Album art, that once ubiquitous mainstay of graphic design in the recording industry, has been reduced to a mere 12 cm x 12 cm (4.75 inches x 4.75 inches) from a more generous 12 inch x 12 inch size in ye olde days of vinyl last century. Much of the album art from the 1960s, 70s and 80s does not translate well into smaller packaging, and the clever nature of the designs has been transmuted into little pamphlets with images and liner notes condensed into small squares, the original artwork hacked into minute bits and pieces. It's rather like getting your exposure to an artistic medium from a paperback-sized art book, instead of going to a museum and seeing the works up close and in context.
So nowadays I don't buy albums for the sound fidelity (I am not an audiophile touting the gram-weight of a specific vinyl release), but for the great album covers themselves, replacing the old and damaged ones in my collection (those used as impromptu drink coasters or double albums opened wide as convenient rolling trays back in the day) with equally old but more pristine copies. It is my intention - eventually and whenever I get around to it - to have an entire wall of album covers, pending approval from my wife and depending on where I am allowed to erect such a wall (most likely in a place far from feminine habitation).
It is unfortunate to see these symbols of rock and roll slip into such a sad demise, but let us not mourn in maudlin mewling, but instead celebrate the death of album art like we were at an Irish wake. The first batch of twenty-five albums are here for your artsy-fartsy edification, and I'll add another twenty-five in a future article. These covers are in no particular order because each is arresting or interesting in their own particular way. I have tended to concentrate more on graphics than photography in this first go-round, unless the photo is in some way more intriguing or shocking than the usual picture of a band or performer schmoozing for the camera. In addition, I have tried to find covers with strange stories of their own. Enjoy.
The cover of Santana's Abraxas album is a 1961 painting "The Annunciation" (wherein the angel Gabriel announces the divine conception to the Virgin Mary) by the artist Mati Klarwein, whose family fled from Nazi Germany when he was two years old to escape the persecution of Jews. Influenced by Ernst Fuchs and the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism, Klarwein's surreal imagery (with nods to Fuchs and also Gustav Klimt) meshed well with the psychedelic 1960s, and Carlos Santana, upon having seen a reproduction of the painting in a magazine and loving the Latin and African imagery, secured permission from the artist to use it as an album cover image. Klarwein's art has graced many albums, most notably the striking cover of Mile Davis' Bitches Brew.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this carnivalesque image for Strange Days is that it is the only Doors album cover from their original studio releases that does not feature a photo of the band as the main image (here, there are only concert posters of the band plastered on the alley walls to the far left and right of the shot). The album image strikes the perfect pose for Jim Morrison's Theatre of the Damned Rimbaudian/Baudelairean poetics. You can almost hear the song "When You're Strange" being piped into the photo shoot. The photo was taken in an alley in Manhattan by Joel Brodsky, and due to a lack of carnie-types in the area, a cab driver was hired for $5 to pretend to play the trumpet. And yes, those indeed are twin midgets.
What's more shocking than a naked woman with her head on fire? Naked twins with their heads on fire, of course! Upon its release, nine out of 11 major U.S. retailers refused to sell the album because of the cover. As of 2011, Facebook has banned the cover. The irony, I guess, is there are still things that are too shocking. The conjoined twins are actually a sculpture created by Jane's Addiction's resident maniac Perry Farrell (supposedly a molded and then duplicated representation of his girlfriend, who I am sure walks about the house with her head ablaze in an effort to reduce energy costs).
One of the most cleverly shaped album covers ever created, this reversing cube figure taken from a book on optical illusions was also voted the most difficult album cover to put a record away in while in an inebriated state (well, no one actually voted on it, but I certainly felt that way on a number of occasions). The faux three-dimensional album design was created by Tony Wright, who has designed dozens of other covers (like Bob Marley's Natty Dread, for instance). In regards to making the cover, Wright recalled, "The image for Low Spark of High Heeled Boys was made in typical 1970s fashion, from first idea to finished art in one day. There were no meetings or marketing managers, just the band, a visual artist and an inspired record company owner with his own particular genius."
One of the most iconic images of 1970s rock and roll rebellion is a fraud! Yes, members of The Who may look like they've just taken a piss on a giant concrete piling (thus thumbing their noses - or other body parts - at the establishment, allegorically speaking), but that aint piss! According to Ethan A. Russell, the photographer of the shoot, most of the band members couldn't urinate on demand, so they filled a film canister with rainwater and poured it down the concrete to get the desired...ummm...trails. The photo was taken at the Easington Colliery in County Durham, England, and the piling on a slag heap has more than a passing resemblance to the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, a film released only a few years prior to Who's Next (naturally meaning "who's next for a good pisser!").