A Field Guide to Musical Typography

By
Share:

Regular readers of Flavorpill will no doubt have noticed that we are suckers for anything typography-related, so it’s really only been a matter of time until we found a way to combine our typographic geekdom with our love for music. And, indeed, the two fields aren’t as disconnected as one might think at first glance — there’ve been a number of interesting design- and typography-based trends in music over the decades since bands started putting out albums that needed accompanying artwork and lettering. After the jump, we give you a potted history of ten of music’s most interesting typographic movements and moments. Did we miss anything?

The Beatles’ dropped T

We’ve never really bought into the whole Beatles-as-Year-Zero myth, but there’s no doubt that their iconic dropped T remains one of the most important design-related moments in music — even though it never really featured on the band’s records, this was still the first band logo to lodge in the public consciousness, opening musicians’ eyes to the possibilities of defining a strong visual identity for their b(r)and. As is often the case with important historical moments, the logo happened almost by accident — it was designed by the owner of a London drum shop where Ringo Starr and band manager Brian Epstein purchased a new kit in 1963. The designer, one Ivor Arbiter, got paid the princely sum of £5 for his work.

Acid-drenched incomprehensibility

Rock ‘n’ roll has always loved a good coded message – something to which non-hip parental types are blissfully oblivious but the cool kids get straight away. The psychedelic typography of the 1960s was a prime early example of this – anyone not plugged into the counterculture looked at it and saw a bunch of squiggles, while anyone who was cool, groovy or hip saw the name of their new favorite band. And, perhaps, something more, as in the case of The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa — the “Grateful Dead” name at the top can also be read as “We ate the acid” if you look at it carefully, and, if necessary, pretend you’re tripping really hard.

Black metal incomprehensibility

Also fond of spidery and virtually unreadable type are black metal bands. Logos like the above — it says “Averse Sefira,” if you’re wondering — blur the boundaries between artwork and lettering, making for some original and fascinating design. (If you’re interested, there’s a pretty great post about black metal typography here. God bless the internet, eh?)

Non-black metal

Metal aesthetics are a world of their own, and outside the gloomy forest of black metal, it’s pretty much all about sharp angles and sharp edges. Lightning bolts have been a particular favorite over the years, either replacing the letter “S” (see Kiss, Slayer, etc) or incorporated into a logo (see AC/DC, WASP, and the occasional other). Similarly jagged lightning-inspired lettering adorns the iconic Metallica logo. Heavy, gothic type is also popular (see Motörhead, Burzum, etc.), as are outsized letters at each end of the name (everyone from Anvil to Megadeth and Manowar).

Backwards letters

Musicians seem to have had a fondness for turning letters back to front ever since the world was young. We’re not really sure what it signifies, beyond a generalized concept of rebelliousness (and, in the case of ABBA, not even that). In recent years, the idea’s been the hallmark of the truly dreadful band (Nickelback, Puddle of Mudd, Linkin Park), so if you’re thinking of including the idea in your own artwork, maybe think again — unless, like the ever-contrary Talking Heads circa Remain in Light, you’re thinking of flipping the letters along their horizontal, rather than vertical, axis.

Punk’s DIY aesthetic

Any self-respecting punk band needs artwork that reflects their DIY cred. The classic example, of course, is the cut-and-paste, ransom-note stylings of The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, and many, many punk bands since have embraced hand-crafted artwork and typography — either hand-lettered, stenciled, or swiped from external source material. Again, demonstrating that you can find a website for virtually anything if you look hard enough, there’s an excellent Tumblr devoted to punk typography here (and it gets a gazillion bonus points for including artwork from obscure Melbourne post-punk pioneers Primitive Calculators on its front page).

Electronic futurism

The new electronic culture of the late ’80s and 1990s embraced artwork and design in keeping with its forward-thinking musical outlook. Techno, in particular, has always had a strong visual aesthetic to accompany its music – all slick, minimal vector designs that reflected both the digital heritage of the genre and its stripped-down, cerebral sound. The typography is similar – either slick, sans-serif typefaces like Helvetica and, um, Helvetica, or stylized, electronic-influenced fonts – and has made for some of the most interesting and striking design of the last few years.

Britpop’s logomania

For a while in the early to mid-’90s, it seemed that every British band had a logo, or at least a recurrent logotype that cropped up on all their records, often a minimal design that reflected the bands’ blank, one-word monikers: Oasis had their stark, lower-case, black-on-white stamp; Suede also went all lower-case in Helvetica Neue Condensed; Blur had their Dunhill-inspired extended “b” and “l”; and so on. As the Britpop era passed, abandoning or refining these logos also provided an opportunity for these bands to break away from their old images in bids for reinvention. (Or attempts at reinvention, anyway — in a gloriously Spinal Tap moment, an “insider” at Oasis’s label Creation Records told The Independent in 1999 of the band’s new logo for Standing on the Shoulder of Giants: “I think it’s more modern… It’s more ’70s.”)

Chrome

Rock dudes love cars, yeah? So it’s really no surprise that there’s an entire genre of rock typography that looks like it could adorn the front of a Chevrolet – from Van Halen’s chrome-tastic logo to ZZ Top’s blinding design (which, in a genius move, has been recreated as an actual chrome-plated keyring and is available for a smooth $9.95 via the band’s website). The oddity here are Pulp, who decorated the front of Different Class with a curious steel-tubing, vintage Dr. Who-style logo that was entirely out of keeping with both the rest of the artwork and the album in general.

Hip hop and branding

Given hip hop’s strictly-business attitude, it’s no surprise that rappers were quick to pick up on the branding and image-enhancing possibilities of defining a strong visual identity. In the early days, this was strongly tied into graffiti culture, but as hip hop has evolved and diversified, so too has the design and typography on show. The good folk over at Complex recently put together a list of the best 50 rap logos ever, which makes for interesting reading. Unsurprisingly, Public Enemy’s iconic stencil-and-crosshair logo lands at #1 — as far as representing a band’s aesthetic and philosophy goes, it’s rarely been surpassed, in hip hop or elsewhere — but there’s plenty of others that will be instantly recognizable, from the Wu-Tang Clan’s stylized “W” to Nas’s metal-inspired glyphs.