Thursday, 16 February 2012

Album Covers

It is a contemporary "received idea" that album art flourished during the heyday of the 12" vinyl, 33 rpm "long-playing record" (roughly, mid-1960s to mid-1980s), and went into a decline when the CD took over the mass music market.  Until my bold expedition with a torch under the dining room table this week, I thought this was so, too.

As readers of the previous post will recall, I was looking for an LP which I hoped might be in my stash of long-unlistened-to vinyl, kept in the domestic equivalent of deep storage i.e. the bottom shelf of a bookcase behind a table, down among the dust-bunnies, cobwebs and cables.  I didn't find what I was looking for, but re-emerged with a slightly random selection of albums, primarily with the intention of showing my daughter how brilliant everything was when I was her age.

But, like so many pretty pebbles twinkling on the seashore of memory, they seemed to fade when hauled into the daylight.  Not literally: actually, I was amazed at how well these 40-year-old artefacts had withstood the ravages of time.  But they seemed somehow much diminished, and that fabled cover art...  It was, in the main, rubbish.

I was looking at bad paintings, crude montages, timid typography, tacky colour combinations, poorly- reproduced photographs, and dreadful layouts -- just bad graphical design in general.  Most astonishing of all was how little use was actually made of those generous 144 square inches of real estate.  Large areas of plain, blank colour predominated, and text was either kept to a minimum -- generally no more than a list of tracks, and a few acknowlegements -- or the lyrics were spread over the entire thing, in a tiny, unreadable font.  There were pointless gatefolds, opening onto nothing much, and a surprising amount of corporate "noise" plastered over everything -- company logos, copyright notices, serial numbers, etc. -- that had once, somehow, been transparent.

Typically awful mid-70s cover
(comedy duo, The Tryptolites)

There were exceptions, of course.  There are alway exceptions.  From my sample, I found that Jethro Tull's Stand Up, David Bowie's Hunky Dory, Steely Dan's Katy Lied, and Weather Report's Mysterious Traveller still retained their original charm.  But a good eighty percent were either totally bland or downright offensive to contemporary eyes.


I then looked at my CDs.  Now, I am a fanboy of the ECM label and its products so I ignored those, as well as the ones which simply reproduced an old LP cover.  What did I see?  Mainly gorgeous design, careful typography, sympathetic layouts, quite often with a natty cardboard outer case, and an informative booklet insert containing lyrics, photographs and little essays, often in parallel languages.

Interesting.  Surprising.  Disconcerting.

On reflection, it is obvious why this is the case:  computer-aided design, digital imaging and digital typography.  Virtually anyone could do a better job nowadays.

I remember, back in my student days, spending entire nights "laying up" a little radical magazine we used to produce.  It was all done with typewriters, scissors, sticky tape, Tipp-Ex, Letraset and, at a pinch, yer actual handwriting.  The final layout sheets would be taken as "camera-ready copy" to our printer, and it all took a lot of hard work and it looked dreadful, although that authentic "fanzine" look does still have its admirers.

Nowadays, with the use of a suitable desktop publishing package and copy submitted over the internet, the whole thing could be turned round in a couple of hours, with a completely seamless, professional finish.  The time we spent typing, Tipp-Exing and taping can be used instead to give the end product a distinctive, desirable identity (or even, um, to write stuff people want to read).  I expect students still stay up all night to do it, but that's just because they can.

OTT in the last great days of vinyl...
That difficult second album

Harder to explain, is why everybody thinks the reverse is true:  that a high percentage of those LP sleeves were some kind of apotheosis of graphic design.  I can think of all sorts of reasons, but here are a few:

  • Standards then were both more rigid and lower.  Just look at a typical magazine from the period, particularly the adverts, and compare with the contemporary equivalent.
  • Hard to recall, but "full colour printing" was still a novelty in the 1960s, and cheap full colour printing required various technical compromises that overruled design considerations.
  • The taste for surrealism has not aged well.  Particularly when in the form of poorly-painted, sub-Dali-esque fantasy, or auto-pilot psychedelia.  Little Feat's Sailin' Shoes is a personal favourite, musically, but that cover (no. 18 in Rolling Stone's top 100 covers, I see) is simply tacky.
  • Nothing ages quite as badly as a fancy haircut.  'Nuff said.
  • Manipulating photographs used to be much more difficult.  For every After The Gold Rush there are ten Young Americans, and 100 efforts with blunt scissors we won't even mention.
  • Hipgnosis made a (largely) deserved name for themselves, and that reputation has somehow floated everyone else's boat.  How many other music packaging design teams can you name?  And how many times do you really need or want to look at the covers of Houses of the Holy or even Dark Side of the Moon?
  •  Let's not talk about Roger Dean, please.  I didn't like that stuff at the time, it's just not my cup of tea.  To be honest, speaking as a big fan of illustration, I find it hard to think of any original illustrators working within the music field whose work stood out for me.  Which is odd, actually  -- compare that with children's books of the period.  I suspect it may not have paid well.
  • Things tend to get better, but we prefer to think they get worse.  Otherwise, we'd just be very, very jealous of our own children's good fortune.  As if!
  • I have exceptionally refined taste, which has just got better over the years.
In the end, album covers are just commercial packaging and there's no more reason to consider them an art form than cereal packets or ready-meal boxes.  Some of the best albums have the worst covers (jazz and classical records of the "golden age" are uniformly atrocious, from Brilliant Corners to Bitches Brew)  and are none the worse for that.

And that is why I have decided not to demonstrate to my daughter how things were so much better in my day.  Life is hard enough for the young folk, these days, without the added burden of realising they should have been born in 1954. Instead, I will teach her that most valuable lesson, never to judge a book by its cover.  That's if I can ever catch her for five minutes without those bloody sawn-off earphones plugged in.

1980s last gasp...
(Tryptolites farewell tour)


David Brookes said...


I have never seen my favourite LP cover of all time, for reasons I will explain. When I joined Decca as a recording engineer in 1965, the classical team had just made a recording of Elizabethan madrigals by the Pears Consort. The album title was "Sweet Honey-sucking Bees" (from the title of a madrigal by John Wilbye included in the programme). The problem arose when someone in the Decca art department designed the sleeve using an archaic type face where the "s"s look like elongated "f"s. The result was that the whole batch of sleeves had to be pulped. Now if only one or two had survived....

Mike C. said...


Yes, I can see that "honey-sucking beef" would be very confusing ... A true collectors' piece!

You were a found, sorry, sound engineer at Decca in 1965? That must have been an interesting job in an interesting place at an interesting time, no?


Brendini said...

Two covers that impressed me then and impress me now are Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy and Mr. Fox by Mr. Fox (Bob Pegg).

Dave Leeke said...

traI think that cd packaging is only just coming of age - re-releases have been notorious for just repackaging the original often, as you say, awful designs in the first place. Many albums considered "classics" such as "Rumours" were really bad then, let alone now.

Now we are getting cd covers that seem to allow us to read the notes and lyrics. Mind you, the cd presumably is soon to go the way of the dodo, I guess. There'll be no covers in cyberspace.

However, I still hold some high regard for many covers from the vinyl age. I preferred Paul Whitehead's shockingly poor covers for Charisma records over Dean's overblown fantasies. I must admit that both "From the Witchwood" and "Grave New World" by the Strawbs - whatever one thinks of them, my concerns are about the covers only here - were lovely atrifacts for a 14 year old boy to behold (and hold); they seemed to add an extra dimension to the sounds within. They seem to have crossed over as cd covers okay, too. The essence is there with informative essays and notes. I guess the important point you make really is that after all, they were just packaging. They also introduced William Blake and suchlike to the said 14 year old. In itself not a bad thing.

And for modern youth, cd covers don't make good bases for rolling jazz woodbines on.

Still, you might like to check out today's Observer Review for an article on the internet and design. Well worth reading.

Dave Leeke said...

Please ignore the "tra" on previous comment - this new word verification isn't impressive.

Mike C. said...


I don't get the Observer -- is that article online? (I could't see it on the website, and got distracted by the video of the Haye / Chisora brawl -- "'E glassed me! 'E glassed me! I'm not 'avin' it!!".)


Dave Leeke said...

It's here:

but if not, I'll photocopy it for you and send it via snailmail. Haha! The irony . . .

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Dave, I'll read it tomorrow -- gotta watch Homeland to see if it's worth watching.