Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

My Dinner with King Cobb Steelie

I read in a local paper (Exclaim, AKA !*@#) that someone named Sasha Frere-Jones remixed several King Cobb Steelie songs. "There could not possibly be that many Freres-Jones in the world," I told myself, thinking of the genuinely fantabulous type-design wunderkind Tobias Frere-Jones.

Elsewhere I found an ad claiming that one could win a “drink” with the band by fax-o-gramming in a reason why one should win that “drink.” (I don’t drink, you see, being as I am a multi-teetotaling vegan nonsmoking wet blanket. Holding out for a nice cup of tea with five rocker dudes seemed hopelessly unrealistic.)

I sent in an anonymous fax-o-gram and knew perfectly well that I would win, given that King Cobb Steelie, a strange but lovable meandering intellectual Guelph funk-rock-scratch band, would not evoke poetry from this town, filled with dullards who don’t know King Cobb Steelie from corn on the cob. (Unless you’re Rush or the Rheostatics, being Canadian counts for dick in Toronto.) My entry made the point that KCS could be the first, the only Canadian band to ally itself squarely with graphic design, the way New Order and the other Factory bands did with Peter Saville, or Cabaret Voltaire and Propaganda with Neville Brody. There are other examples-- the entire 4AD oeuvre, the Smithereens’ Blow Up by Saul Bass, and possibly the Pet Shop Boys’ Very by Daniel Weil of Pentagram.

So I won. I showed up at the Masonic Temple (!) at the appointed hour, cycling there in the rain, and found the band wasn’t present. The quintet eventually showed up. The contest operators hadn’t bothered to show the band my entry, so the lads didn’t know what the hell I was going on about. Also, there was nowhere remotely private or quiet to sit and talk and to show them the large pile of Peter Saville, Vaughan Oliver, Neville Brody, and other musicographical ephemera I had painstakingly schlepped. We eventually retired to a large noisy pew on the landing of a staircase. Lights were turned off halfway through our meeting, making the examination of Low-life and Last Splash rather tricky.

Kevin Lynn, a member of the band who has allegedly done graphics for selfsame band, didn’t bother to show up for the first half and ignored everything I said later, though he smiled pleasantly. (No hard feelings, Kevin. I get this reaction a lot.) I handed the kids my Emigre story on the influence of Babs Kruger/Jenny Holzer slogans in popular culture (including a still from King Cobb Steelie’s “Triple Oceanic Experience” vid) and launched into a diatribe about how KCS could ally itself with graphic design.

Except, I continued, there are no Canadian designers worth allying with. So why not get yourselves a custom font? And the obvious designer would be... Tobias Frere-Jones! I showed several of TFJ’s fonts, and we all decided that Sasha, who’s from New York, absolutely had to be part of the Frere-Jones clan. Tobias can therefore expect to get a phone call from this apparent relative asking for a break in the fee for designing a font King Cobb Steelie could use exclusively for a year or two. And Steelie is itself a fabulous name for a font, don’t you think?

[Originally published 1997 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.19, 2007.03.19]

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