Browsing recently through a collection of "band fonts," my memory drifted back to Middle School where I, plastic Bic in hand, would spend countless hours carefully inscribing the covers of my Mead notebooks with the logos and signature fonts of my favorite bands: the bewinged logos of Van Halen and Aerosmith, the Ace Frehley-designed all-caps "KISS" with its lightning-bolt "S" letters (that to some were too evocative of the Waffen SS), the Tolkienesque Led Zeppelin and the three-dimensional Judas Priest, the sort of blurred courier typeface logo for Cheap Trick, not to mention the Bob Defrin-designed "AC/DC" logo (with its "high voltage" slash).
The logos and lettering tended to be campily Gothic (a procession of black letter fonts), enigmatically runic or otherworldly, all of which fit in well with my then worldview, heavy as it was on Dungeons and Dragons and the novels of H.P. Lovecraft and Terry Brooks. But what strikes me now is that those logos, whatever their originality or quality, represented one of my earliest engagements with graphic design (cereal box logos may have been the first). This being prior to the Macintosh, I did not then have much of a working knowledge of typefaces, yet I was captivated by these outrageous letterforms — often adorned with a strangely bewitching umlaut — and carefully constructed logos, which seemed to somehow perfectly capture the essence, the entire being, of my heavy metal heroes.
Thinking back to some of those fonts and logos, it occurred to me not only that they seemed very much of the 1970s, but that I could not easily summon similar examples from contemporary music. Is there a "Modest Mouse" font? An Arcade Fire logo? I openly admit that the real problem here may be that my own musical coming-of-age has long passed, but my difficulty at mentally conjuring up contemporary iconography leads me to wonder: Has heavy metal graphic design run its course? Is the band logo as a species dead? And is there much of a future for the graphic representation of popular music itself?
Looking back, the extravagant logo and the instantly recognizable letterform seems a relic of the 1970s, akin to the massive arena rock show replete with pyrotechnics and garish props; or the black concert jersey with white sleeves, dutifully declaring the band's roster of appearances at the Houston Astrodome or Topeka Civic Auditorium. Rock was entering its apotheosis of influence, its high-imperial hegemonic stage, and the big acts of the 1970s functioned, in a sense, like corporations, with managers and private jets and "shareholders" in the form of fans — so why not have a corporate logo, a band-brand identity? We can roughly bracket this period by two designs by the renowned Roger Dean: The "Yes" logo, at the beginning of the decade, trippily organic, still breathing in the fumes of the late 1960s; and, roughly a decade later, the colder, more sci-fi like logo for the "supergroup" Asia, who themselves arguably represented the last gasp of 1970s arena rock.
Logo and band font design was sort of lost among larger discussions of album cover design — which also peaked in the 1970s — and even today the origins of many logos are shrouded in mystery and misinformation. Andy Warhol is often though to have designed the famous Rolling Stones "lips" logo, and on the internet one often finds attribution credited to John Pasch, but the real creator is longtime record album designer Ruby Mazur. But in many cases, the logos were simply designed by the band members, often the product of art schools. The often schmaltzy character of it all was captured brilliantly in This is Spinal Tap, not just in the discussion of the cover concept ("How much more black could it be?"), but in the treatment of the umlaut added to the band's name. "It's like a pair of eyes. You're looking at the umlaut, and it's looking at you," as David St. Hubbins put it. The umlaut became de rigueur for a whole host of bands, ranging from Motörhead to Queensryche (which impossibly put it over the "Y"), and it was typically added as an afterthought, a hollow symbol of distinction that owed nothing to linguistic or cultural actualities (graphic designer Bruce Campbell notes that when Mötley Crüe played Germany, the literal-minded crowd chanted "Mutley Cruh").
Punk and new-wave, the story goes, arrived in response to the excesses of the 1970s, and I wonder if, as a kind of corollary to the anti-consumerist ethos of bands like The Clash, the idea of having a single, marketable kind of logo suddenly became recherché. Indeed, the logo for Southern California punk band Black Flag was, ironically, an iconic anti-logo. Designed by artist Raymond Pettibon, the logo was a sort of shattered flag, represented by a series of four black uneven bars. It was blunt, rather anonymous, but forceful and memorable in its own right. It was also instantly legible, and indeed it became a rather popular tattoo.
Heading into the 1990s and the present, the number of readily iconic band logos and typefaces seems, to me at least, to have substantially dwindled. Which leads to the thought underlying all of this: Will graphic design ever have as great a role in popular music, or indeed any role at all, in the future? I know that there continues to be a quite vigorous graphic design movement affiliated with "indie rock" and other forms, from the talented folks at Aesthetic Apparatus or any number of other rock poster designers chronicled at www.flatstock.com. More often than not, however, these works are boutique, one-off projects, done in letterpress or some other antique-feeling method; works of art thought they may be, they have not, like the bands they announce, broken through to any kind of mainstream national consciousness.
The disappearing logo might just be the canary in the coal mine signifying the dematerialization of music. Sure, there are little JPEGs on iTunes that depict album covers, but the proliferation of digitally acquired music and the rise of "playlist culture" is a threat not only to the idea of an album as a coherent body of work, but the album (in CD or whatever form) as a package. The shift from album to CD represented meant the artist's canvas was reducing in size to less than a quarter of its original, and now, to essentially nothing. My iPod is filled with songs by artists whose album covers I have never even seen, who I know only by iPod font, so I would not even know if they had a logo, or any visual identity whatsoever. A few months ago, a leading designer, who has done some exemplary record packaging, told me, "the music business at the moment is really not the business you would want to be in, neither as a musician or a designer. The medium is changing so incredibly, and nobody really knows if music packaging is really going to be around in a few years." When I asked an art director at a record company what the future of album cover design was, his answer was simple: "It's disappearing. That's what the future is."
And the covers of kids notebooks — what do they hold now? What will they hold tomorrow? Maybe it would be better if they were not drawing logos. My Middle School grades were terrible.