centaur idea didn't work.
Back to David Bailey, photographer from ten years earlier, whose winning idea was chiffon on Jagger's head seemingly descending into water, or as a recreation of Katharine Hepburn's headwear in The African Queen.
And that’s only the first ten years: you can read about the next 45 years next week, or in this article from which some of this history is drawn. And we still have the ten great stage designs to go.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].