Jamie Reid’s artwork visually defined an era, frightened a government and changed the face of design – 30 years on he is just as influential and controversial.
Few people have ever faced imprisonment in the name of graphic design. Jamie Reid is a notable exception. Creator of all the artwork for the Sex Pistols, Reid’s work with them visually defined an era by trashing sacred cows and reviling in DIY invention. Leaving a legacy on art and design remains today in everything from trainer adverts to TV shows.
But beyond that short period in his creative life, Jamie has produced a varied body of work that has embraced everything from radical newsletters to interior design, though he has not mellowed with age. Reid still produces artwork for protests about everything from legalise Cannabis to No on Clause 28 and his recent participation in a major anti-Iraq war art exhibition in London’s Aquarium gallery shows he is as anti-establishment as ever. But over the years other sides of his work and personality have become more visible.
His latest project is a joint exhibition with his wife Maria of photographs they’ve taken on their travels in the Welsh and Scottish countryside. “This is a beautiful country we live in,” he says to me in the café were the show is to be held, “and we’re doing our best to fuck it up.”
The café in question is the Egg, a vegan establishment on a side street in Liverpool, the city Reid has called home for nearly 25 years, though perhaps not for much longer: “I think I might move out in 2008.” He remarks in relation to the city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations, the forest of cranes building the new city poking out behind him through the window.
Reid was born in Croydon in 1947, the son of a pair of Socialist Druids he was heavily influenced by his family’s beliefs, recalling: “I was dragged along to every protest there was”. His father was the City editor of the Daily Sketch, though he never invested a penny in his life, his mother had a firm belief in fairies and his grandfather was killed gun running during the boxer rebellion in China. His brother meanwhile was part of an Anarchist group which worked towards non-violent resistance to nuclear war. “He was one of six who were tried for treason,” Jamie says of his brother with a wry smile. “Which I found out later, when M15 released the files, is what they were trying to do with us and the Pistols.”
His work has often been seen in the vein of the Situationist International, a small group of artists and intellectuals whose ideas of subverting the ‘spectacle’ of popular culture had a great influence on counter-culture. He even did the graphics for the cover of the Situationist text Leaving the Twentieth Century by Christopher Grey – the first anthology of writings by the Situationists ever published in English. Jamie says: “Yes that was an influence and pre-dating that, going further back to movements like Dadaism. It was all an influence, as was everything that was happening in the 60s.”
What was his biggest influence then? “William Blake, and that whole period in the 18th and 19th centuries with the likes of Thomas Paine and the French Revolution. It’s part of a pattern of underground movements throughout history, we were part of it in the 70s and you can still see it today”. So does he think art can really change things? “Absolutely, as it always has done, going back to cave paintings. Real art, music too, has a magical and spiritual effect.”
With no clear direction in mind, he signed up to Croydon Art College at the age of 16. It was here that Reid was to first meet Malcolm McLaren and it wasn’t long before both were thrown out of the school for occupying it in a protest. After working a while in demolition he joined the Suburban Press back in Croyden and once more turned his attention to attacking the system rather than buildings.
What began as a community newsletter became a hotbed of subversive artistic statements. Working with a tiny budget, they produced posters to stick up around town with slogans like ‘Save Petrol, Burn Cars’ and ‘Keep Warm This Winter – Make Trouble’. It was here that Reid pioneered the cut and paste ethic that he would later use in his work with the Sex Pistols. They used rough collages, ransom-note lettering and all the lurid colour that the photocopier could produce. Was he trying to celebrate, rather than be ashamed, of their limited resources? “Necessity really was the mother of invention. It was a case of use what was at hand to make things cheap and fast but make them look as good as possible. Use what you’ve got, don’t sit around moaning about what you haven’t.”
Disillusioned with city life, Reid decamped to the Outer Hebrides in 1975. That was till he received a telegram from Malcolm McLaren about this band he was managing. The rest is punk history. From the safety pin through the Queen’s lip to the Never Mind the Bollocks sleeve that landed them all in the dock, Reid was responsible for it all. He was one of the figures who pushed the Pistols in a political direction – even co-writing the lyrics to ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
Beyond the artistic treason there is another side of Jamie’s work that is less well known though just as important to him. Much more earthy and harmonious than the images he is famous for, he paints astrological and magical symbols and serene landscapes. He’s produced a massive series of paintings based around the celebrations of the Eight-Fold Year – the eight druid festivals which divide the ‘Wheel of the Year’. Reid is also heavily involved in producing visuals for the world music outfit Afro-Celt Soundsystem in a similar vein.
As a Druid then, does he believe in the power of magic? “Magic is nothing to be frightened of. It’s there to be used, but for the common good. Very dark people like Bush and that, they use magic too you know, for their own evil purposes.” He continues, “It’s not a matter of going back to the past, it’s about bringing it into the modern world.”
I put it to him that his work seems to have two streams, the spiritual and the political. Is there ever any conflict? “Not for me, there seems to be for other people but I have always done differing work since I began to paint. It’s just that at different times the different sides of me come to the fore.” Does is bother him then, that no matter what else he does in his life he will always be associated with the Sex Pistols? “Well it’s a pain in the arse to be honest and I mean it something that is very English; pigeon-holing you for doing the one thing.”
Of all his work, one of Jamie’s proudest achievements are his interiors in Strongroom – a massive recording studio in London which he is progressively decorating in its entirety. Silk-screened canvasses, marble, etched bronze, and slate carry Reid’s imagery across the 20 room complex. But the project is more than mere pretty interior design: “The sound engineers told me a studio could only be fitted out in one way and we’ve proved them wrong. It’s created a really revolutionary sound.” He goes on: “It’s a 15-20 year project, using esoteric ideas to create an ideal environment for the creation of music. You could easily apply that to say, a hospital. But most 20th century architecture is about enslavement.”
He is also pleased with the effects of his ‘Peace is Tough’ exhibition in Derry: “We really got a dialogue going with people coming in to discuss the work from all sides of the conflict.” The star exhibit of the show was a painting of John Wayne featuring lipstick.
I mention to Jamie that I have always seen a sense of humour in his work, especially his more political art. “I’m glad you said that,” he says. “I’ve always tried to have that in. I think often the best way of attacking things is to take the piss out of them.”
A scan through any magazine shows the style that Jamie pioneered in 1970s can still be seen, endlessly ripped-off for commercial purposes, becoming ‘rebel chic’. Is he bothered? “It’s the way of the world isn’t it, unless you actually overthrow the prevailing system things are always going to be taken from below and exploited. But it’s always alive underneath. You just have to keep on moving forward, generating new stuff.”
Punk had a profound effect on culture and many people’s lives, yet the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood have since largely written it off as nothing more than a way to earn some filthy lucre and moved on to more commercial work once their names were made. Jamie however refuses to denounce them: “I say good luck to them. I think Malcolm also suffers with having the Pistols around his neck. I think he is a great artist in his own right and has done some good work.”
Reid himself was recently accused by some of ‘selling out’ after holding a recent exhibition in Microzine, a high-fashion men’s store in Liverpool. What does he say to that? “It’s funny because that exhibition reminded me of one that I did in Japan which was held in a department store. In Japan you can go into a shop like that and buy artwork like any piece of furniture. I think it’s more honest to do things like that than hanging them up and in a gallery and pretending they’re all precious.” He continues: “I’m glad I did the show in Microzine because it got a lot of kids in to see it that wouldn’t normally go into an art gallery and I don’t blame them.”
Despite this, he remains critical of perhaps the UK’s most successful group of modern artists – the Young British Artists: “It leaves me cold,” he says. “I associate them with Thatcherism. It’s just empty gestures – the nouvelle cuisine of the art world.”
The style he created may now be used to flog what it was intended to attack, but with the likes of prankster graffiti artist Banksy and anti-image mag Adbusters, his legacy of genuine artistic subversion carries on – and we perhaps need it now more than ever. Reid’s own work is today as much influenced by beauty and magic as revolution, but by continuing to supply the visuals to every modern protest movement, is he trying to keep the fires of unrest burning? “Yes, if there is a cause I believe in I will do all I can to support it…I’ll always keep on painting, it keeps me off the streets.”
By Kenn Taylor