Weller’s Style Councillor!
Record sleeves by the Modfather’s favourite designer have been brought together in a new book about the former Jam frontman. Ian Burrell looks at the career of Simon Halfon, who has also worked with Oasis
Friday, 28 November 2008
When a young Simon Halfon, then one of only three mods at Durham University, went backstage to meet The Jam at a gig at Bridlington Spa Pavilion, he didn’t think he was forging a relationship that would define his career.
But the conversation with Paul Weller in 1979 stood him in good stead. After Halfon dropped out of university, and returned to his native London to pursue a career in the music business, the Modfather remembered him. A quarter of a century later he is sitting on a portfolio of record-sleeve designs that span Weller’s career from The Jam, via The Style Council, to his solo work.
In an era when record shops are closing in droves, as sales plummet in the face of digital downloading, smart design plays a vital role in slowing that decline. Halfon’s work is so distinctive that he has been sought out by Noel Gallagher to produce Oasis covers, and has also worked for The Who and George Michael.
Certainly it is something that Weller himself takes seriously. He has deployed Halfon’s services on solo albums As Is Now, Heavy Soul, Modern Classics, Stanley Road and Days of Speed. The same designer composed the artwork for The Style Council’s Café Bleu and Our Favourite Shop, and for The Jam greatest hits album Snap!.
“Artwork for me is very important, and it’s only a shame that it’s becoming less important to people in the era of downloading,” Weller says. “I’ve worked with Simon for decades, and he’s a stickler for detail and has an excellent eye for order and interpretation.” Much of this work has been included in A Thousand Things, a photography-based book on Paul Weller’s career in which the musician and designer have worked closely with music specialists Genesis Publications.
Halfon’s route into artwork was unorthodox. After leaving Durham, he was given a break by Kosmo Vinyl, an associate of The Clash, who found him work at the Stiff record label. Though allocated to the post-room he began experimenting with artwork for the band Department S, an experience that helped him find work with the graphic designer Neville Brody, just as Brody was starting his groundbreaking work on the style magazine The Face.
“Working with Neville was where I learnt, very quickly, how to design. It was a steep and very good learning curve,” says Halfon.
The call from Weller came in late 1982, shortly after the break-up of The Jam. Over a cup of coffee in a recording studio near Marble Arch, the musician talked his new project, The Style Council, and the band’s first single “Speak Like a Child”. “He said: ‘Do you want to design the sleeve?'” says Halfon. “Paul’s ethos was to help young people out, to give them a break.”
When Halfon first met Weller in Bridlington the student had been a Parka-clad Quadrophenia devotee who went to the cinema to watch the classic mod movie five times in a week. But, by 1982, things had changed, with Weller decidedly Europhile. “I would meet Paul in the morning and he would have a rolled-up copy of Paris Match and be smoking Gitanes. We would talk over a cappuccino.”
“Speak Like a Child” wasn’t the most demanding brief: “He said: ‘I want a black sleeve, with the name in the top right corner and sleeve notes on the back.’ The Style Council wanted to be considered Europeans,” says Halfon. “It was the antithesis of The Jam; anything The Jam had done they wanted to do the opposite.”
In those days Halfon would hang out with Weller, going to Ray’s jazz record shop in Covent Garden and looking through the Blue Note sleeves that inspired them both. “There was always something borrowed from Blue Note, the typeface or the layout,” he says of how his sleeve designs for The Style Council developed, combining contemporary style with Sixties references. For the inside cover of the 1985 album Our Favourite Shop, Nick Knight was hired to photograph Weller and Talbot in a similar way to how David Bailey once pictured Lennon and McCartney.
Is it difficult working for such a stickler for detail as Weller? “You are inspired by it and you learn from it,” says Halfon. “Which is why, 25 years on, I know what he’s not going to like.”
Halfon’s relationship with Oasis began after he moved to California and a friend was hired to shoot a video for the track “Supersonic”. “We became friends and every time they came out to LA we would hang out a little bit. When I moved back to Britain in the late Nineties Noel [Gallagher] called me up and said: ‘Do you want to do Standing on the Shoulder of Giants?'”
The 2000 album features a sleeve photograph in which the same angle of the New York skyline was photographed 36 times over 18 hours by Andrew MacPherson, then digitally edited to give an image that simultaneously, and mysteriously, captures the city at dawn, midday and dusk.
Halfon says he found Oasis easy to work with, hanging out with the band at their High Wycombe recording studio, which they renamed “Wheeler End Gentleman’s Club”. Gallagher says of Halfon: “Working with ‘Chalfie’ has been a breeze. No problem is too big to overcome and no whim too small to be insignificant. A true gentleman.”
Halfon, Weller and Gallagher share a fascination with The Beatles. Halfon realised a dream when he worked with the pop artist Peter Blake – who famously co-designed the sleeve for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – on Weller’s 1995 album Stanley Road. He then repeated the collaboration for the 2006 Oasis greatest-hits compilation Stop the Clocks. “We took bits from his studio, which is like a museum, and then brought in our own bits to form a living collage,” says Halfon, 47.
He also works as a film producer. Having last year made the Kenneth Branagh-directed Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Jude Law, he has high hopes that a 10-year project with Law to make a film based on the life of Beatles manager Brian Epstein will finally come to fruition. He is also developing a script written by Tony Parsons based on the writer’s experiences as a young rock journalist. Meanwhile, the 2,000 limited-edition copies of A Thousand Things have already sold out.
Genesis Publications specialise in signed, limited-edition photography books with titles covering modern music, art, sports and history. For more information visit http://www.genesis-publications.com
Covered: Halfon on his album sleeves
Café Bleu (The Style Council)
“This was designed before the days when paparazzi pictures were common, and the idea was to make it look like a paparazzo shot while also using the influence of the classic Blue Note covers. The photographer was Peter Andreson.”
Days of Speed (Paul Weller)
“This was a live album, and I wanted something with a feeling of movement. I looked at the contacts from photographer Lawrence Watson, and these images popped out. I overlapped them to give an almost animated feel.”
Stanley Road (Paul Weller)
“The idea was that we would all contribute elements that Peter Blake would put into a collage. I brought a little picture of John Lennon. Peter had the great idea for a centrepiece of a picture of Paul as a boy, holding a picture of himself as an adult.”
Snap! (The Jam)
“It was designed to go with the pop-arty title really. I used primary colours and trawled through the archives to find a picture that hadn’t been seen before. The Jam had split, it was the start of The Style Council, and Paul just let me get on with it.”
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (Oasis)
“We were going to photograph the band on a roof in New York, but then Bonehead and Guigsy left Oasis. I said: ‘Why don’t you broaden it and have a cityscape but have five kids playing football on a roof?'”
Don’t Believe The Truth (Oasis)
“Noel said: ‘I want some graffiti painted on garage doors.’ Lawrence Watson took the picture with a fish-eye lens and it almost looks like a planet or moon.”
From The Independent