A drawn-out love affair

Published on 5 August 2022

The education that Simon Cooper received in Dundee was not confined to the classroom. Being taken under the wing of one of the city’s most celebrated musical sons helped propel him towards a fantasy career capturing rock’s biggest names for posterity.

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Simon spent almost 20 years working as an illustrator at Sounds and NME at a time when those legendary titles were selling hundreds of thousands of copies each week and helping to shape the musical tastes of fans up and down the country. In that time, his drawings of everyone from Shane McGowan to Kylie Minogue, Oasis to Take That, entertained – and occasionally enraged – fans and artists. Simon has also drawn for titles including Time Out, Empire, and Sight and Sound as well as illustrating children’s books, and continues to work commercially as well as indulging his enduring love for music by producing pictures of his favourite artists.

All in all, things have worked out nicely for the shy teenager who arrived at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at the tail end of punk with what he admits were limited musical horizons.

It was at art college that Simon met his classmate Gary Clark, who would go on to form the band Danny Wilson before becoming an award-winning songwriter and producer. Gary, who received an honorary degree from the University in 2019, would prove a huge influence on Simon.

He explained, “I came to Dundee in 1979 having never been to the city before and it was a fantastic move for me. I was a heavy metal fan, but Gary educated me about all these other types of music. I remember him playing me Tom Waits in his flat and that was a huge moment for me. At the time Gary was in a band called Clark’s Commandos. I played drums for them in one rehearsal and that’s when I found out they were proper musicians, whereas I was a hack!

"My four years at art college were amazing. It was an inspiring environment full of like-minded people who just loved making art. You really fed off the enthusiasm and creativity of your fellow students and staff."

After graduating in 1983, Simon packed up his portfolio and headed for London. Despite the gloomy economic climate of the time, he soon landed his dream job working at Sounds. The first two pictures he had published were of Malcolm McLaren and the Beastie Boys, and hundreds more would follow. Simon moved to NME in the late 1980s and stayed with the UK’s most famous music newspaper until 2000.

Portrait photo of Simon Cooper
“I went to see Tom Waits at Hammersmith Odeon and was still buzzing when I drew him later that night. As an illustrator, you don’t generally capture the subject like a painter or photographer would. That was one of the few times when I really drew on the life experience and it was special to me.”

Simon Cooper

"I had always read the music press, so it was a dream job for me. I left Dundee for London the September after I graduated and just went round knocking on magazines’ doors until I got a job. It would never happen now, but the timing was just right for me. They wanted loads of images and were keen to use illustrators. My style always leaned towards humour, so I think that made my work stand out from illustrators who took a more serious approach.

"It was a great job, but it wasn’t in any way glamorous. Despite the fact I drew most of the big names from the world of music in the 80s and 90s, I met absolutely no one famous as far as I can recall. I did occasionally get phone calls from people who liked the illustrations I’d done of them though. Nick Cave gave me really nice feedback, which was great because I was a fan."

By the late 1990s, Simon was married with a young family. He and his wife decided the time was right to leave London and moved to Yorkshire, where they stay to this day. This move marked the start of the process that led to Simon finally saying goodbye to his beloved music weeklies a few years later.

"I used to go into Sounds or NME fairly regularly but when I moved from London, the connection faded. I started doing illustration books for children and was working for other magazines. I still work commercially but nowadays I have the chance to draw the people I never had the chance to when I was working at the magazines.

"The demise of music papers is genuinely heartbreaking for me. They were the only access we had to music that wasn’t on mainstream radio or Top of the Pops. You got caught up in the writers’ enthusiasm for the music they loved. It’s hard to describe just how important and influential they were for millions of people.

"Obviously everything changed with the Internet. I’m not saying things are necessarily worse now, but I preferred the way things were before, and not just because I made a living out of these magazines for so long!"

Digital technology has brought Simon some consolation, however. The rise of social media and the Internet’s vast repository of images led to a reawakening of interest in the illustrations he produced, and he now sells many of these online and in the galleries which have exhibited his work.

He has embarked on a mission to track down more of his original artwork and has also painstakingly recreated some to be used in special edition magazines dedicated to the likes of Oasis and the Manic Street Preachers.

Of the many hundreds of illustrations of musical legends that Simon produced over the years, there are a few that stand out as his favourites.

"Doing Oasis was special, not because they are particular favourites of mine, but because there was such a buzz about them when they first broke through that you really got to feel part of that.

"It was great when you got to draw one of your heroes, but no matter who the subject was you wanted to just do the best job you could. NME would be sniffy about boy bands like Take That so even though I took the mickey a bit, I never wanted to be cruel.

"That said, I still got the occasional letter from a fan complaining about the way I’d drawn their favourite band or that I’d made their favourite singer too ugly. You can’t win them all, I suppose!"

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