Writing this piece has given me the best excuse ever to trawl though old vinyl and cassettes and research a fascinating genre within art—the art of the album cover.
I am an artist and musician working in the U.K. In recent times, I have been fortunate enough to be asked to design and produce some album covers myself. It is a privilege to be involved in some great projects.
Opportunities in this genre have opened up for me only very recently. Alongside ongoing designs for The Chris White Experience series, the most recent album release utilizing my work is Ode to a Nightingale by Bruce Sudano. The process involved a lot of radical design changes, but we were all happy with the end result … and the album is a great listen.
In no particular order, here are some of my favorite album covers from over the years. They are sleeves that I got to know really well. Most were a common sight everywhere for years and mark definite times in music history. Some are amongst my favorite albums, too.
New Boots and Panties (Stiff, 1977)
This photo was taken by Barney Bubbles, whose work is all over albums of the punk/new wave era (I believe he sometimes used pseudonyms, too). It's raw and real and tells us so much about the times. This picture made me want to go into that shop—I spent long hours studying the contents through the window! I never got the chance to find it in real life. I always wondered if the kid was related to Ian Dury or whether he just turned up and jumped into the photo like some artful dodger!
Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols (Virgin, 1977)
By Jamie Reid. This cover, this album and the Sex Pistols themselves were all massive news at the time. The U.K. version was dayglo pink and yellow, while in the U.S. it was pink with a green Sex Pistols logo. It was unapologetically bold and new, and much of society was outraged by it. There was even an obscenity case about the wording, heard in Nottingham, U.K., in 1977. The Sex Pistols won!
The Dark Side of the Moon (Harvest, 1973)
I had to choose at least one Storm Thorgerson design, and after a lot of thought, went with this—surely one of the most recognizable album covers of all time? It was apparently a request for a "simple and bold" cover by keyboard player Richard Wright that prompted this stark minimal image, going against a history of complex and surreal Thorgerson designs. This was designed by Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, but the artwork for the cover itself was drawn by George Hardie.
Tubular Bells (Virgin, 1973)
By photographer Trevor Key. The story goes that Key took the background shot, then designed the bent tubular bell, had a model made of it, photographed it and superimposed the result on the background. It was one of those record covers you saw EVERYWHERE and got curious! I loved the reflections in the chrome! The music was addictive. I personally didn't realize the music had been used for the film The Exorcist until years later.
London Calling (CBS/EPIC, 1979)
I love this photo for the pure energy it exudes. I saw the Clash in the early days, a while before the release of this album. It is a photo of bass player Paul Simonon smashing up his Fender. The photo was taken by Pennie Smith, who has photographed many famous rock musicians and bands. Until very recently I hadn't realized that the graphic design on this album (Ray Lowry) was a pastiche of Elvis Presley's debut album (1956).
Island Life (Island, 1985)
This image was created by her partner at the time, Jean-Paul Goude. It is a montage of separate images. Again, one of those images that was just EVERYWHERE in the mid-'80s. It is such a strikingly beautiful image—and almost believable! I have read that Grace Jones liked this cover very much herself. There was a re-release in 1996 with a yellow background, which is just as distinctive.
Horses (Arista, 1975)
I thought Patti Smith was very cool and that this picture said it all. Taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, the image was quite radical at the time—it wasn't "prettified" or touched up, and Patti Smith is allowed to be simply herself. Fabulous! It was a very liberating picture for women in general. I got into the album via the song "Gloria," of course, written by Patti Smith with Van Morrison. She is a poet and a singer/songwriter, an author, a musician—the whole lot, really!
Odessey & Oracle (CBS/Date, 1968)
Terry Quirk designed this album cover while the band were recording in Abbey Road. The original image is 12-by-12 inches—so the size of the LP itself. He was very interested in the style of calligraphy coming out of America at the time and started his design with the title (which included the spelling mistake that became famous). He was a really generous artist and allowed me to use elements from this cover in my own work, which ended up being used for the Zombies—how circular! Both the cover and the music are often described as psychedelic.
Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic, 1971)
This is a photo of a painting hanging on the remnants of a demolished building in Birmingham, U.K. Apparently the oil painting was one bought by Robert Plant. There is something stark and depressing but familiar about the cover (the whole image spreads over the fold) but it somehow manages to reflect the mood of the time and has remained timeless—as have the songs.
Art of the Album is a regular feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write for the series, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.