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The Front Line album cover

The Front Line Sampler Album Cover and Label Logo

Virgin Records had been releasing albums by Reggae artists from as early as 1974 and in 1976 it was decided to bring out a cheap sampler album to showcase their artists. The genius that is John Varnom (JV), who worked for Virgin in a multitude of roles, came up with the name for the album, The Front Line. This came from the local name for Railton Road, which runs between Brixton and Herne Hill in South London, in the heart of a large Jamaican community. This name turned out to be rather prophetic, as the 1981 Brixton riots started on Railton Road.

Cooke Key was commissioned to come up with a design for the album cover and we started out with a JV idea of a head shot, probably a profile, of a Jamaican with Rasta hair. John had a friend who he thought would be great for the job, so he brought him into the studio and I set about photographing him.

My partner in Cooke Key Associates, Trevor Key, was a still life studio photographer and our shared studio was full of his bits and pieces from passed jobs, which he could never bring himself to dispose of. On the whole, I shot people and Trevor shot the things, which is probably why I was taking the pictures this time. Also Trevor lived on a houseboat near Windsor and this had very recently sunk, so he was in all likelihood otherwise occupied in any event.

Anyway, while I was busy taking the photographs of his friend JV became bored and started messing about, wandering about the studio and rummaging among Trevor’s stuff.

He eventually pulled out a strip of barbed wire, which he held up in his clenched fist. This got the creative juices flowing and I remembered Trevor had some fake blood somewhere among his accessories, so we dug this out. Using JV’s friend’s arm, the Front Line album cover was born.

In late 1977 Virgin decided to form a dedicated label to accommodate their Reggae acts and the many more that they planned to sign in 1978. The Front Line sampler album image had been very successful so it was adopted as the logo for the new label, which was launched in March 1978.

Advertisment for the Front Line album

My music business pictures are available at Getty Images and on my own website briancooke.com. A lot of our Virgin Records work can be seen here.