RODNEY MATTHEWS is one of the world's top graphic designers whose strange fantasy scenes have graced hundreds of album sleeves and posters. He talked to Tony Cummings.
He stands in a throng of studded and leathered young lions at
Britain's first white metal conference. The hoard, used to somewhat
louder decibels, strain to catch his gentle rustic burr but the crowd
if anything grows thicker as metal freaks and mosh heads gather around
their bushy-bearded hero. But Rodney Matthews is not some metal veteran
with an axe to grind. Rodney's contribution to the world of heavy
metal, and for that matter twenty years of British rock album history
has not been chiselled with a guitar but with a paintbrush. For Rodney
worldwide acclaim and fame as one of the greatest ever designers of the album sleeve. His work has been shown in several exhibitions, there are several books of his work in print and his posters adorn half the squats in suburbia. But it is as a designer of rare genius of album sleeves that has brought this heavy metal throng to falteringly mumble their praise of this Tygers Of Pan-Tang design or that Magnum sleeve. Yet Rodney Matthews' work goes way beyond the representational vistas of any particular genre of music. For twenty years his sleeves have graced the albums of artists as diverse as Yes and the Bonzo Dogg Band. Yet many have retained a seering vision of dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, worlds where breathtaking beauty and hellish ugliness collide and where fantasy becomes intertwined with the human psyche itself. Rodney Matthews became a committed Christian in the early 80s. In recent times he has been working on a series of specifically Christian projects - album sleeves for Seventh Angel and Detritus and a booksleeve for a new Stephen Lawhead novel. Born in Poulton, North Somerset in 1945 his father Jack Matthews was a gifted artist. Rodney, like his father, was fascinated by nature. On leaving school he went to work with his father in light engineering until gaining a job at a local photographic platemaker and eventually gaining a place at the West Of England College of Art, Bristol on the strength of a small port folio of bird drawings. On leaving college Rodney found a badly paid job in the art department of an advertising agency ("At first most of my time was spent sweeping up"). It was during this period in the early 70s that Rodney, always interested in music, began playing in a band. "We were playing progressive rock of the first generation type you know. One band was called Originn the other was called Squidd. The best we could do was get a few local TV appearances and played most of the known places - the Marquee, The Cavern, but we never got the recording contract we were after.
"There's a bloke called Pete Sinfield, who used to write the lyrics for King Crimson who took us under his wing for a while and tried to get us a contract but in the end, we didn't make it."
More successful were Rodney's first efforts at pop-posters. "This musician friend of mine used to put on these shows and get me to help him out with posters - he was also an artist and a bass player but he couldn't do everything so I did the posters and then I started to develop a liking for doing this sort of work. He came to me one day with a little record cover of an unknown band called Thin Lizzy and I got £50 quid for this job which was big money in those days."
In 1970 Rodney left the agency and formed a design partnership with Terry Brace who'd been to art college with Rodney and who was organiser of the prominent rock venue The Old Granary.
They began designing sleeves for small companies like Village Thing Records, Saydisc and Transatlantic Records. Bigger commissions for companies like United Artists (Brinsley Schwarz) followed. In 1977 Rodney branched out on his own and was soon commissioned to design the sleeve for Nazareth's 'No Mean City' after the band had seen a copy of Matthews 'Wizardry And Wild Romance' calendar. The 'No Mean City' sleeve, a nightmarish figure with green skullhead and metal war helmet presiding over a hellish terrain complete with skulls and rat became a hugely popular image used on T-shirts, badges and even customised cars and vans. Matthews describes it as "not one of my favourites."
"I was with Big O Posters, who already had Roger Dean, and I started doing Michael Morcock pictures that sort of stuff" remembers Rodney. "By '77-78 they were paying me nearly £30,000 a year. It was better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick wasn't it?! I didn't know what to do with it they were selling them hand over fist. I got royalties - they sold several million - 2/3 went to America."
Staggering fantasy images of unimaginable worlds and bizarre creatures tumbled in great profusion from Rodney's drawing board all executed with breathtaking detail. Contrary to popular myth the images weren't drug induced. "When I was in the band we used to smoke dope but I was more into booze. When I started doing those posters people used to write and ask me where I got those images - some bloke in New York wrote to me and asked 'just tell me one thing...where do you buy your dope, man?'"
The life of fame and fortune was having an effect on Rodney. "I believe that God protected me from some of the foolish things I did" exclaimed Rodney. "As a result of having all this money that 'Big O' paid me, I went out and bought loads of things, had plenty of friends, I had three Lotuses and had to decide which one to drive today!
One night I was working on this poster called 'In search of forever' it's about crossing over from one side to another; I did this at a time where everybody was into the eastern thing. I couldn't subscribe to it, I was searching in my heart and I was cynical about life. As I applied the last brush strokes, the IRA let off a few bombs in Park Street (74-75 maybe). One of the bombs was in a dustbin outside my door. I heard the first explosion that was down the road - went out (I didn't often work that late) down the street and I walked past this dustbin to get back inside the studio, and as I got inside and stood by the window it went off - I was fully exposed to the window which blew in (it was thick plate glass) and all the doors blew off. The wall behind me was covered with glass - like a shotgun blast - a piece of glass went through my coat and then chair and out the other side - but not a speck of dust hit me! The artwork was covered in rubbish but undamaged. I believe that God was responsible for that miracle. At the time, I cussed roundly 'cos I thought that my artwork had been ruined."
Something deep down was beginning to nag at Rodney. Ten years previously while at the ad agency he'd been witnessed to by a Christian with the nickname of Grapes. In quieter moments Rodney began to ponder this strange tale of a God who became a man to die for the sins of mankind. Rodney recalled. "I'm living in a flat in Bristol and I've got plenty of friends, plenty of money but I still feel empty inside and wrestling with "What is it all about?" - all the usual sorts of questions. Eventually I thought the problem was, I need a good woman to settle down and that was the point at which I did meet my wife Karin and got married. But I found that was not the answer. Eventually I moved out of Bristol and started to take the house that my father left us. By that time we had a son but everything was bad - the marriage was bad. I remember on one particularly bad day, who should come to the door but 'Grapes' the man from the ad. agency. He said to me, 'You need the Lord don't you?' and 1 said "Yes I do" and I accepted the Lord there and then at my board in the studio."
Rodney's wife was "gobsmacked" at her husband's Christian conversion. At first he decided that he wouldn't go to Church. But eventually after a spell at a church in Weston-Super-Mare, a 25 mile drive, the famed graphics man decided to try a Baptist church in Welton.
"I didn't want to go but in the end I did, I was pretty hairy and remember going down - having a couple of fags and thinking, 'shall I go in or not?' I could see all these little old ladies looking me up and down as I came in the door. Eventually I pushed open the door and slid into the back seats and kept my head down - the first thing that happened was the speaker got up and told everyone how the Lord had just healed his wife from cancer and I thought this is good stuff. I met the pastor on the way out (he had jeans on!) and I discovered he lived only a few doors away from me and we ended up taking our dogs out for walks together.
My wife came into the Kingdom in a very round about way. I can never put my hand on an exact time. She had to have a fair bit of deliverance."
Since his conversion Rodney has had to come to terms with the responsibilities that his gift has placed upon him. "I've gone through all my work and I've destroyed some original pieces. Like this Rolling Stones thing here." Rodney points to one of his book's reproductions of a famous Big O poster where the Stones are displayed as medieval mercenaries in a primeval landscape. "I tore it up because of the idolatry thing. The pastor in one of the churches I used to attend was into rock music and he told me that there was a time when he had pictures of a lot of rock stars on his wall but God said to him 'I don't want this stuff in there' - you're worshipping these people and not me."
Today Rodney is equally careful about accepting new commissions. "A few days ago I refused a job for a video games company - I won't touch anything to do with roleplay games at all now -I don't even want to see what their propositions are. It was getting to be a bit of a drag having to weigh everything up so I prayed about it. I said Lord I want to do work for you and next thing I know I'm getting people inquiring about Christian work. I've got about 18 months work and out of that only 2-3 months is secular work. I feel the best of Rodney Matthews - by the grace of God - is yet to come."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.