The cover of Hot Press is a national institution, coveted by emerging musicians and established stars alike. Now, the historic covers of the magazine – signed by the cover stars, and beautifully printed on specially chosen art paper – have been gathered together for a free exhibition, in the National Photographic Archive, Dublin. Introduction by Niall Stokes…
I remember the run-in to the first issue of Hot Press almost as if it were yesterday. There were so many obstacles plonked in our way even before we had begun to think of getting off the ground that a less resolute crew might have shrivelled up and died. But we were like the proverbial scorpions. It made no difference what boulders fate threw at us. We found our way out from under the rocks.
We were kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet, had our heads stoved in but we were still on our feet, as the man said – but we were willin’ to be movin’. And so that’s exactly what we did. Chasing down interviews like there was no tomorrow. Whacking out copy that we thought had that zing, without which – to paraphrase Duke Ellington – it don’t mean a thing. Banging pages into shape against the odds. Trying desperately to sell ads. Dreaming up some of the worst headlines in the history of the known universe. And then finally getting down to the really serious business of designing the first-ever front cover of Hot Press.
It is impossible to convey in mere words the difference between then and now for graphic designers. I’m not saying that life is a doddle for the maestros of InDesign and Photoshop who ply their trade these days. No indeed. But back in 1977 it was pure hell. Every. Thing. Had. To. Be. Done. Deliber. A. Tely. By. Hand. Especially headlines, which were pressed painstakingly and laboriously (you needed to avoid words like that in headlines but we didn’t) out of sheets of ‘letraset’ (don’t ask) with the tip of a biro, onto flimsy see-through paper against the background of a grid, to keep them (ho, ho) straight.
And when some previously undetected dyslexic (even the teachers didn’t know how to spell that in 1977) mangled a word like ‘dilebratley’ then you were literally back to the drawing goard – sorry board (see how easy that is now!).
SAINTS AND SCHOLARS
Our external art director was Willie Finney and – given that our chief layout man had disappeared less than a week before we were due to hit the streets and we had yet to replace the scoundrel – as the final deadline encroached, Willie had to approach the great magnum opus essentially on his own, cheered on – only when they took a fag break – by the ne’er-do-wells on the premises who were pretending to be journalists. Like me. We wanted to make a big statement. The magazine was being launched a few weeks in advance of the Macroom Mountain Dew Festival and so it made sense to have the festival bill-topper Rory Gallagher as the major figure on the cover. That much was a given.
But the launch of Hot Press, we felt, was the beginning of a new era – and we had to have a cover to match.
There was also a general election looming in June 1977. The outgoing government, presided over by the arch-conservative Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave – the Taoiseach who in 1974 had crossed the floor of the Dáil to vote against his own Government’s bill to allow the sale of condoms to married couples! – was one of the worst in the history of the State. Challenging them was a motley Fianna Fáil, who set about blatantly bribing the electorate with a package of ludicrous giveaways. It was a national event that the great collective minds of the Hot Press crew couldn’t ignore.
But we also wanted to capture a sense of the diverse strands that would be brought together in the finely woven editorial knit that we had planned for Hot Press – as long as we could get the shaggin’ thing typeset and laid out in time every fortnight, that is.
A straightforward assignment, then. In the end what the great Mr. Finney did was to go quietly crazy, while assembling something that required more or less the same kind of hard labour and attention to detail as painting the roof of the Sistine chapel. The only difference was that he had to make a deadline or we’d effectively nosedive into the Atlantic ocean on our very first flight.
A photo of the outgoing cabinet was purloined from Jesus knows where. The provenance of the shot of Rory giving it socks on his familiar Fender Stratocaster was clearer. But the theory was that we would also gather a collection of reprobates of the sort that we might be writing about regularly in Hot Press and create a coruscating collage that would make an inspiring statement to the world – or to Ireland at least – to the effect that all bets were off: rock ‘n’ roll had finally arrived in the medieval land of saints and scholars and no one could foresee the consequences, least of all us. Which, bizarrely, is kinda how it all turned out.
UP AND CRAWLING
There were about forty reprobates in all. You couldn’t launch a rock magazine and not have John and Yoko on the front. Somewhere. Bob Marley. Bob Geldof. Patti Smith. The Radiators from Space. Lou Reed. Graham Parker. Tricky Dicky Nixon. A stern-looking bishop. Dozens of pictures were dumped in a folder – actual pictures, in a cardboard folder that is. They were all scanned in different sizes and turned into bromides, suitable for printing.
Then the real fun started. The pictures from which the cover-bound individuals were lifted varied immensely in size and quality. They were all shot from a wide variety of different angles. And yet, Willie’s self-appointed task was to hammer, cut, paste and if necessary sit on these, to get them into something resembling a Sgt. Pepper-style freak-show image that would adorn the first-ever front cover of Hot Press.
Willie went into a state, which was akin to madness or divine rapture – or perhaps a bit of both. He had to make a number of forays to RTÉ in Montrose to re-shoot the photos, either bigger or smaller. A picture began to form in his increasingly addled mind. He cut out heads and bodies, ladled cow gum on the back, and stuck, pushed and prodded them around the page.
He layered them. Slipped one in behind the other. Built them up like the great wall that Donald Trump has been promising, with Noel Browne here and – striking a wonderful prophetic note, which we only remembered much later when she became President – Mary Robinson there. And – to get up the noses of the anti-happiness league – we had a same sex couple kissing. Changing attitudes to sex and sexuality were important to us from the start. That much was clear.
When Willie stuck a very large pig on the table alongside the cabinet – a reference to the Whole Hog column, which made its debut inside – we felt that it was the iconoclastic coup-de-grace. We were print-ready. But we were late. I will tell the story of the spot colour that wasn’t another time, another place – but the first issue was an all-black and white affair. At least we were up and crawling. Like scorpions.
Ever since, the front covers of the magazine have been a huge part of the Hot Press story. But looking back over the 950 or so that we have produced in the meantime, they also tell a fascinating, elliptical tale of Ireland too, and what was engaging everyone – or at least the people with an appetite for adventure, change and growth, who read the magazine – on a fortnightly basis.
STRANGE LITTLE ISLAND
Even I am surprised at how consistently we campaigned for gay rights at every stage of that long and difficult battle – culminating in the double-whammy of two covers, with same sex couples kissing, in the week before the Marriage Equality referendum. The frequency of the word ‘drugs’ in headlines is less surprising – but we were on the money here too, and there is little doubt that the accumulated wisdom imparted in the stories referred to in those straplines was vital in encouraging the huge change in official attitude which has led to the establishment of damage limitation policies, including injecting rooms, in Ireland in 2017.
Our epic AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance cover was a milestone, making something – that no one else seemed to want to talk about at the time – visible in over three thousand shops all over Ireland. And throughout his tenure of just under a decade with the magazine, the name Michael D. Higgins appeared with compelling regularity on the front, marking the pieces he submitted in his column, and tracking his trips to places where Irish politicians far too seldom travelled: south and central America, north Africa and countries in the Arab world.
And then there was the music. “Rolling Stone,” Dr. Hook and his Medicine Show sang on their second most famous track, “Wanna see my picture on the cover/ Wanna buy five copies for my mother/ (Rolling Stone) Wanna see my smiling face/ On the cover of Rolling Stone.”
Well, being on the cover of Hot Press might not have spread the word across all seven continents, but it became a huge ambition for Irish acts in particular, and more than a few international ones as well. We were early adapters where U2 were concerned, putting then on the cover when they released their first single U23 in 1979, something they have always graciously acknowledged the importance of. More recently, Danny O’Donoghue of The Script, Imelda May, Hozier, The Riptide Movement and Keywest have all gone on the record that it was a major ambition of theirs. But we always knew that it was a prized objective, in the word that came back from international acts through their record companies and rising locals who saw it as confirmation that they had really made their mark.
Looking at the covers, there is a story too of logos shifting with the times, the magazine changing shape, production values becoming better and more sophisticated. And then there is the art of the headline and how they are used to speak to people across a distance of yards in a newsagents, drawing them in if they are good enough and potentially winning another reader, another fan – not just for the story of the moment, but for the magazine and its unique, if often embattled take on the world.
And of course there is also the story of those we have loved and lost: from Elvis Presley dying in the year of our launch in 1977 through Bob Marley, Dublin hero Philip Lynott, the great Rory Gallagher, our own beloved Bill Graham, Kurt Cobain and RTÉ’s Gerry Ryan, on to David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen last year, they were all cover stars. And so they remain.
We have brought all of these historic covers together, and lots more besides, in the Hot Press Covers Exhibition, which is being run in association with the National Library of Ireland. It is the beginning of a year of activities that we hope will allow us to reflect on all that has happened on this strange little island over the past 40 years – and the part that we at least have tried to play.
Enjoy the exhibition. Our lives are hung on those walls.
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