Simon Says #36: Vaughan Oliver
Vaughan Oliver created a number of memorable sleeves for Cocteau Twins. Simon shares his memories of 4AD’s celebrated designer, who died in December…
The arrival of Apple Macintosh and PCs in the analogue recording studios of the 1990s was initially embraced a bit like VAR has been in the football world. In other words, with suspicion and dislike. But like all things new and unknown, early adopters quickly showed the potential, and before long most studios, even if they fought it to start with, began shifting towards a more digital-savvy approach. In the graphic design universe, however, it seemed that soon after the candy-coloured iMacs were launched in 1998, every designer had one.
All but Vaughan Oliver that is. Aged just 62, Vaughan passed away on 29 December, and it is my pleasure to share some personal thoughts on working with him both during my days with Cocteau Twins and since running Bella Union.
The maverick artist is as synonymous with the indie giant 4AD as some of the bands themselves. His designs for the label throughout the 80s and 90s were as iconic as Peter Saville’s were for Factory, and during those final two decades of the 20th Century, perhaps only Germany’s ECM Records had such a distinctive in-house style. If you are not aware of Oliver’s work, start out looking at his designs for Lush, The Wolfgang Press, Colourbox, This Mortal Coil, the Pixies,Throwing Muses and my own band, Cocteau Twins.
One great difference, to my mind, was that Vaughan’s work was always the perfect visual companion to the aural delights within the sleeve. Until much much later, Vaughan also preferred the traditional draughtsman’s board, using it almost like a bedroom wall to pin his ideas onto, where he could shuffle them around, overlaying and overlapping bits of paper and photographs until his mind’s eye was in focus.
Working with him on Cocteau Twins wasn’t always easy, but then everyone said that. Label, writers, promoters, all found us a bit of a challenge, but Vaughan was always trying to find the perfect solution and he did so with great humour and no end of patience. And he truly LISTENED to the music intently until the appropriate vision came to him. The suggestion we didn’t use him that much for our artwork is woefully inaccurate. He designed SIX of our album sleeves, EIGHT 12″ EPs and numerous compilations during our time at 4AD.
‘His work was always the perfect companion to the aural delights within the sleeve’
For the other artists on the label, he was able to use his dark humour and wicked eye for controversy, even when the hope may have been to have a commercial hit! Following the success of MARRS’ Pump Up The Volume, the label saw from the swell of popularity accompanying the Pixies that here was a band that could also have a Top 20 single, but Vaughan was not one for seeking lazy compromises.
Thankfully, I know that singer Charles was very open to his ideas and whether it was a crying baby, a monkey, a man with a back as hairy as a Vivienne Westwood mohair jumper, or a flamenco dancer naked from the waist up, his sleeves for the Pixies are among his best work for 4AD.
His penchant for the subversive wasn’t only reserved for the Pixies, and while at first glimpse his sleeve for Ultra Vivid Scene’s debut single She Screamed seemed innocuous enough, the eagle-eyed among you might spot a row of tiny clitorises he used from a set of centrefolds from porn mag Hustler. Quite literally, for Vaughan the devil was in the detail.
Many years later, I finished a melancholic dreamy sort of folk record with my ex-girlfriend Stephanie Dosen. We called ourselves Snowbird and I thought Vaughan would be the perfect art director for the LP sleeve. He asked for demos or early mixes so he could get some inspiration for the project. After a few weeks, he called to say he loved it, had some ideas and would like to come up to the Bella Union offices to show me. We spent our first hour together talking football – he had been taking his FA coaching badges – mostly about his beloved Sunderland AFC and my team Spurs, and as supporters of teams who are perennial under-achievers we both had a lot to laugh about.
He soon began to show me his sketches and they were so beautiful, I was really quite moved by the depth of his ideas. It remains one of my favourite sleeves in the 22 years of running Bella Union. It is simple and elegant, and elevates the music it surrounds. The best album sleeves get picked up in the record browsers regardless of the band on the vinyl, and for sure many 4AD artists from the 80s and 90s were bought for the same reason.
Roger Dean had a similar effect on record buyers in the 1970s, and if there is a wonder why the 2000s were lacking in a similar set of iconic sleeve designers, surely the coma that affected vinyl production until recent years can explain that. Regardless, the artist whose work defined an era and had a long-lasting influence on both vinyl AND book cover design, Vaughan Oliver was a one-off who will be sorely missed by his wife and children, and by all the millions of people who have his artwork scattered throughout their record collections, who have spent hours poring over his intricate and sumptuous designs.