In this age of downloaded music, and the virtual disappearance of a tangible product to hold in your hands, are we witnessing the death of the extraordinary art form of album cover design?
Well, no. Thanks to the re-emergence of vinyl LPs among discerning segments of the buying public, and the tenacious survival of the compact disc as a viable format, cover art appears to be alive and well after all. For now.
In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, album cover art — be it arresting portrait photography, surreal landscape drawings, erotic paintings or highly stylized logos, to name a few — was an integral, vital component of each new album release. In some cases, the art was so striking that it became more important than the music on the album within.
Most observers pinpoint 1966 as the year when artists — specifically, The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan and a handful of others — saw the perfect opportunity to extend their creativity to a new canvas. They figured, hey, since we’re spending so much heart and soul creating and producing memorable music, why leave the visual presentation of the product to some record company marketing department hacks?
Album art very quickly became cultural touchstones, using images that reflected either the genre of the music, or the political climate of the time, or the avant-garde sensibilities of the artists and photographers the recording artists chose to create their album covers.
To be fair, the notion of using album covers to make an artistic statement didn’t begin with the great ’60s rock bands. The debut of the “long-playing” (LP) album in the early 1950s, which replaced the 78-rpm records of the ’30s and ’40s, offered a new canvas for the commercial display of images that might draw buyers’ attention and differentiate an album from the rest of the pack. Jazz artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were among the first to express a desire to put something more…interesting on their LP covers than the garish, cheesy sales appeals favored by profit-minded label executives.
In the rock music arena, though, covers tended to lean toward formulaic, slapdash artwork throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, because that’s what the record labels
wanted, and they had the control. Some were downright embarrassing, as they sought to capitalize on the lame lyrics or novelty aspect of the one hit single (witness Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp” or the cringeworthy “Last Kiss”). Then again, you could understand why Capitol Records chose to emblazon The Beach Boys’ 1962 album “Surfing Surfari” with a photo of the five guys awkwardly carrying one surfboard (never mind that only one member, Dennis Wilson, had ever surfed before).
You could make a case that the cover of The Beatles’ second album “With The Beatles” (“Meet The Beatles” in the US version) was artistically significant, with its unique display of the group in a three-faces-above-and-one-below arrangement. But it really wasn’t until the group had their way and insisted on the use of artist friend Klaus Voorman’s unusual pastiche for the “Revolver” cover that the mainstream audience started seeing bold artistic presentations on the covers of the albums they were buying.
And then there’s the groundbreaking “Sgt. Pepper” cover in 1967. Manager Brian Epstein freaked out when he saw what The Beatles were proposing — the faces of nearly 60 different individuals from past and present, whose approval he would have to seek in order to include them in the mix. The only one who objected was ’30s/’40s sex siren Mae West, who wondered, “Why would someone like me want to be in a lonely hearts club?” Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that only four people on that cover are still alive today, and two of them are Beatles… And how cool of the band to turn right around on their next record and offer the most minimalist art conceivable: A plain white cover for “The Beatles” (AKA “The White Album”).
At that point, album cover art exploded, with fabulous and disastrous results. It was banana-bizarre (“The Velvet Underground and Nico” and the Mothers of Invention’s “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”). It was animated fun (Janis Joplin’s “Cheap Thrills”). It was psychedelic (Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love” and Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”). It was mildly disturbing (King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” and Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica”). It was simple portraiture (the front porch snapshot for “Crosby Stills & Nash” and the dime-store machine photo for “Songs of Leonard Cohen”). It was understated (Joni Mitchell’s delicate line art for “Ladies of the Canyon” and Carole King’s domestic serenity for “Tapestry”). It was retro (Pure Prairie League’s use of Norman Rockwell artwork and The Grateful Dead’s faded Americana photo on “Workingman’s Dead”). It was just plain silly (the garish carnival claim of “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” and The Mamas and The Papas wedging themselves into a bathtub for “If Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears”)
Artists chose famous photographers to capture their images in just the right way (Richard Avedon’s portrait of Simon and Garfunkel on “Bookends” comes immediately to mind). Eric Clapton selected a painting by Frandsen de Schomberg, which he felt resembled Pattie Boyd Harrison, his heartbreaking muse for the Derek and the Dominos classic “Layla” LP. The cover painting of the shabby beggarman for Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” cover was expressly commissioned (although leader Ian Anderson said he would’ve preferred the photograph of a homeless man his wife had taken months earlier).
If the covers of record albums are designed to be attention-getting, then perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of all is The Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic, “Sticky Fingers.” It features a closeup of a male crotch, clad in tight jeans with a noticeable package and, on the original vinyl LP release, an actual working zipper. And that’s not all; the belt buckle had perforations that allowed buyers to peel back the jeans and reveal a sub-cover featuring a pair of “tighty whities” and the gold-embossed name of ’60s art icon Andy Warhol, who came up with the cover concept.
Some of the groundbreaking artwork on albums of the ’70s remains lasting and important four decades later. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” gatefold with saxophonist Clarence Clemons may be THE quintessential rock pose of that decade; David Bowie’s lightning-strike image on “Aladdin Sane” is still adorning t-shirts today; the erotic come-hither appeal of Carly Simon’s “Playing Possum” probably still rankles ex-husband James Taylor when he sees it; Peter Gabriel’s otherworldly “Face Melt” evokes Twilight Zone-ish moods; Traffic’s hexagonic die-cut “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” broke the mold on album cover dimensions; the shocking/erotic photo of half-naked ladies on Roxy Music’s “Country Life” was banned in many states and countries; the pop-up defaced schoolroom desk of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” took album covers from two to three dimensions.
Perhaps the most prolific album art purveyor was a hip London outfit known as Hipgnosis, responsible for the design and execution of many dozens of memorable covers of the period, none more notable than the prism/spectrum depicted on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” The Hipgnosis designers also handled cover art for every other Pink Floyd cover, plus major releases by Led Zeppelin, The Police, ELO, Genesis, Alan Parsons Project, Yes, Al Stewart and Renaissance.
Homage must also be paid to the great Roger Dean, who created some of the most fantastical visual landscapes for his album cover art for Yes and a few other bands. And H.R. Giger’s work for Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery” broke new ground and must be singled out.
Some bands defied the “anti-corporate” ideal by creating logos that made the bands into brands. Every single album by Chicago has the “Chicago” logo proudly displayed. Most Stones albums contain the “lips and tongue” logo — if not on the cover, then elsewhere in the packaging.
Art imitated art (as it always has) in 1980, when the rebellious British band The Clash chose to emulate Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut LP cover design when it used the same typeface and layout on its “London Calling” album. Some fans barely noticed, but artists took note, for sure.
So why has album art been such a big deal? Part of it has been the visceral thrill of tearing off the shrink wrap of a new album and soaking in the visual at the same time you listened to the aural. It was like opening a big picture book and following along as the musical story unfolded. A lot of this had to do with the inclusion of song lyrics, which had never occurred to anyone, apparently, until they showed up on the rear side of the “Sgt.Pepper” LP.
In the 1980s, even as the 12″x 12″ canvas of album covers gave way to the decidedly inferior 6″x 6″ format of CD covers, notable album art design continued to flourish. Bands like Duran Duran, Debbie Harry, The Eurythmics, Culture Club and The Cars used the bold, stark lines of ’80s advertising styles and Alberto Vargas pin-up girls, which seamlessly tied the sounds of the New-Wavish music to the dynamic, chic visuals that dominated the worlds of fashion and style at that time.
Madonna ruled the airwaves in the ’80s, and her acute fashion sense was hugely evident in the way she used her album covers to promote her too-cool persona, especially on LPs like “True Blue” and “Like a Virgin.” The same held true for fun-loving Cyndi Lauper, whose 1985 chart-topper “She’s So Unusual” and its anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” set the standard for young women’s devil-may-care fashion for most of the decade.
Heavy metal bands certainly didn’t neglect the chance to showcase their in-your-face stance and vaguely threatening personas. Album covers like Ozzy Osbourne’s “No Rest for the Wicked” and Ted Nugent’s “Scream Dream” reached out and throttled consumers as they walked down the aisle at Tower Records.
Even though no one was releasing vinyl albums by then, Nirvana and other leading ’90s bands still chose to take advantage of the artistic palette available in “album” cover art (even though it was on the significantly smaller CD booklet dimension). There may be very few artistic images of the 1990s more indelible than the floating baby and the dollar bill on the fishing line that comprise the “Nevermind” cover art.
There have been SO MANY great album covers displaying fantastic works of art over the years. Trying to list the best of them is a fool’s errand. It’s like trying to list the proverbial “Best 50 Albums of All Time.” Very subjective, and very limiting. It would be easier to list the best photo album covers, the best art covers, the best illustration covers, and so on.
But here’s the thing: It’s safe to say that clicking a few buttons on your laptop and glancing at digital images passing by on your computer screen is nowhere near as satisfying as holding an album-sized image in your hands. It’s almost like the difference between driving a car and looking at a picture of one.
It’s good to know that the latest generation of music lovers are plunking down the money to buy turntables and relatively pricey vinyl versions of the latest releases. Not only are they rewarded with better sounding recordings of the songs they want, they’re once again getting full-size art, presented in the way the artists originally intended.
Some of us, in fact, are so crazy about great album covers that we FRAME them and mount them on our walls.
This is a GREAT thing, people. Embrace it!