At some point in 2004 I joined a ZTT fan forum – the Alternate ZTT Board – and one of the first posts I saw was from someone offering Lo Cole‘s original paintings and preliminary drawings for ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ for sale. I couldn’t quite believe my luck as this was precisely the thing I was on the lookout for, original artwork from the label’s heyday.
I made contact with Lo and he sent me jpegs of all the items he was selling: character sketches, label designs and early versions of the cover and inner paintings. He wanted a lot of money for the final (iconic) artwork that ended up on the album and I couldn’t really afford it at the time. Nevertheless, I wanted to see it with my own eyes as this would possibly be my only chance before the lot was broken up and sold off to different collectors.
I decided to visit Lo (short for Laurence) and make my own mind up when looking at the pictures in the flesh so to speak, instead of jpegs. I took the train down to Cheltenham on a gloriously sunny Saturday and was met at the station by Lo and his dog, Merlin. His house was quintessentially English, in a beautiful part of town, his art adorning the walls and, even though you can see 20 years had passed, that style was still discernible. It was here that Lo dropped the bombshell that his mother and father were the creators of the children’s books Bod and Fingerbobs, after I spotted some original Bod books on his shelf.
We had tea and chatted about how things had happened back in the 80’s and the effects of the ‘Frankie’ phenomenon on him and his work. When it was time to view the goods Lo pulled a large stack of paper from his plan chest revealing the original works, in all their glory. The final paintings used were covered with tissue paper and on stiff card, apparently they’d been stored in the chest since he’d originally done them, so were in very good condition. I was amazed by the colours, which were as bright as the day they were painted and much subtler than the printed versions, the originals being twice as big as the LP too, as was the norm with such illustrations. I realised then that I couldn’t go home without them and struck a deal with Lo, who knew from our conversation, that they were going to a fan and not a dealer.
After I returned home I thought I should get more of our chat down for this article and mailed off the questions below, receiving Lo’s detailed replies a few weeks later. What follows is the full transcript of the interview that features in part in the ‘And Suddenly There Came A Zang!‘ book from the ‘Inside The Pleasuredome’ box set:
I presume you went to art college, where did you go and what did you study?
I studied printmaking at Maidstone College of Art having completed the foundation course at St Martin’s. At that time I wasn’t at all sure what area I wanted to specialise in so I opted for Fine Art printmaking at Brighton. I failed the interview and was told I should be doing illustration at my second choice college, Maidstone School of Art. After only one term at Maidstone I transferred to Fine Art and studied printmaking. There I discovered screen printing, scraped a degree and later went on to do a part-time postgraduate diploma at the Central School in Holborn, London.
When did you leave college and what were your first published works?
I moved back to London in 1983 and started to trawl my portfolio around the various magazines and design groups. In those days art directors were happy to meet face-to-face and spend time looking at folios. I received a mixed response, but secured my first commission for City Limits, the weekly London guide. Encouraged by the fact that people were prepared to pay me to do what I enjoyed most, I made more appointments and managed to slowly build up a portfolio of work in print.
How and when did you meet Tom Watkins and XL?
Top of my list were record companies and design groups producing artwork for the music industry. I loved the large canvas format of album covers, which allowed for so much innovation in design and I wanted to be involved with music. With each contact I was given new names to follow up, one of these was a company called XL Design and a certain Tom Watkins. I remember climbing the stairs of a grotty building in Poland Street in Soho and being confronted with a wacky postmodern interior, complete with mock ruins and speckled blue walls.
I was ushered in the direction of this larger-than-life character called Tom, who seemed to know everyone and could sell anything to anyone. He proceeded to buy up pages and pages from my sketch books and I returned home with bundles of cash in my portfolio instead of pictures. Shortly after this first encounter Tom used me on various projects and then one day I received a phone call asking me if I would like to do the album artwork for a band called, Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
What was the brief for the ‘Pleasuredome’ illustrations and who did it come from? Paul Morley or Tom Watkins?
It was really a case of being in the right place at the right time. I could hardly believe my luck, but trusted Tom who seemed certain that if he wanted me to do the artwork, then it would happen. And it did. It was Paul Morley who I met at ZTT Records who ran through the brief with me, which was very much his own concept.
The images were largely described as ‘Picasso-esque’ at the time, was this a conscious decision, or direction by ZTT that led to your appointment?
For the front cover I was to represent all the band members as I saw fit. I had never attempted portraiture before, but met the band and was given a whole load of publicity shots to work from. As far as style or content – this was left open, as was the medium and composition.
The inner sleeve echoes the story of Noah’s Ark, with the animals going in two by two, except a huge phallus was substituted for the ark – where did this come from?
For the gatefold artwork he (Morley) wanted a procession of animals entering a very large phallus and on the back I was asked to portray a massive orgy of beasts. At least I think that’s what he said. I remember questioning him on exactly how graphic my interpretation could be and being given the liberty to indulge my imagination. I was given the dimensions for each piece and that was more or less it.
What paints and materials did you use, how long did the finished work take and were you up against a strict deadline?
I knew that with the time pressure, I had to use materials I was comfortable with so I stuck to pen and ink for the line-work and used coloured wax crayons and watercolour on paper. I was also given an incredibly tight deadline to produce the artwork – I recall it was a week to 10 days. Looking back, I don’t think I slept much and there was no time to present roughs before going to final artwork.
How many different versions did you go through until both you and XLZTT were satisfied with the end result?
I just did loads of versions until I was happy enough to present the finished pieces. My main concern was that my imagination had overstepped the mark and that it would be too outrageous (even though this was part of the brief). However, the work was accepted without a murmur of disapproval and it was immediately sent to the printers. At this stage I was told that the back cover was considered too obscene for print, and had to be altered.
With the printers refusing to print the sleeve because of the back cover animal orgy you had to cover the offending article with fig leaves. How did you feel about this, compromising your work? Obviously, this was great for the press angle but stood in the way of getting the actual record into the shops, were you under pressure to do something last minute?
It was my suggestion to cover the ‘offensive’ genitalia with fig leaves, which were supplied on an overlay, with an instruction to print in green. I was sorry to hide my delicately drawn details, but not surprised. And I rather liked the idea of introducing an element of green, to clash with the predominantly red palette of the illustration. I don’t know what happened to this overlay – it probably got junked in the repro.
What was the atmosphere like surrounding the whole process; was there an air of excitement or chaos? How did you feel working on one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of the year?
Having secured the commission and with the artwork accepted, I recall that there was a great feeling of anticipation for the release of the album. Frankie were producing hit after hit, the media was full of them and the advertising was everywhere.
The campaign was brilliantly orchestrated and, bit by bit, my artwork started to appear in press ads in national newspapers and magazines, and on massive billboards featuring sections or whole chunks of the illustrations. It was incredible – I’d just left art school and had been given my dream job of designing the artwork for a chart-topping album. It was a welcome confidence boost, at the start of my career as an illustrator.
Do you know what the band’s reaction to it was?
I have no idea what the band members thought of my artwork, as they didn’t seem to have much involvement in the design of the project. This was all in the hands of XL Design and ZTT records. Years later, I made contact with Holly who expressed an interest in purchasing the artwork – so he can’t have been that displeased with it!
How did things pan out with XL? I know you contributed to another group that Tom was nurturing.
I continued to work for XL design on numerous projects and record sleeves, including stuff for Chris Rea and a Tom Watkins creation that failed to make it massive, a band called Spelt Like This. Tom continued to sell my paintings and prints to his friends and introduced me to the Thumb Gallery (later to become Jill George Gallery) where I had an exhibition of screenprints, which virtually sold out. It was 1984 and there was a whole boom in commissioning new work.
After the album was issued did you get a lot of work off the back of it or was it too closely associated with Frankie?
The Frankie sleeve established me as an illustrator and enabled me to get a portfolio of work in print, in order to approach a top London agent. Strangely though, with the Frankie artwork prominent in my portfolio, further record sleeve commissions were not forthcoming. The general consensus, at the time, was that I had been used, my work was ‘too’ closely associated with the whole noise of FGTH. I did produce several sleeves for Sterns records (a small company bringing over and recording African bands) and got involved with a band called Kartoon at Bronze records, just before they ceased operating.
I did some sleeve work for Lisa Stansfield’s band (before she had solo hits) as well as various other music related projects for the NME. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s I continued to work on commissions, doing work for ad agencies and design groups. I had a stint of creating posters for the Royal National Theatre, working on projects such as ‘Angels In America’ and the world tour of ‘King Lear’ and ‘Richard III’. I was also involved with charity work, creating large format T-shirt designs for Greenpeace, Action Aid, and notably, LYNX the anti-fur campaign. So, I guess it really helped having the Frankie artwork in my portfolio.
How do you feel about the album artwork in relation to the past 30 years?
On reflection, I was very lucky to hit London when jobs were abundant and to be in a position to show my work to so many people. I guess they were extraordinary times – this was after all the height of Thatcher’s Britain, Nigel Lawson was the chancellor and it was all Boom ’til it went Bang! When it did, vinyl had all but disappeared, big designs had been replaced with tiny logos and photography was preferred to illustration. Many companies went out of business and people sought new careers. However, I stuck to the only thing I could do. I branched out to create some large-scale public art murals, whilst regularly doing editorial work for The Guardian. More recently (2004) I have been concentrating on my own work and illustrating Bod … but that’s another story …
… indeed it is, and you can learn all about it on the excellent Bod album from Trunk Records which features Lo and his sister, Alison, talking about this part of their family history.
All artwork © Lo Cole. Prelim photos courtesy of Lo Cole unless otherwise stated, all other sleeve and poster art scanned from my personal collection, © ZTT. All text © ArtOfZTT 2014.