Can you judge an album by its cover?

If you were an album buyer in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I’d be willing to bet there were times you bought, or were very tempted to buy, a new record based almost solely on the captivating cover art.

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I remember doing so in April of 1969 when, armed with some money from my 14th birthday, I riffled through the “underground rock” bin at a traditional record store near my home in Cleveland and first laid eyes on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s debut, released a couple months earlier. At that point, I hadn’t even heard of the group, and I hadn’t heard a note of the music yet. But for some reason, I was spellbound by the cover art depicting the famous explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin.

Compared to other album covers of that era, it wasn’t all that extraordinary — not shocking, not surreal, not erotic. But I was nevertheless entranced and felt compelled to buy it. It could’ve easily been a dud of a record, but as we all know now, it was a sonic boom, the opening salvo of a new genre that combined heavy blues with vocal histrionics, quicksilver guitar and sledgehammer drumming.

In recent years, when downloadable files became the dominant form of how consumers purchased their music, many of us bemoaned the disappearance of a tangible product to hold in our hands. Thankfully, vinyl LPs have made a big comeback in recent years, and one reason that’s good news is the perpetuation of the extraordinary art form of album cover design.

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 release.  In some cases, the art was so striking that it became as important as 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 many 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-bolt image on “Aladdin Sane” is still adorning t-shirts today;  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 most artists weren’t 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.

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Some of us, in fact, are so crazy about great album covers that we FRAME them and mount them on our walls, as I did several years ago in my Santa Monica home office…

Born under a bad sign

“Capricorn, Scorpio, /Taurus, Gemini, Virgo, Cancer, /Pisces, Leo, Libra, Aries, /Aquarius, Sagittarius… /No matter what sign you are, /You’re gonna be mine, /Can’t let astrology chart our destiny…”

These lyrics to a 1969 tune by Diana Ross and The Supremes called “No Matter What Sign You Are” reinforce my basic viewpoint about astrology: It’s interesting to contemplate, but it isn’t science.

My natural skepticism has kept my interest in astrology at arm’s length since I first encountered it as a teen. Initially, I was fascinated by the notion that everybody born in the same 30-day period — say, mid-March to mid-April, like I was — essentially share the same personality traits, strengths and weaknesses. Eventually, I found it all just too far-fetched, too generalized. The belief that there are only a dozen different types of personalities for billions of people just doesn’t make sense to me.

Historically, astrology claimed the ability to predict human behavior and earthly events based on the position of celestial objects during a given calendar year. By the 19th Century, researchers exposed it as pseudoscience with no scientific validity. Still, there are areas of the world today where astrology is enthusiastically embraced, including the U.S., where thousands of books have been published on the subject.

Among those who do so are the world’s artists — poets, painters, novelists, musicians. Astrology has inspired so much literature, fine art, and music, and I figured I’d find plenty of examples of popular songs about astrological signs in the annals of classic rock of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Curiously, this was not the case. I had to broaden my search to include material from more recent decades and from other musical genres just to find enough suitable tracks to represent each of the 12 signs of the zodiac for the Spotify playlist that you’ll find at the end of this blog entry.

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“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” The 5th Dimension, 1969

Any discussion of songs about the zodiac signs pretty much has to begin with this enormous hit that dominated the airwaves in the spring of 1969. The two songs that form the medley were written in 1967 for the groundbreaking Broadway play “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” which made daring observations about the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the Sixties. A key message was based on the notion that the universe was about to enter the next astrological age — the age of Aquarius, marked by group consciousness and humanitarianism: “When the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, /Then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars, /This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius…” Upon seeing the show, Billy Davis of The 5th Dimension insisted that the band should record “Aquarius,” but producer Bones Howe felt it was only a song fragment and got the idea to create a medley with a few bars from another song in the show (“The Flesh Failures”) that repeated the words “let the sunshine in.” Although the two song fragments are in different keys and tempos, Howe “jammed them together like two trains,” and the result was a dramatic track that sat at #1 on US pop charts for six weeks.

“Scorpios,” Adam and The Ants, 1981

Stuart Goddard, known professionally as Adam Ant, had a very successful run on the British pop charts between 1980-1983, earning 10 Top Ten hit singles both as lead singer of the New Wave band Adam and The Ants and as a solo artist. In the US, his chart appearances were far more limited, reaching the Top 20 just twice, in 1982 and 1990. Goddard, born in early November as a Scorpio, had been a hot-tempered child who twice threw bricks through his teacher’s office window, but another teacher helped him channel his anger into creative expression. After seeing the Sex Pistols in 1975, he said, “I wanted to do something different, be someone else. I decided I wanted to be Adam, because he was the first man, and I chose Ant because, if there’s a nuclear explosion, the ants will survive.” There’s a deep track on the 1981 “Prince Charming” album called “Scorpios,” which reflects on the aggressive nature of the scorpion: “Listen here from one who knows, be fearless just like the Scorpios, /Pretty, look young, be fearless like the scorpion…”

“Goodbye Pisces,” Tori Amos, 2005

Amos was something of a child prodigy, earning a scholarship to the music conservatory at Johns Hopkins University at a young age. Her piano and vocal skills were unquestioned but her rebelliousness didn’t sit well with authorities, and she struck out on her own as a solo artist in the 1990s, scoring multiple Top Ten albums including “Boys For Pele,” “From the Choirgirl Hotel,” “Strange Little Girls” and “Scarlet’s Walk.” Her 2005 LP “The Beekeeper,” a double concept album that focused on the themes of femininity and female empowerment, included a poignant breakup tune called “Goodbye Pisces,” in which she says farewell to a man who used to offer tender-loving care but has grown cold and insensitive: “In your boys life, you become like a bull in a china shop, /Smash it up into smithereens, /There you go again, breaking porcelain, /Is that all I am, just a doll you got used to? /We’ve done this before, /As Mars sauntered through his door, /Don’t say it’s time to say goodbye to Pisces…”

“Son of Sagittarius,” Eddie Kendricks, 1974

In 1960, Kendricks teamed up with Paul Williams, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams to become a vocal group first known as The Primes, and then The Temptations. Kendricks was the group’s first tenor but often sang in falsetto, carrying the high melody on many of their hits, including “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and “Just My Imagination.” He found himself at odds with the band and its managers by 1971 and decided to strike out on his own, eventually enjoying a #1 solo hit with 1973’s “Keep On Truckin’.” The title song of his second solo LP “Boogie Down” reached #2 in 1974, and a second single from that album, “Son of Sagittarius,” reached #28 on pop charts. Kendricks and his father were both born under the Sagittarius sign (mid-November to mid-December), hence the lyrics: “People, I am the fire, number nine Zodiac sign, /Jupiter brings me the power, Saturn brings me peace of mind, /I must be clear there’s no use in trying to change me, in Lady Luck I put my trust, /I’m the one, I’m the one, I’m the son of a Sagittarius…”

“Aries,” Freddie Hubbard, 1964

Hubbard was a master of jazz trumpet, specializing in bebop, hard bop and post-bebop, broadening the perspectives of modern jazz from the early 1960s well into the 1990s. Even in his 20s, he performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner and Quincy Jones. He released more than 60 albums on Blue Note and other labels, almost exclusively instrumental explorations, and participated as a sideman on upwards of 120 other LPs by a broad range of jazz artists. On his 1964 release “The Body & The Soul,” there’s a concise little track called “Aries,” titled, I assume, because Hubbard was an Aries himself, born in early April.

“Gift From Virgo,” BeyoncĂ©, 2003

The superstar pop icon whose unparalleled success earned her the nickname Queen Bey got her start as a member of the R&B female vocal group Destiny’s Child in the 1990s, and then went on to score seven consecutive Number One albums as a solo artist. Her first, “Dangerously in Love,” came in 2003 and included the international hits “Crazy in Love,” “Baby Boy,” “Me, Myself and I” and “Naughty Boy.” Born in early September, BeyoncĂ© is a Virgo, who tend to be detail-oriented perfectionists but with a practical and logical side, which might explain why her music has been meticulous and well thought out. In her song “Gift From Virgo” from that same album, the lyrics touch on the innocence of first love, and they hint that the narrator’s virginity might be the gift in question: “Do you remember our first kiss? It wasn’t long enough, /Remember the first time we spent those weeks together? They were not long enough, /One day we’ll make love, finally I’ll be yours, /Only you, only you, I could love you, /But it’s too late, I already love you…”

“Taurus,” Spirit, 1969

One of the better rock bands to come out of Los Angeles in the late ’60s, Spirit was underrated, although they had modest success with a few singles (“Fresh Garbage,” “I Got a Line on You,” “Mr. Skin,” “Nature’s Way”) and albums (“The Family That Plays Together” and “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”). They had a strong cult following in California especially, touring often during their initial five years of existence. Singer Jay Ferguson wrote the bulk of their repertoire, although guitarist Randy Wolfe (who went by Randy California) also composed a few tracks. One that later generated considerable controversy was a short instrumental piece entitled “Taurus.” Since it has no lyrics, it’s hard to gauge the relevance of its title, except that it’s a quiet, reflective track, in keeping with the preference of Taurus folks for “serene environments, soft sounds, soothing aromas and succulent flavors.” It offers a prominent guitar passage that later bore a striking resemblance to the introductory section of Led Zeppelin’s 1971 tour de force, “Stairway to Heaven.” Wolfe’s estate ended up filing a copyright infringement lawsuit in 2014 which proved unsuccessful, but it brought attention to both the band and that particular tune.

“Cancer,” Joe Jackson, 1982

A product of the post-punk New Wave movement in London in the late ’70s, Jackson established a reputation as an “angry young man” with biting, sarcastic lyrics and a sneering vocal delivery. By 1982, he showed a remarkably sophisticated musical approach on his brilliant 1982 LP “Night and Day,” a cycle of songs inspired by his first lengthy visit to New York City. The sprightly arrangement of “Steppin’ Out” and tender melody of “Breaking Us in Two” put him on the US pop charts that year, but just as compelling were deeper piano-driven tracks like “Target” and “Cancer.” The latter was Jackson’s commentary on the fitness craze of the ’80s, and how, no matter how much we tried to take better care of ourselves, “Everything that’s enjoyable is bad for your health. It seems like everything gives you cancer.” Again, this is all about the incurable disease, not the astrological sign, which includes such personality traits as keen emotional intelligence, an almost supernatural sensitivity, and the ability to compassionately meet the needs of others.

“Leo,” Grace Kinstler, 2023

Kinstler is a phenomenal 21-year-old singer from Chicago who moved to Los Angeles and gained fame as a finalist on the 2021 season of the “American Idol” TV talent program. She performed in the Rose Bowl Parade in January 2023, introducing her new single “Leo” at the event. The artist and her music are so new that there’s little information about this song that I could find, but I was intrigued by it when I came across it on Spotify. Is Leo the guy’s name, the astrological sign, or maybe both? Leos are confident, drama-loving, fiercely protective and comfortable with being the center of attention. You decide: “Shuffling down memory lane, doesn’t feel quite the same without you, how can my mind get away when he smiles on my face, I miss you, heading way down, I’m missing all your signs, when I see you around, got me feeling so inspired, so many words, I don’t know what to write, but you know I’m gonna try… I’ll do it over and over again, I’ll be a Leo…”

“Gemini Dream,” The Moody Blues, 1981

Guitarist Justin Hayward and bassist John Lodge, who had individually written many of the songs in The Moody Blues catalog, collaborated for the first time on this engaging rocker from the group’s strong 1981 LP, “Long Distance Voyager.” Lodge wrote about the band getting back on tour and in the studio after several years while Hayward came up with verses referring to two people sharing the same dream, and they combined the two lyrical topics into one melodic structure which ended up reaching #12 on US pop charts. Is it coincidental that the two musicians worked together on a song with twin topics and be titled “Gemini Dream”? Perhaps not. Like the astrological sign, the song has two sides — an intelligent pursuit of creative ideas but with a short attention span driven by restlessness: “Long time, no see, short time for you and me, /So fine, so good, we’re on the road like you knew we would… There’s a place, a Gemini dream, /There’s no escaping from the love we have seen, /So come with me, turn night to day, /You know you’re gonna wake up in a Gemini dream…”

“Libra,” Max Roach, 1968

Roach was another major player in the modern jazz arena as a drummer and occasional composer, who worked with the likes of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk. From his debut LP in 1953 into the 1990s, Roach put together an enviable catalog of vintage jazz recordings including several as the Max Roach Quartet. One of his favorite sidemen was noted saxophonist Gary Bartz, who wrote the busy instrumental track “Libra” for the 1968 LP “Members, Don’t Git Weary”on Atlantic. Again, I must presume Bartz used the title because he was a Libra, born in late September…

“Jesus Was a Capricorn,” Kris Kristofferson, 1972

“Honest, loyal, sensitive and confident” are four of the dominant personality traits of those born in the sign of Capricorn (Dec 21-Jan. 19), which includes Christmas, the supposed birthdate of Jesus. Kristofferson wrote “Jesus Was a Capricorn” as a tribute of sorts to John Prine, whose songwriting he greatly admired, with lyrics that were at once whimsical and irreverent: “Jesus was a Capricorn, he ate organic food, /He believed in love and peace, and never wore no shoes, /Long hair, beard and sandals, and a funky bunch of friends, /Reckon we’d just nail him up if he came down again…” Kristofferson had bristled at some of the criticism written about his earlier work, which sparked the line in the chorus, “Everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on… /If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me…” It became the title song to his third LP in 1972. The album didn’t do well at first but, a year later, it reached #1 on country charts on the strength of its third single, “Why Me.”

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