For well over half a century, cover art has been recorded music’s closest companion. A great record sleeve can define a work, an era, a movement. They can even be famous pieces of art in their own right, surpassing the recognisability of the songs they represent and passing into the realm of iconic visual brilliance. Here, Innocuist takes a look at the pinnacles of album art, as we journey through a brief history of the art of music.
Prior to the late 1930s, vinyl records had been typically sold in plain paper coverings, though occasionally these were printed starkly with the title of the work and the name of the artist. The genesis of album art as we view it today came in 1938 when Columbia Records hired Alex Steinweiss as their first art director. Steinweiss, a Brooklynite who learnt the principles of his craft as a poster designer, is credited with inventing the concept of modern cover art. Using minimalistic combinations of coloured paper and hand-drawn art, Steinweiss pioneered a medium that soon had other record companies scrambling to follow suit.
“They were so drab, so unattractive,” said Steinweiss of the previous eras record sleeves, “I convinced the executives to let me design a few.” Steinweiss envisioned a 12 inch by 12 inch canvass inspired by French and German poster styles, and he prolifically crafted original works of art to project the beauty of the music packaged inside. When the first LP was released in 1947, Steinweiss invented a paperboard jacket style that went on the become the industry standard for the next 50 years. Record stores would never look the same.
The artists working in early cover design utilised both reproductions of classic artworks and original designs on 10 and 12 inch record sleeves. For his part, Steinweiss - who also designed movie posters for classics such as Casino Royale - was so omnipresent in the album art field that his signature (the Steinweiss scrawl) became ubiquitous on the album covers of the 1940s. His first cover, designed for a collection of Rodgers and Hart music, featured a theater marquee with the album’s title appearing in lights. Jackets for jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and numerous classical, folk, and pop recordings followed. At one point, Newsweek reported that sales of Bruno Walter’s recording of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony “increased 895% with its new Steinweiss cover.”
“I tried to get into the subject,” the designer explained of his process, “either through the music, or the life and times of the composer. For example, with a Bartok piano concerto, I took the elements of the piano - the hammers, keys, and strings - and composed them in a contemporary setting using appropriate color and rendering. Since Bartok is Hungarian, I also put in the suggestion of a peasant figure.” For Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Steinweiss placed a piano on a dark blue background, lit solely by the yellow halo of a lone street lamp; his cover for Songs of Free Men by Paul Robeson depicted a slave’s chained hand brandishing a knife and had a profound emotional impact on listeners.
Things went along swimmingly for cover art during the next few decades, until the compact disc caused a seismic shift in the way art accompanied recorded music. With a 60% reduction in size and a reduced tactile experience came a decreased emphasis on visual accompaniment. The short-lived advent of cassette tapes had already reduced the size of a record’s packaging to scarcely the dimensions of a pack of cigarettes in the name of portability, but as CDs became the accepted format even while at home, the fate of Steinweiss’s legacy seemed dismal.
Digital music consumption has seen a slight improvement in artwork's consumption, but somewhere - though the iTunes generation experienced a better means of sharing, observing, and assembling cover artwork - the cultural relevance of album art was decreased. Now more than any other point since the ’30s, it is easiest for many to ignore or perhaps never even notice an album’s cover. Illegal downloads may not include the artwork, while many who purchase songs through digital outlets or streaming services will simply never delve into that little square of coloured pixels next to the track name.
Happily, many artists refuse to let the fashions of the day kill a wonderful tradition. Brilliant covers - like that of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Tool’s Lateralus or The XX’s self-titled debut - are holding the torch for expressive, iconic design. Other inventions, like interactive digital art and conceptual “visual albums” are furthering the fruitful bond. Today it is as true as ever that most landmark albums have a cover that is either graphically superlative or at the very least memorable, and indicative of the style of music contained within.
So what is it that makes a great cover? Obviously, the principles of graphic design hold true no matter the medium. Yet an album cover is something of a unique canvas, tied intrinsically to the music itself ever since Steinweiss laid out his manifesto. Often, lyrical and thematic references are picked up and cleverly played upon, as in the case of The Rolling Stone’s classic Sticky Fingers with its accompanying zipper detail sleeve. Sometimes a record is purposefully tied to an artistic movement, as with Andy Warhol’s unforgettable pop art graphic for The Velvet Underground & Nico. Other times, a subtle mood is elicited, like the smokey late night haze of Miles Davis’ portrait for Kind of Blue. For still more records, the artwork is a statement in itself, as with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; who could disassociate that album from that striking red hue, that bold play with dimensionality, that sly and subversive painting?
Photography, illustration, colour palette, and subject matter are some of the obvious elements at play. In many cases, an equally important component is the typography each designer chooses to utilise for the artist and/or album name. Who could separate The Beatles from their signature heavy black serif, that angular logo-type with the towering B and drooping T? And how inseparable are Run DMC from their loud, thick geometric Franklin Gothic Heavy sans-serif font? More subtly, The White Album‘s infamously invisible embossed Helvetica, or Never Mind the Bollocks’ eyeball-scolding colour palette with haphazard ransom-note lettering; these are inseparable examples of type and music working in tandem. For every great record, a clever use of type, or absence thereof. Unfortunately, explicit language warnings have served to undermine these merits to some extent, but usually the impact of a piece of design survives the dreaded rectangle blemish.
It is true that many of the most arresting record covers have done away with lettering altogether, placing pure imagery front and centre, as with King Crimson’s 1969 classic In the Court of the Crimson King, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Björk’s Homogenic, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, and Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides. Such 12 by 12 inch pictures, devoid of textual or linguistic context, place only a message before us; a hint at what this record means, what it represents, what is has to offer. Many of us listeners have wandered through a record store idly, picking out an unknown record from among the shelves because its artwork grabs us. Great design will always achieve that.
Still other designers, such as Factory Records genius Peter Saville, incorporated type boldly into their geometric designs as simply another shape to be precisely assembled. Saville’s first acknowledged cover - that unsurpassable design for Joy Division’s 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures - was instantly impactful, and over the span of three decades, Saville created some of the most memorable explorations into musical graphic art the world has ever seen. New Order’s Movement, Technique, and Power, Corruption, & Lies records all feature some of the greatest album designs ever created; other Saville highlights include Section 25’s Always Now, Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark's eponymous debut, and Pulp’s We Love Life. Not to mention the funereal classicism of Joy Division’s immortal Closer graphic, one of the most fitting and beautiful covers of all time.
In August 2008, Saville memorably quipped: “The album cover is dead.” In support of his claim, Saville cited restrictive technological advances and the rise the iPod. “The things that pop music was there to do for us have all been done… there’s nothing to rail against now,” he told the Independent. “When I was 15, in the North West of England, the record cover to me was like a picture window to another world. Seeing an Andy Warhol illustration on a Velvet Underground album was a revelation… It was the art of your generation; true pop art.” Sir Peter Blake, who designed the classic cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, also expressed his concern at the same time: ”[Album art] survived from the LP to the CD, but if that becomes obsolete then I guess album art won’t exist. I think it would be a big loss,” he said. Here’s to hoping these esteemed gentleman’s generational unease has been allayed to some extent in recent years, as screens have gotten bigger and user experience has grown richer. After all, Saville’s work is as good as ever.
As music itself has evolved over the past 50 or so years, the artistry of jacket illustration has been refined, experimented with, and built upon. Each decade and each genre has their preferred appearance - from metal’s sinister satanism to gangsta rap’s thuggish posturing - and entire movements can be traced, moment by moment, through the shelves of a record store. The digital age has threatened the existence of such visual cohesion, yet there are still many artists who pay careful attention the the art that graces their compositions. For many, album art attracts new audiences and helps to define an acts' cultural presence.
Over the years, many musicians have designed their own jackets, while others have approached graphic professionals for specific visual direction. Still more have left it to pioneering artists like Peter Saville to take great music and elevate it through interpretative, creative license, creating lasting impressions and artistic identities which will forever endure alongside the legacy of the band. To many fans, a great album cover will be as inseparable from an era, an emotion, a time and place, as the suite of songs themselves. So, next time you tune in to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute, prop the record sleeve against your stereo while you listen. Otherwise, zoom close into those pixels and ask yourself why you’re being shown what you’re being shown, what message you are being sent, and why on earth it means so much to you.
Keep an eye out for our next article, which will take a look at that other great musical visual companion: music videos. We'll be going through the history of the MTV era through to the YouTube age, and watching some of the best videos of all time. Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter today to get a brief notification when the article is published.
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