David Costa is art director for the Starting At Zero project. The look and personality of the book and website is his creation. His design is meticulous and inspired like good jazz and if words were music, those blocks of text leaping from the pages of the book would surely be solos…
David’s company Wherefore Art? has worked with some of the biggest names in popular music, including Elton John, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, George Harrison and Eric Clapton. He’s produced tour brochures for Rihanna, Beyonce, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Take That, designed platinum-selling albums and worked on an impressive roster of books, including The Beatles Anthology and photographer Michael Cooper’s Blinds & Shutters: The Story Of The Sixties which US Today described as “the most stupendous rock and roll picture book ever assembled.”
Gered Mankowitz, who took the cover shot of Starting At Zero, is one of his oldest friends. Like David he grew up in North London, and had a show-business father (in Gered’s case, writer and producer Wolf Mankowitz.) At the height of the swinging sixties, Gered rented a studio at 9 Mason’s Yard — a small, three-storey building in the West End, close to the Scotch of St. James and other rock royalty hangouts. The Experience would visit there twice. The first time was in February 1967, just two months after Hey Joe entered the UK charts, and Gered’s ensuing portraits of Jimi Hendrix have since become iconic.
“Shortly after starting Wherefore Art? in 1988 I became interested in the silkscreen process,” says David. “Gered was just beginning to sell archive prints at the time so I suggested we could produce limited edition silk-screen prints of some of his classic images. If he was willing to trust me a bit, we could start with one or two of his classic Hendrix portraits and prepare some very high end silkscreen treatments of them, which is what we did. We produced a test run and thought they were beautiful, but between us wondered what we could ever do with them.
“By pure chance, Gered then got a call from Adrian Boot asking him to submit some of his work for a Jimi Hendrix exhibition. Gered told him that we’d done these silkscreens and sent him some transparencies. Adrian asked if he could include them in the exhibition and said Alan Douglas would like to meet us, so that’s where our relationship began.”
The original images had been photographed in black and white. David transformed them with his imaginative use of colourisation and additional flourishes. He’d chosen two of Gered’s most famous photographs of Jimi to experiment with. The first was a head and shoulders shot of him holding a cigarette and blowing smoke out his mouth whilst smiling. The second depicted Jimi with hands on hips, dressed in vintage military finery and staring intently at the camera. It’s the definitive Hendrix portrait, now known as ‘Purple and Gold’. David’s beautifully reworked silkscreen version recast Jimi, now lit up in red as if from within, against a backdrop of burnished gold. It would soon become a familiar image, although via a different route from what he and Gered had anticipated.
More than twenty years after his death, Jimi had become a rock immortal. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992. Al Hendrix wept as he accepted the award, and Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding led the all-star line-up who jammed in Jimi’s honour. That same year, an exhibition of Hendrix-based art called Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience opened in London and Paris before touring the US. It was the first comprehensive collection of Hendrix imagery and iconography ever staged, and would be seen by more than a million people worldwide. David’s inspired re-rendering of ‘Purple and Gold’ was chosen as the flagship image for The Ultimate Experience exhibition as well as a book and best-selling compilation CD, all of them produced by Alan Douglas.
David won a Music Week Special Packaging Award in 1992 and was invited to sit on their panel of judges the following year. In the meantime, Alan Douglas commissioned Wherefore Art? to redesign Jimi’s three classic studio albums for reissue by MCA. Are You Experienced,Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland now benefitted from much improved audio quality, extensive liner notes and brand-new artwork, based once more on Gered Mankowitz’s portraits of Jimi. The effects were almost transcendental thanks to David’s sensitive use of tone and colour, but according to some he’d tampered with history and would soon suffer the consequences.
“I got so much abuse from people who objected to our repackaging those albums,” he recalls. “People were saying things like, ‘who the hell does Alan Douglas think he is?’ I found myself having to sit there on the board at the Music Week Awards having to listen to all this criticism, but I still believe that project was very worthwhile. From a reissue you want a celebration, and that was always Alan’s intention. He reissued those albums in a decent CD format, and presented them to a new generation quite inspirationally. And ultimately it was a job well done, because those albums went on to sell millions of copies.”
Rather than diminishing it, those MCA reissues added to the Hendrix legacy. Every detail was carefully chosen — witness the pages of stamps bearing Jimi’s image tucked in the CD booklet. It was an exquisite touch — one that bestows honour on Jimi whilst reflecting David’s quest for some indefinable essence (which the Japanese call “wabi sabi”) in his designs.
“We had the stamps made in France after a long search,” he explains. “Other places could do them but you could never get the perforations right. They’d just look fake. The only people who could do them properly was the Royal Mail and you had to order 5 million or so. A French designer we had working with us in the studio at the time had a friend in Paris with a perforating machine and they were able to run off sheets of those stamps, which I thought looked exquisite.”
“Around that same time I would have been working on Jimi’s autobiography with my assistant Nicky Page. We started the book in a very elegant, restrained fashion, using classic typography, but then we found ourselves wanting more out of it, and being drawn to what I call ‘vocalised typography’ — something that has a voice and comes straight off the page at you.
“Alan told me how Jimi loved to play word games, and so that influenced what I did, like arranging text in the shape of a guitar. I like to think that Jimi would have recognised what we were doing and hopefully could have related to it; still when I read the original manuscript his personality is right there in front of you, and you just can’t stop the voice coming out.”
Wherefore Art? produced half a dozen leather bound editions of Room Full Of Mirrors before discontinuing work on the project. David wouldn’t return to it until a US Federal judge decreed that Alan Douglas and Peter Neal could finish what they’d started twenty years earlier, by which time they’d renamed it Starting At Zero.
The revised version would include line drawings by well-known comic book artist Bill Seinkiewicz, who illustrated the graphic novel Jimi Hendrix — Voodoo Child. In addition to refining the typography, David also added a second colour (purple), whilst the cover now featured a Gered Mankowitz portrait of Jimi with toothpick and smiling eyes.
“I like to think it’s both a beautiful object and certainly an extraordinary read,” he says. “We hope people can now beat a path to the actual person he was, rather than this mythological rock star, and I don’t think that I’ve taken any liberties. There are pages where Jimi’s saying certain things and you simply just don’t mess around with them, but it’s when his humour and the warmth of his personality reveals itself that I feel at liberty to try and bring him forward. I hope that I’ve given him due reverence on the page where he needs that, but there’s nothing I would change about it now.”
The designer’s sensitivity towards Jimi Hendrix and the many other musical figures he’s worked with throughout his career makes a lot more sense once we take into account the fact that David is a musician himself, and has longstanding connections with music dating back to his childhood.
“My father was the singer and piano player Sam Costa, who was one of the top crooners over here before the war. He became a popular radio presenter throughout the post-war period and into the 50s and 60s, first for the BBC and then Radio Luxembourg. He was a great piano player. My mother’s father was also a piano player, and she was a dancer, so I not only had a show business background but was also surrounded by pop music from the 50s and 60s, because my dad would often take me to studios with him…
“As I got older, I somehow became involved in the folk scene. Later I was very much into San Francisco bands like Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, whilst playing acoustic guitar in folk clubs. But the band that did it for me was Buffalo Springfield; when I heard Stephen Stills giving both electric and acoustic guitar equal voice on the same track (Bluebird) I thought, ‘okay, that’s the way to go…’”
David played guitar in a band called Trees, who drew frustrating comparison with Fairport Convention due to their use of traditional material, which one reviewer likened to “illuminated and magical works.” The main difference was one of outlook. Trees may have drawn from the wellspring of the English folk tradition, and yet they wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place in Laurel Canyon. They recorded their debut album The Garden of Jane Delawney in March 1970, for CBS. Beat Instrumental credited them with playing “beautifully tight, exciting music of considerable complexity.” This was equally true whether they were playing acoustic or letting their rock sensibilities dominate. On The Shore followed seven months later and represented a significant step forward. They were now labelled “psychedelic folk fusion” because of songs like the mesmeric, raga-like Streets Of Derry and Sally Free And Easy, which would have gone down a storm at the Fillmore West. As well as folk and rock, Trees were weaving classical, Eastern and jazz influences into their music, although without sacrificing any of their “dark, arcane Englishness,” to quote Stewart Lee’s liner notes for the re-releases nearly forty years later.
Although critically acclaimed, Trees didn’t sell too many records and by 1972, the band members had gone in separate directions. The albums were never deleted and gained a mythical status thanks to the internet and enthusiasts of the period, until American soul duo Gnarls Barkley sampled Geordie on the title track of their platinum-selling album St. Elsewhere in 2006. This unexpected windfall prompted Sony to reissue and repackage both Trees albums, with the newly re-mastered and remixed On The Shore proving especially impressive.
It was only after Trees had folded that David embarked on a career in art and design. His first port of call was well-known music publisher Dick James, whose client list included the Beatles and Elton John.
“I really wanted to be a record producer. That’s where my love was but I didn’t have the practical know-how. Dick James was a family friend. I’d heard that he was looking for a house producer and trainee assistant but for some reason I couldn’t make the appointment and had to postpone it. By the time I went to see him a couple of weeks later he’d filled both positions, and the only thing he had available was assistant to the art director; Michael Ross was going to be leaving and he wanted someone to take over. I’d been to university studying art history and so we both thought I might be good at that.”
He was, and Elton John would be an early beneficiary. After sharing credits with Ross for Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, David subsequently art directed Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which topped album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. “Working with Elton was great, and so was the timing,” he says, “Shortly after that Elton formed Rocket Records and so I got to work on all their releases as well, again as art director.”
In the years since he would collaborate with many of the biggest names in rock and pop, including George Harrison of the Beatles. David designed the reissues of All Things Must Pass,Living In The Material World and Concert For Bangla Desh with George, along with several of his solo albums and both Wilbury albums. He describes George as remarkably self-effacing. “Everything I did with George was very special. He always wanted to be part of the creative process and wanted that process to be fun. There’s rarely a day goes by when I don’t think of him or miss him.”
David was also art director on the Beatles Anthology — a lavish and comprehensive project that would become the first and only book produced with the full co-operation of the surviving Beatles and Yoko Ono. It was published in 2000 after seven years of concentrated effort and remains the definitive Beatles anthology.
“To be able to work on that book was a pretty extraordinary opportunity,” he says. “That was with Derek Taylor and Neil Aspinall, who was the renowned if not infamous keeper of the flame for the band. None of the four principals wanted to co-operate for so many years after the split. It was left to Neil to keep the flame going and to preserve and build up the archive to make sure that everything was in order. He organised it so that all the crown jewels were logged and in the right place and that everything was stored properly. He spent a lot of money buying in film footage and stills photography and then when people felt ready to do something, it was all there waiting for them.”
In his own words, David did “a lot of demanding corporate work from the 80s onwards,” including a redesign for Tatler magazine and Eddie Shah’s Today, which revolutionised the UK newspaper industry. That impressive list of tour brochures and albums referred to earlier continued to embellish the Wherefore Art?’s resume yet further but it was the Mandela Day celebrations of 2009 that provided David with his most challenging and fulfilling commission to date.
“Preparing for Mandela Day was seriously hard and grown-up work, especially since the UN was involved. It was obviously a privilege. It’s one of the pinnacles of my career so far, although it would have been nice to finish the work I did on Michael Jackson’s last-ever tour brochure for his proposed This Is It series at the O2. I was in the middle of that when the merchandisers rang me from New York and said, ‘you’d better turn on the tv — Michael’s just died, and the family are going to ring you tonight…’ What I’d been preparing for his appearances at the O2 then had to be turned round within 72 hours to become the tribute book at his funeral. A strange rebrief.”
Today David lives in Somerset in an effort to wind down and cherry-pick the projects he wants to continue to work on, such as revisiting Starting At Zero. “It must be the same for Alan and the rest of the team. To get a second chance at both the book and the movie after twenty years, to be able to finish them finally and bring them to the public they deserve, that’s an unexpected bonus.”
Biography by John Masouri, November 2013
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