New Wave, New Look: Album Covers of Yugoslav Punk
Alexandria Cervera, Julia Jiminez, Kathryn Kane, Vladislav Beornja
The late 70s and 80s was a time of expression in an era of repression. This time in history was all about people expressing themselves in ways never seen before while maintaining their individuality. As fashion was being dramatized, sexualized, and diversified so was design and music. The Yugoslav punk scene emerged in the late 1970s, influenced by bands in the United Kingdom and United States who were considered to be the first wave of punk rock bands. These bands include groups like the Sex Pistols, Ramones, The Stooges and so on. Unsurprisingly, Yugoslav punks drew inspiration not just from the music that was coming out of United Kingdom, but also from the unique and shocking design frequently featured on the album covers and promotional posters of punk bands.
Perhaps the most iconic image of early British Punk is Jaime Reid's promotional poster for the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” The poster, as well as the EP, features the Union Jack with the image of Queen Elizabeth--her eyes and mouth covered with cut-up letters resembling a ransom note--occupying the center of the composition. Defacing the British flag and the Queen—central symbols of British national identity—in such a matter would have been offensive to most, but for the punks in this era it was a symbol of liberation. With the Sex Pistols taking the lead, the cut-up newspaper font subsequently turned into a signifier of punk across the world. Its influence can be seen in the early compilation of Yugoslav punk, Novi Punk Val 78-80, featuring mostly Slovene and Croatian bands. The photograph on the front cover is taken at a live concert, expressing the riotous energy of early punk, while the title of the album, composed as a punk collage, alludes to the colors of the Yugoslav flag, situating an international movement in a local context.
While album covers were used previously to protect the record from scratches, by mid-1970s Yugoslavia’s rock industry started utilizing the full potential of artists and designers to create a distinct look for the band and their albums. In other words, album covers were seen not just as mere packaging, but as art in its own right. It was no longer just about the music. It was about much more: art, fashion, the new language of advertising, and the creation of a distinct subculture. Punk music was being served as an experience, and designers and artists came to the forefront of the scene. This meant hiring better designers to create covers. Perhaps the most prominent amongst these names were Mirko Ilić and Igor Kordej. Not only were these designers helping punk bands grow in popularity, but also the creation of record covers became a main path for artists to break into the field of commercial design. Instead of using only photographs of bands to promote the record, designers used a variety of media to create distinct album concepts. These techniques included, “black-and-white and color photography, toning, airbrush, illustrations, photomontages, collages, etc.” (Kršić). Note that all of these designs were created before computers so much more work and artistry went into the process. As Luka Mjeda has said of Ilić’s process: “Mirko is always striving to find a new detail that changes the whole idea” (Kršić). Ilić’s design, in particular, became iconic of the Yugoslav New Wave, promoting a playful postmodern design based on the combination of high and low art—such as painting and comics—as well as witty references to the local scene and western popular culture.
A good example of Ilić’s work is Prljavo Kazalište’s 1979 self-titled album. This cover may initially strike one as rather simple, but at a closer look may open up multiple readings and subtexts. While it is believed to be a parody of John Pasche’s Tongue and Lips, the famous Rolling Stones’ logo, Ilić’s version provides an alternate look fairly different than the original. Both versions seem to accord the same emphasis of youth rebellion in completely different locations in the world. The safety pin pinned up on the right side of the mouth, representing the band’s respect for The Rolling Stones and also their punk style. But it also adds more of an edge to possibly symbolize broken speech. The tongue in Ilić’s variant is cut up into three different pieces separated from one another. The grotesque mouth with a tongue sticking out embodies the engine that is used to sing, speak, and express words of thought from one another, which becomes relatively important in the Yugoslav context. The image therefore provides a striking image of just how powerful a mouth can be while battling state censorship and exercising freedom of expression.
Ilić’s album cover for the 1980 compilation Svi marš na ples (Everybody Dance Now) is another good example of his work, featuring a colorful and inviting picture that has the power to grab the attention of most people. The various use of color is aesthetically pleasing and plays it safe in this kind of context. The twelve differently stylized legs display a sense of togetherness of a diverse group, reinforced by both the title of the album and the image itself. It exemplifies the diverse fashion styles and subcultures within Yugoslav punk, ranging from the cleaner, modish styles exemplified by Idoli and Aerodrom to the more ragtag street punk look of Pekinška Patka. Where this album cover fails to be fully inclusive is the presence of just one female, representing Zana’s female vocalist, with the high-heeled boot on the very bottom left.
Despite the fact that women were underrepresented in punk, ideas about feminism, gender roles, and sexuality began to shift in the 1980s and were illustrated in Yugoslav Punk as well. Women were embracing their bodies in a way that was viewed as taboo. From using their period as a form of art to openly talking about sexual desires, females were accepting those aspects of being a woman that were often shunned. Additionally, the resistance to dominant culture aspect of Punk eventually made its way into the critique of heternormative family structure. In addition to women’s role in the household being questioned, the typical patriarchal family was put to test with the introduction of homosexuality in popular culture. As society became increasingly liberalized, people were talking about sex and sexuality in a more open way. Punk provided an outlet in which people could do that. Borghesia was the first to embrace the “queer aesthetic.” Their album, such as Clones and Ljubav je Hladnija od Smrti (Love is Colder Than Death), depict images of individuals dressed in drag and bondage gear. These topics that are historically considered taboo became the centerpiece for Borghesia’s presentation. Punk provided a setting where the LGBT community could thrive, as the whole idea of Punk is built on being different. In addition to this, BDSM was used to display images of domination and submission to serve a political motive. Sex is coded politically as it is typically a private endeavor that Punk makes public, and nothing is more public than politics. The song “On” is very explicit in its lyrics and its graphic music video depicts images of BDSM practices. This graphic music video was quite revolutionary at the time because people were reluctant to talk about sex let alone the ideas of domination and submission. This new openness to sexual desires was occurring all over the world and Punk was a way for people in Yugoslavia to also be a part of this movement. The Clones album cover shows a half nude figure that could possibly identify as a female or male dressed in what seems to be drag. We can say that Yugoslavia embraced a queer before it embraced a gay identity when it came to the topic of sexuality, which is demonstrated in the fluidity of gender presentation in Yugoslav Punk.