Remembering Vaughan Oliver, 4AD's Iconic Design Maverick

Remembering Vaughan Oliver, 4AD's Iconic Design Maverick

He passed away earlier this week...

When you think of the defining characters of British indie’s 80s golden age you’re immediately drawn to pioneering and outlandish figures like Creation’s hedonistic hell raiser Alan McGee or the cocksure intellectualism of Factory Records’ Tony Wilson. Vaughan Oliver wasn’t as outlandish or gregarious as either of those two and he wasn’t a label head but it’s undoubtedly clear that his work as a designer and creative visionary behind 4AD records helped create an enduring aesthetic and reshape the way we look at album artwork.

In many ways Oliver was as insanely exuberant and impulsive as any of the prominent stars of the era, there are lots of stories out there of his wine-induced antics, but it was a persona hidden from public gaze behind the beguiling imagery that he shaped into album covers that defined an era.

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Working alongside label founder Ivo-Watts Russell, Oliver was given completely free reign to indulge in all his abstract design fantasies and interpret distinctly music of the labels bands in his own brilliant way. Speaking in Martin Aston’s 4AD biography Facing The Other Way, Oliver describes his process within the independent movement of the time:

“That was the whole concept of the independent movement; that everything was in the hands of the musicians, and you had to respond to their requirements rather than the record company’s. I was just trying to give them creative direction, to show them something else. You want to do something different. Not just another record sleeve.”

Oliver tailored his approach with the different bands that 4AD worked with. For flagship act the Cocteau Twins he created rich and luxurious ornate pieces that suggested a lushness and mystery, gossamer smooth but with a hint of an undercurrent of darkness that matched the evocative quality of the trio's otherworldy music.

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Showing the breadth of his skills Oliver took a bold and bright approach with electronic act Colourbox and the proto-shoegaze of Ultra Vivid Scene, while some of his most beautiful sleeves that showcased his love of photography were for 4AD’s house band This Mortal Coil, see for example the watery beauty of the dark haired woman only known as Yvette, shrouded in mystery on the band’s 1985 debut ‘It’ll End In Tears’.

As the 1980s wore on 4AD began to expand beyond the florid dreamlike epiphanies of bands like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance and the labels signing of Boston’s underground noise kings PIXIES became a turning point for both 4AD and Vaughan Oliver.

PIXIES are the band Oliver is perhaps most well known for and he has designed every piece of artwork for them right up to 2019’s ‘Beneath The Eyrie’. PIXIES’ iconic second album ‘Doolittle’ was reportedly Oliver’s favourite 4AD artwork and the more oddball nature of the band aligned with Black Francis’ open to anything approach allowed Oliver to indulge in all manner of out there designs from giant babies faces on the ‘Gigantic’ single to the adorable dog that adorns the cover of ‘Here Comes Your Man’.

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This was an approach Oliver used concurrently with Kim Deal’s PIXIES spin-off band The Breeders. The phallic imagery of the belt of eels chimed with the sexual potency and suggestiveness of their music and highlighted how Oliver’s true skill was in perfectly representing the music with his images, the two worked together in perfect harmony.

Everyone will have their favourite album sleeve designed by Vaughan Oliver and we’ve included a few of ours in this piece. Oliver was a true giant of his profession and leaves behind an unmatched legacy of craftsmanship and fearless dedication. His work is as important to the legacy of 4AD and British independent music as any of the bands and will undoubtedly go on to be cherished for generations.

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Words: Martyn Young

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