Heavy metal typography

A typographic analysis of the logotypes of Motörhead, Megadeth, Misfits, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin and Poison for Smith Journal.

544 words by Kris Sowersby

First published as “Heavy Metal Typography” in Smith Journal, Issue 20, September 2016.

Motörhead’s eponymous 1977 album has the seminal elements of their visual identity: the “War Pig” by Joe Petagno and the blackletter by Phil Smee. Emerging from the punk-scene crucible, Motörhead’s imagery draws its power from British cultural taboos, specifically WWII and Nazi references like blackletter, the accented ö, the militarised demonic skull, and the black/red/white colour scheme. It was designed to shock and provoke, just like the music. When Lemmy smashes his bike through your living room wall, and your daughter jumps on while he pulls the finger and crashes out again, this is the logotype you think of.

Dave Mustaine says the name “Megadeth” represents the annihilation of power, derived from the term “megadeath”, meaning one million deaths by nuclear explosion. This helps frame an understanding of the logotype. Formally, it has the same sharply detailed vertical symmetry of Metallica’s logotype, but with poorly resolved details. Its grandiosity of purpose is undermined by weak, copycat implementation. This may be inferred as a perfect analogy for Megadeth’s music.

I’ve seen this trademarked logotype and Crimson Ghost skull on t-shirts, typically worn by sulky teenagers hanging about in malls. It’s a fitting symbol for The Misfits. Having abandoned their actual hardcore punk roots, they are a schlocky dress-up act with zero appeal to adults. Appropriating the cultural legacy of punk and channelling it through a horror theme seems to be an intoxicating musical scene for some young people. But don’t worry, parents! Your teen’s genuine expressions of angst are being safely absorbed by The Misfits: there is no actual punk here.

Polish-born Rosław Szaybo designed the logotype and cover for Judas Priest’s 1978 release Stained Class. Poland has a magnificent, rich design history and culture. Posters from this era are masterclasses in harmonising type and image, and Szaybo’s work continues this tradition. His cover is a sympathetic symbiosis of form and content; its futuristic aggressiveness expresses the music perfectly.

Surprisingly, this was designed by Storm Thorgerson in 1973 as part of the cover art for Houses of the Holy, though it didn’t appear on the final version. It has echoes of Art Deco filtered through ’60s optical-psychedelia – a perfect typographic time capsule. However, Thorgerson’s strength was his legendary art direction and photographic execution – typography was never his strong suit. The Led Zep logotype is therefore mediocre. It has none of the transcendental qualities and continuing appeal of the music itself.

Bret Michaels is the frontman for successful hair-metal legends Poison. As a child, I always confused him with the ’90s WWF superstar Bret “The Hitman” Hart. Coincidentally, there are many similarities between ‘professional’ wrestling and hair metal. They are both seen as bastardisations of ‘the real thing’, full of over-the-top showmanship, costumes and drama: entertainment that trumps authenticity. Thus the Poison logotype, a typographic trainwreck, is perfect. It’s living proof that style can upstage substance, and the fans absolutely love it.

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