Simon Halfon’s album artwork captures an era

Graphic designer Simon Halfon, whose book Cover To Cover has just been published.Graphic designer Simon Halfon, whose book Cover To Cover has just been published.
Graphic designer Simon Halfon, whose book Cover To Cover has just been published.
Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Parties have consistently offered succour for musicians and fans in 2020. Two of them have also inspired a new book by Simon Halfon.

The graphic designer, famed for his artwork for the likes of Paul Weller, George Michael and Oasis, says that taking part in parties for The Style Council albums Cafe Bleu and Our Favourite Shop led him to start leafing back through his archives. “I’d stacked stuff in anticipation for when the songs came up and it was a lovely experience. After that people suggested, ‘You should do a book’,” he explains. “During lockdown I went into my archives and the book was born out of that. I’ve got Tim to thank for spurring me on at least.”

Revisiting a body of work spanning 40 years “felt good”, says Halfon, now 59. “Looking through things nudges your memory of a lot of fun times. Ultimately the thought that I had was how fortunate I was to have had that experience, all the opportunities I’ve had, all the people I’ve met and worked with along the way. I took a few snaps along the way as well and a lot of the photography that’s in the book is way before phones with cameras in them. It’s nice to have those as a memento.

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“They range back from going to The Style Council’s first gig in Liverpool, where they played two or three songs, they’ve become quite important photos. It’s nice to have that moment logged in, if you like.

Photographs of George Michael, Paul Weller and Liam Gallagher from the book Cover To Cover, by Simon Halfon.Photographs of George Michael, Paul Weller and Liam Gallagher from the book Cover To Cover, by Simon Halfon.
Photographs of George Michael, Paul Weller and Liam Gallagher from the book Cover To Cover, by Simon Halfon.

“Fast forwarding many years when I was working with Oasis, they were always encouraging me to take photos. Noel would ring me up and invite me to this gentleman’s club studio where they rehearsed, saying ‘Come up and bring your camera’. They’d be playing the same set that they would play two weeks later in front of 70,000 people. That happened on a regular basis and made you feel part of the team, which was nice.”

Halfon fell into graphic design by accident. After a year studying at Durham University he’d launched a fanzine with a friend and music swiftly became all-consuming. “There was so much going on,” he remembers. “There were bands playing in every pub on every corner, there was always something new. There were four weekly music papers and monthlies. At that age you’re sort of a sponge for it all.”

After getting a job in the postroom at Stiff Records, he progressed via record promotion to the art department. The first sleeve he designed was for Department S, whose singer Vaughn Toulouse became part of a gang of friends that included journalist Paolo Hewitt, DJ Gary Crowley and Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama.

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Halfon then moved into magazine design at The Face, assisting Neville Brody. “That was a massive thing for me,” he says. “His influence was a huge influence on me.” He remembers the magazine, then at the forefront of 80s culture and fashion, as being “a fun place to work, but quite a calm place as well”.

Artwork for the book Cover To Cover by Simon Halfon.Artwork for the book Cover To Cover by Simon Halfon.
Artwork for the book Cover To Cover by Simon Halfon.

Around that time, he forged a friendship with singer Kim Wilde. The pair first met on the set of Top of The Pops when Halfon was working a record label plugger for Tenpole Tudor. “My job was to carry their chain mail when they were doing Swords of a Thousand Men,” he recalls. “I think it was her first appearance on Top of the Pops, doing Kids in America. We got friendly. She was recording at RAK studios in St John’s Wood and I was living at Swiss Cottage and we kind of hit it off a little bit. We got on well and had a bit of a laugh together, going to gigs and hanging out.

“When the time came and I was starting to go freelance she said, ‘You’ve got to design my next single’. It was a lovely thing to do, she was a big star and for her to go to the record company and say, ‘I want this guy to do it who he hasn’t ever done anything before’ must have been a tough sell, but it turned out all right. I was still working for Neville at the time and I think I did it under his watchful eye.”

Turning freelance in 1982, he was commissioned by Paul Weller first to design a sleeve for a book on Small Faces singer Steve Marriott. The pair’s first encounter had been at a gig by The Jam at Bridlington Spa in 1979. “Paul, God bless him, had a great memory, so if he’d see you again after that he’d remember when and where he saw you,” Halfon says.

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“When I was at Stiff if The Jam were at Air Studios I’d pop in and they were always very welcoming. I was given a white label of A Town Called Malice before it came out and I was cock-a-hoop.”

When Weller formed The Style Council with Mick Talbot in 1983, he turned to Halfon to design their record sleeves. The designer says in his book that the pair went out of their way to make him feel included in their projects. “Paul liked helping young people out and giving people a start, and when I met Mick we got on immediately. It felt like a little club, like you were part of a little team and always included in everything. If it was going to gigs out of town, they’d always make sure you were taken care of, that you had a hotel room. They were really welcoming and it was just a lot of fun. I had this little shorthand with them and we had a similar sense of humour as well.”

Visually, The Style Council’s aesthetic was “very much influenced by the whole Blue Note thing”, Halfon says. “This was not a period of time when you could just go out and get coffee table books, to immerse yourself in that world you had to go to record shops. These records weren’t widely available at that time but I was fortunate that I’d spent a bit of time in New York, my brother was living there, so when I’d go the first thing I’d do was scour the record shops there and come back with this bag full of original Blue Note records, those were an influence in many ways. I’d also go to exhibitions and look at photographs. We were very fortunate there were some great photographers at the time, like Peter Anderson, Nick Knight and Lawrence Watson, they were also opening our eyes to that world.”

Designing the cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Milk and Honey album in 1984 was a dream assignment for Halfon, a devoted Beatles fan. Lennon, he says, remains one of his idols. “Just to have that experience and have a very small footnote in John’s body of work is amazing, especially at that time, when I was about 23. But it was a different era back then when you could wander into Polydor, where Paul was signed, and you got to know everyone. You’d walk into someone’s office and they’d say, ‘Would you like to do a Lennon sleeve?’ It wasn’t like you had to pitch to someone.”

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Other commissions included Madness, Nick Heyward and Everything But The Girl. Halfon also worked with the Wham! duo George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, both of whom became friends. “I got to know George and we’d hang out a bit in London and we had mutual friends. When I moved to Los Angeles, at the end of 1990 and the beginning of ’91, he was out there at the same time and we spent a lot of time in each other’s company and we became fast friends out there. He’s much missed by many people but he was genuinely one of the good guys, nothing starry, just a lot of fun to be around, he didn’t take himself seriously at all.”

Working with Weller and Oasis throughout the 90s brought the designer into contact with the artist Peter Blake and photographer David Bailey. Weller was keen for Blake to create a poster for his album Stanley Road. “The funny thing was,” Halfon says, “I think he was just keen to meet him, he didn’t actually think he’d do it. I got his number off the photographer Mary McCartney and we arranged to go to Peter’s house in London on a Monday evening, and he was so lovely and so up for it. That was the first of three record sleeves that I’ve done with Peter, the others were Oasis’ Stop The Clocks and the last Who record. It was a great experience, and the same with Bailey. That came about in the year 2000 when Paul was having his picture taken by Bailey. He called me and said, ‘I’m having a session with David tomorrow, do you fancy coming round to meet him?’ I brought a book for him to sign and he was really charming. I warmed to him right away and he warmed to me, we had a bit of a giggle and a bit of banter. From that I got him to do photos of Oasis for Stop The Clocks.

“He again was very encouraging, saying, ‘Just pop in’ and I did. If I was in Clerkenwell I’d pop in and have a cup of tea and I’d listen to him have a moan about someone or other, but he was always very charming and very funny. I haven’t seen him for a bit but he was always someone who I got a kick out of, he’s a great storyteller and a really funny guy, and one of the greats.”

Latterly Halfon has been involved in film production, working on the film Sleuth and the Oasis documentary Supersonic. Recently he created and produced the comedy-drama series All You Need Is Me. “It’s based on experiences I’ve had,” he says. “It’s about this band who for some reason or another can’t cut a break anywhere. They have this US manager who is a little bit down on his luck and needs to sign someone in double-quick time and for once this band happen to be in the right place at the right time. It’s about the relationships of band members, really, as they begin their journey to success or otherwise. It’s done and dusted and we’re shopping it around as we speak, so I’m quite excited about that.”

Cover to Cover is published by Nemporer, priced £50.

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