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I like the songs, but this is only a fraction of what we can do. It's like a little Polaroid of U2. -- Edge, on Rattle and Hum

The Hot Press Interview: Steve Averill

Hot Press
He is best known for his internationally acclaimed, award-winning work as a designer of U2's album sleeves -- but Steve Averill has other strings to his many-faceted bow. Whether as pioneer of the style-conscious mod movement in Ireland, one-time lead singer with the Radiators From Space or head honcho with one of Ireland's most successful design companies, he has never failed to make his mark. And then there's the fact that he was the man who gave U2 their name.

Few business relationships last as long as that between Steve Averill, the design artist formerly known as punk vocalist Steve Rapid, and U2. But since first being invited to work for the band in 1978 he has had a hand in countless design items that have helped to give U2 a consistent, yet constantly-evolving image that has seen them remain at the top of the rock tree for nigh on twenty years.

But U2 are only a part of a life-in-music that has seen Averill take on the role of mod fan, punk singer, fanzine designer, writer, reviewer, electronic dance enthusiast and country music obsessive. Plus, Averill has successfully established his position as one of Ireland's finest and most influential designers, featuring as Art Director on countless corporate image and branding exercises, album sleeve designs and commercials. And he has a trophy room full of awards to show for it.

He may also be the only Irishman to have guested live on stage with Led Zeppelin!

You were born in 1950 to parents who had no specific interest in music. Yet from the age of ten, you started paying serious attention to what was on the radio. What impressed you then?

When I was about twelve I can remember being really impressed by "Telstar" by the Tornados. I was aware of the Beatles and the Stones, mostly English acts appealed to me. The first record I can remember buying was a Shadows EP. I was conscious of Elvis but somehow he didn't really cut it with me. My parents, of course, thought it was all just noise, but they never seriously tried to interfere. I was always examining the covers of records even back then.

So was your later career as a design artist in music on the horizon that early?

Yes it was. Even when I was thirteen, I knew I wanted to work as a designer and I wanted to work in music as well. I don't think I ever seriously considered any other careers. By that age I'd started making my own covers for records that came in plain bags. When I started looking at albums I'd be as interested in the cover as much as the music. For me, they come as one package, the music and the image of the band, like the Who, or the Pretty Things. That's why the Stones' first album cover struck me so vividly. The five guys had this image that blended so well with each other and it also fitted perfectly with the music.

Did you see the first Dublin gig by the Stones and the only one by the Beatles?

No. Parental restrictions and money probably ruled them out. But the Who at the Stadium was probably one of the first I went to, but I went to see lots of local rock bands. We forget it now, but Dublin had a thriving rock scene back then. Peter Adler and the Next-In-Line were brilliant, and were hugely popular, but they rarely rate a mention in the history books. Granny's Intentions and the Creatures were great live bands you could see at the Stella in Mount Merrion regularly.

Apart from designing your own record covers, were there any other stirrings of interest in design?

My brother and me used to cut out shapes like circles and arrows and stick them onto T-shirts just like the Who. Everybody thought we were crazy! When the Who played that gig in the Stadium we really dressed up for it. In those days they didn't have the security you have now, so when we arrived at the venue, the man on the door thought we were the band and showed us right through! Didn't even check our tickets!

What other top visiting acts did you see in Dublin?

Well, because you'd only get a visiting band maybe every month we'd go to nearly all of them, even if we weren't huge fans. But one that really stands out is Led Zeppelin's only ever Irish gig at the Stadium in 1972. I went round to the Stadium in the afternoon to write a piece for the school magazine. I don't know how it happened, but I found myself talking to John Bonham for about three hours, with nobody else around.

Oddly enough, he didn't want to talk so much about music but about hot rods and cars and stuff like that. When he had to go, I told him I hadn't got a ticket for the gig, so he arranged for me to sit behind him on the stage! Afterwards, the only people the security would let into the dressing room were the four members of the band, their manager Peter Grant and me!

You had developed a serious interest in writing by then, hadn't you?

I had started my own fanzine called Freep which wrote about bands like Hawkwind. Later on I had a punk mag called Raw Power and now I do Lonesome Highway about the country music I've become fairly obsessive about. It was Bill Graham who introduced me to writing for Hot Press by getting me to do a piece about Iggy Pop.

The punk movement had so much in common with some of those bands, like the Who and the Pretty Things. Was that what interested you in punk?

I think I've always had an interest in acts that are a bit out on the edge. Down through the years, I was into the Mothers of Invention and Love, with all the trappings of the caftans and the coloured shirts or whatever was part of the image. The music scene was dominated by bands like Yes, who I thought were OK but there was something missing, and I'd started to get interested in American bands like MC5, the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground and so on.

How did your involvement with the Radiators From Space come about?

About three years before the Rads came together, myself and Pete Holidai had a band called Greta Garbage and the Trashcans, heavily influenced by those American bands I mentioned. We spent ages looking for other musicians to join us. Eventually, Phil Chevron, Jimmy Crashe and Marc Megaray got together with us and we became the Radiators From Space. We had a kind of B-movie trash aesthetic.

Do you agree that the humorous aspect of punk has been overlooked in favor of the anger, the aggression and the anti-establishment elements?

There has to be some humour if you call a band the Radiators From Space! But we were serious too. We'd talk about the issues we felt we should be writing about. Punk bands like the Rads were very politically aware. Today it would be considered passe. A band today will be more inclined to put a few fucks into a chorus and hope for some shock value that way.

Despite the level of corruption among politicians and priests here, this is seldom reflected in the music Irish rock bands are producing now. But I remember the Radiators doing a song, "Election Special," at Morans Hotel and it was dynamite in the way it attacked the political system!

We only did that song once on stage, the night before the general election. I brought a soap box onto the stage and clutching the mike I jumped up and down and ranted through the song. But the box broke and I fell off!

The musical establishment were not too keen on the Radiators, either, were they?

Certainly not. Despite our high profile we only did about 14 gigs in our first year. Venue promoters thought we were bad news!

Were you disappointed that the band didn't achieve more lasting success?

I suppose I was. We went with Chiswick Records in the U.K. who, along with Stiff, were the main punk label at the time. We'd met Roger Armstrong and Ted Carroll so there was that Irish connection in the set-up, and they were enthusiastic. We got Single of the Week for our first two singles in Sounds magazine, but ultimately I think we needed more solid management.

How come you left the Radiators halfway through recording the first album TV Tube Heart?

I've always regarded myself as a tone-deaf singer with no musical talent. I knew there were areas the rest of the band wanted to explore musically and I felt I wasn't the vocalist for that job. They were writing better songs and there was no way I could have brought much to the second album, Ghostown. I also wanted to develop my graphic design work. They were disappointed when I told them first, but then I think they understood and thought it was for the best. My last gig with them was on the bill with Thin Lizzy at Dalymount Park.

But you didn't quit the music industry for good at this point. You then decided to bring us SM Corporation, did you not?

SM Corporation actually made a single for Solid Records and we got on the Late, Late Show. We were mainly into electronic background music. Eighty percent of what we did was improvised. For some gigs we got hold of a copy of the film Nosferatu which we projected onto the wall at the back of the venue and we played along to the film. It's a bizarre experience playing to an audience who have turned their backs on you!

Tell me about the Late Late Show.

It seems ridiculous now, but Ferdia McAnna was working with the Late Late Show and he'd come up with an idea to push the limits a bit on the musical front. So he came to a rehearsal but walked out during the first piece we played. We thought that was the last we'd hear of him, but on Friday we got a call to say we were booked for the show on Saturday.

During the rehearsals at RTE they kept telling us the song was still too long, and we kept cutting it but it was still too long, and we never got a finalised version of it during rehearsals. Between then and the show I hit on a brainwave. I would simply keep an eye on the clock and when it reached the time we thought RTE would be happy I'd simply shout "stop" and we'd stop. When we went on, we did just that.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us the production crew were now expecting us to go on for much longer and they were all dumbfounded when we ground to a halt, leaving Gay Byrne in a bit of a spot. He talked his way out of it, but he later described our performance as the worst he'd ever heard!

By then your design career was moving in the right direction and you were doing stuff for U2.

I met them before they even became U2. The first member of the band I met was Adam. He had a brother in the same class as mine. Adam was a fan of the Radiators From Space. I was working full-time in advertising and he came to me looking for advice, and we talked a lot about image and logos and that sort of stuff. My initial contact tended to be Adam and the Edge because we lived near each other in Malahide. I didn't get to meet the others until later.

You were to go down in history as the man who convinced them to change their name from the Hype to U2. Why that name?

When I first met them they didn't really know what they wanted to do, what type of band they really wanted to be. But they had qualified for the final of that band competition in Limerick and they needed to decide on a name. Adam liked names like XTC, which were short and crisp and could mean a lot or mean very little. So I made a list of ten and I put U2 on the bottom. I thought it was strong graphically and it had a variety of connotations without meaning something specific. It was short and stood out from the band names common at the time. After we discussed the list we decided to go for U2 for all those reasons.

Can you remember any of the rejected names you had on that list?

The only one I can remember now was the Blazers. I think I saw it as a good name in the context of the Mount Temple School background. But I notice there's a Tex-Mex type of band with that name in East L.A. now.

Where design is concerned do U2 simply tell you what to do and expect you to proceed with forelock-tugging reverence?

Not quite! Right from the very start they seemed to have a better understanding and a little more intuition than most bands have about the importance of the design aspect of logos, posters, sleeves and so on. They were never afraid to admit they didn't know everything. So they'd come to me, sometimes with a basic idea and sometimes not, and we'd talk about it and kick it around. They are really good listeners and they'd take good advice seriously, whether it was from me or you or Bill Graham or whoever. I could see from the start there was an intelligence there.

They were in their teens when you met them.

Even then they had a level of basic common sense. They made no apology, but if they wanted to find out something they'd simply ask somebody who should know the answer. I know it sounds like the logical thing to do, but a lot of bands can't deal with all that too well.

But what about their music when you first met them? Were you a U2 fan as such?

Not really. I sat in on a few rehearsals and wasn't overly impressed. I thought they were little better than most bands starting out in Dublin at that time, although the Edge had a certain something about him. Bono, I remember, was quite shy then. I really only became a huge fan with The Unforgettable Fire album.

Can you remember what impact they had in Ireland?

They brought a freshness to a fairly moribund scene. There were a few bands who came in the wake of the Boomtown Rats, bands who shared a vision, like, say, the Atrix, and other bands who'd been influenced by Television, for example. But very few. Most Irish bands at that time were too much in awe of the more conventional established bands.

As U2's art director, is there ever a situation where you become a kind of counselor, mediating between four people?

Not quite! For some projects I might only meet one or two of the band and at other times I'd meet all four. They are all strong, confident personalities in their own right, and they each have an intuitive understanding of what they want. So as their art director, I do have to try to find a compromise that all four agree with. If you have strong views yourself, you have to explain them and defend them. But that's good, it challenges everybody.

What was your reaction when the Boy cover was withdrawn in the U.S. because of its perceived potential pedophile associations?

I wasn't aware of the change at the time, and I don't think the band were either. The record company did it off their own bat as far as I know. I felt it was a pity they hadn't asked us to come up with something ourselves to replace it. But given the attitudes of some of those right-wing people from middle America I suppose I wasn't surprised. But as far as I'm concerned it was an innocent picture of a boy, that's all.

Give us examples of how the interaction between you and the band works.

Well, when we started work on the Pop album we all had completely different ideas as to the best direction to take it design-wise. It was only after weeks of discussion and debate that we eventually made it what it was. With the War cover, the band initially wanted to use a photo by the well-known photographer Donald McCullen. I didn't agree. I thought it would make the album too specific. I argued that it should be like something seen through the eyes of a child, so I suggested Anton Corbijn. There was also heated debate about the inside cover and I think in the end they all conceded that it worked and that's what really matters -- not who's ideas it is, but does it work in the context.

At what point in the process of U2 writing and recording a new album do you get involved?

Fairly early on, because there might be lots of other items, like stickers or posters, or whatever, that will become peripheral elements in the campaign, and they have to be given the same amount of serious attention. It wouldn't make practical sense to leave it all until the record's finished. I try to attend the photo shoots for the album. I don't always need to hear the recording, but at some point it's helpful!

What has been the low point of your relationship with U2?

The only time we've had a serious disagreement was nothing to do with design and goes back to a time when I arranged for them to be on the same bill as a band I was involved with and we got into this huge row over who should have top billing. This was after Paul McGuinness had become involved.

So how would you describe the relationship, is it primarily business with the social bit coming afterwards?

It's hard to describe it. It's not primarily business. Perhaps it's best described as a strong human relationship. We don't hang out of each other's pockets. We generally only get together when there's something specific to discuss or to do, whether it's business or social.

Have they changed over the years?

Well, everybody has. They're not as nave as they used to be. But they still maintain that strong genuine bond between them as individuals.

Where design is concerned, is Larry the skeptic some people think he is?

No. Larry has strong opinions on design -- which he expresses very strongly. But then having said his piece he tends to leave it at that and lets you get on with it. But he'd still be involved in all final decision-making.

So where does the satisfaction come?

It comes from feeling that a job was well done, that maybe something a little risky worked in the end, and it's particularly gratifying to see some of my album designs featuring in lists of the best album covers. But it's also satisfying when a valued client keeps coming back, because I've no right to make assumptions that I'll always be involved.

And your own personal favorites?

Personally I still find the War cover very striking. And I also particularly like The Joshua Tree and Boy covers. Then Achtung Baby, Pop and the current one. But none have turned out so badly you'd want to redo them.

And any crimes you want to admit to?

Well, I don't think the October cover works as well as it might have. I think it's the weakest sleeve we did.

U2 covers have had little obvious sex in the designs. Would you agree?

I think it's there to a certain extent but it's not explicit. There was the naked Adam on Achtung Baby, for example. I don't think there's a deliberate attempt to look sexy or to use sex. But neither is there any attempt to sanitize. I think some of the singles covers were very sexy.

Such as?

"Desire," with that shot of Larry. Some gays have told me that they regard it as a very iconic, very sexy cover. But people read things into the covers that weren't necessarily intentional, although we might have been aware that there was room for interpretation. I think that's a good thing when there is that freedom.

Can you give me an example?

After the Pop album came out we had a fax from the Playboy people who wanted to know why we'd used their logo and what we were trying to say. We weren't aware that we'd used it at all but when we examined the cover it just happened that if you looked at a shot of Larry's eye and turned the picture sideways the shadows make it look as if we've placed the Playboy logo over one eye. But we hadn't!

How did you get interested in country?

Accidentally at that time I discovered Dwight Yoakam and realised that, with albums by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash and others in my record collection, I had become, almost unknown to myself, a bit of a country music fan. I then found that many of them were dealing with the same issues that punk had dealt with, and I simply became obsessive about it, as I tend to do. And I started the fanzine Lonesome Highway so I could write about and read about these acts.

So what about the future, are there any unfulfilled ambitions?

Just like U2, I feel that as a designer my best work is still ahead. I don't believe that a great cover can sell a bad album but I've always believed that a truly great cover design can bring out aspects of the music that you might otherwise miss, so you're always striving that perfect synthesis. I also like to keep my ears open to all kinds of music, and I listen to a lot of Arabic music these days too.

Have you any views on the use of music in advertising?

It's really used like wallpaper or a blanket. Sometimes it works. But it can be disconcerting to hear a favorite song used in an ad and you find it's for a washing machine or something. But advertising will always follow popular trends and use whatever works.

Do you have any observations on the way the record industry in general looks on design?

The marketing department rules the roost nowadays, no matter what the band thinks. I remember we thought we had a great design for the first An Emotional Fish album but the record company simply said no, and that was that. It ultimately doesn't matter who likes what, if the marketing people don't get it, then its usually back to the drawing board. Literally.

© Hot Press, 2001. All rights reserved.