A is for Acid, A is for Art… 909originals chats to legendary designer Dave Little

There are few designers more closely aligned with the acid house scene than Dave Little, who was behind some of the most iconic flyer, graphic and album cover designs of the era, from Paul Oakenfold’s Spectrum to the Boy’s Own label. 

Having established a career as a jobbing designer in the 80s, Dave’s link to the music scene began when he was asked to develop window designs (incorporating artists such as Queen, Billy Idol and Prince) for HMV’s flagship outlet on London’s Oxford Street. 

However, it was a chance meeting with the head of Rhythm King Records, not to mention a couple of ‘mind-altering’ nights out in London, that established him as the go-to artist for the nascent dance scene.

These days, Dave’s focus is more in fashion – check out the collection at http://www.davelittle.co.uk – but here he recalls the inspiration behind some of his most legendary designs, wild nights out with the likes of Terry Farley and Gary Haisman (RIP), and how acid house changed people’s perceptions about art and music.

Q. Rewind back thirty years.. how did a freelance designer working on HMV window displays end up being a go-to artists for the emerging acid house scene?

I had a friend called Karl Bonnie who had just formed a band, Renegade Soundwave, signed to a new label –Rhythm King. He introduced me to the head of the label, Martin Heath – within six months I’d designed record sleeves for S’Express, Bomb the Bass, Beatmasters, Renegade Soundwave…

Q. Were you always interested in working in or with the music industry?

Definitely. Up in Newcastle I was hearing all the latest sounds from London, and I couldn’t wait to get there. I worked in advertising illustration first, doing advertising storyboards and airbrushing Twix packets. It was great money, but I was bored within a year. 

When I met Gary Haisman, Paul Dennis and the Boys Own Crew, that’s what lit the fire.

Q. What was your first acid house experience? Were you a regular at Spectrum, Shoom or other clubs of the time?

I had known Paul Oakenfold and Gary Haisman since 1986 – I had designed flyers and backdrop artwork for Gary’s ‘The RAID’, and also done some work for Paul’s ‘Power Promotions’ company. During that time, I could feel the scene changing. 

I remember one night we went to Limelight, Peter Gatien’s club on Shaftesbury Avenue. I ended up sitting next to John Lydon of the Sex Pistols off my rocker. He was really cool actually. 

I could sense music getting weirder – more and more friends were ‘on one’, and there was this mythical club called Shoom opening in south London. One night I ventured down to south London with Paul Oakenfold, at about 3am, to go to his ‘nightclub project’. It all changed after that! 

Soon afterwards, in late summer 1987, Paul opened Future in central London, in the back room at Heaven, the flyer for which I had designed. That club was my first real acid house experience, it turned everything upside down. I think that it was the best club I ever attended.

I also designed the flyer for the Rage night, which took place in the main club, Heaven, next door. It was a hip hop night, with blends of very early drum and bass and jungle. The difference between the two was worlds apart. We were loved up, listening to The Cult and The Beatles, and wearing dungarees, and next door it was black M1 jackets and aggressive sounds. 

Q. Where did you get the inspiration for the Spectrum ‘Heaven on Earth’ flyer artwork (later reworked for the Balearic Beats album)?

Paul and Gary turned up at my flat after I had designed the Future flyer, and were looking for artwork for another night they were running, Spectrum, on a Monday. Gary said, “I want a great big f**k off trippy eyeball staring out at you, and the phrase Heaven on Earth.” That was the brief, and that’s how the design came about. It was hand-drawn in ink and airbrushed, and took me just over a day to start and finish. 

The border of the flyer was inspired by Rick Griffin, the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic artist. He did some of  [legendary Merry Prankster] Ken Kesey’s ‘happenings’ flyers in 1963-64. I was a bit of a counterculture nut during my art college days. I wanted to show the concrete link between the two movements, across 30 years’ of lineage. The ‘acid’ way of thinking. 

Also, I personally wrote ‘Have you passed the Acid Test?’ on the back of Spectrum’s flyer. This was a phrase that was immortalised by Tom Wolfe in his first-hand account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ adventures, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Very few people spotted this. 

Q. What was the first record sleeve you designed?

It was for Karl Bonnie before he formed Renegade Soundwave, ‘Under the Arches’. It was a 12” record that he funded himself, which led to him being discovered by Rhythm King Records. 

Q. Which came first, the record sleeve designs, or the flyers, or did it all kick off at the same time?

The Raid flyer and 30 foot backdrop, and Karl’s 12” sleeve both happened within four weeks of each other..!

Q. One of the standout sleeves of the time for me was Bomb The Bass’ Into The Dragon – it was really different to anything else at the time, and inspired by Tim Simenon’s love of Manga. Did you often try to incorporate relevant references from your ‘subjects’ into your pieces?

Yes, you are bang on there. The cover for Into the Dragon was briefed to me by Tim. He had travelled to Japan and mentioned a ‘new’ comic style called Manga which if you weren’t into comics you would probably never have seen or heard of. It was pre-Internet, if you remember. 

His brief was for the cover to be highly graphic – all hand-rendered and airbrushed. I think back then you really had to make an effort to discover new visual styles.

All groups and artists I worked with really made an effort to help with the design, buying art books and things like that for reference. You couldn’t just jump on a computer. 

Q. How did you become the house designer for the legendary Boy’s Own label and brand?

Terry Farley, Paul Dennis, Steve Maise, Andy Wetherall, Cymon Eckel and Gary Haisman turned up en masse at my flat in Shepherd’s Bush on a Thursday and asked me to design the Boy’s Own cover! That was actually the same afternoon that Paul and Gary asked for the Raid artwork. 

For them to all turn up at the same time and ask me to create these seminal designs, that people are still talking about now, is pretty surreal. I guess that was a pretty historic day, right?

Q. What design from that period are you most proud of, and why?

Spectrum – Heaven on Earth. Nothing comes close in flyer design. It’s held in such high esteem.

It’s also one of the very few chosen to reside permanently in the V&A Museum, and I’ve been told it was displayed next to the Never Mind The Bollocks sleeve. High praise indeed. 

Q. What are you up to at the moment?

I’ve just finished being the Artist in Residence at ‘The Secret Garden Party’, working with the owner/director Freddie Fellowes, who trained at the Slade School of Art. It was one of the most creative and liberating jobs I’ve ever had, with almost complete freedom to create wonderful art. It’s probably one of the THE best festivals in the UK, full of great art and creativity. 

After my residence finished, I wanted to get back to designing menswear, so I funded myself and created Rocker’s Delight, a workwear-based motorcycle-inspired brand. This was something I originally thought of and started 11 years ago. My friends were among the few to build ‘Bobber’ retro motorcycles, which gave me the idea. 

The clothing has strict attention to detail, which often requires a ‘second look’. The original master Cafe Racer Leather was made by the same guys from Lewis Leathers, and the aplique sewn on the back can’t be seen from more than the feet away. There are lots of these very subtle touches that you only discover up close. 

[Thanks again to Dave for the interview, check out his portfolio at www.davelittle.co.uk]

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