The Anatomy of an Artwork - No Mean City
An interview with Rodney Matthews by his wife Sarah Matthews!
Mrs M: You were commissioned to illustrate the tenth studio album by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth. Can you describe the way in which the commission came about?
RM: I have to take you back in time to 1978 and to Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, where Nazareth were mixing their iconic album. It was there that someone saw a copy of my calendar for 1978 – ‘Wizardry and Wild Romance’ – depicting my interpretations from the writings of Michael Moorcock. On the strength of this, Nazareth’s manager Derek Nicol called me up asking if I was available for album cover art.
Mrs M: … and you answered?
RM: Yes, but surprisingly (even although I was then trying to get music related commissions), I didn’t jump around with joy, because my personal taste in music at that time was for Prog and Jazz or any hybrid of the two – King Crimson, for example.
Mrs M: So, how did you manage to overcome that obstacle?
RM: I was sent the album tracks and when I heard them, I thought to myself ‘this is good stuff – perhaps I will enjoy this job!’
Mrs M: Were you given a detailed brief?
RM: Not that I can remember, other than I had to illustrate the title track No Mean City, which was influenced by the novel of the same name by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long. Written in 1935, the story is a portrayal of the gang warfare rampant in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland in the 1920s. The only problem here was, how was I going to explain to Derek Nicol that I was a fantasy artist and hated the thought of illustrating realistic ugly street scenes and villains in their twenties garb.
Mrs M: Awkward, what did he say?
RM: Well, we met and thankfully he wasn’t looking for that at all. He said “no, we want you to reflect the essence of the story in your fantasy style.” A relief for me, but thinking back, he probably felt quite insulted, after all he had seen my work from the calendar and knew of my sword and sorcery Elric-style. Anyway, that settled, I went away and commenced design and pencil sketches.
Mrs M: As is your custom, did you personally present these sketches to the band?
RM: Yes, clutching a portfolio of ideas, I was flown up to the Isle of Man, from Bristol, to meet with the band.
Mrs M: Sounds glamorous!
RM: No not really, it was an old turboprop Vickers Viscount – short flight, no food, thought I might have to pee out the window! Then, upon my arrival, I was greeted by one of the band, and driven at breakneck speed in a small sports car to the Nazareth hideout. It was a hot day and the undulating merry-go-round ride brought me almost to the point of vomiting! As was my custom then, I had consumed far too much draught Guinness the night before and had an impressive hangover. I vaguely remember a farmhouse and the table on which I spread my sketches. The band stood around me in a semi-circle – reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition. While teetering uncertainty on several levels, I heard the unanimous decision from the band – “this is the one”. In short order, I was bundled back into the spartan cockpit of the tortuous roadster and whisked smartly back to the airport. By the time I arrived back in Bristol, I needed a drink!
Mrs M: Did you start work on the colour piece right away or did you need time to recover?
RM: Record cover commissions are always done to a tight deadline and this was no exception. Work commenced next day on the wrap around cover artwork.
Mrs M: How long did it take to complete?
RM: Around three weeks.
[Rodney gestures towards the image and points out the following - see below]
Mrs M: Were you happy with the finished piece?
RM: Although it was not to my personal taste, it was well-received – with no alterations, so I guess I must have done something right.
Mrs M: Has your opinion changed over the years?
RM: In its genre, it has become recognisable and I like that fact about it. The razor-carrying villain, named “Friendly Fred” by the band, is now an iconic figure, even appearing on numerous cars, trucks and bikes (primarily in the US) by way of custom paint jobs. I don't quite know why the image took on this iconic status, but guess it's because of its simplicity and its almost Frankensteinian tradition.
Mrs M: In 2014 we found out that Fred had offspring! Tell us more.
RM: I was commissioned by Nazareth to design and illustrate a DVD cover for a live concert that was yet to be filmed. The brief, was to provide a character similar in feel to Fred. I knew instantly that it had to be “Son of Fred”, but this time in a parallel world with fiery colours. I also suggested the title, No Means of Escape, which was used on subsequent packaging.
Mrs M: Of course, we attended the gig …
RM: Yes, in 2014, I was fortunate enough to be asked to the famous Metropolis recording studios, located in the rather impressive Powerhouse in Chiswick, London. There, Nazareth performed their live concert to a select audience. I felt very privileged to be given the extra-special opportunity, to watch and hear the show from the comfort of a leather sofa, eating grapes, behind the mixing desk in the control room. Later, I was also filmed for the documentary Made in Scotland (also included on the DVD).
Mrs M: To coincide with the gig, you also held an exhibition at Metropolis …
RM: That’s right and I had the pleasure of talking to the band’s only original member, Pete Agnew, in front of the original framed artwork of No Mean City. We discussed old times, regarding the commissioning of the image, and I was finally able to put to rest a question I had fostered for some thirty-six years.
Mrs M: And the question you put to Pete Agnew?
“On the occasion of the artwork presentation on the Isle of Man, who was it that almost killed me in the little sportster and what was the car?” “It was me”, he replied “and the car was my Morgan”.