Jamie Reid, 76, dies; His anarchic graphics helped define the Sex Pistols

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Jamie Reid, 76, dies; His anarchic graphics helped define the Sex Pistols
An undated photo by Jack O’Brien of Jamie Reid, whose anarchic designs for the Sex Pistols scandalized polite society in the 1970s. Reid, whose searing cover art and other graphics for the punk band, featuring ransom-note lettering and defaced images of the queen, outraged polite British society nearly as much as the seminal punk band’s anarchic anthems and obscenity-laced tirades, died on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, at his home in Liverpool. He was 76. (Jack O’Brien via The New York Times)

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Jamie Reid, whose searing cover art and other graphics for the Sex Pistols, featuring ransom-note lettering and defaced images of the queen, outraged polite British society nearly as much as the seminal punk band’s anarchic anthems and obscenity-laced tirades, died on Tuesday at his home in Liverpool. He was 76.

His death was confirmed by John Marchant, a London gallerist who represents Reid’s archive. No cause was given.

Reid was a product of the radical left of the 1960s, and his fiery political attitudes matched his incendiary art over a career that spanned more than six decades. He was eventually embraced by the art establishment: His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

But in 1970s Britain, a more proper era when bowler hats were still seen on the streets of London, his agitprop graphics on behalf of a band of musical Visigoths, doing their part to ransack the rock-industrial complex and the British class system, were enough to cause scandal.

His sleeve for the single “God Save the Queen,” released in 1977 as Britons were preparing to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, featured a stately photo of the queen with her eyes and mouth torn away, replaced by the band’s name and the song’s title. It hit with all the subtlety of a car bomb.

“It was very shocking,” Jon Savage, the British music writer who collaborated with Reid on the 1987 book “Up They Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid,” said in a phone interview. “The printers refused to print the sleeve at first.”

Reid used the same image, superimposed over the British flag, for a promotional poster for the single. It became an enduring logo for the band, a punk equivalent of the Rolling Stones’ omnipresent tongue graphic.

With the Pistols, there was also a heavy dash of pranksterism. “A lot of people completely misconstrue what we were trying to do with the Sex Pistols,” Reid said in a 2018 interview with Another Man, a British style and culture magazine. He noted that he and Malcolm McLaren, the band’s manager, “were very much into the politics, but I was bringing a lot of humor into it, too.”

For “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” (1977), the band’s only album before they broke up in 1978, he conjured a sense of mystery and malevolence using cutout letters. In 1991, Rolling Stone magazine named it the second-best cover in rock history, behind the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Discordant and disruptive, like the band itself, Reid’s indelible work became as central to the Sex Pistols’ ferocious image as the rag-doll shirts, bondage pants and safety pins worn by John Lydon, the lead singer better known as Johnny Rotten, courtesy of the iconoclastic designer Vivienne Westwood, or the sleeveless swastika T-shirt worn by bassist Sid Vicious.

Brilliant marketing in the guise of anti-marketing, Reid’s designs sold the essence of punk to a baffled public.

“Punk was a very complex package, and it was difficult for a lot of people to get ahold of by the music alone, particularly with a group as confrontational as the Sex Pistols,” Savage said. “Visuals were another way in.”

And a necessary one, given the efforts to stamp out the band’s music (its debut single, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” managed to rise to No. 38 on the British charts, despite being banned from the airwaves and pulled by its record company). “You couldn’t hear the group on the radio or see them on the television,” Savage said. “The visuals were like a samizdat, forbidden knowledge.”

Reid’s covers and artwork also did their fundamental job: selling records. “Interestingly,” he said in a 1998 interview with Index magazine, “with the two or three times that the artwork was actually banned and the records went on sale in white bags, they didn’t sell.”

Jamie MacGregor Reid was born on Jan. 16, 1947, in London, one of two sons of Jack and Nora (Gardner) Reid, and grew up in Croydon, south of London. His father was the city editor of The Daily Sketch, a tabloid newspaper.

His parents were committed socialists, and at 7 he was marching for nuclear disarmament and other causes. He also developed a lifelong interest in mysticism, thanks to a great-uncle who founded the Ancient Druid Order.

“It’s part of who I am,” he told Another Man, referring to his druid heritage. “It’s so important that we reconnect with the planet. We need spiritual as much as political change in this country.”

Artistically gifted, Reid eventually enrolled at Wimbledon School of Art (now Wimbledon College of Arts) and later transferred to Croydon College of Art, where he found himself at sit-ins with McLaren. Both were heavily influenced by the Situationist International, an anti-capitalist aesthetic movement in postwar Europe that blended surrealism with Marxism and trafficked in mottos such as “We will not lead; we will only detonate.”

After college, he helped found a fierce low-budget political magazine called Suburban Press in Croydon. It was there that he first developed his ransom-note style.

“In terms of graphic design, I probably learned more from the printing press than I did in art school,” Reid told Index. “You start developing an appreciation for what actually looks good out of sheer necessity, from having no money.”

Around the same time, McLaren was seeding a punk revolution in London, running, with Westwood, a storied boutique on King’s Road under a series of impish names, including Sex, which sold fetish wear and clothing inspired by Britain’s Teddy boy craze of the 1950s.

By the middle of the decade Reid was living in the Scottish Hebrides, helping friends set up a small farm, when a telegram arrived from McLaren: “Come down, we’ve got this project in London we want you to work on.”

“I was living in the middle of mountains and lochs and, suddenly — boom — I started working with the Pistols,” Reid told Index.

The Sex Pistols imploded in 1978 after a brief and chaotic United States tour, capping their final show in San Francisco with one final sneer from Lydon: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Reid carried the torch over the ensuing years, lending his energies to support dissident Russian punk band Pussy Riot, the Occupy movement and Extinction Rebellion, an environmental group known for its nonviolent civil disobedience.

He also produced artwork for new generations of subversive bands, including the KLF, an avant-garde electronica group, and Afro Celt Sound System.

Reid is survived by his wife, Maria Hughes; a daughter, Rowan MacGregor Reid; and a granddaughter.

Though he considered himself an anarchist, Reid was also a realist who understood the inexorable creep of commercialism into radical culture. In 2015, Virgin Money — the bank backed by Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Records, one of the Sex Pistols’ labels — released a line of Sex Pistols credit cards featuring Reid’s famous cover art. He expressed “complete disgust” for the cards, but he had no power to stop them.

“Radical ideas will always get appropriated by the mainstream,” Reid told Another Man. “A lot of it is to do with the fact that the establishment and the people in authority actually lack the ability to be creative. They rob everything they can.”

“That’s why,” he added, “you have to keep moving on to new things.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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