Album Cover Art Books - How to find out more about who produced your favorite covers
By Mike Goldstein, owner, RockPoP Gallery - Portland, OR
July 9, 2010
From what I can remember, the first record that was "mine" was The Best of the Sir Douglas Quintet. My grandfather worked in the building in downtown Chicago that housed the studios of WLS Radio which, at the time, was the biggest and most-powerful station around. Grampa had a popular cigar stand there and knew all of the executives, DJs and other station employees and, since they knew that he had grandchildren, he'd be given the extra promo copies of the LPs that the station didn't want to archive. For a long time, I was somewhat ashamed to show these records to my friends (with their big "PROMO COPY - NOT FOR SALE" stamps), since I thought that they'd be looked at as hand-me-downs and that they weren't as good as retail records.
Anyway, back to the subject. Those of you who know that SDQ record might remember that the cover showed a group of mop-topped figures standing in the shadows with their instruments. From this photo, the band's name and the fact that this was a "best of" record, I just assumed that this was a big-time rock and roll band from England. The fact is, that is exactly what the record company wanted me to think, and it wasn't until years later that I found out otherwise. It was, of course, the first of many times that I'd be influenced (i.e., prompted to listen to and, hopefully, to buy) by the power of well-executed music packaging.
When I finally graduated from buying 45s to LPs and took my hard-earned $5 bill with me on my first trip to EJ Korvette's to dig through their bountiful record bins and select the one I'd take home (at $3.98, plus tax), I again fell under the spell of a great cover image. Korvette's used to lean their top selections up against the back walls behind the bins, and so when I saw the psychedelic image on the front cover of the strategically-placed copy of Iron Butterfly's In A Gadda Da Vida record, I was smitten. That, coupled with the fact that it contained Ron Bushy's extended drum solo - a must-learn for every young drummer looking to raise his visibility in the wedding/Bar Mitzvah band circuit at the time - was all it took to get me to lay down the cash. I took it home, removed the Electric Prunes promo LP I'd left on the record player , and then put it through the first of seemingly hundreds of plays (had to learn that solo!). The next time I had enough money, it was Black Sabbath's Paranoid that followed me home (this is the first record that I had to hide from my parents and wait until they were safely at work before I'd be able to play it at the appropriate volume). Who was that guy on the cover? What was he doing? Was he the Fairy wearing boots, or was I just being paranoid?
Those of us who grew up with 12" LP records all have these stories - our first LP, our first live concert, how we handled the many format changes along the way (I never invested in 8-tracks, personally - the cassette was easier to FF and REW and my Norelco cassette player had this really cool controller lever that worked just like a Hurst 4-on-the-floor), etc. Did you have a properly-equipped bedroom or basement room - flicker bulb, black light, lava lamp? Black light posters only added to the long list of things we had to have in order to avoid total nerdiness, and over the next few years, a number of rock records were released with covers that became must-haves for anyone who wanted to be taken seriously as a cool person - Alice Cooper's School's Out (with its LP wrapped in panties and packed inside a school desk), Captain Beyond's lenticular cover (the Stone's Satanic Majesty an OK alternative), King Crimson's screaming face, Roger Dean's fantastic flying machines on YES albums (which, using my limited artistic abilities, I attempted to copy on to my basement hide-away's walls using Rustoleum paints), Ambrosia's fold-out pyramid, and a few others - but by the late 70's/early 80's, my gatefold LP sleeves were used mostly to separate seeds from my weed, or to line with tin foil for use as a method of getting a fast tan.
As I grew older, the music grew to mean more and the images, now reduced to CD-sized canvases, meant less.
Even so, designers continued to work hard to both please their record company clients and instill the desire in music fans to open the CD and listen to what was inside. It seemed clear that those in the design field enjoyed applying their talents to the packaging and promotion of music, and many would then naturally venture into other aspects of the music promo business - directing music videos, animation production (for music videos and web sites), live event scenery and venue posters, etc. As retail music products are sold all over the world, their works were then introduced to a global audience. For an artist whose works were used to package a hit record, this would serve to put their art on display multiple millions of times (try THAT in a gallery show!). I cannot think of a better example of "iconic" artwork than an album cover for a hit record. By "iconic", I mean an image that is an integral part of how an entire cultural phenomenon is identified. An album cover can conjure up emotions about the music, the movie (if it's a soundtrack), the styles of the time, your fantasies at the time (vs. what your life was REALLY like at the time!), etc. And while albums and CDs are often packaged with many other images (front and back, inside the booklet or lyric/info insert), it is the cover that sets the tone for everything else.
Album artwork is as varied as the music it covers, and this is most often reflected by the cover designs that predominate in particular genres - or that appear over time in a particular band's catalog. Like the music inside the sleeve, covers can also be formulaic, as is evidenced by the record covers of the 1960s, which would either feature photographs of the band members in period costume (with or without instruments, with or without frilly cuffs), often taken at odd angles. These were followed by the psychedelic (oftentimes, LSD-aided, I'm told) designs (or, at least, typestyles) that took us through the end of the decade. In each case, there was a standard-bearer in the genre whose design cues were copied unabashedly by others. Examples include Karl Ferris, The Fool and Cleveland's works in the psychedelic area (Hendrix, Cream, The Hollies, Donovan, 13th Floor Elevators); Prog rockers looked forward to each design by Phil Travers for the Moody Blues, Paul Whitehead for Genesis and others on the Charisma label, Roger Dean's work for YES and Uriah Heep, and Hipgnosis' designs for Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Jam bands had Stanley Mouse, Lee Conklin and many more of the well-know Fillmore/Family Dog illustrators to thank for their cover art, while fans into the darker side of rock (Alice Cooper & Black Sabbath) were well-rewarded by the output of Drew Struzan (who'd go on to produce the iconic posters for the Star Wars movies) and the other imaginative illustrators working for Ernie Cefalu's Pacific Eye & Ear. The roster of top talent continued to expand throughout the 1970s - 80s, particularly in the U.K. - with trend-setting designs coming from designers, art directors and photographers including Martyn Atkins (with Brian Griffin photography), Barney Bubbles, Malcolm Garrett, Stylorouge, John Pasche, Peter Saville and Bill Smith.
Artists who had established their credentials outside the music business were often enlisted to bring their unique abilities to album cover design. Andy Warhol, would create memorable designs for the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground and Billy Squier, while Robert Rauschenberg's designs graced the covers of records by the Talking Heads. Fashion photographers Francesco Scavullo, Jean Paul Goude and Vic Singh brought their unique stylings to covers for records by Diana Ross, Grace Jones and Pink Floyd, while world-renowned illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta and Robert Crumb each created memorable designs for acts including Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper, Molly Hatchett, and Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company. In each case, the artist applied their signature styles to works of art that would ultimately be mass-produced, but that did not seem to stunt their desires to create works that would stand out as great works of art on their own.
Quite clearly, music and fine art have been linked in many ways. So, why does it seem that record cover art has been treated by "serious" collectors and the fine art establishment as something less than fine art and, therefore, less worthy of serious investment? Of course, there are a few album cover artists whose works are now collected by museums and that fetch many thousands of dollars when sold in exhibitions and at auction, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. What it does mean, though, to music fans and fans of pop culture is that you can own originals and limited-edition prints of many of these works at VERY affordable prices, particularly when compared to other popular works sold in the fine art galleries of New York, LA, London, Miami, Basel and other well-known hubs where collectors tend to congregate. We at RockPoP Gallery are proud to be able to offer you an outstanding selection of these prints, and so we hope that you'll spend some time browsing through our collection and learning more about the works and the talented people who created them.
Over the years, there have been a number of books written on the History of the Album Cover, covering the development of the art form from its humble beginnings as a simple sleeve with a title, to Alex Steinweiss and Jim Flora and their breakthrough works for Columbia and Decca Records in the 1930s/40s up to today's most-recent efforts - and so if you're interested in learning more on the topic (or just looking at the pictures), here is a sample list of some of those books. Many are written and compiled by well-known cover designers (Roger Dean, Storm Thorgerson, Nick DeVille, Spencer Drate, others), so they bring an interesting spin to their respective compilations. I have not included many books that focus on the works of a single designer/photographer - more soon to come...
Some of my favorites are indicated with an asterisk (*), but all are interesting in their own right and contain hundreds of images for you to enjoy.
Album, by Nick de Ville. Published in the U.K. in 2003 by Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 1845331303 *
100 Best Album Covers, by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell. Published in 1999 by DK Publishing. ISBN 0-7894-4951-X *
Album Cover Album, by Storm Thorgerson and Roger Dean. Latest edition published in 2008 by Collins Design/Harper Collins Publishers, New York. ISBN 978-0-06-162695-1 *
The Art of the LP - Classic Album Covers 1955 - 1995, by Ben Wardle and Johnny Morgan. Published in 2010 by Sterling Publishing Co., New York. ISBN 978-1-4027-7113-2 *
The Book of Hip Hop Cover Art, by Andrew Emery. Published in the U.K. in 2004 by Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 1840009195
CD Art, by Charlotte Rivers. Published in 2004 by RotoVision, SA (Mies, Switzerland). ISBN 2-88046-745-4
Classic Rock Covers, by Michael Ochs. Published in 2001 by Taschen GmbH (Cologne, Germany). ISBN 3-8228-5540-5 *
Cover Art By: New Music Graphics, by Adrian Shaughnessy. Published in 2008 by Laurence King Publishing (London, UK). ISBN 978 1 85669 527 5
Dead Children Playing, by Stanley Donwood and Dr. Tchock (AKA Thom Yorke). Published in 2007 by Verso Books (UK & US). ISBN 13:978 1 84467 170 0
DEFINITION - The Art and Design of Hip-Hop, by Cey Adams with Bill Adler. Published in 2008 by Collins Design/Harper Collings Publishers, NY. ISBN 978-0-06-143885-1 *
The Greatest Album Covers of All Time, by Barry Miles, Grant Scott and Johnny Morgan. Published in the U.K. in 2005 by Collins & Brown/Chrysalis Books. ISBN 1843403013 *
In Search of the Lost Record, by MATSUI Takumi. Published in 2001 by Graphic-sha Publishing Co., Ltd. (Tokyo, Japan) ISBN 4-7661-1268-7
1000 Record Covers, by Michael Ochs. Published in 2001 by Taschen GmbH (Cologne, Germany). ISBN 3-8228-1623-X
Radical Album Cover Art Sampler 3, by Intro (Adrian Shaughnessy and Julian House). Published in 2003 in the U.K. by Laurence King Publishing, Ltd. and in North America by Harper Design International. ISBN 1-85669-352-X
Reasons to be Cheerful - The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles, by Paul Gorman. Published in 2008 by Adelita, Ltd. (UK). ISBN 978-0955201738
Rock Art, by Spencer Drate. Published in 1993 by PBC International, NY. ISBN 0-86636-183-9 *
This Ain't No Disco, by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz. Published in 2005 by Chronicle Books. ISBN 0-8118-4542-7
The Ultimate Album Cover Album, by Roger Dean, David Howells and Storm Thorgerson. Published in 1987 by Prentice Hall Press. ISBN 0-13-935750-5 (Note - there are 3 books in this Album Cover Album series - all contain a wealth of info on various collections of album cover designs).
This list will be updated on the RockPoP Gallery site regularly, so please visit often.