2022 | Mat Smith interviews Andy Earl and Malcolm Garrett about the single sleeve for Duran Duran's 'Planet Earth'
Look now, look all around, there’s no sign of life
On Midsummer Arcade, next to John Lewis and near the exit from Centre:MK, is a sign advising that this was the location where the sleeve photo for Duran Duran’s 1981 debut single, ‘Planet Earth’, was taken.
Mat Smith is a Milton Keynes music writer for Electronic Sound, Clash, Further. and Documentary Evidence. Mat has written sleevenotes for Mute, Cherry Red, BMG and Our Silent Canvas. He lives in Woburn Sands with his wife, two daughters, four cats and too many records.
Only available on the 12-inch format, the photo showed the group against the backdrop of the Centre’s exterior glass curtain wall, with Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor standing around one of the distinctive planters. The photo was bathed in shadowy purple, in keeping with the lead track being a club-oriented ‘Night Version’ of ‘Planet Earth’.
The photo was was taken by Andy Earl, then just starting his career, and who would go on to become an important figure in the music industry, shooting memorable sleeve images for Pink Floyd, Prince, Gary Numan, Madonna, Johnny Cash and countless others.
The sleeve’s design was created by Assorted iMaGes, the design company established by Malcolm Garrett in 1977 after designing the ‘Orgasm Addict’ sleeve for Buzzcocks. Garrett’s and Assorted iMaGes’ distinctive design style would imprint themselves deeply on 1980s music culture in the UK, with sleeves for Simple Minds, Heaven 17 and Peter Gabriel.
There’s a high likelihood that it you look through your record collection (or your parents’ record collection), you will find numerous examples of Earl and Garrett’s work. ‘Planet Earth’, however, caught them both toward the beginning of what continue to be important careers in photography, design and the way that presentation powerfully draws us to music releases.
Duran Duran archive photos: Andy Earl
Interview and additional photography: Mat Smith
My external assessor at Nottingham Trent ran the Photographers’ Gallery in London and put some of my degree show pictures in a group show. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood came to the show and liked the 'painterly’ quality of my photos, and asked if I would like to do an album cover for Bow Wow Wow based on a Manet painting. That was my first job! ‘See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy!’ was recently rated #15 in Rolling Stones Magazine’s Best Album covers ever.
I wasn't sure where my photography would take me after college. I had a show at the Venice Biennale which I now realise was quite prestigious, and I thought I might do art or fashion photography. It was Malcolm and Vivienne discovering me that gave me my first sleeve, and it was artist Brian Clarke and the art dealer Robert Fraser that encouraged me to do record covers.
Rob Warr, who was marketing manager at EMI, liked the Bow Wow Wow cover and said, “I’ve got a bunch of lads from Birmingham – see what you can make of them.” They were Duran Duran. This was my second job!
I shot them in my Nottingham studio and Milton Keynes. This was the band’s first session with EMI. I also went down to see them at The Rum Runner in Birmingham
I was into hi-tech architecture. I kept seeing this opaque glass building and this massive sewage works from the M1 en route from Nottingham to London. I also knew MK was a new city in the making and I was drawn to its modernity and optimism.
The shopping centre looked futuristic. Gardeners were putting palm trees inside the centre walkways. I thought, with Duran’s music being exotic, energetic and incredibly modern, that this could be the perfect location. The shopping centre had not opened fully, so we could go and shoot in there with no people in the background, set up our lights and do a series of shots. We also shot at the sewage works at night with the illuminated building in the background.
This was their first session with a photographer. I put John Taylor in front of the others, initially not realising the etiquette that the singer usually takes centre stage. They were very positive and excited and their ambition to go all the way was obvious. We got on really well. We were all basically on the same wavelength, talking ideas, influences and how to get all the ingredients for a great photograph. We were always looking to how we could make it better and create the Duran Duran identity.
After that, I went with them to Sri Lanka, where I took photographs while they shot two videos. In the video for 'Hungry Like The Wolf’, I acted as a stand-in nun, as the one who was supposed to be in the video had food poisoning. 'Save A Prayer' was the other video that was shot there.
For the ‘Rio’ album, I also did the photograph on the rooftop which has an electronic cityscape in the background that visualises their music.
I was introduced to them by Rob Warr, their label manager at EMI, when they played at The Venue in London near Victoria Station, just before Christmas 1980. Rob had been the manager for Gang Of Four’, whom I’d met when they supported Buzzcocks a few times in 1978 and 1979. My Assorted iMaGes company also went on to do sleeves for Gang Of Four, but not their first album, which incidentally was produced by Rob. Rob commissioned me to design the sleeve of the first Duran Duran single, which was to be ‘Planet Earth’.
I first met Michael and Paul Berrow, Duran Duran’s managers. That was on a visit to Birmingham and their offices in The Rum Runner nightclub, although my memory of those early days is sketchy. It was a while before I really got to know the band. I can’t actually recall whether I spoke with the band at all during the production of the sleeve. I was quite reclusive and happier to be in the background in those days.
I had probably heard the song, but wasn’t overly familiar with it, so I went with the idea that Duran Duran was a futuristic / space age International Airline (also subliminally referencing the origin of the band name in the character Durand Durand played by Milo O’Shea in the classic sci-fi film ‘Barbarella’, starring Jane Fonda). This led me to a clean 60s-style graphic look. The white background complemented the Modernist minimalism of the layout.
I added little graphic wings to the ‘A’s in the lettering for Duran Duran, making a sort of logo. I haven’t read it yet, but I understand that John Taylor said in his autobiography that this was his favourite Duran Duran logo. I varied this a little on the subsequent sleeves for some reason. Along with consistency I always liked some variation across a set of designs. I have a flexible sense of discipline!
There wasn’t much time – I think maybe only a few days – so there was no opportunity to fully research or sift through photo libraries for the kind of imagery I wanted. There was no Google then, of course. I quickly found a series of aerial photos of planet earth which I cut out of National Geographic magazine (flouting copyright clearances) and montaged them together in a strictly gridded layout. I’m not sure if I’d intended this as a sketch for the sleeve, or whether I intended it to be the finished artwork. Nevertheless it worked well and timing dictated we go with it. The front was mainly daytime shots and the reverse, illustrating the song ‘Late Bar’ was mainly night time shots. I introduced a coloured strip at the top of each montage of images to visually hold them together as groups.
The typography was all range right. I have always been fond of the clarity combined with graphic rebellion of range right typesetting.
I didn't know it at that point, but I probably suspected that I would keep this same grid and typographic layout for the next two singles and the first LP, which gave a graphic consistency to the sequence of releases. A different but complementarily-scaled grid was used across the 7-inch and 12- inch sleeves. The relative scale of the grid, with regard to margins etc, was kept consistent across both the formats. It was not the case that the 7-inch sleeve was simply enlarged to 12-inch. Each were considered on their own merits.
The 12-inch also featured a photo of the group, something which I was generally averse to, but was at the insistence of the record company I believe. That was Andy’s photo of the group in Milton Keynes. I didn’t know Andy or his work beforehand. I also don’t know whose idea it was to shoot in Milton Keynes, although it was certainly an inspired choice, giving the photos an expansive architectural feel with those large panes of glass. I know very little about Milton Keynes, to be honest. I am quite interested in the town as an architectural experiment, but obviously not interested enough to visit.
I worked with Duran Duran a lot from that initial introduction with ‘Planet Earth', and my studio grew quite quickly to accommodate the huge amount of work we did together. Our day to day working relationship lasted for about six years and saw the release of their most successful albums, including the iconic ‘Rio’, with a sleeve featuring the Patrick Nagel painting.
Sadly, after I was ‘sacked’ around the time of ‘Notorious’, apart from getting together again for the ‘Greatest’ best of compilation, where there was a graphic imperative to reflect the era, I have not been invited to work with them since. I tentatively made suggestions that it would be good to be reunited with the band around the time of 40th anniversaries for both the first LP and then again for ‘Rio’. Despite my connection going back to the beginning, or perhaps because of that, i have often wondered why they have never considered me to have a sufficiently well-known or media-friendly name to be really associated with the glamour of Duran Duran. I think fans and other observers seem to be more interested in celebrating the relationship than the band themselves if I’m looking at it pragmatically.