When pop wore its art on its sleeve

With the gradual disappearance of album art, we are losing far more than a few memorable images.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Even if you didn’t know who the artist Storm Thorgerson was, you’ll probably recognise his most iconic creation: a prism refracting white light on to a black background. The sleeve to Pink Floyd’s 1973 album The Dark Side of The Moon is one of rock music’s most celebrated images, and its creator Thorgerson, who died last week, was also responsible for placing that flying pig above Battersea Power Station for Animals (1977) and naked children climbing over rocks for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of The Holy (1973).

What did Thorgerson’s images mean? What was he trying to tell you about the music contained within? These questions were persistently asked of a man inspired by Dalí and Magritte, by photographers such as Man Ray and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel. His simple answer was: ‘I listen to the music, read the lyrics, speak to the musicians as much as possible. I see myself as a kind of translator, translating an audio event – the music – into a visual event – the front cover.’

Thorgerson was a remarkable man, but it’s also notable how album artwork has become a thing of the past. The relationship between visual and aural art enjoyed a wonderful 20-year symbiosis until cassettes and then CDs began to diminish its importance in the 1980s. More recently, the download has made the relationship, sadly, all but redundant.

Rock and art had an association even before Peter Blake assembled the front cover for The Beatles’ 1967 album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Stephen Bayley noted in The Times, there were precedents, for example in the 1950s, when the jazz label Blue Note produced a series of albums with ‘a distinctive graphic language of bold colours, sans-serif fonts and bold geometrical devices in solid contours [that] made an indelible popular connection between “cool jazz” and “modern jazz”‘.

An album sleeve told you something about what you were about to listen to. The reason people didn’t understand Pink Floyd’s front covers is because many, including those who bought the LPs, didn’t even understand their music. Upon the release of Sergeant Pepper, Queen Elizabeth is said to have remarked how ‘The Beatles are getting a little strange these days’. But fans had realised this two years earlier, with the stretched, stupefied photoshot and psychedelic typeface that adorned Rubber Soul. Richard Hamilton’s artwork for The Beatles (the so-called ‘White Album’) released in 1968, reflected a band that had become mired in crisis and narcissism. (Many of the tracks on The Beatles refer to previous Beatles songs.)

While artsy bands either employed famed artists (the Velvet Underground used Andy Warhol), imitated them (The Stone Roses paid homage to Jackson Pollock), or knowingly played with Pop Art’s relationship with consumerism (The Who Sell Out, 1967), groups that sought to convey the ‘dangerous’ nature of their product festooned their sleeves with ghouls, monsters and corpses, employing ersatz-gothic typefaces, littered with nonsensical umlauts – the most famous purveyors of which were Iron Maiden, Mötorhead, Mötley Crüe and Spinal Tap. It was the latter’s Nigel Tufnel, parrotting the pretentions of art-school philosophy, who thus admired the black front sleeve of Smell The Glove: ‘It’s like, “How much more black could this be?” and the answer is “None. None more black”.’

Whatever you think of art-school rock, we have lost something significant with Thorgerson, who dissolved his business in 1983 when CDs first started appearing. This was in a decade when you knew London Calling (1980) by the Clash was music for ‘rebels’, because the sleeve had someone smashing a guitar, and that Pornography by the Cure (1980), with its distorted, blood-red sleeve, wasn’t going to be a barrel of laughs. The polished nonchalance of Awfully (1987) told you much about the yuppie-pop of the Pet Shop Boys without having to listen to it.

One of my current guilty pleasures is a song called ‘Pompeii’ by Bastile. My attention was drawn to it because it always seemed to be playing in shops – it was incidental music on BBC1’s Football Focus only this weekend. I have never seen Bastile’s CDs because I live in a town without a record shop, and I don’t watch music television – I had no idea who they were and what their music might be (electro-indie, since you ask). After tracking down the provenance of ‘Pompeii’, I went to YouTube to find it. Everyone does this type of thing, indicating that the music industry is imperiled for the same reason is journalism: sharing.

The decline of the album sleeve is symptomatic of a deeper crisis. Things aren’t consumed as they were. Rather, they are increasingly given away or stolen. And when something’s value is diminished, so is its worth. As James Heartfield has observed in Mute magazine: ‘The declining value of music also means that it is of declining value to the consumer, so that they will tend to fail as goods that enhance the self-esteem of their purchasers.’ When you don’t pay for something, you don’t take the time to enjoy it. That’s why you come away from a free newspaper website feeling unsatisfied. If you pay for a newspaper, you are much more like to read it properly.

Objects have character, memories, idiosyncracies, flaws. My long-dead grandmother’s pencilled ‘arguments’ with Freud in his books remain my connection with her. A certain skip in ‘Here Comes the Sun’ on my taped copy of Abbey Road will remind me always of a caravan holiday in 1992. And ‘Eddie’, the skeletal icon that featured on Iron Maiden album sleeves and t-shirts, will forever bring me back to a family holiday to Yugoslavia in 1984, where I first saw it. In the digital age, all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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Topics Culture


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