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Looking (and sounding) good: an assortment of awesome album art ~ Side A

May 24, 2013

awesome_album_covers_the_beatles_sgt_pepper's_lonely_hearts_club_band

With a little help from our friends: The Fab Four play dress-up and pose with two-dimensional incarnations of personal heroes and fond fancies for the ultimate musical mise-en-scène

Ah, music… it’s great, isn’t it? What separates it from practically every other art form – and gives us its syringe-like hit right into the centre of the brain – is surely because it’s singularly, uniquely aural. Yet, my blog-friendly friends, this actually isn’t so. See, since its inception, pop-cum-rock music has always been a visual as well as an audio art form; lumière et son, if you will. How so? Well, consider the humble album cover. At its best, it’s a once-seen-never-forgotten square of eye-attracting dynamite, often complementing the themes and feel of the music contained on the disc contained in its sleeve – or sometimes, in clever, arty counterpoint, seems to have bugger all to do with the tunes it’s supposed to illustrate, instead operating as a nifty, highly successful form of ‘anti-marketing’. Either way, in the hurly-burly universe of hard-selling pop/ rock, the album cover and its art are far from humble things; indeed, sometimes gloriously they’ve been quite brilliant and beautiful.

And, to celebrate this fact, peeps, this very post (and another to come in the near future) features a – more or less – chronologically arranged collection of truly outstanding album covers, explanations of why they’re so and the stories behind their creation. So without further ado then, go on, reach up and dust off the old record shelf in the corner, because we’re breaking out (the cardboard that contains) the vinyls. Oh yes…

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CLICK on the images for full-size and CLICK on the album titles for audio samples

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) ~ The Beatles

(Above)

Artists: Peter Blake and Jann Haworth (designers), Michael Cooper (photographer) and Robert Fraser (art director)

So this list’s opening gambit is an obvious gimme – but an absolutely, indefatigably, unquestionably, indubitably essential one too. Sgt. Pepper is a 100-metre-long hail-mary-pass game-changer of a mid- to late ’60s  album that changed all the rules, both for The Beatles’ pop/ rock contemporaries and the record buying public; it blew the minds of both. Music artists (by happenstance as well as design) had been producing albums as works of art rather than a collection of tunes for a while, among them Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and The Fabs, but Sgt. Pepper took the whole thing a quantum leap forward. A concept album in as much as the band themselves ostensibly take on the guise of the make-believe ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (presumably as a nifty gag that they’d like to escape the scrutiny and pressure that being The Beatles had foisted on them so many years), there’s actually little of this – apart from the title tune and its reprise – in the songs themselves, which together are a cacophony of psychedelic rock, balladry, symphonic, music-hall-style and Indian and epic studio experimentation produced with their ally, the genius Parlophone producer George Martin.

To fit with the ‘fake band’ theme, the album artwork, of course, features the foursome in their psychedelic-esque military band guise, surrounded by a collage of around 60 cardboard cut-outs of culturally significant people. A venture so grand (and expensive – the final cost amounted to £3,000, 60 times the cost of the average album cover back then) it had to be realised by an entire team of designers and snappers including the legendary Sir Peter Blake and art dealer Robert Fraser, whom represented the former. The back cover of the sleeve featured all the album’s song lyrics printed out – the first time ever for a rock record – and the inside a panorama portrait of John, Paul, George and Ringo in their day-glo suits. The record, to much fanfare and (utterly deserved) hype, was released on August 1 1967 and went on to top the UK charts for 27 weeks and its US equivalent for 15. To date, it’s sold 32 million copies and is frequently cited as the greatest album ever made. Band leader Sgt. Pepper’d be so proud.

Accompanying The Fabs in the centre, dressed in their boldly couloured Sgt. Pepper garb, are figures of movie stars Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Marlene Dietrich, Johnny Weissmuller, Fred Astaire, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy, Tyrone Power, W C Fields and Diana Dors; writers Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, H G Wells, Dylan Thomas, Edgar Allan Poe, Aldous Huxley, William S Burroughs and Terry Southern; politicians and historical figures Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Robert Peel, David Livingstone and T E Lawrence; legendary experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen; psychiatrist Carl Jung; boxer Sonny Liston and footballer Albert Stubbins; Hindi gurus Sri Yukteswar Giri, Sri Mahavatar Babaji and Sri Paramahansa Yogananda and occultist Aleister Crowley; comedians Lenny Bruce, Tommy Handley and Max Miller; waxwork models of The Beatles themselves;  and, of course, the Fabs’ rock-crush Bob Dylan; as well as props including a Macca-owned telly, a Lennon-owned statue, a doll of Hindu goddess Lakshmi and a fukusuke (Japanese china figure), a euphonium, a drum skin, a garden gnome and hookah pipe, and a cloth doll of Shirley Temple wearing a sweater bearing the peace-and-love-themed legend ‘Welcome The Rolling Stones’. Figures that were removed included Adolf Hitler and, utterly conversely, Mahatma Ghandi and Jesus Christ. Go figure.

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Calendar Girl (1956) ~ Julie London

Artist: Unknown


For many, before hitting its groove in the ’70s with the prog rockers, the ‘concept album’ started with Sgt. Pepper. Not so, folks, for here’s a glorious example of the concept album – and accompanying artwork – from the mid-’50s courtesy of the husky-voiced sex kitten that was the lovely Julie London. Calendar Girl, an on-form, orchestrally backed offering from the chanteuse, cleverly features 12 tunes (six on one side of the record; the other six on the other) that, one after the next, reflect the 12 months of the year and most of which are jazz standards (June In JanuaryFebruary Brings The RainMelancholy MarchI’ll Remember AprilPeople Who Are Born In MayMemphis In JuneSleigh Ride In JulyTime For AugustSeptember In The RainThis OctoberNovember Twilight and Warm December). Even more cleverly, the record is complemented by a wraparound sleeve sporting 12 finely fetching painted portraits of Ms London in cheesecake poses also representing the months of the year (i.e. ‘Miss January’, ‘Miss February’ etc). But not content with just that already classic concept-ness, the album additionally offers a 13th month track, er, The Thirteenth Month, which is visually represented by an awesomely appealing, pull-out and keep image that comes inside the sleeve. Original LP versions of the album are, understandably, nowadays major collectors’ items.

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50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong (1959) ~ Elvis Presley

Artist: Bob Jones

Reminiscent of a ’60s pop art effort Andy Warhol would be proud of (more on him below) and foreshadowing the irresistible campy kitsch that would characterise the later Vegas-associated Presley of the ’70s, the artwork for this early best-of album (it’s subtitled ‘Elvis’ Gold Records – Volume 2′) gets the nod from me over the more familiar and earlier, Clash-imitated Elvis Presley (1956) album. Why? Because it’s, well, just so wonderfully unlikely. A central image of a gold lamé-suited Elvis surrounded by 15 other offerings of the same image (only of different sizes and randomly arranged); what’s not to love? Its audacious yet tongue-in-cheek (almost) tastelessness instantly catches the eye – it is, after all, a greatest hits album (a second volume of one, at that), thus when originally released would have had to jump out at adolescents in a hugely crowded rock ‘n’ roll vinyl market. And in generating a cool $1 million in sales, there’s no question it did. Overseen by the marketing maestro that was Presley’s infamous manager Colonel Tom Parker and created by artist Bob Jones (who’d come up with all of the star’s previous album artwork), this sleeve’s design was a departure for sure, but had the usually stoic Parker had his way would actually have featured even more ‘nudie suit’ sporting Elvises – at least two dozen, according to Jones. “The Colonel loved that gold lamé suit,” the artist later admitted. “He kept it in one of his closets for years; Presley hated the damned suit from the first time he put it on.” Just like Sgt. Pepper, it’s been ‘celebrated’ by many a parody down through the years too; here’s an amusing slew of them.

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Whipped Cream & Other Delights (1965) ~ Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass

Artist: Peter Whorf

The record it promoted was, of course, a landmark album, the six-million-disc-shifting effort from Herb Alpert’s own A&M Records company that launched the trumpeter and his Tijuana Brass backers into the cross-many-a-demographic mid- to late ’60s stratosphere, but what of the album sleeve itself? Once seen it’s surely never forgotten; indeed, at concerts Herb would call out to the audience “sorry we can’t play the cover for you!”. A pleasing green background with the artist’s and the album’s names spelt out in large Western-style letters (as well as, boastfully bold as brass, the album’s ingredients, including the Grammy award winning US #7 hit A Taste Of Honey) are joined by a very playful, arguably erotic image of an attractive girl knowingly looking at us as she holds a pink rose and is covered in, yes, whipped cream. Most of the cream wasn’t of the whipped variety, mind; it was actually shaving cream (the only whipped cream was that on her head and on her fingers). She’s the, back in the day, Vogue and Seventeen featuring fashion model Delores Erickson, whom was a veteran of other album covers before being hired by photographer friend Peter Whorf for the image, which was captured during a shoot in his home studio converted from a garage. And if you really want to know, she wore a bikini and chiffon and was three months pregnant under all the cream and, apparently, many of the couture garments she’d previously worn were more revealing. Bang goes that near 50-year fantasy then.

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Blonde On Blonde (1966) ~ Bob Dylan

Artist: Jerry Schatzberg

Blonde On Blonde is one of the all-time – all-time – classic rock albums. It’s Dylan at the peak of his early just-moved-on-from-folk powers. Back when he was the ultimate Noo Yawk hipster, who’d incongrously disappeared to Nashville for a while and come back with an unexpected, sensational record of both elegant bouncy hits (Just Like A Woman; I Want You) and bluesy yet genre-bending, lyrically beautiful complexities (Visions Of Johanna; Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; Obviously 5 Believers). And as if he instinctively knew this sort of an album couldn’t make do with any old, unoriginal cover art, Dylan (thanks to photographer and later filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg) slapped a blurred, out of focus image of himself on the sleeve, in which he appears so cool he looks like a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, and then burdens it with no words at all – the artist and album names only appear on the spine. The reality, though, is somewhat different. For the creation of this now utterly iconic image came about – as do some of the greatest works of art – by sheer accident. Schatzberg explained a few years ago: “of course everyone was trying to interpret the meaning [of the image, taken in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District], saying it must represent getting high on an LSD trip. It was none of the above; we were just cold and the two of us were shivering. There were other images that were sharp and in focus but, to his credit, Dylan liked that photograph”. The inner sleeve featured nine more, this time black-and-white, Schatzberg-shot photos of Dylan, as well as one of Italian cinema star Claudia Cardinale that had to be removed from US versions of the album from ’68 onwards owing to copyright infringement.

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Between The Buttons (1967) ~ The Rolling Stones

Artist: Gered Mankowitz

Apparently, this quality collection of psychedelic and baroque rock gained its name from the answer Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham gave drummer Charlie Watts when the latter asked him what the album would be called – in saying ‘between the buttons’ Oldham actually meant  it wasn’t decided. But Watts liked the term – or thought he actually meant it – so he named a poem-cum-cartoon, which he came up with for the reverse of the album’s sleeve, ‘Between The Buttons’ and the name stuck; the record itself took the moniker. The much more familiar image that adorns the sleeve’s front was captured by legendary rock photographer Gered Mankowitz on a chilly morning on London’s Primrose Hill following the band pulling an all-nighter in the recording studio. Using a camera filter constructed from card, glass and vaseline, Mankowitz wilfully suggested the psychedelic, druggy feel of the music, but perhaps also of the band themselves, whom having been recording all night could well have been stoned, let’s be honest. Commentators have suggested one of them, namely the not-long-to-tragically-pass-on Brian Jones, certainly could have been – or at least his appearance here was prescient; critic David Dalton writing he looks ‘like a doomed albino raccoon’. Nice. Mankowitz merely observed: “I was frustrated because it felt like we were on the verge of something really special and he was messing it up. But the way Brian appeared to not give a sh*t is exactly what the band was about”. Indeed, all told, it’s an awesome image with its cool composition and ethereal, blurry blue goodness. One further thing; curiously, the original UK version of the album featured no single releases, but the US boasted the cast-iron classic efforts (and major hits) Let’s Spend The Night Together and Ruby Tuesday. Can’t help but think the Yanks got the better deal there.

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The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) ~ The Velvet Underground and Nico

Artist: Andy Warhol

Don’t doubt it, this eponymous album changed rock music forever. Never before had pop and/ or rock artists quite so blatantly written tunes about drug-taking, sexual deviance and The Oldest Profession In The World™. Yup, the New York rockers that were Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and, a little incongruously, the pretty German chanteuse Christa ‘Nico’ Päffgen didn’t bother with any of that psychedelic allusory nonsense on their debut album; it’s patently obvious what I’m Waiting For The Man, Venus In Furs, Run Run Run and, lest we forget, Heroin are about. And it doesn’t hurt that they and the then-far-radio-friendlier Sunday Morning, Femme Fatale and There She Goes Again are also all-time great tracks.  Indeed, it may be the album became such a trend-setter because the band’s then producer Andy Warhol (yup, the Pop Art God himself) was a very hands-off producer, apparently inviting them to get on and do whatever they wanted. He took a far more active role in the design of the front of the album’s cover, mind, so much so that, well, he slapped one of his own efforts on it – as well as his signature, which led many an uninitiated to  assume he’d actually made the album (not least because ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ didn’t appear on it at all). The image that Warhol’s signature accompanied is of course that unforgettable, diagonally slanting bright yellow banana, at the top of which an arrow pointed with the legend ‘Peel slowly and see’. And what happened when the buyer eagerly pulled the top of the banana and – yes, actually – peeled it off? That’s right, a not-at-all-suggestive flesh-coloured banana was revealed underneath. Sadly, only very early editions were to feature the yellow banana sticker and the ‘flesh banana’ underneath because of prohibitive costs – indeed, the specialist work necessary to produce the gimmicky cover art helped delay the album’s release for months on end. Entirely worth it, though.

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Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (1968) ~ The Small Faces

Artist: Mick Swan

Small Faces/ Which were in the studios/ Hallowed by thy name/ Thy music come/ Thy songs be sung/ On this album as they came from your heads/ We give you this day our daily bread/ Give us thy album in a round cover as we give thee 37/9d/ Lead us into the record stores/ And deliver us Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake/ For nice is the music/ The sleeve and the story/ For ever and ever, Immediate‘. Ah, how the British tabloid press got its knickers in a twist over this really rather neat parody of The Lord’s Prayer put out by record company Immediate to advertise top Mod band The Small Faces’ new album back in ’68. But it was certainly a smart, eccentric effort deserving a smart, eccentric form of advertising. An arguable psychedelic masterpiece that not only boasts the swooping, sweeping, druggily outstanding instrumental title track, but also the era-defining hits Lazy Sunday and Afterglow (Of Your Love) – among many others, several of which Sgt. Pepper-like are fine music hall p*ss takes – this cereal-esque monikered album more importantly came in extremely memorable packaging (more importantly for this post, at least), given its vinyl original was sold in a mocked-up circular tobacco tin. Yup, you read that right. For lead singer Steve Marriott and co., cardboard cut-out-featuring photos, models in whipped cream and banana stickers weren’t enough; no, they went the whole hog and pretended their masterpiece was a clump of ground-up leaves fit for Uncle Albert’s old navy pipe. Unsurprisingly, no doubt due to cost again, this genius packaging didn’t last long in stores and was replaced by a (at least still circular) card-and-paper replica. And what of Mick Swan, whom as noted designed the whole thing? Well, after winning an award for his efforts, he swiftly disappeared from view only to resurface as a fine arts tutor at a Lowestoft college in the mid-’70s. Still, at least he didn’t totally go up in smoke like Steve Marriott (I’ll get my parka)…

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Cheap Thrills (1968) ~ Big Brother and the Holding Company

Artist: Robert Crumb

awesome_albums_big_brother_&_the_holding_company_cheap_thrills_robert_crumb

Nowadays, of course, arty (or should that be nerdy?) comic books and graphic novels are ten-a-penny. They’re as much a part of the modern day art tableaux as Banksy’s street offerings and Tracy Emin’s bed. But back in the day it was very different. All that eventually changed thanks to underground comic innovators like Robert Crumb, responsible for the counterculture cartoon icons Fritz the Cat and Mr Natural. And it was exactly this work that brought him to the attention of legendary, raspy rock-meets-blues vocalist Janis Joplin, then lead singer of the San Francisco rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. The group, who’d enjoyed modest success with their debut album, were looking for something for the front of their next record Cheap Thrills, an image of them all in bed together naked having been vetoed by the straitlaced Columbia Records. The latter liked the idea of a single shot of the soon-to-be-counterculture-megastar Joplin; she did not – as soon as she’d contacted Crumb and seen what he’d produced she pushed the record company to put in on the sleeve’s front instead of the back. But fair dues to Columbia, when it comes to record packaging, acquiescing to this wish of Janis’s has to be one of the best moves a record company made in the ’60s. For, while Crumb’s cartoon is simple (scenes illustrating the album’s tracks and more detailing the band members), the explosion of its bold colours, energy and sheer cartoon-ness offers childlike fun the like of which record art (even that for the über-experimental psychedelic rock scene) had never before got close to. And it worked a treat too; the album topped the US charts for eight (non-consecutive) weeks in ’68, becoming the year’s biggest seller. Offering three essential Joplin recordings (Piece Of My Heart, Summertime and Ball And Chain), its an all-time classic too, showcasing Janis – backed by a talented band – at the peak of her powers. Tragically, she’d be dead just over two years after its release.

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Abbey Road (1969) ~ The Beatles

Artists: John Kosh (designer) and Iain Macmillan (photographer)

awesome_album_covers_the_beatles_abbey_road

Although Let It Be (1970) has the distinction of being the last original Beatles album to be released, Abbey Road was actually the last to be recorded, but there’s positively no fin de siècle feel about it; indeed, you may argue it’s The Fab Four at the summit of their brilliantly creative, staggeringly versatile, sonically glorious powers. Comprising a clutch of classics from John Lennon (Come Together), George Harrison (Something and Here Comes The Sun) and Ringo Starr (Octopus’s Garden), a breathtaking Macca-fuelled Lennon-McCartney second-half medley (Because/ You Never Give Me Your Money/ Sun King/ Mean Mr Mustard/ Polythene Pam/ She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/ Golden Slumbers/ Carry That Weight) and finally the awesome collaborative jam-fest that’s (fittingly) The End, it also possesses one of the greatest front sleeves to bless any album ever recorded. Based on an initial sketch by McCartney (perhaps not surprisingly, as by this highly fractious stage in the band’s history he was the driving force behind the entire album), it’s an image captured by snapper Iain Macmillan in the late morning of August 8 ’69 of the foursome, (apart from Harrison) wearing fetching suits by tailor Tommy Nutter, marching across the zebra (pedestrian) crossing outside the Abbey Road music studios where the record (and much of all the previous Fabs’ records) was recorded. Given how magnificent an image it is – and would be whom/ whatever it featured and illustrated – it almost instantly become iconic, its notoriety being boosted early on by Fabs fanatics famously claiming it contains bizarre clues that Macca was apparently dead; them being his barefoot appearance and the licence plate on the white VW Beetle to the left behind the crossing, which reads ‘LMW 281F’ – were he ‘still alive’ he’d have been 28 years-old, hence ’28 IF’ (sic). Rather marvellously, the licence plate kept on getting stolen from the car, which belonged to the inhabitant of a house across the road from the studios. And, of course, as everyone knows, not a year goes by when many a media launch/ charity/ joke (delete as appropriate) recreation of the crossing of the crossing takes place – and not a moment goes by when tourists do exactly the same. Well, all right, maybe not at night. In fact, you can check for yourself here. Yes, really…

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Further reading:

retronaut.com/2012/11/sgt-pepper-cover-shoot/

performingsongwriter.com/herb-alpert-whipped-cream-cover-girl

crumbproducts.com/larger_views/historyofcheapthrills.htm

fstoppers.com/theshotbeforeabbeyroad

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Don’t fret, folks, for ‘Side B’ of this awesome album art-toting blog-post-double will be along faster than you can flip over a  ’78’…

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon permalink
    May 24, 2013 9:53 am

    The cover to Abbey Road is probably one of the recognisable covers of all time, and as for ongoing antics in the area if the crossing….. I could tell you stories of how many times I have been held up! Lol

  2. May 24, 2013 4:57 pm

    Ha, good to hear there, Simon – methinks every one of those hold-ups (by foreign tourists, no doubt) was worth it. But then I would, I guess. 😉 Thanks, as ever, for your comment… 🙂

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