Sunday, 6 February 2011

Cover art: you may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but...

A love of cover art is one of the oft-stated reasons for choosing vinyl over CD or, for pity's sake, MP3. Everyone has a favourite piece of LP artwork and a compelling reason for their choice: Hipgnosis-designed record sleeves are always striking, thought-provoking and laced with a surreal sense of humour; Alice Cooper's packaging is as much an event as the music therein;

Alice gives you something to play with

the monochrome, M.C. Escher-esque artwork for the first couple of Blue Oyster Cult LPs has no doubt provided the impetus for many a herb-fuelled cosmic conversation; 

Blue Oyster Cult get cosmic

and the iconic portraits that Mick Rock captured for Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack are truly classics of the genre. 

Although I can appreciate the clean lines and stark graphic design of the covers that adorn albums by Kraftwerk, PIL, Spliff and any number of New Wave, Punk and Krautrock artists, to me they have the cold, impersonal, perfunctory appearance of the packaging for the consumer disposables filling our supermarket shelves. 

Is it a record or a packet of aspirin?

I firmly believe the sleeve should be a reflection of the record's content, so it is probably no surprise that music that is mechanical, aloof, less flamboyant, reined-in and all together simpler should be housed in artwork that is utilitarian and unembellished. Imagine the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks wrapped in a Roger Dean sleeve!

For sleeve art to mirror the evolution of the band's sound is a clever trick. One example that springs to mind of a band who achieved this is Judas Priest. They went from the fantasy, fallen-angel artwork of Sad Wings Of Destiny and its accompanying epic, piano-inflected, progressive style of Hard Rock, to a trio of albums in the late 70s/early 80s (Stained Class, Killing Machine and British Steel) where, as the music within became increasingly concise, edgy and lyrically grounded, so the LP artwork evolved to reflect this, culminating in a shadowy, menacing photograph of a hand gripping the cutting edges of a razor blade.

Even Judas Priest's logo became sharper

Sleeve art is very important to me and, as I understand it, to anyone who holds vinyl dear. When I first started dating my now-wife, she claimed Love Hunter by Whitesnake as her favourite album sleeve. Fancying myself as a bit of an artist and hoping to win major Brownie points, I dug out my paints and attempted to recreate the artwork, replacing the woman in Chris Achilleos' original artwork with a portrait of my 'squeeze'. The resulting picture has pride of place on our bedroom wall. My mother-in-law's face when she clapped eyes on her daughter, naked, astride a colossal, rearing serpent was a sight to behold! Serves her right for walking in without knocking.

I was lucky enough on a trip to the United States a few years ago to chance upon the San Francisco Art Exchange, a fantastic little art gallery featuring rock art photography, paintings and drawings. I got chatting to the gallery owner while browsing an exhibition of photos of the Rolling Stones and, realising just how much of a music nut I am, he showed me around their behind-the-scenes store rooms. I still get chills just thinking about the hundreds of iconic images I saw that day, amongst which were Roger Dean's original artwork for The Magician's Birthday (Uriah Heep), Astra (Asia), Tales From Topographic Oceans (Yes) and, the absolute highlight for me, Relayer (Yes).

Roger Dean's masterpiece

To see every brush stroke up close without so much as a sheet of glass between me and, arguably, the greatest example of fantasy cover art ever created is an experience that will live with me always. And yes, the original Relayer artwork is for sale, price: $2,350,000.00

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