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(Credit: Brian Cannon / Microdot)

Music

Far Out Meets: Brian Cannon, the artistic mastermind of British rock during the 1990s

Brian Cannon is for the 1990s what Peter Saville is for the ’80s. Via his iconic visual work, Cannon visualised the decade in which ‘Cool Britannia’ was in full swing and where The Cold War had long faded into distant memory. Culture was at its peak, and it was the first time where music, fashion, film and everything else started to coalesce into the great melting pot we know today. 

While this may seem like a rather one-sided and optimistic view of the time, you get the gist. The ’90s was a time when the modern age truly arrived. It was a heady period of creativity, and without the mammoth artistic strides made in that decade, we would not be where we find ourselves today, with the current cultural epoch of fluidity and pastiche aided by the internet.

Cannon’s work is not only some of the most iconic of the decade, but of all time. He founded his graphic design company, Microdot, in 1990, and the rest, as they say, was history. He designed the covers of The Verve’s most notable works, including A Storm in Heaven and their masterpiece Urban Hymns, bringing to life the complex beauty of Ashcroft, McCabe and Co. He also designed the unmistakable Oasis box logo and all their work until 1998’s The Masterplan. On the surreal photograph of their sophomore effort (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? it is Cannon with his back to the camera.

Viewing Cannon’s work is a powerful experience and evokes a time long gone, but the true genius of his craft is that even without knowing the music of the artist, after taking one glance at his artwork you know exactly what’s in store for your ears. He tacitly understands the symbiotic relationship between the audio and the visual and it is this that has made his work so enduring.

Here at Far Out, I was lucky enough to chat to Brian Cannon about his life and work. Always interested in art, it was the punk movement that truly galvanised him to want to get in on the action. In fact, Cannon cites the punk movement as one of the two driving inspirations behind his work. He said: “It’s all down to punk rock. I didn’t get into it via other sleeve designers, that’s an important point to know. I got into it because when I was 11, the Sex Pistols came out…you cannot begin to imagine how massive a cultural impact punk rock was”.

Of the ground shattering effect that punk had on culture, Cannon explained it in no uncertain terms, and labelled it “nuclear explosion-style”, and that it “changed everything”. A rebellion against the beige complacency, and inertia of the ’70s, punk tore up the handbook and re-wrote the rules. Its effect can still be seen today in many different forms aesthetic, musical and otherwise. This is something that Cannon was acutely aware of, and he maintained that the most important underlying point of punk was that it made the arts and artistic success “achievable to the man on the street”.

He explained: “There was no such thing as independent record labels before punk, if you wanted to put a record out, you had to be signed up by a major label. So basically, the industry was controlled by rich, middle-upper class white people, simple as that. Whereas after punk, anybody could do it, and do it themselves. And that’s what truly inspired me, I thought, ‘well I can get involved with this’.”

Brian Cannon’s cover for Oasis album Definitely Maybe. (Credit: Wikimedia)

It wasn’t just punk that pushed Cannon in the direction of album artwork, it was also his father. Realising swiftly that he didn’t have the patience for the guitar, he concentrated on art, something that he’d always been interested in due to the influence of his father, who also happened to be an “astonishing illustrator”. The difference between Cannon and his dad was that the older Cannon was a miner, and in the 1940s and ’50s during his youth, there were no opportunities for artists in Wigan. However, by the time Brian was growing up and punk had toppled the established order, things were starting to change, and the elder Cannon encouraged his son to pursue his dreams. 

Cannon made another side point that was significant, noting that “acid house was a massive influence on me”. Of his generation’s cultural movement, he said: “Acid house is punk. Punk is a mindset, it’s a way of life, it’s an attitude, it’s an approach, Microdot is completely fucking punk rock”. 

It was this confluence of punk and his father’s influence that pushed Cannon in the direction of sleeve designing, and by the time he’d graduated from Leeds Polytechnic in 1988, Cannon had refined his skills and was on due course to becoming a sleeve designer full time. In 1989, Cannon would have a fateful meeting, and the winds of chance would blow his ship on course for the orgiastic lands of success. 

Whilst at a party in Wigan, he met Richard Ashcroft, and although it was a brief meeting, the two would get on well. The pair chatted, and the future Verve frontman found it interesting that Cannon was on a quest to become a sleeve designer rather than a footballer, rockstar or DJ like everyone else. 

Cannon and Ashcroft wouldn’t meet again for a couple of years, but sometime just after The Verve had signed to Hut Records in 1991, they bumped into each other at 6am at a petrol station when Cannon was getting milk for his morning brew. There and then, Ashcroft told him that The Verve had been signed and that he wanted Cannon to design their artwork. 

This was to kick off a partnership that would go down in history. One of the most iconic images from The Verve’s early period that isn’t A Storm in Heaven, is the artwork for their 1992 single ‘She’s a Superstar’, which was shot at the historic Thor’s Cave in Staffordshire. Interestingly, this was the same cave used on the front cover for A Storm in Heaven, just utilised differently. The hazy effect of the light reflecting on the pool perfectly encapsulated all the acid and weed that went into the making of the single, as well as the ethereal feel of The Verve’s early work. 

Before too long, Cannon would meet Oasis, and the story of Noel Gallagher getting into the lift and complimenting him on his Adidas trainers is legendary. It was with Oasis that Cannon would truly make his mark on popular culture. Each of the Oasis covers that Microdot worked on are incredible and just as iconic as the music, and one would argue that without his cover art, the music would not be as important as it is today. Cannon and his team augmented the sound of Oasis with packaging that deeply understood the thematic composition of the tracks.  

Of his ethos, Cannon explained that he “immersed” himself in a project, and it was this dedication that brought his work to life. Of the time spent working on the cover for Morning Glory, he said: “I was in the studio for the whole time when Oasis were recording Morning Glory, I spent more time there than Noel Gallagher, quite literally, to immerse myself in the vibe, so I could get where they were coming from. I did that with all the projects I worked on”.

Cannon’s ties to Oasis would also impact the creation of one of his personal favourites, the cover for Cast’s 1996 single ‘Flying’. Featuring the same man four times, spread across the cover in different positions looking at the sky, it turns out that the model was Noel Gallagher’s hairdresser, Peter Gray. A native of Zimbabwe, who had taught himself to cut hair, Gray had travelled to the UK to study hairdressing and secured himself a job at Vidal Sassoon’s branch in Manchester. It was here that he met a pre-fame Noel Gallagher and started cutting his hair. At some point, after honing his skills, Gray moved to London and became a hairdresser for the stars.

Brian Cannon’s artwork for The Verve album This Is Music. (Credit: Hut Records)

Cannon recalled that Madonna would fly him to America to cut her hair, with all expenses paid for, a pay him a whopping £5,000 (£8,800 today) a cut. A friend of Microdot, Gray used to hang out at the studio and cut their hair for free. It was this friendship that culminated with him being on the cover for ‘Flying’. 

Towards the end of the informative conversation with the Microdot mastermind, I couldn’t help but ask him about the parallels between his studio and Hipgnosis. Started by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell in 1968, the historic graphic design studio provided the covers for classics such as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and the apocalyptic Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin. They were the definitive cover artists of the classic rock period, and their pioneering photography-based works laid the foundations for what would become known as photoshop. 

Given that Cannon is a punk, I’d have expected him to scoff at the suggestion, but he didn’t. Unsurprisingly, he also heeds the parallels between the works of both studios, even if they were from two antithetical cultural epochs. In fact, he’d never heard of Hipgnosis until people kept drawing comparisons between the two. 

Although he was not aware of their work until after Microdot had made their dint in popular culture, looking back, Cannon said: “If I had to align with anybody it would be Hipgnosis”. He posited that the studios were similar in the approach that they took. It was the passion of both Hipgnosis and Microdot that binds them retrospectively, and the belief in their work as a “valid, stand-alone piece of art”.

The last true legendary British cover artist, the work of Cannon and Microdot preceded the advent of the internet and streaming. These days, the meaning of album artwork is not what it was. It’s been forgotten, owing to the fact that streaming is now the de facto means of accessing music. 

Consuming music as a whole has changed, but this does not negate the impact of Cannon’s work, and you could even claim that it elevates it, to some almost consecrated level given that iconic album artworks are so rare in the contemporary era. Microdot‘s work is like a portal back to a time that has long since evaporated, but one that is deeply connected to the contemporary in both clear and implicit ways. It leaves us nostalgic for the heady days of the past and wondering, what’s next for the album cover and music as a whole?

Watch Brian Cannon discuss the Oasis band logo history below.