We Meet The Man Behind The Lens

Brian Cooke – we meet the man behind the lens of some of music’s most iconic images…

Brian CookeHe’s snapped them all, from The Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton. Matt Clark meets York’s top music photographer.

Thirty something years ago four men went to a London pizza parlour to chew over ideas for their client’s new emblem. By the time lunch was over they were in agreement, the scribbling on a paper napkin would be offered to Richard Branson. He loved it’s ‘in your face’ simplicity, attitude and energy. The famous Virgin logo was born.

brian 8The diners were from Cooke Key Associates, a company formed by Scarborough-born photographer Brian Cooke and fellow Yorkshire snapper Trevor Key. The company went on to produce more than 150 album covers with Virgin and other record companies, for brian 2artists such as Mike Oldfield, Tangerine Dream, Sparks, Ten Years After and Rory Gallagher.

Back then the sleeve was integral to the whole record buying experience, with people devouring every word and picture on the bus ride home. But Cooke Key designs were even more inspired, because they specialised in creative, experimental photography, “The cover for Jethro Tull’s Bursting Out live album contained thirteen images, all requiring separate exposures and silver masks to print onto a single piece of paper,” says Brian. “This image, which would now take no more than an hour in PhotoShop, took about five days in the darkroom to complete.”

Brian says his favourite album cover is John Martyn’s Inside Out, one of the first on which he used multiple images and complicated instructions for the printer.

Brian Cooke Inside OutBut the sleeve with most impact had nothing to do with complexity. It was all about shock and awe on Cooke Key’s design for the Sex Pistols single God Save The Queen. They teamed up with designer John Varnom to produce most of the Pistol’s promotional work, which provoked national outrage and the odd visit from the rozzers. It helped cement Virgin’s reputation as a shock-inducing label, but how things have changed.

“When we started, the album cover was part of the creative process,” says Brian. “It was important to the band that it reflected what was going on. At the end of the ‘seventies accountants took over and covers became the first stage in the marketing cover.

“In retrospect it was incredible, I don’t think I realised just how great it was. We had the best of the music business.”

Brian’s career began with formal photographic training at Hull College of Art from 1963 to 1966, his interest in taking pictures had developed while snapping the last days of steam on the railways.

Then he landed a job as a photographer in Scarborough, followed by a post as photographic technician and part-time lecturer in photography at Teesside College of Art, in Middlesbrough. However, it was his night time activities that were to set the scene for his career.brian

“I had forsaken the railway society meetings for the Friday blues night at the Condor Club on Ramshill Road in Scarborough,” says Brian. “Music attracted my curiosity for something new and girls had started to turn my head.”

Around this time he met the singer Robert Palmer who, at the time, was working for the local evening paper. In 1971 Palmer introduced Brian to Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who had been impressed with his pictures of the band Traffic in session.

Subsequently, Brian set up Visualeyes with his wife Marylin to service Island and other independent record companies with photographic and design services.

During this period the couple worked regularly with Mott The Hoople, Traffic and Fairport Convention. Then along came a new art-rock outfit called Roxy Music.

“I took their first ever press pictures in my studio/home off the Portobello Road,” says Brian. “Marylin still tells of the time Brian Ferry and Brian Eno put on their make-up in her bathroom.”Brian Cooke Roxy

Once Visualeyes was established Brian decided to use his creative talents in a partnership with Trevor Key. Cooke Key disbanded in 1981 with the two main partners deciding to concentrate on photography, rather than the management of designers. Brian joined the film union and concentrated on taking stills of film and video productions.

These included the new medium of pop videos. He even had a cameo role in Joe Jackson’s video for the song Real Men, as a 1950’s press photographer.

“On the shoot for the first Spandau Ballet single To Cut A Long Story Short, one of the band said ‘who’s that old geezer in the corner’, referring to me. I was 32 at the time, but because I got a front cover for Melody Maker from that shoot I went on to do quite a lot with them. Maybe it’s worth having an old geezer along sometimes.”

Brian also worked on films, and TV advertising, including the famous Levis 501 launderette commercial. But his first love has always been taking pictures of rock bands in full flight.These days music photographers are only given the first few numbers, Brian says that’s hopeless.
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“I remember Melody Maker’s in house photographer used to stay in the bar ’til the encore, then come down to the pit, two or three rolls and he always had the shot. That was when you got the best pictures, they don’t now, not by any means.”

Matt Clark
York Evening Press
13 August 2015