Basquiat Designed an Album Cover for a Grimy Punk-Ska Band 35 Years Ago. Now, a Limited Edition of the Album Is Being Reissued
Originals of the record regularly sell for thousands of dollars, though oddly almost no one knows the band.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a music fanatic and wannabe drummer who before he hit superstardom as a visual artist often needed cash—fast. Sometimes the two worlds collided. Once was in 1981 when the young Basquiat agreed to design an album sleeve for his friends in the punk-ska band, The Offs, in exchange for $400, which his mother needed to pay her rent.
Basquiat’s design for the album, called simply First Record, included some of the earliest examples of motifs that would come to define his work—a cartoon-like, black-and-white totemic figure standing atop a triangular mound with a crown of thorns hovering above his head. The punk band’s name appears written in Basquiat’s signature scrawl in three spots. Today, original copies of the album sell for thousands of dollars.
More than three decades after its original release, First Record is being reissued as a limited edition of 500 by the legendary rock promoter, Johnny Brower, who owns the rights to the album. He has teamed up with California’s White Cross Art. Limited edition screen prints are also being offered of the original artwork, which sold at Sotheby’s for more than $300,000 in 2011.
“The reissue is important as it celebrates a milestone in both the career of Basquiat and The Offs,” Brower says. “While the band is no longer a functioning entity, they played a seminal role in the downtown scene in the early 80s in New York. They were close friends with not only of Basquiat, but also Warhol, Patti Astor, and many of the musicians and artists who haunted the Lower East Side in search of the miraculous,” he says. The young Basquiat wanted to be drummer, Brower adds.
From the very beginning, Basquiat’s design for the album cover was an integral part of the production. The band had a difficult time placing the album, and one of the deciding factors for CD Presents, the label that ultimately produced it, was Basquiat’s design. It was reversed to be white on a black background to better align with the punk-rock sensibilities of the time.
This wasn’t Basquiat’s only musical foray. From the late 1970s through the early ’80s, he fronted the band Gray. It was named after Gray’s Anatomy, the medical book that had inspired him as a child to be a visual artist. In 1983, he designed the cover for the single Beat Bop by Rammellzee’s and K-Rob.
The First Record was The Offs only album. While appreciated by a small circle of devotees, the band never achieved the widespread acclaim its members were seeking. The band faded into obscurity following the death of the lead singer, Don Vinyl, soon after the record was completed. Meanwhile, Basquiat shot to fame that would outlast his short life. He died in 1988, aged 27.
“Most, if not all, the people becoming familiar with the record now have no idea who The Offs were, but many are more than pleasantly surprised when they hear the music,” Brower says. He calls the album “a time capsule” of the early punk-ska sound made famous by British groups The Specials and The Clash.For those looking for a more epic tribute to the album, you’re in luck. White Cross Art is also working to construct a massive effigy based on the figure from the album cover to take to Burning Man next year. It also plans to bring it to Art Basel in Miami Beach in the fall of 2020 to celebrate what would have been Basquiat’s 60th birthday.
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