#430: Album Art – Where can it go?

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RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#430: Album Art – Where can it go?

How important is album artwork today?  Still important, I’d argue, though not as much as it was in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  You can tell that artwork is still important, because every major artist produces “cover art” any time they release a single, even if there is no physical product for it to be applied to.  Artists will commission art or pose for expensive new pictures to accompany the new music.

Columbia Records kicked off the era of album artwork in 1938, a full decade before the birth of the LP.  Columbia’s art director Alex Steinweiss is generally credited with the introduction of packaging art.  Before him, 78’s used to come in plain sleeves with very little printing on them.  Some sleeves would have large holes in the middle, through which you could read the label on the record.  After the dawn of the LP, the rest of the record manufacturers in the world had caught up and were using artwork on their LPs in the 1950’s.  The standard size was 12 – 3/8”.

When you think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band today, you inevitably picture that incredible album artwork as well as the songs.  That cover, with its 57 different distinct figures pictured, became a high water mark.  They also included cardboard cutouts inside, a gimmick that Kiss were eager to copy and make their own.  Sgt. Pepper’s artwork cost 60 times more to create than the average album cover in 1967!  It took a band with the success of the Beatles to push the limits in this way.

The Rolling Stones included postcards in their Exile on Main Street (another unforgettable album cover), but they also brought album artwork into three dimensions.  Sticky Fingers featured a working metal zipper, with which you could open the jeans on the front cover, to reveal briefs inside.  It was a level of interactivity previously unseen.  The zipper tended to cause damage to the records and packaging in shipment, but pioneering is a process of trial and error!

Early 90's CD reissue of Sticky Fingers with zipper

Early 90’s CD reissue of Sticky Fingers with zipper

Perhaps Led Zeppelin took LP artwork to its end point, with 1979’s In Through the Out Door.  The record was concealed in a sealed, stamped paper bag that looked like a cheap bootleg, but inside would be one of six different album covers.  You would not know which you got until you tore it open.  The Grammy award winning packaging also included an inner sleeve that one could paint on, just by adding water!  If you wet a paintbrush (or anything, for that matter), you could dissolve paint embedded in it and colour it yourself.  Finding an original unpainted inner sleeve is the goal of a true collector.

Historically speaking, album artwork like this had several purposes.  The first and most obvious would be to identify the product inside (something Led Zeppelin messed with by not including their name on Led Zeppelin IV).  The second purpose was to attract the eye, in the crowded shelves of the record store.  It was noted by many that a brown cover just melted into the background.  Something striking would jump out, and be hard to miss in the racks.  Another job of the cover art was to tie together all the related marketing for the LP.  The artwork could appear in magazine ads, posters, and later on, in music videos.

The purpose of cover art that Kiss embraced was to give value for the money.  Not only did you get killer artwork with loud rock and roll inside, but you also got a cardboard Love Gun, or even masks you could cut out and wear.  Fans drooled over these extras.  For a while, any time Kiss put out an album, you knew that the packaging would be special.  For albums such as Destroyer and The Elder, they even used gatefold sleeves – an added, unnecessary expense for single LP packages.

Album artwork suffered in the 80’s and 90’s.  With cassettes and ultimately CDs replacing the 12.375” width of an album cover, the pictures were smaller and less striking.  You could not pack as much information onto a 4.75” CD sleeve.  Iron Maiden’s artist Derek Riggs was known for hiding secret messages and logos in his album covers, including a mischievous “Indiana Jones was here” and “Wot, no Guinness?” inside Powerslave.  These touches are lost on smaller CD covers.

There is no question that the majority of cover art suffered in the 90’s.  Some bands and labels still strove to give the buyer some extra value, but the canvas was now teeny tiny.  Tool are an example of a band who took advantage of the CD age.  Their AEnema CD had lenticular, “moving” cover art, thanks to a special jewel case that enabled 3D images.  You could even swap images by folding the booklet differently, and get a different moving scene.  Kiss copied this, less successfully, for Psycho-Circus in 1998.  Coloured plastic jewel cases were another way to get some attention on the CD racks.  Bands such as Alice in Chains and Collective Soul used coloured jewel cases for their self-titled albums in 1995, but these were fragile and prone to scratching.  The cardboard digipack was another method to enhance CD cover art, but they were not popular with everyone.  Some consumers complained that the covers wouldn’t fit properly into their CD towers, and would scratch up the discs if poorly designed.  And then of course, we had artists such as Garth Brooks who decided to milk the fans by releasing the same album with different cover art, encouraging them to “collect them all!”  His Double Live had no less than seven covers to collect.  That would come to well over $150 total for the collector who had to have each one.

LPs are currently having a second surge of popularity.  Will it last?  No.  Before you cry “heresy!”, remember that in today’s society, convenience is king.  That means portability.  Vinyl LPs are meant to be enjoyed at home.  The future will remain digital, although LPs will probably never die completely.  The advent of digital music has reduced the importance of cover art yet again.  You don’t need a cover, obviously, to enclose something that does not physically exist.  Yet, cover art is still being made.

Some have chosen to take cover art in the digital age to minimalist extremes.  U2’s Songs of Innocence was initially released digitally, with a very plain photo of a white LP sleeve with “U2” stamped on it.  Kanye West embraced minimalism on Yeesus, releasing the CD with no packaging to speak of at all.  A CD housed in a clear jewel case, sealed by a strip of orange tape, and a sticker with some credits – that’s all Yeesus gave us, surprising many by not going completely over the top with it.  It’s still an artistic statement, but is it the kind of art that a fan will embrace and cherish?

I feel that album artwork is currently in a state of flux.  LPs are having their moment again, and with them, lavish packaging that one can handle and enjoy.  On the other hand, simple digital pictures are all kids need today, to be attached to their mp3 files.  I hope that some enterprising, artistic individual, a modern day Alex Steinweiss, will innovate and bring back cover art in a lasting way.  I sure hope, because I do like cover artwork to accompany my music.

YEESUS

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38 comments

  1. Very well written! My favourite album artwork artists are Hipgnosis and Roger Dean. Jim FitzPatrick made some album covers for Thin Lizzy and I was looking at some of his Celtic artwork, it’s incredible!

    An iconic album cover is always a plus!

    Like

  2. I want to cover entire walls in original album cover art! I read somewhere that this Stones’ cover was created by Andy Warhol. It was later redesigned, probably for the reasons you mention.
    Fantastic post, Mike! We need more awesome album cover art :).

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yup, Warhol was involved partially with Sticky Fingers.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sticky_Fingers#Artwork

        Exile was something else (also from Wiki):

        Exile on Main St featured a gatefold cover and included a series of 12 perforated postcards with a sequence of images inserts, all of which were shot by photographer Norman Seeff. The back cover features various photos of the Stones; the “mystery woman” pictured in the lower left side is Chris O’Dell, their personal assistant. The album photography and concept was by Robert Frank and includes images from his seminal 1958 book The Americans. The “Joe Allen” pictured in the collage is of a postcard-style advertisement by Frank of the contortionist, Joe Allen, billed as “The Human Corkscrew” for his ability to wiggle and twist through the “13 1/2 inch hoop” approximately 25,000 times during his circus career, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 8 May 1950.[27] The man with the three balls (a tennis ball, a golf ball, and a “5” billiard ball) in his mouth is formally known as “Three Ball Charlie”, a 1930’s sideshow performer from Humboldt, Nebraska who could also not only balance on several balls at once, but could also juggle balls, and whistle, all while performing all 4 tasks simultaneously, according to Ripley’s.[28]

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Good read.

    Love cover art and yes that’s mostly old-school nostalgic value speaking, but man good cover art and packaging just enhances the listening experience and can often add greater enjoyment. Not always but sometimes simple but effective cover art can capture what the is about to receive. And while yes the CD era brought about a change there was still some great covers. I mean take one look at Sonic Temple for example and you know what you’re in for right? Stadium based kick-ass rock n’ roll that’s what! :)

    Just sayin ;)

    Cool post Mike!

    Like

    1. Thanks Wardy! Yeah I loooooved the cover art on Sonic Temple. Ian had such awesome hair back then, but how cool did Duffy look standing there? How long did I stand in front of mirrors with my guitar trying to get that exact pose? Never got it, you know.

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  4. Since getting into vinyl and collecting records, I’ve come to appreciate artwork again. I can see how, when presented on a larger scale (as in this case on an LP), artwork can be great.

    I’m not a massive Beatles fan, but I do love ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.’

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mike, this article confirmed two things: you have excellent and diverse taste, and you should be writing professionally. Your reviews are 10x better than most anything else out there–and commentaries like this are gold. Thanks, Mike!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really nice piece. Although you missed out the all-time best ever LP cover art Black Sabbath: Born Again …

    Good LP art is how I feel bands/labels can give back to their fans, those of us who still splash out for their wares. Certain smaller labels like Southern Lord, Relapse or Thrill Jockey always give you thoughtful, worthwhile art. Maybe there’s a correlation there between niche arty bands operating on niche arty labels, which contrasts heavily against the bigger boys trying to make maximum bucks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Born Again: the cover so bad that Gillan claims he vomited when he saw it!

      I think a lot of those niche arty bands as you put it appreciate album art as fans and artists more than, say, Poison do. A lot of them might sideline taking photos and use a lot of their original work. Some artists are really good at finding art out there in the cosmos, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great piece, Mike. I’m a sucker for cover art – can be the difference between buying something on vinyl or just getting a CD that I can listen to, rip, and then throw in the rack. It’s also how I tend to choose what to listen to a lot of the time … a cover I can look at for as long as the run-time. Perhaps a series of posts about our favourite album covers would be worthwhile? I could get behind that …

    But aye – really enjoyed this … a great piece of writing.

    Like

  8. This is an EXCELLENT piece! Way to go Mike, I wish I had more Likes to give.

    My lovely wife and I had this conversation a few months ago. When I buy a new CD, I immediately go for the disc so I can plug it in and get the tunes rolling. She immediately snaps up the packaging first, so she can check out the art. And sure, I eventually come back to the artwork (after she’s done with it) but it isn’t my main goal. And it is very rare that I find any new CDs that have artwork that blows me away.* Only old records do that, anymore.

    I can’t wait for LPs to be passé again. The people will ditch their collections in the used shoppes and the rest of us can go back to the way things used to be! But LP artwork was always where it was at. Staring at the cover and poring over every detail while the album spins behind you. It’s equivalent to reading every word (even the French!) on a cereal box over a week of mornings as a kid. Absorption!

    You make an excellent point about the future of artwork. What will it be? Just a tiny .jpg to attach to an .mp3? Or will there be a renaissance and artwork at the fore again in some different way? I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

    * the hardcover of the new Maiden set being an exception, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Love this Mike! – you could do a entire blog on this subject and waste many, many years in delightful commentary…..I think my favorite all time is Roxy Music Avalon — best use of a helmet and bird on a cover.

    Like

  10. Back in the day, I thought in some romanticized way that having a career as a graphic artist who designs album covers would have been the best career ever and that’s what I wanted to do! (yeah, like there is such a career…). I was going to take graphic design in college after HS to do just that. Things didn’t really go that way, but that’s alright.
    I think the album cover art is very important, and sets a tone for the album’s music. Liner notes, the entire package, equally important. I loved Led Zeppelin III’s album sleeve. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I think Alice Cooper’s ‘From the Inside’ was the coolest LP artwork I’ve ever seen. But like you say, it’s probably not at cool on CD. Not sure you’ll ever get your wish for interesting packaging to return; I’m more of a digital download man myself so I’m fueling the competition. Alice in Chains’ last album was pretty creative though.

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  12. That was what first attracted me to Molly Hatchet, their album covers featuring the paintings by Frank Franzetta. My first favourite album cover though was from the “Spitfire” album by Jefferson Starship. It was the one with the girl riding the dragon that was formed from the smoke of her cigarette. Cool stuff back then.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Truly, another great piece of writing, Mike! Alice Cooper was one who definitely believed in “value for the money” when it came to his album artwork! One of my favorites, both in sounds AND art, was “Billion Dollar Babies”!

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    1. Holy cow, yeah. Billion Dollar Babies, breaking the tradition that your cover had to be a square. Not to mention the goodies inside. I’d also include Muscle of Love as one of Alice’s good packages for the money. Alice wins for sure.

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  14. Great article! Never even thought about the historical background of the cover art! And never knew about the paint thing in in through the out door. I will check mine cuz I know I didn’t paint it…I always liked zeppelin IV in case my mom walked into my room I could just flip it shut although I never did anything bad that she couldn’t see…uhhhhhh. Can’t hide your stash in a download now can you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HAHHAHAA true that Mike, and thanks for the comment. Led Zeppelin IV was a gatefold, yes, so you could do that. I’m anxious to hear if your copy of In Through the Out Door is unpainted!

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      1. I have it in my hands and it is as pure as the undriven snow. Good thing I never knew about the paint thing or I would have. Is it worth anything?

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