Stone cold classics: The unconventional iconography of the Rolling Stones

From tongue and lips – one of most recognisable logos ever – to their many memorable album covers, the Rolling Stones have long exploited the power of graphic design, inspiring many of today’s best designers with their unique brand of unconventional iconography.

Stone cold classics

Next year will see the Rolling Stones stage their first major exhibition, bringing over five decades of iconography – from stage designs and backstage paraphernalia to costumes, posters and album cover artwork – to London’s Saatchi Gallery, before taking it on tour to 11 other cities around the world.

The band’s vast artistic oeuvre, which includes collaborations with artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Alexander McQueen and Tom Stoppard, has helped shape popular culture and left a lasting impression on some of today’s most respected designers.

Ahead of the exhibition opening in April, we catch up with a handful of album cover artists and designers to find out which iconic Stones visuals have had the biggest impact on them, and how the band’s graphical output has inspired their careers.

Stefan Sagmeister is co-founder of design firm Sagmeister & Walsh and has designed album covers for Lou Reed, David Byrne, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and OK Go.

My favourite Stones cover (and one of my favourite covers of all time) is Sticky Fingers, by Andy Warhol and Craig Brown.

The actual, working zipper included in the jeans on the artwork opened up all these interesting questions, such as will we see Mick Jagger naked inside (answer, no), and was the fact that the sharp, metal zipper scratched the album next to it a deliberate destructive design choice (answer, no). And of course, as with all iconic covers, it is totally utterly infused by the quality of the music it packages. When I first met Mick Jagger (while we designed Bridges to Babylon) I asked him about his favourite Stones covers and he mentioned without hesitation: Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers and Some Girls. I said: “We should have an easy time working together since I would have told you exactly the same covers only in a different order: Sticky Fingers, Some Girls and Exile on Main Street.”

Charlie Watts turned to Jagger and asked in lowered voice: “What’s on Sticky Fingers?” to which Mick replied: “Oh, you know Charlie, the one with the zipper, the one that Andy did”.

Good times.

Carin Goldberg has designed hundreds of book jackets for every major American publishing house, and dozens of album covers including Madonna’s debut.

The record packaging for Sticky Fingers, created by Andy Warhol in 1971, is one of the most iconic covers ever made.

I entered art school that same year, unaware how Warhol’s work would change my career path and ultimately change the trajectory of graphic design.

Warhol gave me and my contemporaries permission to create images out of nothing, cheaply, using dime-store cameras, photo booths and Xerox copiers, enabling us to illustrate the raunch, the sexuality and the disregard for convention that the 1970s exemplified. Warhol’s package transformed conventional two dimensional album art into engaging, often fetishised, objects of desire. Sticky Fingers raised the bar and our expectations and there was no going back.

Decades later, the designer Chip Kidd channelled Warhol’s design for his cover of David Sedaris’s book Naked. There, a similar use of the consumer activated reveal from the suggestive, cheeky, albeit nerdy, boxer shorts to pelvic X-ray mimics Warhol’s impossible to resist unzipping. And Warhol’s influence on Stefan Sagmeister’s music packaging from 1990s is apparent in its tactility and materiality.

In collaboration with The Rolling Stones, Warhol, who began his career as a commercial artist, connected art to the album cover giving commercial art/graphic design renewed legitimacy.

Caroline Robert, the Montréalbased graphic designer and illustrator, won a Grammy for her design of the deluxe re-release of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs.

There are so many iconic visuals of the Rolling Stones but the image that marked my imagination the most was this Brian Jones poster. In the 80s, when I was a kid, we used to play a lot in Mayck’s basement (my grandma) with my sisters and cousin. On the wall there was this enigmatic black and white real size poster of a blonde guy. It was really impressive for a kid since it was real size. He was part of the playground and we would ‘play’ with him.

For a long time I didn’t knew who he was but I could tell that he had charisma and I liked his guitar. I remember that my uncle, Patrick Thomas, would play guitar for me and my sisters and joke around to make us dance and laugh. So rock‘n’roll sounded like something really cool. It was only many years after that my uncle told me the story of this poster. My uncle, when he was a young adult in the 70s, used to do covers of the Rolling Stones with a bunch of friends in my grandma’s basement. They were really into rock‘n’roll and my uncle was playing guitar all the time, learning by himself.

A lot of band posters and vinyls were covering the walls but the only poster that is still standing in my grandma’s basement is Brian Jones’ – the first pillar of this incredible band that continues to impress me after all this years. I saw The Rolling Stones in show in Montreal two years ago and had a warm thought for my uncle who transmitted his passion for rock‘n’roll to me.

Tom Genower is senior art director at Brave, the agency behind the cover of Pink Floyd’s The Endless River.

The album artwork of 1968’s Beggars Banquet stands out because it’s an album with two strikingly different covers: the first a filthy, graffitied hell hole of a toilet above a car workshop on Hollywood Boulevard and the second a simple white cover opening to a glorious gatefold panorama of Renaissance opulence.

Imagine the scene as Jagger and Richards, dressed in velvet suits and Italian shoes, standing in two inches of stinky brown poo water, pens in hand, scrawl out the sleeve notes (‘Wot no paper!’) on that dirty wall. The album reflected a return to a more raw and powerful rock’n’roll, and a move away from their less convincing experiments with psychedelia. It was a statement of intent.

Yet they wrecked their shoes for nothing. Decca refused to release the album with this artwork, and while the band argued their case, the record was delayed by six months. For me, the idea that a band as big as The Stones at the height of its powers still had to bend to the will of their label is fascinating.

Michael Josephs’s photography on the finally approved album is the opposite of the proposed toilet cover. The inner gatefold has the feel of a Caravaggio painting, composed, propped and lit beautifully, ripe for fans to read meanings into the objects strewn over the banqueting table. The image is more contrived, grandiose and at odds with the sound of the record, yet it draws you in and the composition leads your eye around the ensuing decadence.

Beggars Banquet shows how the Stones were open to using a wide pool of talent – in both photography and design. They championed and understood the power of visual communication, and even their ‘plan B’ album artwork – essentially a compromise – is still a thing of beauty.

THE TALE OF TONGUE AND LIPS

When Mick Jagger approached London’s Royal College of Art in 1969 in search of a student to help with some tour posters, no one could have predicted it would lead to one of rock’s most famous icons. In his final year of studying it was 24-year-old John Pasche who received the “lucky break” thanks to his “bright and in your face” style of his art school work at the time, and after successfully helping out with the band’s 1970 European Tour he got a call asking to “come in and talk to Mick about a logo”. Branding a rock band wasn’t the done thing at the time, according to Pasche, but Jagger, inspired by the Shell logo, wanted “something that could stand alone” without the need for the band’s name or an image of them. “It was a very open brief,” recalls Pasche.

“The only direction came when we were discussing it and Mick showed me an image of the Hindu goddess Kali who has a pointed tongue and that sparked an idea. I think Mick was suggesting to maybe have something Indian as that was trendy at the time, but I didn’t think it would last the distance.” Pasche says it took him close to two weeks to get the logo – known by many as Tongue & Lips – right, laughing that although obvious now, “creating a disembodied mouth and tongue was quite a task” for a young designer who at that point had only done “a couple of pieces of freelance work for some companies”.

“At that point it wasn’t a huge deal because it was only going to be used on letterheads and on the new record label they were setting up,” explains Pasche, adding that the icon grew organically. “The first time it was used, that most people saw, was the UK-edition of Sticky Fingers and I think that helped establish it in the early 70s. Then it was used on t-shirts when the marketing side of things ramped up and from there it grew in popularity. “It’s a protest image – albeit a very soft one – but it’s one that teenagers and young people could pick up on.”

Having spanned close to five decades, Pasche jokes it’s been lucky for him that the Stones haven’t wanted a change and that, barring a few line-up changes, the band has mostly stayed the same with Jagger as “the figurehead and the ego” of the band. “He’s a bright guy and can obviously see the marketing strengths of keeping the logo. “It’s proved itself to be fairly flexible over the years and always tends to make an appearance on all the different tours, but I have to say I do like the original one best.”

Words by Thomas O'Neill and Gillian West. This article was first published in The Drum's 19 August issue.

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