The very first sleeve that Mark Farrow designed for the Pet Shop Boys set the tone for what was to follow. It was 1985. West End Girls had been a smash hit and Farrow (after responding to a job ad in CR, no less) was working at XL Design in London.
He was asked to design the sleeve for a three-track remix 12-inch single version. The original sleeve featured a black and white shot of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe with the band name set vertically down the left-hand side and the single’s title on the right on a kind of metal mesh background.
The remix sleeve is a hugely confident exercise in graphic minimalism from a young designer who perhaps was intent on making a point! All type has been moved to the reverse; the photo of the band has gone completely. In their place is a series of flat shapes. “I just took all the bits I didn’t like off it,” said Farrow of his approach. Tennant and Lowe were duly impressed with both image and attitude.
Thirty years later and the Pet Shop Boys and Farrow have, according to the night’s host Scott King, been responsible for “the most sustained and brilliant visual campaign of any band has in the history of pop”.
From first work to last, things appear to have gone full circle. Farrow’s artwork for Super, the PSB’s 13th album, released in 2016 was another exercise in minimalism. This time, though, as Tennant explained, its simplicity was prompted more by the demands of download interfaces than the mischieviousness of a young designer.
In between has been a superlative run of imagery, from the early days of photographic-based positioning of a band with a unique, knowing, arch attitude to pop, fame and success, through the influence of working with brilliant stage designers such as David Fielding, to art references and ‘borrowings’ from the likes of Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Gerhard Richter and Richard Prince via one, memorable, penis shot.
Their working Marriage (as the evening was titled) was recounted with laconic good humour by Tennant and Farrow, with gentle proddings (and the occasional good-natured dig) from host, artist and some-time PSB sleeve designer himself, Scott King. The latter’s involvement with the band came during a period of trial separation as the band turned to Greg Foley for the cover of Release in 2002 and King for the London and I Get Along singles, before going back to Farrow for Miracles.
The session was a reprise of a talk all three had given three years ago for Central St Martins. Here, it was being staged as part of Jeremy Deller’s Look of Music series in conjunction with the Paul Mellon Centre.
As with most discussions concerning design for music, there was the usual kvetching about record label interference. For the classic sleeve of Actually, Farrow recounted one executive “literally screaming at me ‘you cannot have someone yawning on a fucking album cover’.” Tennant remembered how every foreign press trip would begin with him and Lowe having a “massive row in the back of a car” with whichever hapless local product manager had just presented them with the often-butchered version of artwork had that been adapted for the local market without their knowledge.
Given Tennant’s background as a music journalist and Lowe’s architect’s training the Pet Shop Boys were always an act with an uncommonly deep interest in the workings of the music business and the visual presentation of artists. In Farrow they found the perfect ally to express what they wanted to say with each release.
Today, the band releasing under their own label (Kobalt) and the market for luxurious special editions has “opened up a path to do what we want,” as Farrow said. As with magazines and books, declining revenues from physical media in music have led to a corresponding uplift in the production quality of what still gets produced. The result has been a series of releases – for Yes, Electric and SUPER – that, King said, could sit quite happily as artist’s ‘editions’.
They are beautiful and covetable, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Farrow/PSB back catalogue is that it was produced, not for some tiny art rock indie band, but for the biggest-selling duo in UK pop music history. That’s pretty special, actually.
Marriage: Neil Tennant and Mark Farrow discuss the imagery of Pet Shop Boys, chaired by Scott King, was at the Barbican cinema as part of The Look of Music, a series of talks about the link between imagery and music curated by Jeremy Deller for the Paul Mellon Centre
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