Before you read this, flip through your record albuns. If rock or jazz excites you, you probably have collected small and telling images by artists who are responsive to the music's rushing freedom, its rebelliousness, its flash.
Those one-by-one foot pictures, by artists far from famous, are as sleek as they're suggestive. They stretch imagination. They mirror not just music, but fantasies and angers, fashions, yearnings, sins.
The Tolkien craze and minimal art, LSD and S&M, space ships, monsters, cars, the chic of Richard Avedon, the comics of the underground, pop art, war, nostaggia - albums reflect all this and much more.
They are maximum examples of mass capitalist art. Of course they are commercial, sure they smell of money, but they are more than merely packages or ads.
They blast you with their freedom. Covers for mass-market books are weighted down by blurbs, and by the artist's obligation to setting, plot, or theme. People who design boxes for breakfast food or swap are paid to show respect to their dull, if useful, product. Record cover artists may visit further realms.
Their pictures may be sweet or gross. They need not describe the records they protect, they don't have to make sense. It is enough if they evoke an aura of amazement or a quality of sound.
"Album Cover Album," a new picture book from England, includes reproductions of more than 600 jackets. They were chosen or their looks by designers Storm Thorgerson and Roger Dean, both of whom attended the Royal College of Art.
The book is flawed (the proofreading, is sloppy, the pictures are too small), but it is well worth reading, especially in silence.
Shopping in a record store, deciding what to buy, or sitting in a living room, choosing what to play, the mind considers music. "Album Cover Album" deals with images, not sounds.
Stravinsky and Santana have been similarly packaged, as have Mott the Hoople and the Andrews Sister. Because the covers have been grouped in the book, certain themes emerges - the moody portrait photograph, the mind-boggling collage, the swirling overcrowded drug-inspired dream. Eden appears often, so do female torsos, knights, mandalas, wizards, and famous mooning singers (Elvis, David Bowie, Olivia Netwon-John) with moist and love-sick eyes. Skulls and skeletons are very big, so are stars in cars.
Many abstract paintings of the '60s were empty, cool, austere. The record covers weren't.
Their pounding was relentless. The Bealtes' "Sgt. Pepper," with its crowd of faces, its visual overkill, was more typical, by far, than their minimal "White Album" released the following year. But even the "White Album" was designed for impact. By 1968 jackets were so busy, so colorful, so wild, England's Richard Hamilton, whose idea it was, knew that in the record stores an all-white blank would shock.
When records (made of rubber) were first put on the market in the 1890s, they had no covers at all.
Buyers, then as now, complained bitterly of scratches. "By 1910," writes Dominy Hamilton in her introduction, "it had become standard practice to ship and sell records in paper envelopes. All the relevant information was on the label and it soon became a convention for this to be revealed by a hole in the sleeve."
The sleeves themselves were blank, "It was the label that gave the product itself, the neutral black disc, a distinguished and distinctive appearance, and often two or three colors, with silver or gold, were used to print it."
The first strong cardboard covers were provided, as a service to their customers, by local record stores. That was in the 1920s. The jackets in the book are of more recent vintage. Cover art did not begin to bloom until after World War II.
The first long - playing records were marketed in covers of minimal distinction. Dull conventions governed their unimaginative designs. White musicians, dressed in evening clothes, posed stiffly for the photographs that advertised classical recordings. Music made by blacks was not sold with protraits. The black musician, it was thought, should not show his face.
"An Anthology of Colored Jazz," a 1950s Decca record, includes bands by Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Lester Young. Its designer, one is sure, never listened to their music. In the last years of the '50s that situation changed.
By allowing lengthy solos and free improvisations, the new long-playing records changed avant garde jazz.
Jazz, in turn, would liberate album cover art.
It was sophisticated music for a dedicated audience. Cool music bred cool covers by artists who had listened, who understood, who cared. Andy Warhol was designing Jazz covers for Blue Note 20 years ago.
Rock, right from the start, was crotic, tough, anarchic. You would not know it from the covers in which the music was just sold. The jackets of the '50s typically showed fresh-faced dancing in the gym beneath crepe paper streamers. "But however much the covers and the lyrics were toned down to instill an atmosphere of boddy sox, class pins, and Coca-Cola," notes Dominy Hamilton, "the message got across: sex feels good, deprivation is no fun."
The clunky cover of "Please Please Me," the first I.P by the Beatles (1953), showed the four lads smiling, full of kiddy glee. They posed deadpan on their second, in high contrast black and white, as if for the chic pages of some fashion magazine. By 1964, Mick Jagger and the Stones glower at the viewer. The old rules have been broken, the revolution's started, dope is coming in.
"Oddly enough" contends Hamilton, "the earliest suggestion of the psychedelic style" appears on the jacket of the Bealtes' "Rubber Soul" (1966). "Not only was the band's photographic image given a hallucinatory aspect by the use of a wide angle lens, but the distorted lettering, soon to become ubiquitous, made its first appearance here."
Dope, and all that it implies, blew the rules away. "After psychedelia," note Thorgerson and Dean, "anything goes." The albums they have chosen prove their point.
Volence, magic, kiddy porn, rip-offs of the masters (Maxfield Parrish, Dali, and Rene Magritte), the gross out and the giggle - by the early '70s the boundaries were gone.
Warhol's zippered jeans for "Sticky Fingers" by the Stones implies the male hustler. A score of naked women are gathered on the British cover of "Electric Ladyland" by the late Jimi Hendrix. Albums by the dozens drip with blood and guts. It can't go on like this, or can it?
Though some rock stars are being enough to design their own covers (Lennon, Cat Stevens, Dylan), most lean on the pros. You might not know their names, but you have seen their work. The "Album Cover Album" includes eight portfolios by eight different designers (the immodest editors here include themselves). The honored eight, however, are not notably superior to a dozen others whose works are in the book.
The best record art is slick, there is no doubt of that. It also is free, effective, hip - but most of it is only high finish Good Design. All honor to Bob Dyland, to Coltrane, Monk, the Beatles - their music changed our lives. Even at their best, the artists who design covers for pop records are in a lesser league.