As recently established here, the 45 RPM record was the greatest medium for punk rock. It’s compact, it’s affordable and brevity’s of essence—distill all of your best moments in three minutes or less. You can also master these seven-inch beauties hot, perfect for loud music. Then you have the picture sleeves.
With punk being so visual, it also brought the return of the picture sleeve. Which meant your graphics better be as sharp and gripping as your tunes. Alternative Press is proud to present a pictorial parade of 25 of punk history’s most graphically outstanding picture sleeves.
Like what you see? Check out the songs that accompanied these images with this Spotify playlist.
Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” / “Havana Affair”
Setting a dark-humored “dance” tune to “La Bamba”’s three chords (downstroked as eighth notes at 177 BPM), the Ramones created an enduring punk-rock template. Sire Records hired Punk magazine‘s John Holmstrom—a comic book artist trained by Golden Age masters Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman—to art direct the picture sleeve. Holmstrom created a fumetti, an Italian “photo comic,” from live snaps by Ramones manager Danny Fields of the band performing the song at CBGB. The lyrics are delivered by speech balloons emerging from Joey‘s mouth. Thus began punk’s mashup of aesthetics both high- and low-brow.
The Damned – “Neat Neat Neat” / “Stab Yor Back” / “Singalonga-Scabies”
The rowdiest and funniest of early Britpunk bands got an irreverent assist from Stiff Records‘ in-house graphics genius Barney Bubbles. The record itself resembled a Merseybeat outfit suddenly let loose on Motörhead‘s amplifiers with heads full of amphetamine sulfate. Therefore, the picture sleeve had to look like a British Invasion picture sleeve gone batshit, too. Hence, arranging the Damned like the Beatles or some other classic 1964 beat group. But in their normal mismatched thrift-store punk clothes—wearing paper bags with holes punched out for the eyes.
Sex Pistols – “God Save The Queen” / “Did You No Wrong”
To pictorially encapsulate Johnny Rotten‘s anti-monarchist lyrics, in-house Sex Pistols graphic designer Jamie Reid “edited” Cecil Beaton‘s official portrait of Her Majesty. The overall effect was that of the queen kidnapped, blindfolded and silenced. Reid stuck a safety pin through Her Majesty’s lips in the promo poster and T-shirt graphics. The marketing likely got the single banned more than the song.
Sex Pistols – “Pretty Vacant” b/w “No Fun”
Sex Pistols (mis)manager Malcolm McLaren informed Virgin late one night that “Pretty Vacant” would be the next single. He told them designer Reid would be in with the art the next morning. McLaren informed the artist an hour before it was due to be delivered to Virgin. Reid quickly packed an old graphic of buses with “BOREDOM” and “NOWHERE” destination cards and the usual ransom note typography. He purchased a small gold picture frame spotted in a Portobello Road shop window en route, smashing the glass outside. The title and Pistols logo were arranged inside the shards and quickly photographed at Virgin.
Patti Smith Group – “Hey Joe” / “Radio Ethiopia”
Punk’s poet laureate released one of the initial self-released opening shots of the revolution in 1974 with “Piss Factory.” Her French record label, desiring a stop-gap single as she recorded her third LP Easter, paired that debut’s B-side—Jimi Hendrix‘s slow blues take on garage classic “Hey Joe” with new Smith-penned poetry about kidnapped heiress-turned-terrorist Patty Hearst. The picture sleeve took a striking image of Smith in her ramshackle Keith Richards finery astride a miniature horse, giving it the cut-and-paste graphic treatment. Effective as hell.
The Clash – “Complete Control” / “City Of The Dead”
Every original English punk band had a designer providing an individual graphic identity. Sex Pistols had Reid, Buzzcocks had Malcolm Garrett and the Clash had, for a time, future British design superstar Sebastian Conran. For their hardest punk 45, the anti-music business “Complete Control,” Conran simply photographed lead guitarist Mick Jones‘ hot pink speaker cabinet—complete with a busted speaker, flaking spray paint and center band name stencil—in black and white, then added the pink tint back in. The pink theme continued on the reverse, bordering a montage of the lyrics cut up along with a band photo.
Generation X – “Your Generation” / “Day By Day”
Billy Idol‘s glam-punk outfit‘s debut, their inverse of the Who‘s “My Generation,” was designed by Barney Bubbles, moonlighting from Stiff Records. Bubbles frequently referenced art history in his lively, humorous work. Influenced by Polish constructivist artist Henryk Berlewi‘s 1924 painting Composition In Red, Black And White, Bubbles applied its angles, blocks and color scheme to a composition representing the record’s playing speed. Initially, the cover was supposed to feature a band pic up front, that “45” on the reverse. But both the band and management rejected the idea as too safe. Bubbles used the “45” on both sides, adding credits on the back.
Buzzcocks – “Orgasm Addict” / “What Ever Happened To?”
In contrast to the dirty, sloppy, rough-edged graphics presentation of most punk bands, which matched the music, Garrett gave Buzzcocks a clean modern look that echoed their clipped, precise roar. Their debut seven-inch under the major-label contract they’d signed three months previously intentionally contained the Pete Shelley tune least likely to get radio play. Garrett strikingly contrasted one of band friend Linder Sterling‘s industrial porn collages against a screaming fluorescent yellow background and artfully arranged blue Helvetica typography: A men’s magazine model’s naked, akimbo torso, a clothes iron for a head and grinning lipstick mouths for nipples.
The Dils – 198 Seconds Of The Dils EP
L.A.’s premier punk label Dangerhouse announced itself at 1977’s end with four singles: Randoms’ “ABCD,” Black Randy & The Metrosquad’s “Trouble At The Cup,” Avengers’ amazing “We Are The One” and this Maoist blast. One of Dangerhouse’s conceptual triumvirate, Pat “Rand McNally” Garrett, held a day job as a design engineer at Hughes Helicopters. Hence, it’s likely his idea to innovate a future template for indie 45 packaging. A clear plastic bag containing a photocopied graphic sheet, folded to accommodate the 7×7 format and the record. The Dils’ picture sleeve was stark, press typed and tinted as red as their politics.
Wire – “I Am The Fly” / “Ex Lion Tamer”
The minimalist, angular Wire were formed by art school students. Bassist Graham Lewis, a textiles student and freelance designer prior to joining, created much of the band’s visual identity, including record sleeves and stage design. “Wire’s design sensibility encompassed the striking cover art on their records,” Simon Reynolds wrote in his post-punk history book Rip It Up And Start Again, “and their highly contoured and geometric music. One could almost visualize their music as clean lines, deliberate spacings and blocks of texture.” Sounds a lot like this single’s picture sleeve, in which miniature elements from previous releases reappear inside a grid.
Generation X – “Ready Steady Go” / “No No No”
The identity behind the designer of this Generation X single is a mystery. But he was clearly influenced by Idol’s “homemade Soviet constructivist T-shirts,” the singer wrote in his autobiography, Dancing With Myself. “I was influenced by the Russian propaganda poster Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge. I couldn’t draw, but I could create shapes and artfully place them on my T-shirts…One of my design concepts ended up as the cover of the ‘Ready Steady Go’ single.” A big black block, bordered in yellow and red, with typography aping the credits of the vintage ’60s pop TV show celebrated on the A-side.
Weirdos – “We Got The Neutron Bomb” / “Solitary Confinement”
Dangerhouse co-founder David Brown once proclaimed the Weirdos as L.A.’s “ most creative and visually overwhelming band.” Certainly, singer John Denney and guitarist/bassist Cliff Roman met in high school art classes, the latter going on to study at Cal Arts. Obviously, the Weirdos’ did all of their own graphics, with Denney taking the lead on their greatest record. A stark black background yields a fighter plane zooming over a military base, black warheads inscribed “WEIRDOS” falling on the yellow label. The graphics are as explosive as the music within, making for some effective visual marketing.
X-Ray Spex – “The Day The World Turned Dayglo” / “Iama Poseur”
Poly Styrene, X-Ray Spex‘s singer and conceptual mastermind, had a highly tuned aesthetic sense, born from her ongoing critique of the artificial, marketed modern society. It was reflected in the graphic designs she conceptualized, sometimes in collaboration with manager Falcon Stuart. The pair conceptualized the Spex‘s second single’s picture sleeve, with someone named “Cooke Key” executing the design. Here, a globe takes up the majority of space, hand-tinted in crayons.
Misfits – “Bullet” / “We Are 138” / “Attitude” / “Hollywood Babylon”
Glenn Danzig designed logos and artwork for all of his bands—Misfits, Samhain and Danzig. He’s clearly influenced by EC’s blood-drenched horror comics and ’60s Marvel Comics titles. For the New Jersey horror-punk legends’ second single, a blasting treatise on the Kennedy assassination seemingly equating the cult obsession with the ’60s’ core trauma with hardcore porn, Danzig photocopied a pic of JFK grinning in back of the Lincoln Continental in Dallas, a splash of lurid red bursting from the back of his head.
The Clash – “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” / “The Prisoner”
In illustrating possibly the Clash’s greatest single, Conran referenced both art history and his own: The stencil band logo and hot pink motif from the “Complete Control” sleeve return in what appears to be the standard record company 45 sleeve with the die-cut hole revealing the label. Then you peep the label—a Roy Lichtenstein-esque pop-art rendering of a hand gripping a smoking revolver for the A-side, an angular, abstract expressionist view of the shooting victim through a target aim on the reverse. What was the intent? An assassination? A commentary on gun control? The function is unclear, but it sure looks cool.
X-Ray Spex – “Identity” / “Let’s Submerge”
For a song about fragmenting self-image and the star-making process, Styrene’s graphic design displayed both her preeminence over her own band and attempted to hide her behind them. The dominant image on the sleeve is a black and white photo of the singer. An identification card covers the entire lower half of her face. The card contains a color photograph of her bandmates, the X-Ray Spex logo, the entire band’s signatures and the legend “IDENTITY” in bold, all-caps Helvetica.
Buzzcocks – “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)” / “Just Lust”
Garrett informed The Guardian the day after Buzzcocks leader Shelley’s Dec. 6, 2018 death that manager Richard Boon, a fine art graduate, requested the picture sleeve echo Marcel Duchamp‘s 1961 painting Fluttering Hearts. Never having seen it, Garrett recreated it closely from Boon’s description in a phone call. He mimicked painter René Magritte‘s handwriting for the text “because he was [drummer] John Maher‘s favorite artist.” Duchamp’s blue-and-red color scheme was reversed, giving red more prominence “because virtually every song that Pete’s ever written is about love gone wrong. So a fucked-up heart represents all Pete’s lyrics.”
D.O.A. – “The Prisoner” / “Thirteen”
The second release from Vancouver’s rowdy-ass political punk kings featured art design and photography by Dane Simoes. While scant information is available on this designer, he also worked on other vintage Canadian punk releases, including D.O.A.‘s “Disco Sucks” single and the Young Canadians’ 1980 This Is Your Life EP. Simoes’ picture sleeve design couldn’t have been more directly or literally illustrative of the band’s name, a police code abbreviation meaning “dead on arrival”: Two bare feet are emerging from the darkness, as if rolling out of a morgue storage bin, a toe tag etching out the band’s name in red, as if ink-stamped.
The Damned – “Love Song” / “Noise, Noise, Noise” / “Suicide”
Another prominent designer of the era, Phil Smee created four different sleeves for the Damned’s comeback single out of Alan Ballard photos of each member. Cheesy ’50s B-film horror typography creates the logo, clashing with the textured classiness of the color photos. Smee told the design website Form that his late ’70s/early ’80s work “fascinates” him because of its “primitive” construction: “Logos were made up by sticking letters that were photocopies of alphabets out of type books.” His genius stroke was the Captain Sensible sleeve, depicting the wacky guitarist signing his name to the Mona Lisa.
Misfits – “Horror Business” / “Teenagers From Mars” / “Children In Heat”
Misfits’ third release introduced the general public to their mascot, The Crimson Ghost. The ghoulish titular star of a 1940s movie serial about a masked villain who heists an atomic ray deflection machine called Cyclotrode X for nefarious purposes, a film still was first used by Danzig for a flyer promoting a Max’s Kansas City gig earlier in the year. The same image was resurrected for the “Horror Business” cover, set inside a yellow border against a black backdrop. The Crimson Ghost and the blood-dripping logo initiated on 1981 releases came to visually represent Misfits in the public imagination.
UK Subs – “Warhead” / “The Harper” / “I’m Waiting For The Man”
A design firm called Hothouse art directed this UK Subs single from a concept by guitarist Nicky Garratt. Against a white background festooned with huge blocks of Helvetica stands a comic strip soldier in full British Army uniform. He brandishes a submachine gun. His head—a fully armed nuclear weapon—literally a warhead. While hardly the most subtle of graphic images, it wields a lot of power and is a cousin to Linder Sterling’s Buzzcocks “Orgasm Addict” cover image.
Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart” b/w “These Days”
Factory Records‘ in-house designer Peter Saville applied an aesthetic that was simultaneously neo-classical and modern to every Joy Division release. For the record that will forever feel like singer Ian Curtis‘ suicide note, being released a month before his May 18, 1980 death, Saville applied a picture sleeve as cold as the music. It appeared to be forged in steel, stained by water, the title, catalog number and legend “A Factory Record” machine-stamped into the metal. The band’s name only appears on the reverse, below the B-side title. The artwork doesn’t soften the gut punch that is Curtis’ romantic, dysfunctional masterpiece.
Ramones – Meltdown With The Ramones EP
For this first-four-Ramones-LPs sampler, British Sire contracted one of the premier designers of the day, Julian Balme. He began with a year at Stiff Records before freelancing his witty, edgy work for some classic albums from the Clash, Psychedelic Furs, Adam And The Ants, Julian Cope, Big Country and more. The sleeve approximated the look of a 1950s British record jacket. The bouncy “pop” lettering does its best to brighten a photo of a Ramones fan’s dumpy apartment. Memorabilia, posters and record jackets clutter a mid-century modern room that’d seen better days.
Black Flag – “Six Pack” / “I’ve Heard It Before”/ “American Waste”
Like Holmstrom and Danzig, Black Flag/SST Records’ in-house designer Raymond Pettibon’s stark India Ink-on-paper artwork is clearly influenced by comic books. However, his black-humored panels’ DNA is more like political cartoons, plus William Blake and Goya. This three-song EP, the world’s introduction to third Black Flag vocalist Dez Cadena, didn’t seem to display Pettibon’s usual themes: anti-authoritarianism and the drug-soaked dark side of the ’60s. Instead, a hunched figure paints himself in a corner, a crazed look in his eyes. Carpeting the floorboards is a series of splotches, slashes and splashes, like a monochromatic Jackson Pollock canvas.
Social Distortion – “Another State Of Mind” / “Mommy’s Little Monster”
The third 45 from Orange County’s punk traditionalists featured graphic design by Mac McAleer. Model Elizabeth Ellen stares back as a grainy, high-contrast Xerox of a photo snapped by manager Monk Rock. Her lips are a lurid red. In that same blazing crimson, the logo for the classic tour punkumentary film starring Social-D and Youth Brigade, for which the A-side serves as a title theme tune of sorts, appears in the upper left corner. It simultaneously flashes early punk and Andy Warhol‘s portrait work.