A Career in Ten Songs: Ally Palmer, Palmer Watson

ALLY Palmer is one half of the world-renowned newspaper design consultancy, Palmer Watson.

Based in Edinburgh, he has today launched a crowdfunding campaign, seeking to launch a new print publication, called Nutmeg.

He says: “Our aim is to create something completely new in Scotland – a football publication that is all about the writers, the writing, and stories told at length.

“We want to give writers the scope to cover stories and issues in a way that newspapers or magazines are maybe not able to do.

“We want writers to have the freedom to write expansively and on topics that are not determined by the all-too familiar news agenda.

“We still believe there is room for print.”

Pledge your support for Nutmeg, here.

This is his career in ten songs…

1. Led Zeppelin – Trampled Under Foot – I left Prestwick Academy in 1975 with no real intention of going to university. Instead, my destination was Earls Court, London – with my pal, Norman – to see Led Zeppelin.

We sold our instruments (my drums and his bass), split up the band (The Last Straw), and made our way on the train south with tens of thousands of drunk Scots.

We hadn’t realised the England versus Scotland football game was that day too.

We watched the 5-1 defeat in the window of a TV shop before making our way to the gig. I fell asleep during John Bonham’s drum solo and it turned out our bed for the night was actually a squat on Edgware Road, Notting Hill.

2. The Rezillos – Can’t Stand My Baby – 1977 was Year Zero as far as I was concerned. At this point, I was working as an apprentice chartered surveyor in Ayr and punk changed everything for me.

We started our own band called The Aaaargh! (obviously to get at the top of all musical lists) and started playing locally. My surveying career ended, not because we became rich and famous, but because I got a job in the Meteorological Office at Heathrow airport.

I can still remember standing at Hounslow West underground station on my way to a nightshift at the airport, having just been told The Rezillos had split up.

We would one day hire their drummer in our soon-to-be-formed band.

3. The Rolling Stones – Tumbling Dice – After enjoying the delights of London and its second-hand record shops, I moved to Edinburgh with my mates, Norman and Neil, to form the post punk/new wave combo, TV21, and within a matter of months we had a deal with Deram Records – it was obviously a lot easier in those days.

We released a number of singles, an album, a couple of John Peel sessions and toured extensively in the UK – supporting bands like The Undertones and The Jam.

We also toured Poland at the height of Solidarity.

We split up in 1982, right after supporting a London-based outfit called The Rolling Stones, at the Playhouse in Edinburgh.

We also played gigs with them in Aberdeen and at the Glasgow Apollo. It was quite a thrill watching their frontman, Mick Jagger, sing Tumbling Dice on a radio mic, a few feet from us in the stalls at the Aberdeen Capitol.

4. The Go Betweens – Cattle And Cane – After a couple of years on the dole – which included an interview for a job at The Scotsman library, which I didn’t get – I was given my first taste of newspaper life – working under Mel Young at The Wester Hailes Sentinel.

I immediately took a shine to the art of paste-up and the smell of wax (and later, spray mount) and my design career officially began. Without a single qualification.

The Go Betweens had somehow passed me by – despite them being signed to Postcard – but this song became a mainstay of my mixtapes.

5. The Smiths – Panic – Soon after, I started working for a publisher based in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, called IDEAS Ltd, who at that time produced a number of in-house magazines.

The owner, Bill Sinclair, was one of the first people in the UK to buy a MacPlus and – seeing its potential – we soon realised desktop publishing was a possibility.

Along with the launch editor, Neil Dalgleish, we set about creating CUT magazine – a new music magazine for Scotland.

Initially using MicrosoftWord to print galleys of type, we put together the first edition in August 1986, with Lloyd Cole on the cover.

It was the first cover I’d ever designed and the inside was full of my first-ever magazine pages.

All headlines done in Letraset.

And it was such a quick learning experience for us all. I worked there for three years with some fantastic people and loved the whole experience.

Around this time, we had our first child, so a lot music from this period is a bit of a mystery, so the whole ‘Madchester’ scene passed me by.

Finding the time to listen to music and buying albums had become a bit of a luxury, but Morrissey and Marr still stood above the crowd.

Little known fact: the first Smith recordings were produced by the same guy who did the first TV21 singles. Troy Tate of SHAKE and The Teardrop Explode.

6. The Lemonheads – It’s About Time – In early 1989, I joined Scotland on Sunday Magazine which was about to launch as a glossy weekly.

I’d been hired by the experienced Fleet Street art director, Graeme Murdoch, mainly because I could work a Mac.

So it was a shock to discover the magazine would be produced by a typesetting house in the city, while some lovely new Macs sat under our desks. I’d never cast off text in my life.

I continued to work on SoS magazine until 1991, when Andrew Jaspan made me the newspaper’s art director. This was a huge break for me, and to be honest, one I was really unsure about as I saw myself as more of a magazine person.

But I enjoyed that period and learnt a lot – surrounded by some great journalists, a lot of whom would go on to greater things.

And one, in particular, would become a big part of my career, Terry Watson.

7. Stereolab – Lo Boop Oscillator – In 1993, Andrew Jaspan became The Scotsman editor and asked me to join him as art director.

He was only there for a few months before leaving for The Observer, but I had a fantastic experience, working alongside Terry, as we tried to turn the paper into one of the best-designed in the world.

In 1997, we were awarded Best Of Show at the Society of News Design (SND) in Syracuse, NY. A huge honour for any paper, let alone a relatively small publication in Scotland.

We also developed what became know as ‘Cool HQ’ where music was played loudly and no editor asked us to turn it down. And in amongst the techno and occasional playing of Wigfield’s Saturday Night, Stereolab were my big new discovery.

8. Teenage Fanclub – Start Again – In February 1998, I decided to leave the paper and become a consultant.

Design and redesign in particular was something I’d stumbled upon rather than having had any great life plan.

And I certainly had the opportunity to redesign at The Scotsman where numerous changes in editors resulted in inevitable changes in the design. Editors always think changing a design will change a newspaper’s fortunes. It rarely does, unless the content is changed too.

By this time, I’d also been lucky enough to get involved in relaunches of The European and Sunday Business in London, so I now had a real appetite for change and development in newspapers.

Teenage Fanclub were another of those groups that passed my by a little – while young children took up my time – but when I did discover them properly, I lapped them up.

They were like the band I’d always wanted to be in.

9. The Strokes – Last Nite – By now, I’d started consulting with papers in Denmark, Brazil and Ireland (as well as continuing to work for The Scotsman’s papers) when the idea of Business AM was first muted.

I was approached to look at designing the new paper and at this point took the opportunity to prise Terry Watson away from The Scotsman, where he was now head of content, on the digital side of the business.

Working on this new newspaper was an opportunity to show that a small-format paper in the UK (and the first Berliner) could be serious and informative while also being concise and contemporary.

We were responsible for the design as well as creating the title and the brand. It was a fun time, working with an energetic and creative group of people.

Terry and I then formed Palmer Watson and, since then, we’ve been working on re-designs and new launches all over the world – including world-renowned titles such as Le Monde and El Pais, as well as newspapers in The Netherlands, Ireland, India, Russia, Africa and all over Europe.

A number of our titles were awarded the coveted Worlds Best Designed Newspaper at SND, including The Herald and Politiken (Denmark).

I remember buying The Strokes album after a day working as a consultant at The Herald. I’d read a little about it but wasn’t really prepared for the thrill of listening to it when I got home that night.

10. Cavern of Anti-Matter – Black Glass Actions – As well as a rather unusual love for typography and design, I also enjoy a more conventional mail obsession with football and music.

So in 2009, we started an album review aggregator website called AnyDecentMusic, which has helped broaden my own musical tastes. We create a constantly-changing chart of the most critically-acclaimed new releases, based on the collective opinions of over 50 hand-picked sources from around the world.

Cavern of Anti-Matter, formed by the founder of Stereolab, are one of the bands I’d probably never come across if it wasn’t for ADM.