Thursday, December 1, 2016

Album Covers As An Artform

Long before the Internet, iTunes, music-videos and the late-night talk-show circuit there existed a unique platform indigenous to the music industry. A medium by which musicians could express themselves directly to their adoring public. A visual identity often created by the artist and delivered to the fans in a carefully crafted image.

            From the late 1930s through the early 1980s, the album cover was the primary means of visual communication from a musician to their listeners: A 12 x 12 artistic statement that gave music buyers a sense as to what they could expect to hear when the needle hit the vinyl grooves.


Album covers have long been a part of my own home d├ęcor and that of my music-loving friends. As a pre-teen, I collected records by my favorite artists of the 1970s and 80s. REO Speedwagon’s High Infidelity often stood propped up proudly atop my bedroom record player. Billy Joel’s Glass Houses was another. In my teenage years it was posters of the classic Beatles albums such as Revolver and Abbey Road that hung on my bedroom walls (and no doubt on the walls of millions of fans the world over). In my mind’s eye I can still visualize a poster for London Calling by The Clash on the bedroom door of my friend, Peter back in 7th grade. His older sister, Michelle wallpapered her room in U2 posters. And to think there was actually a time when music was sold in the artistic equivalent of a throwaway lunch bag.

The first album cover design
            The first album cover design is widely credited to a man called Alex Steinweiss, who in 1938 became the original art director for Columbia Records. In the decades prior, vinyl records were displayed in brown paper or cardboard sleeves that were either plain, or sometimes printed to show the retailer's name. These generic record sleeves had a circular cutout in the center allowing the record label to be seen. Steinweiss’s 1939 design of a theater marquee for a collection of Broadway hits by composers Rogers and Hart is widely credited as the very first album cover. For the next 40+ years, record packaging and its cover image became nearly as essential as the music contained on the record itself.

            The earliest album covers for top selling Jazz artists of the 1940s were created by art directors without any input from the performers. Amazingly, music legends like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday often didn’t see their finished cover designs until it was ready to hit the stores for release. Some of these basic layouts featured illustrations of instruments, colorful shapes and occasionally a photo of the performer.

            The 1950s saw an increase in creativity of the artist photographs to grace album covers. In The Wee Small Hours features a stylish image of Frank Sinatra in suit and tie, wearing his trademark fedora hat and holding a lit cigarette. Alone In San Francisco by Jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk shows the musician hanging onto the side of a trolley car. The early days of rock & roll brought classic yet simple covers for Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, among others. Elvis’s self titled debut displays a black & white performance shot of the young star with his mouth agape and a guitar in his hands. The cover for Chuck Berry Is On Top is actually a colorful bowl of cereal topped with slices of strawberries. The Chirping Crickets by Buddy Holly & the Crickets gives us your standard shot of the four musicians in matching gray suits, holding a pair of guitars. All fairly tame by modern-day standards.

            The cover designs of the 1960s can be likened to the month of March in reverse. Instead of coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb, quite the opposite is true. What began as mainly subdued, smiling, perfectly posed publicity shots evolved into the provocative, moody, ultra creative and later the psychedelic. Even disastrous world events like the Hindenburg airship catching fire were in play, courtesy of Led Zeppelin. Volumes can be written on this revolutionary decade. For the purpose of brevity, I’ll stick to a handful of highlights.

            The Freewheelin Bob Dylan from 1963 shows a youthful folk troubadour walking down a wintry New York City street, arm-in-arm with a female companion, seemingly unaware of the camera. It’s a fine example of the early decade innocence that would rapidly be a changin.

The early Beatles album covers varied from straightforward to sophisticated photos of the fab-four. Then came Klaus Voorman’s eye-catching, hand-drawn, black & white collage in 1966 for Revolver. This intricate design effort reflected the more complex sound and songwriting being produced by the band in studio. Their 1967 epic, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ushered in the era of psychedelia, both in music and design. The colorful collection of costumes, props, statues and celebrity cutouts helped steer cover designs in a whole new direction. Soon thereafter, bands like Cream (Disraeli Gears), Donavan (Sunshine Superman), and Jimi Hendrix (Axis Bold As Love) got into the trippy theme, taking it up to the next level.

Legendary pop artist, Andy Warhol entered the cover design arena in 1967 with an innovative wrinkle. For the debut album of The Velvet Underground and Nico, Warhol created (at great expense) a multi layered paper banana that could be peeled back to reveal the fruit underneath. His second cover design for The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers in 1971 featured an actual zipper on an illustrated pair of jeans. It is considered iconic now, but at the time it caused many of the vinyl records to be damaged during the shipping process, angering fans who actually wanted to hear the music.

Illustration became a major design theme throughout the 1970s. Two shining
examples of this style are Supertramp’s Breakfast In America and Elton John’s Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Next came the illustrated band logos on covers including UFOs for Boston and the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), the lips and tongue for the Rolling Stones, and a horse with wings for the Steve Miller Band. Oh, and of course the skull in a circle for the Grateful Dead.

            The creativity of album cover art likely reached its apex in the mid 70s. Then came the 8-track tape, the cassette tape and eventually the compact disc. As the packaging grew smaller, less emphasis went into the cover image. Record companies spent less time, and smaller budgets on their design. By the late 80s, a great deal of cover images were back to featuring simple publicity shots on a colorful background.

In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, my pop-star protagonist, Johnny Elias is a keen observer on the decline of the album cover in the early 1990s. He’s a music fan who was raised on classic vinyl. His dissatisfaction with his record label’s artistic deficiencies pushes him to take matters into his own hands when it comes to the cover art for his debut album. A throwback design concept that he dreams up (executed by a dear friend) proves the ideal match for his collection of songs inspired by an earlier era. It ultimately helps to launch his career into unlikely overnight superstardom.

Of course, even as the CD overtook record bins in the retail stores, there was still the occasional brilliant cover design. Nirvana’s Nevermind displays a naked baby swimming after a dollar bill in the deep end of a pool. It became to 90’s music fans what Dark Side Of The Moon represented to music lovers two decades earlier. Dave Matthews Band’s Under The Table And Dreaming displays a brilliantly blurred photo of an amusement park swing ride in motion. And the Foo Fighters debut album featuring a Buck Rogers Disintegrator Pistol became an instant classic for many.

Even at a size of 4.72 inches square, the compact disc still provided music consumers with a reasonably sized canvas to appreciate cover art. But as the age of the digital download arrived, this canvas size has now been reduced to a thumbnail graphic on a computer screen… or even worse, on a mobile phone, or tablet. We’re no longer talking inches, but simply 1,400 x 1,400 pixels, or essentially the size of a postage stamp. Most of the big record store chains - once a hangout place for music lovers - have become extinct. Tower Records. Sam Goody. Virgin Megastores. All gone. The concept of browsing through stacks of records and CD bins is now mostly as nostalgic as the music from that era.

Another contributing factor in the decline of the album cover is the current day marketing of musicians. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, the album cover and maybe a fortuitous feature in Rolling Stone magazine was your messaging. The rise of MTV, VH-1 and later YouTube gave prominence to the music video, allowing for a whole different kind of artistic expression. The evolution of TV talk shows, websites, podcasts and email newsletters have provided countless new exposure and branding opportunities for the music maker of today. Instead of a lackluster cover design being a crippling blow to a new release, a band can often overcome this handicap by pulling a wild publicity stunt, or by grabbing tabloid headlines for outrageous behavior.

Thankfully, there is still a strong collectible market for classic vinyl records. And on a small-scale, there has even been something of a specialty comeback of vinyl releases. In 2014, record sales grew by 50% to just over one million copies, the highest figure since 1996 according to Newsweek. Sure, nostalgia is a big part of this commercial uptick. But it is also a selection of limited edition vinyl releases by popular bands like Arctic Monkeys and the White Stripes. It certainly can’t be due to the scratchy, crackling sound of records, when compared with the audio perfection of a digital recording. No doubt, the full-sized 12 x 12 cover design may be the only enhancement, and probable drawing card in this wistful music buying experience.  

It seems likely that artwork will still have a role to play as the music business re-shapes itself. But it is fair to declare that the golden age of this once crucial medium is long in the rear-view mirror.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE to order your copy.

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