Hot on the heels of their collaborations with Ben Sherman, we catch up with legendary art director, Brian Cannon and photographer, Francesco Mellina, to talk about the Ben Sherman legacy and the North’s enduring musical heritage
The man behind some of the most iconic 90’s album covers in British music history talks us through his rise to fame
When did the idea for Microdot Creative first come about and what were the main challenges back then?
It was something I’d wanted to do ever since I got into music and art and all the rest of it back as a youngster. A career in art or design was harder to justify back then though. I don’t know if that was just a northern thing, but it just didn’t seem like a viable career path back then. As soon as you said you wanted to be an artist or graphic designer you’d get a lot of funny looks, like you just hadn’t made your mind up on a career just yet.
Did you have any particular inspirations back then?
I mean I don’t think I was ever too aware of influences getting started, I was always looking to do my own thing. But one particular album that sticks in my mind as a youngster was The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the B*llocks album. It’s not just the album, that left an impression, it also happens to be one of my favourite pieces of album art.
What was art school like?
If I’m honest the course was pretty rubbish. I wasn’t challenged by the whole cookie-cutter approach to design. It just wasn’t in line with the style I was trying to develop for myself. I had my own idea of what that was already. I wanted to make album sleeves, I knew that much, and that wasn’t really in line with what art school wanted. One of the first weeks there we had to create a piece and they pulled mine out as an example of what not to do. So that said it all really.
How did you meet Richard Ashcroft?
Bit of an odd one this: I first met Richard in a house party in Wigan before The Verve were even signed. After that, two years go by without me hearing anything from him whatsoever. Then one night I nip to the shops because I’ve ran out of milk and I want a cuppa. As I’m leaving the shop I see a gangly fellow pull up and step out of his car. We look at each other, he goes ‘you’re that album sleeve guy!’ I go ‘you’re that fella in that band!’ Then he tells me that The Verve have just been signed and I’ve got the cover gig if I want it. The rest is history. I don’t think I ever made that cuppa in the end, either.
And what about Noel Gallagher?
Same thing again! It’s ‘91 or ‘92 and I’m in a lift in someplace in Manchester. Some fella walks in and the first thing he asks is ‘where did you get them trainers from?’ I actually got them from Rome, I’d taken my mother there for her 60th birthday. I’ve still got the trainers now, actually. But yeah, that’s how I met Noel Gallagher, and after a quick chat going about two floors up, I told him about designing album sleeves for The Verve, he said ‘I like them, when we get signed you can do ours’ and
I did. You can’t write this stuff.
How did the Ben Sherman collaboration come about?
The collaboration with Ben Sherman came about after they reached out to me to do a collaboration with them with some Northern soul shots on t-shirts, which I thought was a great concept. The work I’d been doing on Northern Soul stuff resonates with their history and heritage so well that is would have been silly to pass up on the chance to work together. Plus I’ve always had a bit of a passion for good clobber so it all made sense, really.
The Italian-born honorary scouser recounts his days of in-the-thick-of-it photography
Who would you say was your biggest influence growing up?
There are a fair few, to be honest! I mean, it’s no exaggeration to say that, as a boy, I learned English by listening to The Beatles. It was their music that ultimately brought me to Liverpool. In terms of photography, Don McCullin was a huge inspiration. He captured some truly moving and magnificent shots thanks to his willingness to really get into the thick of things. I always wanted to follow a similar path, but I guess the concert crowds and gig halls became my battlefield, in a way. If I’m honest, I’m sure Vietnam would have scared the life out of me!
Is that why it was so important for you to really get up close and personal with bands and audiences at these gigs?
Oh yeah, of course. It’s the only honest way to capture moments like I did. I was so lucky: I was in such a privileged position to get so close to bands that have gone on to do some amazing things. From The Ramones to The Clash, to Talking Heads, not to mention Liverpool’s own Dead or Alive – who I went on to manage – the 70s and 80s were a great time for music, and I was lucky enough to be at the centre of it.
Was it a challenge?
Oh you bet. Photojournalism was a very different business back then! Right after a gig I’d have to rush home to develop what I’d captured that night. Then I’d have to be at Lime Street Station at the crack of dawn to make sure I got copies of my work on the courier trains to London. It was a tough gig, but I enjoyed the challenge. Getting regular work from the likes of NME wasn’t easy either. It was a case of just turning up unannounced and hoping that they liked what you had to offer.
Tell us a little about your book,
Revealed: Youth Culture, Pop Culture, Subculture.It’s a collection of my work from the late 70s and early 80s, back when I was wading through crowds and practically getting on stage with the bands the take their photos. It’s not all about the bands though, it was important for me to represent the crowds at these shows, too. The crowds were always the energy. If you didn’t have a crowd it didn’t matter who played. Any venue has the potential to be great, it’s the people that ultimately make it so. And especially in Liverpool, you know?
I was lucky enough to witness a very special time in Liverpool’s cultural history. Politically we were in the shit, but as you can see, we were having a ball.
What was it like working with Ben Sherman?
It was amazing. It really helped that they understood my work too. They understood what I was trying to convey: the importance of musical heritage, cultural roots and social context. I guess it’s no surprise that they’d appreciate those qualities. I mean, Ben Sherman has represented the North’s most vivid and vibrant musical subcultures for 50 years, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But it was great to be involved.
Revealed: Youth Culture, Pop Culture, Subculture, is out now.
Words by Will HALBERT & Reece FEENEY
Image Credits, Thomas SUMNER