Designing “Just for the love of it: Popular Music in Penang, 1930s–1960s”
Imagine the process of laying out a magazine and preparing the artwork for printing without desktop publishing capabilities. Everything was not at your fingertips and the world of graphic design involved Letraset font catalogues, Pantone charts, typesetting services, bromides, set squares, Cow Gum, paste-up work and films. Those were the good olde days of graphic design before the digital era took over.
Combing through some magazines of the 1950s and 1960s, I can truly empathise and understand what graphic designers must have gone through then. In 1990, I graduated from college studying graphic design, caught between the cut-and-paste world and the dawn of a new digital age with desktop publishing. All my college assignments were literally cut up and pasted into place using Cow Gum and set squares. (Cow Gum has nothing to do with the bovine creature but is a reference to its inventor, Mr. FP Cow.) It seems hard to believe today that artwork was not emailed or uploaded.
Working on this project with the authors of the book, Paul Augustin and James Lochhead, was exciting, a creative journey like no other. Over half a decade, Paul and James have interviewed hundreds of music lovers who have shared their stories, photographs, music and memories of a distant past. They had supplemented this with archival research and history. Key to the book is the way it weaves the availability and type of popular music to the historical and technological contexts, an ambitious task which Paul and James had accomplished with apparent ease. When they turned up at my office with a suggested structure and considerable content available for use, I was happy to offer my expertise to bring to life this amazing project.
The first thing I did was to research designs, layout and popular fonts used during the period. It was fantastic that Paul and James had been collecting vintage magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. It was hugely nostalgic flipping through the pages. Lots of ideas immediately popped into my head.
One thing that stood out were the advertisements – very much ‘of their time’ and with a particular feel. All three of us agreed that we could and should use some of these advertisements throughout the book to help give the flavour of those years. We also agreed that the wording of the advertisements could be given a twist, tying them more closely to the theme of the book – and providing some fun! James is a brilliant wordsmith and he was able to conjure up beautiful and relevant copies for them (many at times were rather poetic). I have worked with many copywriters before but James is a real star. His command of the English language is outstanding, creating copies that are witty, tight and relatable. Paul was also always ready with suggestions and comments, and both for the advertisements and for everything else in the book, the three of us worked very well together.
One example of the process relates to the section on P. Ramlee. When I first read the initial copy, it did not move me. It was too close to the familiar tale of a legend in the making. I reported this to James and suggested that the reader needs to know how P. Ramlee felt on his death bed. I was aware that, despite all his successes, he was a man beset with self-doubt, pondering if his life will be remembered. With his dying breath he asked his friend just that. James understood where I was coming from and he rewrote the entire section. The revised version tugged my heart-strings and is one of my favourite parts of the book. Part of this reads
"... Abandoned by once adoring fans, scorned by many within the film industry and neglected by the formerly attentive media, one of P. Ramlee’s last songs contains words that sum up his despondency. The song is ‘Air Mata di Kuala Lumpur’ (Tears in Kuala Lumpur) and the lyrics tell us: ‘Hidup sudah tiada bererti, / Zahirku hidup hai batinku mati’ (There is no more meaning to life, / Outwardly I live, but my soul is dead). Within a short time, on 29 May 1973, P. Ramlee was to die of a heart attack, at the age of just 44." (p.96)
Working with Paul and James was so easy. Paul is genuinely friendly and he can have you eating out of the palm of his hand. He is also a man of his word and a walking encyclopaedia of all things relating to music. Through the years of interviews, he had successfully accumulated a wealth of photographs, old posters and magazines as well as a bunch of memorabilia of yesteryears. Being a musician, composer and festival director among other things, he found it easy to relate to the musicians he met. They were willing to share their stories. At times joined by James, they must have had many insightful moments when they stepped into the realms of these musicians. Unlike a reporter who is only there to conduct an interview, I know for certain that both my fellow comrades were there to establish lasting relationships as well. The interviews would have turned into conversations among lifetime friends.
Paul is a great collaborator and he was always there when I needed him. Although having a million images on his laptop, he was able to find a much needed one in a wink of an eye. He either has a photographic memory or a pretty efficient system. Although we adopted the retro look and feel of a 1960s magazine, I wanted all the photographs to be of the highest quality possible. Paul understood this and he devoted many hours re-scanning the hundreds of graphics from his archive. There are more than 500 photographs in the book, so getting them all to optimum quality was a monumental task. On my side, the most challenging images to edit were scans from magazines or newspapers, simply because the moiré (cross-hatch patterns of halftone screens) were often difficult to reduce, let alone eliminate. The book really is a product of a labour of love.
The design process was equally demanding and exciting. Paul and James trusted my design skills and were enthusiastic about allowing as much creativity as possible. Every page was a blank slate where something new was ready to be designed. I had so much fun working on this book despite the long hours it took to balance the graphics, photographs and text on each and every spread. I was happy to clock in those long hours creating a book like no other.
The only time Paul, James and I had a slight disagreement was about the image of Ruby Rozells that I had earmarked for the cover. To me, she was perfect! Her hourglass figure was draped with a spectacular spaghetti-strap gown adorned with sequins. I thought there would be a benefit from a beautiful, seductive siren to visually serenade and lure passers-by to pick up the book. I also felt that having a woman on the cover would help give emphasis to the part women played in the story, given that so many of the stories were about men. Paul and James on the other hand were a little uneasy on the choice, part of which was that this could be construed as ‘exploitation’. I worked on a few options but none seemed as successful as the original. In the end, it was agreed that Ruby would be a dominant picture in a collage that is now the cover, and I am glad that the fabulous Ms Rozells is included.
On the cover, all the photographs were in warm black and white tones coupled with a fair amount of Turner’s Yellow. This yellow was frequently used by the impressionist artist, JMW Turner, to capture the sun’s light (although the name actually comes from James Turner, the chemist who patented Lead Chloride Oxide in 1781). Turner’s Yellow not only complemented handsomely the sepia-tone images, it brightened up the cover and held everything together as well.
On the cover, you will also notice a myriad of fonts used. These fonts were selected to represent some of the popular choices used in the 1960s. In the book, I kept to only two types of font – a serif font (Goudy Old Style) for the main body copy and a sans serif font (Myriad Pro) for box text. For the headings and sub-headings, I went to town and had a blast with them.
There was never a dull moment designing this book. One of my favourite spreads has to be the acknowledgements. I designed a vintage board game. At first glance, one would assume that it is nothing out of the ordinary. On it, I added popular music venues in Penang during the 1930s – 1960s along the route or path of the game. If you take a closer look, you will notice the names of all who have helped with the book listed. When I first proposed the concept to Paul and James, they were very happy. James wrote the necessary text with Paul’s help and I created the graphics. It is one part of the book which shows how much fun we were having, how much fun we invite the reader to share, and it was this potent synergistic energy that made many of the creative ideas I had for the book possible.
Paul and James were constantly at my office throughout the time I was designing the pages and we were continually chatting, sharing ideas, laughing (a lot), having lunch at nearby coffee-shops and generally working closely every step to the way to put together a cohesive book. It was definitely a passion project for all three of us and we remained unphased by the long hours and endless revisions. I will cherish dearly those special times we spent together all for the love of this book.
The cherry on top of the cake is the free CD that comes with each book. The stories and images in the book provided a musical journey of Penang's rich musical heritage. The CD provides 24 songs, carefully selected by Paul to allow one to revel in nostalgia. Paul was able to choose from hundreds of songs which he had amazingly accumulated over the years, many entrusted to him by the musicians or their families. It again speaks to the passion Paul has, and the rapport and trust he is able to establish with so many different people. It really is a gift.
Among Paul’s favourites are Chendering by Jimmy Boyle and Bengawan Solo, by Clive Scott. I personally love Rose, Rose I Love You performed by Zainal Alam, in which he sings in four of Penang's most used languages.
The book was made possible with the generous support of Think City Sdn Bhd. It was published by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre and launched at The Star Pitt St. in Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling on Saturday, 18 April 2015. During the launch, Think City chairman Datuk Anwar Fazal said that it was rare to have a book that spoke to people in such a special way. He added that the music heroes who are legends of Penang still had the power to touch our souls each time we hear their songs.
To mark the book launch, an exhibition was also held on the first floor of the venue. There, posters celebrating Penang's musical past in the context of its history and development were on display and visitors were treated to live performances as well.
The first print run was sold out in the first two months of its publication. The book is now in its third reprint. I am happy that the 242-page book has been very successful, helping to reclaim, celebrate and document the richness of Penang’s musical heritage. It has become a key reference guide to Penang and Malaysia’s music history, and is being used in certain courses at universities and colleges throughout Malaysia.
Authors: James Lochhead, Paul Augustin
Copy-editing by Gareth Richards
Cover design, layout and artwork by Adrian Cheah
James Lochhead, Paul Augustin
2015, Strategic Information and Research Development Centre
This book was produced with the generous support of Think City Sdn Bhd
Hardcover/softcover. 21.59cm x 27.94cm, 240 pages
ISBN 978-967-0630-64-9 (pbk.)
ISBN 978-967-0630-65-6 (hbk.)
Click here for more information on the book
The creators of the book
Paul Augustin is a Penangite, born and bred. Educated at La Salle School and then St. Xavier’s Institution, he was a performing musician for more than 15 years before joining an event management company in 1993. He worked for them in various capacities until December 1996, when he set up The Capricorn Connection (TCC) in partnership with Ms Chin Choo Yuen. TCC has organised many different types of events but has particularly been involved in festival organising.
In 2004, Paul and Chin CY realised a long-standing dream by organising the first Penang Island Jazz Festival which ran until 2017 (now on a break). Paul is also a founder member of the Asian Jazz Festival Organisation (AIFO) and has been regularly invited to major jazz and music industry conferences across the world. TCC has also been able to promote a number of Malaysian talents at foreign festivals.
Paul also wrote the lyrics for the official theme song for the 1998 Commonwealth Games (SUKOM).
Paul has spearheaded the Penang Music Heritage project for many years. His vision from the start included the collection, documentation, re-issuing and publication of all things related to Penang’s musical heritage. Together with James, he successfully organised two major exhibitions in Penang and the publication of this book. He has presented talks and articles to a variety of audiences, and most recently has overseen the establishment of the excellent Penang House of Music in KOMTAR, a major undertaking for which he should be extremely proud.
James Lochhead originates from the UK. His background is in community work, social policy planning and people-centred research. But his interests extend far and wide and very much include a love of performance, culture and the arts.
He first came to Penang in 1980 ‘with no intention to stay’ but is somehow still here! He has been involved in initiatives and work with many different groups in Penang and nationally, including children, women, workers, refugees and migrants, as well as issues and policies, for example related to gender and to local democracy.
He has been a consistent advocate of an arts policy in Penang which involves and benefits local groups and has highlighted the importance of our creative economy and the need to invest wisely in it. He was one of the key organisers of the Little Penang Street Market which was a pioneer street market running for twelve years, was also involved (with Paul) in the Penang Jazz Community and has organised, participated in, or clapped along to many other arts and cultural events over the many years. His collaboration with Paul on both the book and the earlier exhibitions and documentation of Penang’s musical heritage reflects James’s commitment to people and to place, and to provide a voice and visibility to people who may otherwise be forgotten. He contributed to the early work, design and organisation (for example of the database) of the Penang House of Music project, which Paul continues to drive.
Adrian Cheah loves to capture the timeless images of life, especially those of Penangites as they evolve, change and grow. Watch out for him as he criss-crosses Penang Island on his motorcycle for his next great shot to grace yet another brochure, magazine, website or coffee-table book. His photographs have appeared in the New York Times, TimeOut Penang, local newspapers and local exhibitions. He is a member of Society of Photographers Penang.
Adrian also runs ACEK Creative Solutions (formerly known as Neo Sentuhan). He has been in the graphic design industry for more than three decades. He has designed marketing campaigns, promotional materials for events, music festivals, book launches, even curate, photograph and design an entire gallery for Penang House of Music.
Believing in helping all around him, Adrian has worked with Asia Community Services, Penang Irish Association's Pink campaign, World Alliance of Breastfeeding, Women's Centre for Change (WCC), Penang, Soroptimist International Club of Penang, BOLD for Special Needs Penang, Charis Hospice and the Association of Resource and Education for Autistic Children (REACh) in designing materials for their fund-raising campaigns.
Adrian was also a community member for Little Penang Street Market that ran for 12 year promoting local artisans and crafts. He is a member of the State Chinese (Penang) Association and is happy to assist in promoting the Chinese Peranakan's rich legacy. Many of his creative endeavours are available at www.adriancheah.com.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah (otherwise credited)
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Updated: 25 September 2020