Written by Giulia Berozzi;
Translation by Flora Triolo
Thanks to technological development, the way we listen to music today has completely changed, but this is nothing new. We look for functionality, compactness; we want to listen to our tracks (not albums anymore) while we are on the bus, queuing up at the supermarket, while running in the park by our house. Although our favorite singers and bands can now be found digitally collected on our smartphones or smartwatches (yes, it’s a thing), music was once stored in an actual library, first with vinyls, then with tape cassettes and compact discs, back when “shuffle mode” was a completely unknown concept.
The vinyl record was introduced in the United States in 1948 and it cannot just be thought of as a sound storage medium or a marketing tool, since it would become an artistic expression in itself. Packaging was often a distinctive feature of an album, a way to identify it, independently from its content.
During the ’50s, the so-called covers were actually quite featureless and did not show any distinctive traits. The breakthrough came by the end of the ’60s, with the immortal and revolutionary cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. It’s 1967.
Designed by artists Jann Hawort e Peter Blake, based on a suggestion made by Mr. McCartney, it won a Grammy award for “best album cover”. It’s an absolutely unique (and more than once imitated) collage starring the band, surrounded by famous people (the hypothetical audience for which they would have performed), flower arrangements e various objects, some of which kind of bizarre.
Extremely appreciated as well as strongly criticized, it brought two major new features: for the first time the cover opened as a book and the album’s lyrics were printed in full on the back cover. A new era was thus launched, that of artistic covers.
That same year saw another equally innovative as well as popular cover, that of The Velvet Undergound & Nico, designed by Andy Warhol, Pop Art icon. Its originality lay in the use of the distinctive style of the artist, a never before seen style on a cover. The famous banana on a white background not only was designed in a way that was reminiscent of his paintings, but was actually a sticker that, once removed, revealed a provocative and extremely evocative image. The work that Warhol did on record covers was, without doubt, influential, and followed him during all of his artistic path, from its origins (the first cover was designed in 1949, when the artist was only 21 years old) to end of the artist’s life. His work consists in more than 60 pieces and it intertwines with his own artistic evolution, as if it was mirroring it.
The simplicity of the cover for White Light/White Heat (1968), also designed by Warhol for The Velvet Underground, hides a peculiar effect: when backlit, the cover, that appears to be solid black, reveals the image of a skull holding a dagger in its teeth. Three years later instead he created the cover of Sticky Fingers for the Rolling Stones, after a complex planning work undertaken by the artist himself. The photo portraits, on the front, a pair of jeans with an undeniable bulging in the genital area (not Mr. Jagger’s, as many believed) with a full-working zip stitched on the cover itself. Billy Narne, one of Warhol’s collaborators, took the photos.
Also for them, in 1977, he designed the cover of Love You Live, a mix of drawing and photography. The photos depict the band members while they jokingly bite each other. While those on the inside are in black and white, an explosion of color takes place on the outside.
The artwork for the covers of Liza Minelli Live at Carnegie Hall (1981), Silk lectric by Diana Ross (1982), Aretha by Aretha Franklin (1986) and Menlove Ave. by John Lennon (and many others designed in the same period) share many similarities. Looking at this covers it almost feels like observing the paintings displayed at the MoMa in New York. They are in fact portraits designed developing, like only Warhol could, photos of the artists together with drawings, geometric shapes, sharp strokes, playing with shades, lights and shadows. In some cases, the image was also printed on the record itself.
Going back a few years, it’s worth mentioning the work of American cartoonist Robert Crumb for Cheap Thrills, second album by the Big Brothers and The Holding Company (1968). It was an original and very fun way to describe the content of the record through the art of cartoon drawing: a cartoon is in fact dedicated to each song.
In 1975, Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses, was supposed to have an extremely simple packaging: black and white photos of the artist, dressed and undressed, in the New York apartment of photographer and friend Robert Mapplethorpe both on the front cover and on the inside. Mapplethorpe took those pictures with the only aid of natural lighting and his Polaroid. The signer was firmly opposed to any attempt by her record label to alter the artwork, since the result obtained by the photographer was exactly what she had envisioned. Many of the photographs and artworks conceived as album covers became downright icons. This was the case for Storm Thorgerson’s work, the British designer and photographer who founded (together with Aubrey Powell) graphic art group Hipgnosis and produced numerous covers that defined the history of music.
A collection that includes artworks for the most well-known names in rock music, among which it’s necessary to mention the covers of Houses of the Holy (1973) and In Through The Out Door (1979) by Led Zeppelin. The first, rated #50 in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Album Covers”, is a surreal collage of several photographs, in which the images of two children who are climbing some rocks are multiplied in the scene, creating an image that is static and dynamic at the same time. As for the second album, six different versions of the sleeve were published: the photo portraits six people in a bar ad each variation was taken from a different point of view of someone who appeared in the scene. As for the brushstroke, it represents a lick of fresh paint, as to represent the spirit of renewal inherent to the album.
Undoubtedly the most famous works by Thorgerson and the art studio Hipgnosis were those designed for Pink Floyd: Ummagumma (1969), Atom Hearth Mother (1970) and the iconic The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977), just to mention a few. The cover of The Dark Side of the Moon was a gatefold sleeve with a triangular prism refracting a ray of light. The band liked the design, conceived by Thorgerson and Powell and created by George Hardie, from the start. The first editions of the cover did not bare any reference to the band or the title; later they decided to add a sticker that was, later on, also printed on the sleeve. The design contains three elements: the band’s stage lighting, the album lyrics and the (only apparent) simplicity envisioned for this new project.
Wish You Were Here was, as suggested by the title, a project revolving around the theme of absence. The cover portraits two business men shaking hands, one of them on fire. The idea was to recreate the feeling of fear, often recurring, of showing one’s true feelings, of laying bare, for fear of “getting burned”. The photo was taken without the aid of any program; instead two stuntmen were used (initially, the moustache of the man in flames caught fire), who posed inside the Warner Bros Studios in Los Angeles.
The cover designed for Animals holds an image that became a symbol of Pink Floyd themselves: the famous flying pig (in reference to the track Pigs on the Wing). The photo was taken at the Battersea Power Station in London and it was not an easy job to achieve the result: it was in fact difficult to have the helium-inflated pig floating perfectly among the chimneystacks.
With Thick as a Brick, fifth album by Jethro Tull (1972), we find ourselves with an unusual and innovative packaging: a 12-page newspaper, complete with a crossword and several games, fake articles written by the band members, a horoscope and advertisements. In response to the critics of the preceding album they were helped by an ex journalist, Roy Eldrigde, who took care of the design. Another brilliant cover was the one designed for Some Girls by Rolling Stones (1978), created by the artist Peter Corriston, which generated several controversies. The packaging resembled an advertisement catalogue for female hairdos, on the front of which the faces of the various band members, all wearing make up, were placed alongside those of famous celebrities (some of which threatened legal action since they had not given authorization for the use of their images).
The Who also used the theme of advertisement for the cover of their third album Sell Out (1967), where photos taken by David Montgomery portrait the band members while sponsoring several products, real or fictitious, almost as a wordplay referencing the title of the album.
What appears to be clear is the concept of a cover seen as a real artwork, a way to integrate the musical essence of an album, to fix the message the band wanted to spread, to get some distance from the classical cardboard packaging, making it an out-and-out collectible. Fans were looking forward to buying a small piece of history that made them feel closer to the artists, a small book whose function was not limited to graphically telling a story through photos, drawings, paintings or compositions. Listening to a song while reading the lyrics was an exhilarating experience, if we remember that, at the time, there was no internet
Starting in the ’90, such fascination has been somewhat lost, with the advent of CDs, and almost totally dominated by the widespread use of iPods and the like.