Interview: Why we’re celebrating Trevor Key’s Top 40

“Trevor Key made high art for the high street, fine art for Woolworths,” says Scott King, the graphic designer responsible for bringing Key’s work home to Hull.

Back in the day, the late Trevor Key’s fine art photography and collaborative art could indeed be seen all over Woolies. And Our Price. And every other now-defunct record store of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

From Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, to X-Ray Spex’s Germ Free Adolescents, the Sex Pistols’ Some Product via New Order’s Technique and Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Trevor Key’s eye-catching works of art could go home with you, wrapped around the record you’d just bought on your Saturday trip to the shops.

Trevor Key deserves to be celebrated as a great son of Hull.
– Scott King

Although the record, explains lifelong music fan Scott, wasn’t always the main priority.

Tubular Bells, for example, is almost like a painting with a record in it,” he says. “It’s a strange dichotomy, because I didn’t love the record, but I always loved the sleeve. I still think it’s one of the best album covers there is.”

Iconic, mass-produced and accessible. Whether your musical tastes veered towards the prog rock of the mid-1970s, late 1970s punk, the post punk of early 1980s, or the pure pop and electronica of the 1980s and early 1990s, record cover art was – and still is – a huge part of the appeal of buying records.

Trevor Key s Top 40, Brodrick Gallery, Hull School of Art and Design © Chris Pepper

“I’m 48,” says Scott, “and for my generation, the sleeve was such a big part of the record. It was crucial to have a good cover.”

A good cover, in fact, can be priceless. As a young art student at Hull School of Art and Design, Scott stumbled across upon a D&AD design competition, exhibiting work by alumni of the school. And there was New Order’s Technique album cover, complete with photography by Hull-born Trevor Key.

“I couldn’t equate the fact that someone from my art college could do that,” says Scott, who hails from the East Yorkshire town of Goole. “It blew my mind. It was very inspirational.”

Taking that art school inspiration and running with it, Scott went on to design and art direct for i-D magazine, was creative director for style bible Sleazenation and has been chair of visual communication at the University of the Arts, London. He has produced work for likes of the Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey, Suicide, St Etienne, Suede and Teenage Fanclub, and written several books. “Trevor Key deserves to be celebrated as a great son of Hull,” he says. “His work is a form of popular art.”

His images remain iconic and set a benchmark that very few others have reached.
– Jon Savage

For Trevor Key’s Top 40, Scott has worked closely with the late artist’s family and his former personal assistant Toby McFarlan Pond to curate a collection of work that is doing Key’s legacy proud.

“It came about because I knew Toby, and he put me in touch with Lesley Dilcock, Trevor Key’s partner,” explains Scott. “This exhibition is by no means a retrospective, but Trevor really does deserve one.

“He worked throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and you can see the changes in fashion in his work. His early stuff, for example, is very prog rock – a thing of its time. It’s zeitgeist. His record sleeves are brilliant collaborations, although Tubular Bells, perhaps his most iconic piece, was purely Trevor.”

Next, says Scott, came pre-punk, which saw many artwork collaborations between Key and Cooke. Record sleeves were representative of “establishment comedy punk”, such as Derek and Clive’s Come Again. And by the time this particular comedy duo were releasing Ad Nauseum, they were pretty much “out-and-out, total punk”.

Key’s punk credentials were reinforced with record sleeve photography for X-Ray Spex’s classic Germ Free Adolescents, as well as a long-standing collaboration with Jamie Reid, for Sex Pistols’ record sleeves.

Jon Savage, author of England’s Dreaming, says: “In his work for the Sex Pistols and Mike Oldfield, to name but two, Trevor Key mixed technical excellence and precision with a clear sense of fun and mischief. His images remain iconic and set a benchmark that very few others have reached.”

By 1981, he was working with Peter Saville on doing New Order cover artworks, and their success led to record sleeve art for likes of Peter Gabriel and Wham!.

It’s much more exciting to attempt to say whatever you want to a mass audience – even if you’re stopped – than it is to be given free rein over a niche audience
– Scott King

Prog-rock, punk, pop… they can be seen in all their eclectic glory, displayed on a rack that Scott, Lesley Dilcock and Toby McFarlan Pond commissioned especially for Trevor Key’s Top 40.

Bright young thing Matthew Darbyshire – a British artist renowned for railing against mass production and today’s consumer society – was brought in to create a unique display case that would be a work of art in itself. On the one hand, its design is intended to evoke a whiff of nostalgia for those record shopping trips down your local high street. On the other, its bespoke nature suggests it is the “reverse, or inverse, of the mass-produced populist high art that Trevor did”.

It’s all about the balance between pop and art, says Scott. Key’s record sleeves undoubtedly had mass appeal, effectively breaking down barriers to art by making it accessible.

Even punk, which tends to be seen – or want to be seen – as an antithesis to commercialism, needs the balance. “You have to draw personal lines about the mass appeal of punk,” says Scott. “The Sex Pistols, for example, needed to sell records to rail against the system. And [Trevor Key collaborator] Jamie Reid’s work, is about infiltrating from the inside. It’s much more exciting to attempt to say whatever you want to a mass audience – even if you’re stopped – than it is to be given free rein over a niche audience.”

Trevor Key’s Top 40 is on display at the Brodrick Gallery at Hull School of Art and Design, weekdays until Wednesday 18 October, from 10am to 5pm. It then moves to Ings Library in east Hull from Fri 20 Oct to Fri 17 Nov, and Fred Moore Library in west Hull from Mon 20 Nov to Mon 18 Dec. It is part of the Hull 2017 Creative Communities Programme.

Scott King , Lesley Dilcock and Toby McFarlan Pond would like to thank Lucy King and Jackie Goodman for their help in bringing Trevor Key’s Top 40 to fruition.