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Beautiful Music: The Art of Album Covers

Posted 11.05.16  - Culture

The recent revelation that nearly half of vinyl customers don't actually play the albums they buy - but use the sleeves as some sort of decoration - caused a few raised eyebrows in the press. But back in its heyday, the record cover functioned as both a conduit to a musician's artistic intent and a way of conveying the buyer's taste to the wider world. Remember, Keith Richards first clocked Mick Jagger at Dartford railway station because he was carrying a couple of cool blues albums. Try that with your iPhone.

The godfather of album design was Alex Steinweiss, who in 1939 started decorating records (mostly classical) with bold fonts and colours. In the 1950s and 60s, photographer Francis Wolff and designer Reid Miles at jazz label Blue Note built on Steinweiss's example to create such a strikingly individual iconography, it is still used today to evoke a certain smoky, late-night cool.

In the pop market, it was The Beatles and, a heartbeat behind, The Rolling Stones that revolutionised the album cover image. (It's no coincidence that Turnbull & Asser has chosen to celebrate both these two bands in cloth - although the company has a long history with musicians of every stripe.) If the peeking-over-the-balcony cover of Please Please Me was rather prosaic, then its follow-up, With The Beatles, suggested higher artistic aspirations. Robert Freeman's moody, black-and-white shot of the Fab Four in half-light was, like the music within, a bold step forward from that rather guileless first record.

The Rolling Stones wisely skipped stage one and went straight for dark, mysterious and possibly dangerous with the group portrait on their debut, an eponymous disc that didn't even have the band's name on the cover - the sort of playful arrogance that was manager Andrew Loog Oldham's trademark.

The subsequent impact of the ‘Summer of Love’ on covers should not be underestimated. Eric Clapton's supergroup Cream's first, Fresh Cream, features a rather dull picture of Clapton, Bruce and Baker - but next came Disraeli Gears, an acid-orange cornucopia of retina-searing images by Australian Martin Sharp, who went on to do the group's equally eye-bothering Wheels of Fire.

And, of course, that psychedelic era also gave us Peter Blake's Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band design, possibly the most iconic album cover of all, which, this being The Beatles, broke all barriers - the range of characters pictured on the front, from Mae West to Karlheinz Stockhausen, reflected the scope of styles within, demonstrating influences from pop to vaudeville, avant-garde to Indian classical.

By then, the album cover was firmly established as a means to convey what the purchaser could expect to hear inside - invaluable in the days before the ability to preview tracks on iTunes or Spotify. Hence the bright, surreal photos by the Hipgnosis design group for Pink Floyd - although it also did the Dark Side of the Moon prism - and the complex sci-fi landscapes Roger Dean created for Yes. The working zip on the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers (a Warhol concept) and the giant Zippo lighter that flipped open to reveal Bob Marley's Catch a Fire (which, sadly, lasted about three openings before it broke) gave notice of the musicians' primary fixations. Roxy Music's run of impossibly glamorous pin-ups suggested the often louche stylings of Bryan Ferry, and the rotating wheel or volvelle of obscure symbols on Led Zeppelin's III perfectly captured the band's move from the blues to the occult and the Celtic.

David Bowie's gender-busting run of covers - The Man Who Sold The World, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane - told browsers this was no conventional pop star, just as Andy Warhol's banana for the Velvet Underground & Nico suggested this was no ordinary rock band. Covers didn't have to be gimmicky to have a lasting impact - think of Robert Mapplethorpe's shot of Patti Smith on Horses or Peter Saville's minimal and austere work for Factory Records, which included covers for Joy Division, The Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio. But it couldn't last. By the early 1980s, a nasty little upstart was on the way - the compact disc.

The 14cm x 12cm CD case couldn't compete in terms of visual impact, and it seemed the golden age of album art was over (although acts such as Radiohead, Blur, Arctic Monkeys and Kanye West soldiered on regardless with quality images). But recently, with the resurrection of vinyl, artists such as The Pet Shop Boys, New Order and Elton John have started thinking big again. We might be in for an Indian summer of gatefolds. Even if the albums within don't always come out to play.

Lynne Sutherland / Alamy Stock Photo

Rob Ryan - Journalist and author of several historical novels

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