Marcus Keef is responsible for some of the most iconic and enigmatic album cover sleeves of the late 1960s and early 1970s, easily on the same level (if not better in some instances) than the highly esteemed Hipgnosis. So just who was he and what happened to him? Unlike Hipgnosis who continued designing sleeves up to the present day, why did Keef seemingly disappear altogether from the scene?
His work rarely featured the album artiste(s) and was often an obscure reference to an album track, or even a completely random, yet striking concept that (to outsiders at least) bore no reference to the album, artist or song titles at all! Particularly renowned for so called ‘false colour’ photography, his sleeves often depicted pink foliage instead of green, creating a surreal landscape.
Marcus Keef is a pseudonym. His real name is Keith Stuart MacMillan (b. 1947). He changed his professional name to ‘Marcus Keef’ to avoid any clash or confusion with the slightly older and established photographer Keith Lionel McMillan (b. 16 April 1934, d. 22 March 2012, aged 77). The older McMillan (pictured here) shot for Vogue, Radio Times, Harpers & Queen, Time Out, The Sunday Times and became the first official photographer for Campaign magazine when it launched in 1968.
The younger MacMillan obviously decided that a pseudonym would avoid any potential work issues and ‘Keef’ is an obvious take on the Rolling Stones Keith ‘Keef’ Richards, whilst the ‘Marcus’ aspect is of unknown origin. He seems to have started his career around 1968, working predominantly with Vertigo, RCA (Neon) and CBS labels.
Here’s his known works so far – please let me know if anyone finds more:
His album design work seems to stop around 1974/1975 (although my collection of his work seems to fade out by around 1972). And by then he seems to have lost interest, according to an interview he gave in 1979 during filming for a Kate Bush promo video (for the song “Wow”), TV and video production held a new interest for him after having apparently designed over 1,000 album covers for record companies…1,000?! I wonder whether this is a flippant exaggeration. Here’s the quote:
“I started in the business as a photographer and sleeve designer. About 1968 I started, I used to photo and design album sleeve covers and I did that for seven or eight years. I got a bit fed up doing that because I’d done basically over a thousand by then and I was just basically a little bored with it. And [I] really thought that the up and coming thing was film and specifically video tape for the music business.”
If it’s true, he was extremely prolific and would have been producing a new album design every 2-3 days non-stop for 7 years if he started in 1968/69…
He seems to have hit it off with Kate Bush as his earliest video work was the video for the No.1 single ‘Wuthering Heights’ in January 1978. According to the same interview, he started producing videos in 1977 and those first 2 years he’s made nearly 3 hundred…
“Well I started making video promotional films two years ago and up ’til now I think we’re nearing our three-hundredth production. I do seem to work very hard at the moment, I’ve been doing two or three a week. The problem is, as you’ve probably gathered, is keeping the ideas coming.”
He also states how quick the turnaround time is for these productions:
“I tend to shoot video tape rather then film, for a number of reasons. The “Wuthering Heights” clip that you saw, we set it up on a monday morning, we shot it in the afternoon, we edited all night, and it was ready for Top Of The Pops the next morning. Well, if you’d done that on film, I think it would’ve taken about six months of opticals in the lab to get to that stage. On video tape we can act very fast, the record companies like that because if a record breaks in the charts they phone me up and say, “Keef, we’re sending a motorcycle over with this record, can you do it tomorrow?” If I’m free, I say yes. I listen to the music overnight, we set the production up overnight, we do it, we shoot it, we edit it. In twenty-four hours you can have a complete finished production. “
Keith ‘Keef’ MacMillan’s video productions include Blondie, Queen, Abba, Pat Benatar, Paul McCartney, Blancmange, The Who…and Barry Manilow…!
In the mid 1980’s Keef decided to go into television and created The Chart Show which ran very successfully (initially on Channel 4 and then ITV) for 12 years. MacMillan then launched his own digital TV channel, Chart Show TV. He is the Chairman of CSC (Chart Show Channel) Media Group Limited and a director of several associated companies, all in the TV and video production industry.
This is the only photo I can find of him, taken in 2006 for an article on broadcastnow.co.uk