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Painting a bigger picture: David Band remembered

Scottish artist David Band's bright and painterly work adorned some of the bestselling records of the 1980s, while his design studio gained him access to the hippest fashion circles.

Then, suddenly, he moved to the other side of the world and started a new life. Here, a year after his death at the age of 51, family, friends and associates pay tribute to an artist who helped define an era.

"I first met David when I was still at school and he was in his first year at art school. He worked in a jeans store in Queen Street at the weekends. I'd tried on a pair of really skin-tight jeans because it was that point in fashion and he said to me, 'Nah. Your bum looks too big in that,' so that should have been the end of the conversation. But it wasn't and we became incredibly good friends. That kind of sums David up. He was really quite cheeky and irreverent. And that never changed. That was the Glaswegian in him." – Clare Grogan

David Band died a year ago almost to the day at his home in Melbourne, surrounded by his family, just as his latest exhibition – his last, as it turned out – also drew to a close elsewhere in the city. He had been painting almost to the end. "I said to him, 'You need to stop working and concentrate on getting better,'" his partner, Fiona Mahon, recalls. "And he said no. It would just have been too hard for him."

In Britain his death was marked by a few mentions in the press. Too few really. Perhaps we had just forgotten. He had left in the mid-eighties to create a new life for himself in Australia and maybe distance frayed the hem of memory. And yet there had been so much to fray. Because Band had been a huge figure in the 1980s. His work could be found on record sleeves that sold millions, pictures of him could be found splashed over magazine spreads and his textile designs graced designer clothes. He worked with his friends in bands and with his friends in fashion and, as he once said of himself, "had a lot of fun and drank too much".

In doing so he made work that helped define the look of the time. And having done so he then went to the other side of the world, started a new life and made a name for himself there too. Talk to his friends and family and the picture that emerges is of a hugely gregarious man who knew everyone and was friends with them all. Then again he was also a perfectionist who had to have things done his way and would complain loudly when they weren't.

He was 51 when he died. "I think we lost a real artistic adventurer," the fashion designer Jeff Banks believes, "somebody who was brave and confident. I don't think he ever globally received the appreciation he warranted."

And yet mention those record sleeves – for Altered Images, for Spandau Ballet at the height of their globetrotting pomp – to people of a certain age and they have a Proustian madeleine effect. Pop culture solidifies the past into an authorised version. If we think of the early eighties now the default setting is the chill severity of Peter Saville's sleeve designs for Joy Division, but there was another, brighter, sunnier vision. And that vision started in Scotland.

1: Growing up, Glasgow School of Art, the Rock Garden, art school w*****s

David Band was born at home on Christmas Day in 1959 at quarter past two in the afternoon. There was a party going on in the living room because his mother Margaret had gone into labour 13 hours earlier and everyone was waiting for David to put in an appearance. "I've got a wee theory that the way you're born is the way you're life turns out," Margaret tells me in the front room of the family house in Ralston, Renfrewshire. "With David we waited ages for him coming, which was always the case, and then there was a party when he came."

Margaret and her husband Charlie live in a house that is full of their son's work. Margaret is 75, Charlie 83, but they look good on it. "Up till a year ago I would have agreed with you," Charlie tells me when I say as much. "Since David died I've gone right downhill."

The boy they remember was a football fan (like his dad, a Hibee), an animal lover and someone who was always drawing. "He couldn't spell but he could draw," says Margaret. "He'd spend days doing a poster and then it would get put up and he'd discover a bit at the bottom with the wrong spelling. That happened quite often."

After attending Paisley Grammar he went to Glasgow School of Art to study textile design. For his very first show, Margaret recalls, "he had to get a wee sewing machine and do things from scratch, which was pretty awful. He was still rattling it up half an hour before the show. That was his life. You always got a Christmas card, but often at the end of January. He'd bring work home from art school drying the thing out on the train window."

To earn money Band worked in bars and shops and in doing so he plugged himself in to the city's boho demi-monde. "Even then he knew everybody in Glasgow," recalls his friend Fraser Taylor. The two had met on the first day at art school in 1977. "He was a very charismatic character. He was incredibly social, very gregarious, loved talking to everyone. I was incredibly shy and nervous that day but he seemed to be somebody who was full of confidence. I was bowled over by him. David was working in the Rock Garden, he was working in various jeans stores, he had this entrepreneur thing going on. That was very seductive."

Band quickly became friends with Edwyn Collins and Alan Horne of Postcard Records and, after insulting her backside, Clare Grogan. "I became very interested in what he was doing," she says, "and quite often after school I used to meet him at art school. I'd be in my school uniform. Eventually he was cool about that. Eventually he wasn't trying to hide me in a cupboard until his cool friends had left the room."

Along with Band's brother, Keith, who played in Glasgow bands The Jazzateers and Bourgie Bourgie, Band and Grogan would hang out at Band's home or the Rock Garden in Queen Street, a dark, noisy den with a stuffed bear in the corner that became the home from home for Glasgow's wannabe popsters. "A typical night would be to go down the Rock Garden, see who was there, have a few drinks and try to get your latest demo tape played," recalls Keith. They would sneak Grogan in via the fire exit. "We would be going and seeing lots of bands, hanging out in the Rock Garden, just being young," adds Grogan.

Friendships were forged and everyone was young enough to see no differentiation between work and pleasure. In 1981 Altered Images made their debut with a 7in single called Dead Pop Stars, complete with a David Band cover. "We were quite pretentious," admits Grogan. "We were artschool w*****s at heart. That was something that came very naturally to us. We loved the idea of fashion, music, art all being joined in.

"When our first single came out we said we wanted to create with the single a piece of art as well. I still go into people's houses and offices and see David's work, a beautiful print of the Dead Pop Stars sleeve, on their walls. It gives me a wee thrill."

David Band was already beginning to accelerate. Jeff Banks was his external examiner at the Glasgow School of Art. "The impression from everybody at the college was that he and Fraser were going places. They were like a breath of fresh air. They were more painters than textile designers and they approached everything in a painterly manner. They weren't thinking, 'We'll turn out some nice bits of fabric and maybe somebody might want to put them on a dress.' They were looking at the bigger picture."

The bigger picture would soon draw them to London.

"Basically, me John Gordon Sinclair, and David Band were completely in love with Clare Grogan. Nothing ever happened - in fact it was rather courtly. I don't think anyone wanted anything to happen. But we were certainly all vying for her attention. I think I was 21, 22. David was the same age as me, and I became really friendly with him. We decided that actually we were never going to win Clare's heart properly and therefore we might as well console ourselves with each other." – Gary Kemp

2: London, nightclubbing, hillclimbing

In 1981 David Band and Fraser Taylor moved to London to do a masters at the Royal College of Art. Before long, Band was a fixture in the capital's nightlife. "Every time I went down to visit him," his brother, Keith, recalls, "he'd be with somebody that had been in The Face magazine that month. He found it all so easy. Everywhere he'd go he'd get a job in a bar and then before you knew it he was at the centre of everything.

"He'd go to the right bars, the right clubs, bump into Gary Kemp, the PR guru Lynne Franks [later to inspire Absolutely Fabulous] and fashion designer Betty Jackson [who would design the costumes for Ab Fab].

"He was great at making contacts. And even when he went to New York he ended up meeting Andy Warhol because of somebody he'd met at a bar."

According to Taylor, it was Band's idea to set up a design studio. The Cloth began in 1983, even though the designers – Band, Taylor, Helen Manning and Brian Bolger – were still students. They were still in their early twenties but their bravura graphic approach to textiles immediately caught the eye of those who mattered.

"They were doing work no-one else was doing," reckons Betty Jackson, who was soon hiring them. "It was astonishingly new at the time, the scale of it. It was bold and almost effortless. They were such a funny group that didn't give a s***. And incredibly talented, all four together."

Soon Paul Smith and Liberty came calling (even though, as Margaret Band points out, Band once said his ambition was to "rid the world of Liberty prints"). Jeff Banks, too, saw huge potential in The Cloth. "They were inventive not just in what they were creating, but the way they marketed themselves. It was at a time when all those eighties bands were making big news and David hung out with them, did album covers for them, did music promotion stuff for them. They were under the skin of everybody."

"Fraser was the jolly one," recalls Jackson. "Helen was a bit of a loner and David was the arrogant one. Of everybody he was the one who had the most balls. He was quite snotty and a bit edgy and not so easy, but great. I think he thought he was the best looking member of the group."

That's the view from the outside. "We were so busy so quickly there was almost no time to get big-headed," argues Taylor. "It happened so fast and we worked so hard. It was insane. We worked for 24 hours a day for as long as The Cloth lasted."

Alongside his fashion work Band continued to design record sleeves, for Altered Images and for Spandau Ballet, thanks to his new friendship with Gary Kemp. "I started hanging out with him in London," Kemp tells me as we sit in his tastefully imposing house in central London. "I loved the way he dressed. He had a very quirky style. There was definitely tweed in the blood of the Scot. And of course Spandau had reinvented the tartan and the kilt earlier on.

"He was a very gentle guy, very funny, very dry wit. Part of the gag was he constantly took the p*** out of me and I liked it. We liked hiking. So our passion was to go to the mountains. I went to the Lake District with him a few times and we camped up there together. We were living through this great heightened period in the eighties of celebrity and success and yet David and I would like to bury ourselves away and become two small creatures climbing in the mountains, and I think that was very bonding.

"We first started to devise a cover together for the True album when we were up in the mountains, in one of the pubs one evening. He was drawing in his sketchbook and a dove appeared, this little dove."

That dove would soon grace the cover of the single which turned Spandau from a club band to pop stars. True went to No1 in 21 countries. Band's visuals were soon at the heart of Spandau's look. For their 1984 album Parade, Band's illustrations were matched with a photograph of the band, the band's fathers, Sam Fox, Sarah Green and Patsy Kensit all in marching clothes. Band even turned up in a harlequin's suit.

For Kemp, his friend's work helped set a marker for the look of the time, a jazz-influenced style that could also be seen in an exaggerated fashion in the New Romantic look. "I felt David was tuning into something visually and graphically that was in the air anyway. But he was the first to do that. David set the tone for a certain look. A lot of people picked up on it. He was creating something new that was inspiring everyone."

By this point The Cloth were being profiled in the fashion press, Band's paintings were being bought up by collectors and he was working with one of the biggest bands in Britain. He was on a roll.

And then he disappeared.

3: Australia, a new life, a new family, an ending

What took David Band to the other side of the world was a girl. Her name was Genevieve. An Australian, she was living in London when she met Band. But when her visa ran out she had to go home. Band went with her, first for a long holiday. Soon he would return permanently. He was with Genevieve for the next 11 years.

Australia suited him. He liked the life, loved the beach and started a new career as a graphic designer working for businesses in Sydney and Melbourne. Once again he showed the knack of meeting the right people at the right time. After separating from Genevieve he thought about returning home. But then he met Fiona Mahon. They began to work together and then live together.

"We just happened to have split up with our partners and we got on really well and got together," Mahon tells me from her home in Melbourne. "I'm a graphic designer and David had lots of clients who wanted him to do illustration logos for their business and needed someone to implement that."

In Australia his graphic style simplified, became even stronger, even bolder if that's possible. He responded to the light and his pictures lightened.

Life lightened too. "He loved cooking, he loved going to the markets and coming back to do the cooking," says Mahon. "Any chance he got he'd be down the beach. He was very laidback and relaxed but would pack in as much as he could."

Eventually that included fatherhood. Band was 44 when his son Alfie was born in 2004. How was he at changing nappies? "He did change some but it wasn't his favourite thing."

Despite being a world away he never lost touch with his old friends. "Almost every two years I would go out to Australia and work with David on a project," Fraser Taylor says, "so David and I continually worked collaboratively."

They were still talking about an upcoming collaboration two weeks before David died. "Clare [Grogan] and I went out a couple of weeks before he passed away and even at that point as I got in the taxi leaving he was saying, 'Make sure you come back in a few weeks and we'll get that project going,' and I believed him. God's honest truth. I'd thought I was going out to say my goodbyes to him but I came away thinking, 'He's going to make it.'"

When he first went to the doctor about the lump in his back it wasn't recognised for what it was. A sarcoma, a rare cancer.

It spread to his lungs and chemo couldn't beat it. Not that Band ever thought he was beaten. "There was only one time when I saw him break down," Mahon recalls, "but other than that he was so positive and never gave up hope."

The first work of art he did after the diagnosis was a print called Happiness.

"We spoke a lot on the phone ," says Gary Kemp, "but I never made it down and I wished I had. I think I believed him when he said he wasn't going to go." He laughs when he says it but there's a catch in his voice. "But his humour and his creativity remained intact until the end.

"I've seen some lovely film of him 10 days before he passed away. He looked like he was having a nice time at home as much as he could."

On April 20, 2011, David Band had breakfast at the family table, went back upstairs for a little lie-down and drifted away.

4: A legacy

In her home in Melbourne Fiona Mahon is still surrounded by her partner's paintings and even his paintbrushes. "I haven't changed anything since he passed away. He's absolutely everywhere. He touched a lot of people."

He did. The week before we met, Gary Kemp tells me, he was given an award for four million airplays of True in America. "That record sold a lot in America. That record sleeve is sitting in a lot of homes all over the world. David Band, whether people know it or not, is still out there."

Perhaps, as Jeff Banks believes, if David Band had stayed in London he would have become a giant of British art. Perhaps if he hadn't fallen out with every art gallery who ever represented him in London, his brother Keith says, his name would not have disappeared so readily here. "He burned his bridges in London, being bloody-minded with gallery owners, turning up and saying, 'The rest of your artists are crap.' He spoke his mind."

Perhaps. But then he wouldn't have met Fiona, became Alfie's dad, did the work that fills his studio, Australian homes and businesses. Short as it was, he lived a full life.

Last year in graduate fashion week in London the first David Band Textile Award was given out. It will be awarded again this year. This June at Glasgow School of Art his friends and family are planning a memorial event. David Band is still around. In dusty cupboards full of old magazines and records, on the walls of fashion designers and collectors, and in the memory of everyone who knew him.

There was a time everybody knew David Band. Maybe it's time they did again.

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