Designer With A Cause


I was very sad to hear about the death of designer David King last week. He was one of the greats of British graphic design and if you don’t know his name you certainly know his work, and may even have some of it in your house.

King was art editor at The Sunday Times Magazine from 1965-75 when it published serious, hard-hitting photojournalism by great photographers like Don McCullin (instead of the celeb/lifestyle fluff it goes in for now). King was always more interested in telling a story and getting a message across than he was in pretty design frippery so his layouts have a directness that still packs a punch today.



While working at the magazine King also designed album sleeves for Track Records. Just a little earner on the side that happened to produce at least two iconic classics. 



The Electric Ladyland cover only took 36 hours from concept to completion, and King’s intention was to produce an anti-Playboy image showing women as they really are in all their unpolished beauty. For his efforts, Jimi Hendrix said he had no idea what it was all about and the sleeve was banned in the USA.

When he left The Times, King channeled his political beliefs into work for the Anti-Apartheid movement and Anti-Nazi League. It was his work for the latter that had the most impact and is probably the best remembered today, especially if you were around in the late 70s when the ANL teamed up with Rock Against Racism to help fight the influence of the NF on young people.



King attempted to create a visual language for the Left in England that was bolder and more memorable than the usual hand-made, photocopied flyer. Like his magazine work, these posters didn’t fuck around with niceties and instantly grabbed your attention. There’s no doubt that his posters helped the visibility of the ANL and RAR and you can still see their influence in the typography on placards at demos in London.

He brought the same bold style to his covers for London listings magazine City Limits which he designed for a year in 1982. Heavily influenced by Russian Constructivists like Rodchenko, he made the most of the limited budget the magazine had to produce eye-popping covers that leapt off the newsagent shelves.


King quit the design business in the 80s — not surprising, given his politics and the superficial, glossy turn graphics took that decade — to concentrate on building his collection of Revolutionary Soviet design and photography which he published several acclaimed books of.

The collection grew to be the biggest of its kind in the world and David licensed images to other publications. Because of this I had the pleasure of speaking with him on the phone about 10 years ago when I needed an image for a magazine article I was designing about an obscure Russian writer. His collection wasn’t online and you had to call David and ask him for the image which he’d mail you a slide of — that was old school even then. He couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful, and it did give me a chance to tell him how much I’d loved his work over the years.

The first band that comes to mind when I think of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism is this lot.

Download: Ain’t Gonna Take It – Tom Robinson Band (mp3)

Lucky Dip


This jolly tune was a regular play on Junior Choice when I was a kid, and hearing it 40-plus years later still takes me back to my bedroom on a damp Sunday morning listening Ed Stewart on the radio. Gives me the warm fuzzies it does.

Download: The Laughing Policeman – Charles Penrose (mp3)

I knew this was an old record but had no idea it dated back to the 1920s.

Something for the Weekend



I originally intended to post this clip last week before my ISP put up a roadblock so here it is again. Tom Robinson performing the title track of his classic debut album (in New Jersey of all places) and doing a Maggie Thatcher impersonation — this was only two months after she first became Prime Minister.

Tough Choices


Graham Parker’s “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (from his classic 1979 album Squeezing Out Sparks) is a song about abortion which has been misinterpreted by some as pro-life because it has lines like “washed it away as if it wasn’t real” and a verse sung from the perspective of the embryo. But the only person vilified in the song is the man who got the girl pregnant and ran away from his responsibilities, leaving her with an awful choice to make. In 35 years of listening to it the only impression I got was that it was just a sad situation for all concerned. “You decide what’s wrong” he sings at the end of the chorus.

Rock songs like to deal with social and political issues in simple, singalong, punch-the-air cliches and you don’t often get a measured, nuanced take on a subject like this.

Download: You Can’t Be Too Strong – Graham Parker (mp3)

Part of The Union


Living on the other side of the Atlantic now I really didn’t have a dog in the Scottish independence vote but I’m happy with the result purely because it increases the chance of a Labour government being elected who hopefully wouldn’t be as awful as the Tories. Even though I’m a Londoner I can see that the city has too much influence and we need a counterbalancing force in the North. Plus I have Irish and Scottish blood and think we’d lose something if the Celtic part of our identity went away — much as I’m proud to be English, being “British” is better.

But I must admit part of me would have been thrilled with the opposite outcome because it would have been a big kick in the balls to David Cameron and the entrenched Westminster status quo which seems to be much needed. There would have been something very punk rock about Scotland tearing up the UK and starting again.

Would have been a shame to lose so many great bands from the UK though.

Download: Let’s Get Out Of This Country – Camera Obscura (mp3)

Commercial Break


This ad is a classic example of turning rebellion into money, in this case using women’s lib to sell booze. These ads are never aimed at people who already are adventurous, rebellious rule-breakers, but instead they’re for people who want to be like that. The message is always the same: Drink this, eat that, wear this, listen to that band, and you will be a cool person. One of the good things about getting older is not caring too much about that anymore, which is why advertisers don’t care about my demographic either.

The “until I discovered Smirnoff” campaign was so famous it inspired jokes like “I thought Cunnilingus was an Irish airline until I discovered Smirnoff” but was stopped in 1975 when the British government passed a law against alcohol advertising that claimed drinking the product would lead to sexual or social success. This is a witty ad but it does unfortunately equate women’s liberation with being sexually available, especially once you’ve got a few vodkas inside you.

Smirnoff certainly wasn’t the first company to co-op youth or social movements for the purposes of capitalism but I wonder who was. Probably someone in the 1920s using the Bright Young Things to sell headache powders.

Let’s get funky.

Download: Liberation Conversation – Marlena Shaw (mp3)

The Pictures On My Wall


I’m not actually sure if I ever had my own copy of this poster but if not I would have been about the only Lefty student in the 1980s who didn’t. It must have been hanging on the wall of every bedroom I slept in or living room I partied in during my art school days, and is as iconic a symbol of its era as the Tennis Girl poster — just the thing to have on the wall of your student digs when you brought a girl home to listen to your Smiths’ records because it showed that you were into politics but had a sense of humour too.

Amusing though it was, it did reflect a real anxiety that Ronnie Reagan was crazy/stupid enough to start a nuclear war – limited to Europe of course — and that Maggie, his ideological girlfriend, was too turned on by the size of his missiles. This feeling wasn’t just reflected on student bedroom walls either as the possibility of nuclear holocaust was all over popular culture at the time. There was When The Wind Blows in book shops, Two Tribes in the pop charts, and Whoops Apocalypse on the telly along with the nightmarish Threads which still gives me the willies today (the whole film is on YouTube if you want to relive the horror). We were hardly reassured by the government’s Protect and Survive booklet either.

Apparently, before it became a poster this image originally appeared in the Socialist Worker newspaper which surprises me because I had a mate in the SWP at the time and they didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour.

Download: (Don’t Let Your Love) Start A War – The Pale Fountains (12″ version) (mp3)

Fight The Power (Again)


Originally posted April 2007

“They are the first band not to shrug off their political stance as soon as they walk out of the recording studio. The first band with sufficient pure, undiluted unrepentant bottle to keep their crooning necks firmly on the uncompromising line of commitment when life would be infinitely easier — and no less of a commercial success — if they made their excuses and left before the riot.”

Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons
“The Boy Looked At Johnny” (1978)

It’s hard to overstate what a ballsy move it was for Tom Robinson to follow his catchy, radio-friendly Top 5 pop hit “2-4-6-8 Motorway” in 1977 with the strident anthem “Glad To Be Gay” but that was a time when lines were being drawn all across Britain and a lot of people felt they had to declare which side of the barricades they were on. It’s a lot easier being openly gay these days, cool even, than it was back then when homosexuals were often thought of as either perverted kiddie fiddlers or John Inman. A mate of mine at school told me he threw away his copy of “Motorway” in disgust when he found out Robinson was “a bloody shirtlifter” — but he joined the Young Conservatives when he left school so I guess he had issues.

Their third single “Up Against The Wall” is one of the most blistering records to come out of punk, a riot of guitars and pulverizing drumming (the terrific Danny Kustow and Dolphin Taylor) that hits you like a boot in the groin — or a truncheon over the head. This led off their classic 1978 debut album Power In The Darkness which, along with the first Clash album, is the best snapshot of the tense, angry atmosphere in England at the time. Some of it seems like naive sloganeering now but back then it felt like life and death, you were either on Tom’s side or you were with the National Front and the SPG.

Download: Glad To Be Gay – Tom Robinson Band (mp3)
Download: Up Against The Wall – Tom Robinson Band (mp3)
Buy: “Power In The Darkness” (album)

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com

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