Kosmo Vinyl on The Clash, Scorsese, Stiff Records, Casino Music, His Football-Obsessed Artwork and More
“The Clash were for me, at that time, pound for pound the best rock ‘n’ roll band that I knew of,” declares Kosmo Vinyl, thinking back on his earliest encounter with the punk legends. “And I’ll stand by that judgment today.”
It was Vinyl who, as The Clash’s co-manager and its outspoken spokesperson, introduced the group onstage at Shea Stadium in their “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” live video, a music television fixture of the early ’80s. He also recorded with them and designed their iconic “Know Your Rights” logo, an image immortalized across uncountable thousands of record sleeves, T-shirts, and pinback buttons.
And it is his distinctive artwork, not his musical associations, which brings the lively, fast-talking 57-year-old to the Atlanta area this month for a solo exhibition at the Lightroom gallery in Decatur. The pieces he plans to display, although rendered with the cut-and-paste ransom note sensibility of punk posters and record sleeves, have an unexpected focus: Soccer.
“It’s all to do with my soccer stuff, this show,” he explains, speaking by phone from his New York residence, his thick East London accent undiminished by decades in America. “Some of the pieces are gonna be from my art blog Is Saitch Yer Daddy, and that’s specifically related to West Ham United, the team that I grew up supporting. I am not only a third generation West Ham supporter, but the proud father of two boys who are also. The other half is gonna be about the World Cup. Four of the pieces are about the USA in the last World Cup.”
Vinyl, who hails from a blue-collar family and never attended college, states that his art school consisted of going on the road. “The people you meet via music is a whole other world. I really do think it was a kind of an art school for me. Paul Weller had a song ‘Art School’ on that first Jam LP, so I guess I’m a graduate from there.” (Although widely believed to have worked for The Jam, he insists he was “never under their employ” and attributes that rumor to an early photograph of himself with frontman Weller. “I’m just at that show!”)
“I’m a big fan of some of the ’60s pop artists, like Andy Warhol before he got shot,” Vinyl observes, “and the English pop artist Peter Blake, whose famous thing was the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. When I first went to Stiff Records, I was really there just to do whatever was asked of me, move musical equipment, be a roadie, carry records, whatever. `Fix that door – there’s something you can do!’ But one day they sent me downstairs to ‘help Barney out.’
“The sleeve designer at Stiff Records was a guy called Barney Bubbles, who’s now considered maybe the most important British graphic artist of the ‘60s/’70s. He did all those things early Elvis Costello and Ian Dury things. When I saw Barney Bubbles making a record cover, it suddenly dawned on me that somebody makes these things. I don’t know what I thought before. Maybe Ron Wood or somebody would say, like, ‘Yeah, we’ll stick that picture on there.’ So I’m watching him work, helping him a little bit. ‘Here, go and get me this. Go and do that.’ And Ian Dury was friends with Peter Blake, who’s now Sir Peter Blake. So the first two people I ever knew that take art seriously are Barney Bubbles and Peter Blake! Major talents!”
It was during Vinyl’s tenure at Stiff Records that he first came to the attention of music lovers worldwide as the “Everyone down in front! Buy yer dinks later on!” emcee on the 1978 Live Stiffs album, where the acts he introduced included Costello, Lowe, Dury, and Wreckless Eric.
“I was such a loudmouth, I admit that myself,” he chuckles. “They tried me at roadying and that didn’t work out.” In a conspiratorial whisper he adds, “I think I was a bit too opinionated, which was upsetting some people. Some young kid loading the truck can’t criticize the way the guitar player dresses.” The solution was to use Vinyl’s bravado.
“I looked after the press. They were like, ‘This guy’s getting on the bus and you gotta make sure he talks to Eric and to Ian and to Nick.’ This was a real old school musical revue, the Stiff Tour, a full-fledged British tour. Everybody was getting 50 pounds a week. That was it – Elvis Costello, the sound guy, the drum roadie, everybody! I developed a relationship with Ian Dury and The Blockheads. I promoted their ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll’ single – that was the first record I really worked on. Not bad for a first one. I wasn’t given a duffer!”
Asked to explain the “Members of 24 Hour Club” credit on the Live Stiffs cover, Vinyl chuckles, “There was a whole bunch of us, The 24 Hour Club! The objective was to enjoy oneself 24/7, as we would say now. Nick Lowe joined up for a day, but he backed off. He was like, ‘I can’t keep this kinda pace up.’ There was another club we opened for a while called The Pound-a-Minute Club. You had to spend a pound every minute to be in it, which didn’t last very long at all. We only got 50 pounds a week!”
Vinyl (born Mark Dunk) fared better when he accompanied The Clash on an American tour in the late ’70s, prior to the release of their classic album London Calling. “From then it was kind of a done deal, and I became part of their team,” he recalls.
He then made it his mission to push The Clash to wider success. “I was never interested in good artists just being a cult phenomenon,” he explains. “I wish that Tom Waits was where Bruce Springsteen was! I believed The Clash should be moving up the ranks, and we did manage to get it going for a while.”
One of Vinyl’s promotional ventures was to give away a Clash flexi-disc with copies of the New Musical Express newspaper. A new song, “Train in Vain,” was quickly written and recorded for this scheme, but the newspaper balked at the associated costs and backed out. At that point the London Calling double album was almost ready to go, with the sleeves and labels already printed. However, the actual vinyl discs were not yet pressed. An 11th-hour decision to add the new song as a “hidden cut” onto the end of Side 4 resulted in The Clash’s first American hit.
Another unrealized project from that era was putting the band to work with director Martin Scorsese on the movie Gangs of New York, originally planned as the follow-up to 1980’s Raging Bull. “It would have starred Robert DeNiro,” Vinyl reveals, “and The Clash were going to do the soundtrack. It was a very far-out idea then, because here was period movie, and he was gonna do it with a contemporary soundtrack. We were gonna go to where the film was made, and make the music while he made the film.”
Although now recognized as a timeless classic, Raging Bull was unexpectedly a box office dud. Scorsese’s investors quickly backed away from the experimental and fantastically expensive Gangs project, forcing the filmmaker to put it off for two decades while he retreated into smaller-scale movies. As a consolation prize, he used members of The Clash and their entourage (who were in New York at the time, doing an extended series of gigs at Bond International Casino) as background extras in a crowded street scene for The King of Comedy.
“It was just for an afternoon, like, eight blocks down the street from Bond, right next to the Brill Building,” remembers Vinyl, who can clearly be seen in the finished film, jeering at actress Sandra Bernhard as the sequence concludes.
Vinyl earned the credit “Street Scum” in the movie’s end rollup, a joking reference to the line from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) forecasts the onset of a great rain which “will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Vinyl had become fond of quoting that monologue to The Clash’s Joe Strummer whenever he observed something unpleasant, and Strummer eventually got the idea of having him record it for the track “Red Angel Dragnet” on the album Combat Rock.
“One day we were in the studio and he says, ‘Kosmo, go in and do the Travis speech on this track!’ With Joe in the studio, you can wriggle on the hook but he ain’t gonna let you off. I said, ‘I’m not in the group; I’m the other side of the counter.’ He said, ‘I don’t give a shit about that, now get in there.’ I said, ‘You don’t have the rights!’ He said, ‘We know Marty. It’s okay!’ That’s the way it was with The Clash – whatever works, works.”
Vinyl’s long affiliation with the recording industry began winding down in the 1990s with his tenure at Casino Music, the Atlanta-based operation led by musician/restaurateur Clay Harper. “I became interested in what Clay was doing,” says Vinyl, “and we tried to get something going there. I did some recording and produced some of his records. I did a record for Jack Logan, whom I was a big admirer of. Clay played me Jack’s Bulk album and I was like, ‘This guy’s amazing!’ I’ve actually stayed friends with Jack Logan. We stay in touch. And I got to know Kevn Kinney and ended up doing a Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ record. I also worked with Jack Black – the rock trio, not the actor. This was before there ever was a Jack-Black-the-actor.
“I was very much enjoying myself, and I thought we were getting something out of the Casino studio, but unfortunately the economics of the situation didn’t allow it to continue. It was an interesting time. That’s when the music industry was really kind of coming apart. Now people are recording at home, and I just wasn’t interested.
“And then there was an incident with my son.” Vinyl pauses, and for the first time he speaks slowly and gravely. “At the time that Clay said the studio is closed, my oldest boy had this journal he kept for his teacher, and they used to write back with some forwards in it. I discovered this sad piece of writing about me going away, and it really made me rethink what to do. I kinda made the decision with the awareness that the studio was closing. They just kinda coincided, and I decided the family is more important.
In the rare downtime between looking after his two boys, Vinyl began “messing around on the kitchen table” with artwork. He started off by creating postcards to send to Joe Strummer, after having exhausted all the available off-the-rack options. “You don’t want to keep sending people the same postcards, so I started making my own, just one-off’s.”
It was not until one of his soccer pals sent back a photo of a door completely covered with these cards that Vinyl realized his art might have lasting value. “Honestly, until that moment, I had just assumed that he threw them in the bin when he finished reading them! Then my oldest boy told me to scan them and put them on a website so more people could see them. And then, bam, I got my first show in London.
“Bringing it back to the Decatur show, [exhibit producer] Shawn [Vinson] from [VINSONart] contacted me and seemed very enthusiastic. He knew about soccer, seemed to understand it, and he said, ‘If I can get something together down here, can we put it on?’ I was like, ‘Sure!’ It wasn’t all planned out. Just go with what’s working. I guess it’s quite Clash-like in that way!”