He worked with Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, created the famous Velvet Underground banana sleeve and co-designed The Rolling Stones’ tongue and lips logo. Long Live Vinyl meets Craig Braun in New York to discuss a seismic career…
Craig Braun is a singular artist, who helped transform the album sleeve from humble vinyl vessel to an interactive experience. Neither purely a graphic designer nor artist, but a self-described “unique packager”, he revolutionised album covers with innovation and subversion. His concepts and designs were not merely two-dimensional pieces of art: they did something. Braun both radicalised sleeves and co-designed the most recognisable logo in rock ’n’ roll history. It’s immediately apparent that Braun is devoid of the egotistical trappings one might anticipate from an industry titan; he’s warm, laid back and funny. It’s also easy to envision that, back in the day, he was the ‘smartest guy in the room’, redolent of Don Draper, fictional protagonist of Mad Men – although Braun is far hipper (Jimi Hendrix solicited him for drugs).
Braun grew up in Chicago and, after university, went into the print industry in New York in 1964. “I created a gimmick, which was a self-adhesive label on albums emblazoned with ‘includes the hit single’,” he says. “The first was for an Elvis album, so if you had this sticker on the upper third of an LP’s shrinkwrap, it sold a lot more albums.
I took it to every record company and started my own business as a broker.
“We expanded into merchandising; point-of-sale displays, self-shipper counter units for the stores, banners, mobiles, etc. I hired a team of designers and illustrators to do the artwork. In the mid 60s, I got a call from the production manager of London Records/USA to do a cover, and although I didn’t have a background in album design, without hesitation, I said ‘Yes’ before I even knew what to do. I learnt fast, by going to mass merchandisers like Sears and Mom+Pop record shops.
“I saw there was an opportunity to take the conventional format of a 12″x12″ album way beyond the ordinary. I formed a new company with two partners in Chicago – Album Graphics (AGI). I set up a West Coast studio and, soon, we were creating and manufacturing unique album packaging with most major labels, along with the independents: Chess, Motown, Shelter, A&M and Mercury Records. That early partnership of ours didn’t work out, so I broke away and set up my own Sound Packaging Division.”
Braun’s landmark collaboration with Andy Warhol on The Velvet Underground & Nico was notorious for its phallic-symbolic banana cover (painted by Warhol). Braun remembers creating the design: “Andy wanted to take that banana painting and put it on a cover for the first Velvets album, but didn’t know how to best accomplish that, so I was quickly recruited by MGM Records. I developed a special pre-coated label stock with removable adhesive, so when the banana was ‘peeled’, the shocking-pink fruit was revealed! Andy and I became good friends, fast.”
As Braun’s career ascended, so did 60s youth culture. “London was on fire musically, fashion-wise, everything,” he remembers. “The world was changing and there was a real sense of freedom. If you were creative, you could express it in many forms; we could break down barriers and it was really fun, rebellious. The prior generation of parents never encouraged that. ‘Fucking uptight’, was how we described the voices of middle America.”
Remembering another key moment in the history of sleeve art, Braun continues: “One night at a New York nightclub with Jagger and Warhol, Andy suggested that Mick put a zipper on a sleeve, planting that seed.” Marshall Chess, a lifelong friend of Braun’s from Chicago, was now running the nascent Rolling Stones Records: “So I started to put together mock-ups with zippers on them and loved the idea of a triptych folding it all out to full size. But we settled on just doing the front of the jeans on the cover.
“I got the concept mock-up approved by Chess and Atlantic Records. I’d devised many different ideas, but Mick wanted the zipper. Although I knew it would be problematic getting a zipper on the cover, this album-cover construction and zipper application gave me a leg-up for my Sound Packaging Division to get the production of the entire album!
“I went to Talon Zippers and said I needed a couple of million small custom-made zippers. I told them I needed them for free, as they would be on the next Stones album. But suffice it to say, there were lots of negotiations with the Ertegun Brothers [Atlantic Records’ founders].
“It was a challenging production and I needed the time to set up the assembly lines: making the packaging, hand-gluing those two fabric pieces on the sides of the zippers and making corrugated inserts and stacking them like shirts in a Chinese laundry. This was a complicated deal, in every respect.”
ZIPPERS TO ZEPPELINS
Sticky Fingers coincided with the launch of the aforementioned Stones’ new label, which necessitated a striking logo. It was conceived in part by London art student John Pasche, then developed and refined by Braun. As his album sleeves are provocative and contemporaneous of the era, so was the hedonism: sex, drugs and decadence in
all its forms were endemic to those days.
Braun indulged vigorously, and the hedonism fuelled his designs. One example is Cheech & Chong’s Big Bambú, a giant cigarette paper packet (with actual papers) was conceived effortlessly. “That quickly came to me, because I got high a lot and used Big Bambú papers. I had a pack on my desk and one day thought, ‘Why can’t this be an album cover?’.
“My real contribution during that period was that an album didn’t have to be inside a normal package, although
I also designed conventional covers, such as the posthumous Hendrix ones, Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning, which stand out graphically, but the unique, concept covers that actually did stuff were my signature.”
Because Braun’s sleeves required various accoutrements, but at extra cost, label executives could be wary of him: “Whenever a band would tell their label they wanted me as the designer, the labels would respond with, ‘Oh no! Braun always does expensive covers that he insists on producing,’ because I’d always adversely affect their budgets.
I would tell the band managers and producers I needed a minimum quantity of a half million, as I had to be competitive with conventional packaging budgets. So startup acts were out of the question.”
However, legendary manager Peter Grant sought out Braun for input on the Led Zeppelin III sleeve. Braun worked with London designer Zacron, but takes minimal credit – for the construction, the wheel and eyeletting, and manufacturing the sleeve. It’s notable that Braun had both the creative process and business acumen down to an artform. “My business model was simple: I didn’t want to get £2,000 for all the artwork for an album, or any of the marketing and promotional materials. Instead, I gave away the design, but I manufactured everything that I designed with my staff. In a sense, for our contribution, we got royalties, just like the act.
“The Stones didn’t pay me a nickel for the design of the Sticky… jacket, or the logo. I got the licensing of that logo through my Rockreations division for a period of three years with the Stones’ Musidor N.V., and made keyrings, jewellery, belt buckles, badges, watches, canvas bags… all with my ‘Licks’ version of the ‘tongue and lips’ logo.” The logo licensing reverted back to The Stones and, as they say, the rest is history… after several decades and a billion-dollar licensing/merchandising venture.
In the late 80s, as the music industry grew increasingly corporate, Braun was recruited as head of marketing for three of the world’s biggest labels: Warner, Elektra and Atlantic. “I was involved with the packaging, advertising and promotion for WEA,” he says. “But they really wanted me for my special packaging prowess for limited-edition CDs, boxsets… I see this phase of my career as a totally separate iteration from the first half, when I was younger, and focused solely on the creative challenges and fun of having my own company.”
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY
Braun is an engaging raconteur and our conversation covers all manner of diverse topics. He recounts tales about his former jetset lifestyle and how he burnt through much of his well-earned fortune (mostly via substances or “better living through chemistry”, as he puts it). He tells us how he had a private French cook, superstar friends and colleagues and about his ownership of a fleet of rare Porsches stored in his Manhattan carriage house.
He embodies rock’s bygone heyday, yet remains relevant not because of his past, but because of his reinvention as a trained actor working for two decades across film, TV and theatre. He wholly embraces the inherent challenges of that world, and retains his innate humour when pondering the vicissitudes of a charmed-but-flawed life thus far. “It was all worth it,” he reflects on the highs and lows. “In life, there’s always rabbit shit mixed in with the jelly beans.”
DESIGNING ‘THAT’ LOGO
The release of Sticky Fingers coincided with the launch of The Stones’ label, Rolling Stones Records, which needed a logo. Conceived by art student John Pasche along with input from Jagger, Braun developed the original idea. “Marshall Chess was in London with Mick and Pasche working on the logo,” recalls Craig.
“Since it was a handmade album sleeve, I needed the logo done, so I got them to send me the basic ‘lips and tongue’ rough idea. It was based on images of The Goddess Kali Ma… suggested by Mick and Keith. With Mick and Pasche working on the unfinished logo, I needed the logo done for it to be included on Sticky Fingers, so I got Marshall to send me the basic rough sketch, which was simply a black rubber stamp.
Then I got my artists to blow up that silhouette using the original idea as a starting place and we went from there, refining it. I then sent one of my account guys over to London with the final Sticky Fingers mechanical artwork (including my lips- and-tongue version on the inner-sleeve artwork) to meet Mick and Marshall, who both approved it the next day… Pasche hadn’t finished his logo, so I told them to use his on the WEA English album.
Ultimately, it ended up being my version, not his, they use everywhere. They use mine for the tours, merchandising, licensing. Ironically, the V&A Museum paid Pasche almost £100,000 for his original logo art, but it’s not the official Stones version.”