Peter Saville

Iconic Factory designer

Factory releases are remembered as much for their visuals as the music therein.

The product of the fertile imagination of Peter Saville, Factory’s discography contains some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful sleeves ever produced. Saville worked with Factory from the beginning, producing a poster (which arrived late) for the first Factory night in the Russell Club – almost exactly 30 years ago.

A pivotal figure in the Factory story, as well as an important and engaging artist in his own right, Saville is as much as icon in his field as Joy Division and New Order were in theirs. Now, Peter Saville tells his side of the story.

The record cover was virtually the only channel of visual awareness between people

Q – Tell me about your early background – what drew you to graphic design?

I grew up interested in how things looked, I remember in my early teens liking the look of things. Music was the primary inspiration source, but also by 1970 – by the time I was fifteen – a more evident visual dimension was coming into music from the bigger sphere of pop culture. The first concert I went to, when I was fourteen, was to see David Bowie and he was the support act to a group called Blind Faith. So in my early teens I was identifying with what was then going to be the new generation of pop. I had older brothers who either into dance music, or one who was into Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, 60s rock and protest music. Me, for myself, I was taken by something different that seemed to be happening, with David Bowie as the first exponent of it. Closely followed by Roxy Music – I think that in my late teens Roxy Music were my version of early art school. Just by being interested in Roxy.

At school my close friend Malcolm Garret and I ended up spending more time in the art room than anywhere else, particularly when we were in the sixth form doing our A levels. We didn’t know where it was going to lead us, we were just doing what we liked doing and luckily we had a young and progressive art teacher at school who looked at what we were doing, and what we appeared to be interested in, which was the later music inspired version of pop art and he suggested graphic design to us. Which we didn’t really know about. He said “have you boys ever considered graphic design?” and we said “no” – we were about sixteen, seventeen. “What’s that!?” He explained to us that there was actually this profession, this career in what we appeared to be interested in doing. By the early sixth form Malcolm and I had this idea that we were going to go to art college to do graphic design. It wasn’t necessarily the best decision to make, I’ve wondered on many occasions if I should have done something other than graphics but that’s a bit hypothetical now. We set our hearts on going to art school, and in 1974 Malcolm and I went to art school. I did the foundation course in Manchester, he went on to Reading University, got bored and we joined up again in Manchester in 1975 on the graphic design course in the art college. Music was probably the single most important cultural medium for us and I think that’s an important thing to try and communicate.

Back then the record cover served as almost the only form, the only medium, of visual connectivity between people. There were fashion magazines but they were very much to do with fashion, the style press that has happened over the past thirty years hadn’t happened yet so there weren’t magazines that told us about what was going on, there wasn’t music video to express ideas. The record cover was virtually the only channel of visual awareness between people, and in that sense was highly important. The record cover, and the release of a record, was a massively more significant event thirty years ago than it is now – but only because it was the only show in town. For Malcolm and I our universe orbited around music culture. Whilst we were at college – in between first year and second year – punk happened. The Pistols appeared. One could see it coming for a few months, but you didn’t know what it would be but suddenly in 1976 it all kind of happened. If pop music was your universe or cultural experience, when punk happened it was like something truly massive was happening, it was like a revolution in youth culture – in a way it was a coup de tat. It was like young people taking back their culture again from the businesses, corporations and stars who had come to dominate it. I mean, pop music fits into that broader bracket of youth culture and youth culture wasn’t really anything to do with young people by the mid-70s and so it seemed an appropriate moment for young people to take it back again. In 76 / 77 that was the feeling, and grown ups, the establishment, were taken unawares by it and didn’t know how to respond. They didn’t know if it was a passing phase, they just didn’t understand what had happened. Almost overnight the entire old order of pop were sidelined for a while, and Malcolm and I likened it to the revolutionary feel of the early twentieth century. We likened it to the aspects of history that we were beginning to learn about. So we were both very excited about the art and design of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and we playfully likened punk to that, to an overthrow of the establishment. Since we were at art college doing a degree in design, we were thinking “how can this be more intelligently expressed, visually?”. The core punk aesthetic of torn edges and the ransom note we sort of affective but we thought simplistic and a little bit banal. We were interested in more cultured associations for revolution and subversion – I remember being very interested in Throbbing Gristle in 77 / 78, they had a discrete and much more ominous version of rebellion than the Pistols. So we were likening this moment that we felt part of to an insurgence and the creation of a new regime. Malcolm got involved fairly quickly with the Buzzcocks, and I was envious of that so by 78 I was looking for something real to do myself. Its frustrating when you’re at art school working on fictional projects, in things that you’re not very interested in, when there’s a kind of wild experience going on around you. The issue by 77 / 78 was post-punk, what was going to happen? Punk was this period of burning the fields, razing the ground to build something and after 18 month of burning the ground there was this feeling in the air of “well what’s going to come out of this?” and of course the expression ‘new wave’ began to circulate. By the time I met Tony Wilson and said “can I do something to help you?” we kind of moved past the revolutionary government of punk and were beginning to think what new regime could we construct now that we’ve taken over. That was the background to it. My personal agenda in all of that, part of my inspiration from Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, was that the whole canon of culture beyond pop which I was curious to learn about and felt was analogous to my everyday. For example Malcolm and I likening punk to the Russian Revolution, we could sort of called pretentious. Or we could understand it as the evolution of pop from its formative and relatively simplistic reference points. It was evolving out into something else, I mean we knew about the look of pop it had been around for twenty years. Elvis started in 1955 – it was a bit boring, a bit limited. Why I got into Roxy Music was that they brought in references from a wider context, they enriched the culture of pop, and you learnt about things that you didn’t know about. So in a way that was my personal agenda, I wasn’t very interested in reiterating the visual language of pop, I was interested in the things that weren’t in the visual language of pop, but which I thought should be. Its excited to discover new things, and the palette of pop by 75 / 76 was on auto repeat – haircuts, trousers and guitars. So I felt there had to be more to our everyday culture than this, that was my motivation when we founded Factory. Everyone who ended up coming together around Tony, Tony was like the sun in a solar system in that everyone gathered around him, everybody had their own personal agenda. I had this agenda, Martin Hannett had another, Rob had his own agenda, Tony had his, we all had our own agenda of the way we saw things and the way we wanted things to be, and Factory allowed us to do that.

Q – What freedom did you have at Factory?

Complete freedom. Factory was not a commercially structured venture, and there was no investment in it, and in the beginning no overheads – there was no office and no jobs at Factory, everybody operated independently. There was a modest amount of money that Tony had made available – he had a few thousand pounds inheritance from his mother and that, in a way was the seed money that paid for the first production, for the Factory Sampler. From that point, because things actually sold the money came back in with occasionally a modest profit and that just went back into the next project. I don’t remember how many years it was until anyone was actually employed by Factory. Alan Erasmus’ flat became the office, so it was like an idealistic venture. It was able to be idealistic because it didn’t really carry any overheads, and because of that there was no formal structure so people did what they wanted to do. I wanted to do covers, and in doing that I wanted to do covers for this independent way of doing things. So I was allowed to do that – nobody said otherwise and nobody channelled it, therewere no gatekeepers, I didn’t have to say to anybody “can I do this?”. Tony admired what I did, he was impressed by the first Factory poster, and he was very hands off – I think the biggest problem was getting me to do things. That ended up being the problem, not what I was doing but when the fuck I would do it. That was the nature of the relationship, when Rob and Tony agreed that Factory would release an album it was a big step forward because we never imagined that sort of thing would happen. We imagined that we would occasionally release records by people who we felt needed the opportunity, and that would bring them to a wider audience and then they’d get a record deal. We never imagined that we would become a record company – Factory became a record company by default. The idea of doing an album by Joy Division was a shock, but we saw it as a possibility, a great opportunity.

Q – You mentioned lack of funds – what was the motivation then for the expensive sleeves by artists such as Section 25 and New Order?

Tony didn’t rely on Factory as a means of income, he had a relatively well paid job with Granada television. Factory was an idealistic venture for Tony, and Tony was without a doubt the chief executive, he was the person around whom the whole thing rotated, without Tony all of these people would have done things but they wouldn’t have done it there in Manchester. It’s a bit like the solar system but without the sun holding everything in place. So a the centre you had somebody who was just pursuing an idealistic dream, so therefore we found money to do what we wanted – we didn’t find money to make more money. Most businesses, in fact all businesses, are predicated around the investment of funds in order to make profit. That’s why 99% of people fund businesses. Every so often you get an idealistic visionary who just wants to make a better car, or batter suitcase or a better television set. Funnily enough those are the visionaries upon whom the world’s greatest brands have been created. They’re more interested in making a great thing, or a great movie, than they are on making a profit. Everything that happened on Factory was centred on the product. Tony never calculated what the return on it would be, so the issue of profitability never really came up. It was more a matter of doing what we wanted to do. With “Blue Monday” – no record label would’ve allowed New Order to release a seven minute single on seven inch. There’s no point to a seven inch single, it won’t be played on the radio so don’t do it. Particularly back then, why on earth would you release a single that wasn’t on an album? Singles don’t make a profit except to sell albums. All of the things that we did at Factory we did out of love, not business. In the same way that they wanted to express how things could be, I wanted to express how things could be. A record was your lifestyle experience, so why can’t it be an enriched possession? Those record covers fulfilled the curiosity, the desire that we now have for iPods, or sunglasses, the right bag, furniture – they were the cultural furniture of your existence, before the designer era became commonplace. Those possessions didn’t exist, so many of the things we now take for granted didn’t exist in young people’s lives – we didn’t have walkmen or whatever. We didn’t have computers, a designer watch or limited edition trainers – none of things existed, and in a way they are the cultural artefacts of everyday life and they didn’t really exist then. I mean, they did for rich people but not in the everyday. The record cover had always filled that gap, Roxy Music or Kraftwerk – I was always very excited by my Kraftwerk covers! They had physical and tactile qualities, they were luxury objects. Remember when I was a teenager a single came in a white paper bag with a hole in it, it wasn’t a possession yet. Record covers were a picture of the band on front, the credits on the back and white – there were exceptions like some of the Beatles covers of Kraftwerk. There was this gradual evolution of the record cover as an object of desire and the Factory covers took that to the next level.

Q – Use of recontextualising, high / low art how did this come about?

Factory allowed us to make statements that we believed in and wanted to make

I felt that there were limitations in the visual dimension of pop culture. In a way it’s a part of the learning curve of the democratised. Knowing something of the canon of culture was not expected for ordinary people until the post-war period – obviously there were exceptional people who wanted to learn. The everyday objects of post-war consumer culture have provided us with an education. Just going into Marks and Spencers’ food hall now is an education in food. Going to a department store is an education in furniture design, and fashion. Basically it’s been consumerism which has been our cultural education. Having started at art college I was introduced into the canon of culture, and the history of culture, and I was curious and wanted to discover things so one discovery would lead onto another. I would see visual material which was new and revelatory to me, which I found analogous to the time. I wanted to share that with other people. I remember when I discovered Italian Futurism – I’d heard of it but didn’t really know what it was – and I discovered this great book about Futurism round about the same time as Joy Division reinvented themselves as New Order and made an album called “Movement”. It seemed to me that there was a direct bit of history happening between this Italian Futurism and the birth of New Order. So I thought “this is a great moment to introduce Italian Futurism to my audience” and it was generally speaking the post-modern period, this was the practice in design and art in general, also in fashion. In the 19th century there was a thing called the grand tour, where children of the privileged and wealthy would be able to go off around the classical world learning about the Holy Land, Paris, Florence and Venice, and in some ways I understand the post-modernist period as the grand tour for the masses. It was through our consumer culture that we were introduced, and are still being introduced to civilisation.

Q – What was the main legacy of Factory records?

One aspect of the legacy, from my point of view, was the clear indication that you can do things differently. Factory, and some of the Factory groups, and the Hacienda as a place, had the freedom and the opportunity to do things differently and propose a different way. Much of which was successful and turned out to be commercially viable, things that the so-called wisdom of business would have negated, or said wasn’t viable, tuned out to be both practical and very viable. So an awful lot of things that we take for granted now in popular culture were pioneered by independent companies and particularly by Factory. “Blue Monday” for example, even that fusion of progressive rock and dance was something which wasn’t a mainstream proposition in the early 80s but is something that we take for granted now. The packaging and presentation of music and lifestyle products, the feasibility of all that is accepted without question now. The interior of the Hacienda, the way Factory went about having a venue, a club is now actually accepted as a new standard. I think that’s one of the most significant legacies of Factory, it did actually change pop culture and what we expect from it.

Q – Factory has now become vast and iconic, how do you react to this?

The freedom we all had at Factory allowed us to make statements that we believed in and wanted to make, without much compromise. The things that we did have come to mean something to people – there is a great respect, regard, admiration for the music, the covers, the memory of the Hacienda – the legacy of Factory is incredibly well respected. Its because it was one of those unusual moments when individuals were allowed to do things for themselves, and to their own standards and they did them as they wanted things to be done. This was respected enormously by the audience, and I think the Factory audience knew that people believed in these products, that these products were not the outcome of strategies, they were not products aimed at some lower common denominator they were products that their creators believed in. I think the audience respected that, it created an admiration – even amongst people who didn’t necessarily like the music or the look – and they admired it, they respected it. To those who liked it, it gave them almost a life-long respect and regard for Factory.

Q – The current move towards mp3 negates the need for packaging what are your views on this?

It doesn’t bother me as that isn’t an area where I personally operate any more, so it doesn’t really affect me. I think to a greater extent there are several different mediums now through which musicians can disseminate visual material. You don’t actually need the record cover the way it was needed twenty five years ago. Twenty five years ago, before style magazines, before music television, before the internet, the record cover was almost the only channel of communication from a group, from a record company to young people and amongst young people. These days they have myriad channels of visual expression, it doesn’t need to be printed on cardboard to have a visual message.

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