Thursday, November 26, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with John 'Teflon' Sims - Artist Who Helped Create The 2-Tone Look Launches 'This Art 2-Tone' Exhibition

The look and visuals of 2-Tone have been as much an inspiration for me as the sound of the music. Indeed, among the most satisfying experiences I've had writing this blog has been the chance to meet and interview the talented artists who were as much responsible for its overall success and legacy as the musicians who wrote and performed the songs.

The arc of my life over the last 30 years has been defined by ongoing change. However the one constant has been my ongoing love affair with 2-Tone ska and its iconic imagery. In fact, my own band Bigger Thomas plays 2-Tone influenced ska and our logo since the very start has been a direct descendant of Walt Jabsco, whom we affectionately call 'Mr 2-Tone' (and who looks a lot like Jerry Dammers on the back cover of The Specials first record). A debt of gratitude is owed to three individuals: Jerry Dammers; David Storey and John Sims (above with Lynval Golding).

Any social and musical movement has important people behind the scenes who are responsible for its success. When I learned that John 'Teflon' Sims was mounting an exhibition of all the art work he helped design with Dammers and Storey when they worked at Chyrsalis Records, I reached out to him to learn more about his experiences and the process that went into creating and designing the images that live on to this day. As a frustrated graphic artists I wanted to understand the inspiration as well as the science behind the work.

Sims met David Storey at Chrysalis Records where they worked together as a team for over ten years. Working directly with Jerry Dammers, they were responsible for a huge amount of 2-Tone graphics including the album covers for The Selecter, Dance Craze and The Specials 'Ghost Town 12"'. As well as record sleeves, they produced hundreds of promotional items: posters, ads, T-shirts, badges etc. Where Sims strengths were as a 'Swiss School' typographer, Storey's strength was on the pictorial/collage side, so they made a perfect team.
Spurred on by the The Specials 30th reunion, Sims has mounted an exhibition of all the fantastic design work that is touring around the UK right now and may visit Paris and New York in the future. Sims was kind enough to take time out to answers some questions about the days he spent working with Dammers and Storey to provide the look that went along with the 2-Tone sound.

Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in design and illustration?
I was born in Farnborough, Kent in 1950 and grew up in Chelsfield, near Orpington. I was alway drawing and painting from an early age but a winning picture of a Wellington Bomber painted in a primary school best artist playground competition was the beginning of a realisation that maybe talent existed.

My Grandfather was a shoe repairer but very practical and arty in building model boats and aeroplanes, making concrete gnomes (as you do) so think this all had a bearing on me.

Who influenced your design style?
In taking O and A level Art at school, I got really interested in fine art and the masters of Constable, Rembrandt, Turner. Getting my first job at 16 in a studio in Covent Garden working on film posters and there was a brilliant Belgium artist called Guy Peters who really helped but Geoff Wright my boss taught me the basics of commercial art along with Peter Cook my manager. Peter was to later recruit me to Russell James Studios in London who were suddenly the leading design studio for all theatre work in the UK in the late 60s and 70s. I would say that designers Barry James and John Farley had a massive bearing on where I needed to be in design and I learnt loads from them. At this time there was an Italian artist working for FEREF Studios called Arnaldo Putzu and I would drool at the speed he painted and pull his discarded rough scamps from the bin to keep. When I changed agencies Mike Standage became my manager and was a great illustrator. So all these designers and illustrators through various stages of my early career but the illustrations of Roger Dean who did the Yes album covers really moved me and got me into airbrush artwork and like all of us, we have certain record covers that are classics in our collections. When I became Art Director at Chrysalis this gave me the chance and opportunity to progress with bands and artistes on the roster.... then The Specials and 2-Tone happened and for me it was Ska music all over again but with an edge of punk. A style was already set by Jerry Dammers and I just had to flow with it... brilliant stuff! I also met and knew Neville Brody, Rob O'Connor (Stylo Rouge), Bill Smith and lunch once with the late and great Barney Bubbles at this time. Big admiration for what they were doing.

Was the fact that you had been a mod and were a fan of ska assist you in helping Jerry Dammers realize his creative design for The Specials and 2-Tone?
Very much so. I was a bit of a mod in the late 60s but with very little money, (same now). I had friends at a youth club I went to who had Vespa scooters and were the biz and would catch a lift on the back of one. Trojan releases were happening so this all played its part. The Ska classics of 007 by Desmond Dekker, Return Of Django by The Upsetters, Double Barrel by Dave & Ansil Collins ad Ire Feelings by Rupie Edwards still send shivers down my spine and get me dancing on the spot. When I was introduced to Jerry and The Specials by Managing Director Doug Darcy in the A&R Dept at Chrysalis and they did ska with the edge of punk I was really made up. Jerry already had the logo Walt Jabsco which I think Horace also helped sketch out. I drew a master larger artwork which was a cleaned up version for poster sizes etc (this can be seen in my This ART 2-Tone exhibitions). Our artwork production studio cleaned it up even more in the copy prints. It became apparent that this was too smooth and clean when Jerry said it had to be rougher and somehow by the time I got back to Chrysalis marketing and production to hold it, it had slipped through very quickly and 250,000 paper sleeves had been printed due to the rush to release Gangsters.

Almost all of the work you created is in black & white. Was there a style guide for designing 2-Tone albums and posters? Did you ever experiment with color?
Black and white, checkered borders, Walt Jabsco logo was the 2-Tone concept by Jerry and The Specials and quite refreshing as everything else in music was in full colour. The bands were about anti racism, politics, social issues and being bands of blacks and whites it harmonised everything. Chalkie Davis and Carole Starr designed the first two album covers and I oversaw production at our artwork studios in Holborn. The second album "More Specials" introduced colour of a multi-coloured glass dividing wall which I think was at Coventry Polytechnic canteen area (might be wrong). Jerry had seen it and wanted to use it with the band just casually sitting around as if it was a 60s coffee bar. Coloured jumpers and different clothes were a changing direction from the Fred Perrys etc.

Where did the inspiration for much of the 2-Tone look come from? The images are so striking - The Policewoman, The jumping rat on Rat Race poster?
The inspiration came mainly from Jerry. Sometimes Jerry’s ideas were very definite, sometimes I would make suggestions and he would add something to the design mix. The Specials and Selecter were on the road gigging all over the place and Chrysalis needed adverts in music papers or posters in record shops very quickly and that was my responsibility. So sometimes it was a phone call from Jerry and we would talk it through. The Policewoman for Seaside Tour Poster image came from a picture Brad the drummer on a tour. He had managed to get the policewoman to sportingly dona pair of black and white sunglasses and took a snap. I then converted the image from tone to line, retouched it, added Walt Jabsco to the neck tie, a Rude Girl badge and a message about the tour blaring out in words from her walkie talkie. Rat Race was a classic and won a Design and Art Direction Award. Jerry had discussed an old office environment. I sourced the young 60s style typist at the old typewriter picture. I loved it because she had a black and white patterned blouse which was 2-Tone style. I showed this to Jerry and the rat picture also sourced. He suggested that the rat jumps out of the typewriter so I did a layout, had it enlarged, had it retouched as the tail was quite washed out on the original. The B side Rude Boys Outta jail had Walt Jabso logo with prison bars... so it all came together.

Can you explain how all everything was actually created? Did you hand draw all the designs? What was the actual technical process for creating all the art?
Computers were not around then and traditional artwork produced was produced using a parallel motion board, drawing accurately the plan in print format shape using a 4H pencil and an .02 Rapidograph ink pens (which were forever clogging or drying up). CS10 line board was cut to size using a scalpel with a 10a blade, light blue thin plastic film overlays for layers to separate colours or information to the print colour film planners. Typesetting, PMTs n line or screen dot (Photo Mechanical Transfers). All the typesetting or print elements were stuck down with Cow Gum or or SprayMount or even hot wax. I suppose the term in modern computer software is Copy, Cut & Paste and thats where its from. Fortunately 2-Tone was black and white and so were most adverts which usually meant one base artwork without overlays. As an Art Director at Chrysalis I would layout the adverts on thin presentation sheets in magic markers and Pentel Pens and relay instructions to our mechanical artwork suppliers on most of 2-Tone who were Partridge Rushton Associates in Holborn, London. Key elements I would draw or take photographic pictures and convert to hard line with no tone and etch stuff away with white paint or again the scalpel with a Swann Morton surgical No15 blade which had a nice curve for scraping very gently. In some cases I would use an air brush.

Can you share any unusual stories behind any of the designs?
Probably loads over a glass of wine and a few hours. The one question I get asked a lot is was the guy in the bottom left of Too Much To Young EP stripped in and the answer is yes. Jerry produced this photograph of this guy (his name escapes me but it is on fan website) and said that he was a big fan of The Specials and went to most of the gigs so he had to go in. He replaced someone who actually looked as if he was at the wrong gig (probably Duran Duran) so it fixed the situation. Doing the This Art 2-Tone exhibitions for many fans have made further comments such as: The guy in the hat was American and over to London for the weekend and bought a ticket for the Selecter gig (where the picture is from) and now a bit of a celebrity born from that one picture. Some guy also said to me that the girl with the white Fred Perry on is Shirley Fleck from Rainham and was his girlfriend at the time. With Dance Craze those are my feet on the cover. Chrysalis did not pay me very well and I was able to claim album expenses for a pair of nice loafer shoes. :-)

You also did work with the Fun Boy Three. What kind of leeway did you have with the design of the first Fun Boy 3 album cover?
I can remember Terry coming into the Chrysalis Art dept after the split of The Specials. The footie conversations had made a connection over a period and so I discussed what design had FB3 in mind. There was nothing specific but their clothing styles had dramatically changed to grey track suits which was a bit of a statement to say we’ve moved on from The Specials. Terry’s hair was brushed up and with colour bands and beads etc We talked of film star press pictures and how in the 50s and 60s they were mono black and whites and colour ink retouched. Fleshtones looked as they were painted on (which they were), some old seaside postcards are like that also. I got Alan Ballard to do a studio photo session and wanted some pictures with a tinsel night club curtain but Alan could not get one in time. Lynval had been jumped on the night before and beaten up. So he had some bruising and swelling. (we retouched the injuries later) We shot them together and also separately in the new style grey track suits. When I saw all the pictures I was thinking that it was a shame in not having the tinsel curtains, but I did a colour visual (which I still have) and wanted the guys to really stand out so the red circle really worked and against a grey to match the tracksuits. I had three shots stripped together and then highly colour retouched by Terry Day (a top London retoucher then). The lettering style of Microgramma was modern and back in vogue. The back of the sleeve I made to look like an old film poster (drawing on my time doing film posters in my first job. Frank Elton did some mono illustrations and I had screen dot PMTs made to look like newspaper adverts. Fun Boy Three was in Ten Commandments epic film hand lettering which I did. To keep the FUN element I added "Gasp, Wonder and Thrill to the Sound of the 80s" and "One of the most Wonderful Recordings of our time" and all in FunBoyScope. It was all tough in cheek and a piss take. Bananarama were aptly part of it and this album propelled them on to bigger success as probably the most UK top hit releases by a girl band. Finally back to the tinsel curtains. I designed a poster to go inside the album sleeve (which is in the exhibitions) I had cut outs done of three guys sitting on stools ad placed onto star shapes on ... (wait for it)....bacofoil, which I scrunched up and coloured. When Terry Hall came in to approve the sleeve I was very pensive of whether he would like it. He studied it for ages and then said he liked it in that Terry none fazed way.

What are your working on now and where can people see more of your artwork?
My studio Picture This ( is situated in my 30s house in a village of Hawkinge, just outside Fokestone. Hawkinge was a front line air strip for Spitfires and Hurricanes to get out over the Channel quickly and integral to air defences in WW2. The house was occupied I think by a Canadian officer during the war. Others nearby were occupied by American officers. I no longer do music graphics (not been asked) but my work is mainly corporate stuff for brochures, catalogues and general advertising and promotion. Presently I am working on projects for Robert May Shopfittings (London) catalogue, Discover Folkestone brochure, Hythe Guide brochure, Folkestone Town Council newsletter, Folkestone Town Management display banners, Metroline Security brochure, AtoZ Couriers (London) brochure and stationery and subsidiary work for my New Creatif ( colleague and mate Martin Jewiss and his clients Kingsdown Water and Air Charter. Other work in the pipeline so always busy.

Setting up with Martin has taken up a lot of time, effort and cost, but is a labour of love and the response from 2-Tone fans at the This Art 2-Tone exhibitions in Margate and Brighton has been fantastic and amazing. The exhibition goes to Coventry Central Library in 2 weeks as part of the 2-Tone@30 celebrations and further ones are planned for 2010 in London and Folkestone (with ska bands and scooter clubs), plus possibly exhibitions Paris and New York.

I am also proud to have been part of the team that set up some years ago the Folkestone Artists Co-operative ( and this year was pleased to be involved with an FAC filming project called Hendrix Woz Here. Noel Redding the bass player for Jimmi Hendrix Experience was a local Folkestone lad. Jimmi and Noel lived and stayed in a village near to Folkestone when not in another part of the world gigging or touring. One of Jimmis roadies and guitar minder also still lives locally with Hendrix guitars, jackets and memoirs So this is a documentary on the connection of Hendrix to Folkestone.

I am also on the committee of the annual Folkestone Multi-Culture Festival and involved with the statue project for the Folkestone Gurkha Army Memorial for those Gurkhas that have given their lives for Great Britain

This Art 2-Tone is currently exhibiting in Brighton at In My Room through November 29th and will be at the Coventry Central Library (which used to be Tiffany's night club where The Specials and The Selecter played) on from December 11-13th. The show will include an exhibition of posters and advertising from 30 years ago including original artworks and designs. Some posters, postcards, T-Shirts will be available to buy.

December 11-13th, 2009
Coventry Central Library
17 Smithford Way

If you are unable to attend the shows in the UK, Sims also has a Web site that is selling copies of the prints. Have a visit and take a look around. There are some amazing pieces for sale.

2-Tone Posters Web site


johnnyreggae said...

Phenomenal take. I hope someday you might be able to understand just a little how invaluable your blog is to all our ongoing ska educations. MASSIVE RESPECT!


narvolicious said...

This is definitely an awesome post which I'll have to read more in-depth later. The 2-Tone art definitely inspired me in my early illustrations and still gets my top props for being ultra-bold and one of a kind.

I'd consider this a landmark achievement getting an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the "look" of 2-Tone and how it was created. Good job, man.

johnnyreggae said...

There is an interview with Sims in the December 2011 issue of Record Collector (#395) and he talks about the posters there too.

Unknown said...

i grew up living next door to john sims,ardent SPURS fans still see him up til this day,made a great impression on me growing up,reggae ska 2tone cheers SIMSY alias TEFLON cheers john great memories Peter Cooke COYS luv ya man