The spinal tap of art direction
Art Director Confesses: I Sold Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'RollMike Salisbury
If Spinal Tap had been a design group this book could double as its company brochure. Mike Salisbury takes us through a journey of his “rock star” art director career with all the pace and contrast of a 45-minute drum solo. Along the way he re-invents everything from the beer bottle to the film poster, from Rolling Stone magazine to Michael Jackson’s single white glove. In fact, by the time you get
to a gallery of his photographs at the back of the book, you half expect the caption on Alfred Hitchcock’s portrait to read “Hitchcock, that was my idea”. He ruthlessly marks his territory throughout the whole book, even to the point of rubbishing the efforts of a previous Rolling Stone art director.
Salisbury manages to hit the consumer spot brilliantly with work such as Joe Camel, the coughing rock’n’roll dromedary, but I get the feeling that he oversells his involvement in other projects (too late with his Playboy work and too early with the Levi’s campaigns). He seems unselective about what else goes in the book – for instance the inclusion of his American rework of the classic poster for A Clockwork Orange is a mistake.
More impressive than much of the work itself is the client list that he has built up, and the bulk of the book feels closer to a client thank-you or a company brochure than a book about a man’s career. Stories of wild 1970s rock star behaviour are hinted at and add more personality to the book than much of the work – but if only he could remember the endings.
It must be tempting for all art directors to put a book together late in their careers, but the results are always better when someone else does it for them (preferably after they’re dead). I think Salisbury got the name of the book right, it’s the execution that is wrong, and while he has spent several years giving his clients the solutions and answers that they want, he has done the exact opposite for himself and produced a book that is both vain and self-indulgent.
A photograph on the final page provides a perfect summary of the book. A young Mike Salisbury, with the stare of someone who has just discovered penicillin, stands next to a seven-foot fibreglass pencil (classic Tap). After all, books about bubblegum wrappers, rock magazines, beer bottles, the missing white gloves of pop megastars and dinosaur film posters should be funny, irreverent and throwaway, and not claim to be the answer to life, the universe and everything.
First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000