Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Greatest Rock Album Covers of All Time, Part I

In this era of digitization and clouds, minimization and dollar downloads, the clarion call has sounded for the inevitable death of the album format, and I shall blow what Dylan termed the "futile horn" for a dying art now compressed into the narrow and near-illegible confines of a CD jewel case - the grave in which to bury the dearly departed.

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.

In the Court of the Crimson King - King Crimson

Painted by Barry Godber (purportedly the only painting he ever attempted), the fearful face on the front cover is, according to Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, the 'Schizoid Man' from the first song on the album, "21st Century Schizoid Man", while the happier character on the inner jacket is that of the 'Crimson King', whose court is described in colorful poetics on the the composition that ends the album, the progressive masterwork "The Court of the Crimson King". Both faces are said to mirror the mood of the album, and this is certainly true. In any case, the look of manic paranoia on the Schizoid Man is utterly disturbing and an iconic symbol of the trouble and unrest of the late 1960s.

Brain Salad Surgery - Emerson, Lake & Palmer                         

Long before Ridley Scott directed the classic science fiction film Alien with its nightmarish acid-dripping creature prowling the Nostromo, the biomechanical horror images of H. R. Giger could be found on ELP's Brain Salad Surgery. The original album cover featured the skeletal remains of a netherworldy woman, her skull skewered by a metallic torture device. Open the sleeves and the sphinx-like woman (said to be an image of Giger's wife) with tattoo scarring and snaky, alien hair is revealed on the inner cover. The "ELP" logo Giger devised for the album has been used ever since by the band.

Abraxas - Santana

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.

Thick as a Brick - Jethro Tull

What does a band do when releasing a prog masterpiece composed of a single 44 minute-long song stretched across two sides of a record? Why, they design a cover masterpiece as well! The album cover for Thick as a Brick is a several page foldout of a newspaper, in this case the mythical St. Cleve Chronicle, a biting satire of shallow small town journalism that reports on the trials and tribulations of a local nine year-old prodigy Gerald "Little Milton" Bostock, whose award-winning (and subsequently disqualified) epic poem has been used by Jethro Tull as the lyrics for their latest album. The newspaper contains various articles about the scandals surrounding Gerald, band notes (and the lyrics), and newsworthy items on assorted residents of St. Cleve. In addition, there are snarky classified ads, wholly inappropriate children's puzzles and a host of inside jokes and puns.

School's Out - Alice Cooper

Speaking of wholly inappropriate, my original copy of this album was confiscated in 7th grade. Obviously, the nuns did not appreciate the pair of girl's panties that accompanied the album and acted as a record sleeve. But Alice Cooper's School's Out had more than the shock value of feminine undergarments, the cover itself was genuinely clever. Designed by Craig Braun of Wilks & Braun Inc. (who created other covers such as on George Harrison's Living in the Material World and the Stone's Sticky Fingers), the cover looked like an old wooden school desk, complete with ink well, pen slot, and the band member's names or initials carved into the wood. And just as an old school desk, the top opened upward to reveal a storage compartment which housed (in addition to the record and lingerie sleeve) such early 70's school essentials as a comic book, switchblade, coffee-stained liner notes and a picture of the boozy, bedraggled group taped at the top.

London Calling - The Clash

Using the same lettering and graphical style as Elvis's debut album, designer Ray Lowry borrowed imagery from a rock icon as well as redefined the meaning of rock and roll rebellion on The Clash's London Calling. Elvis' swiveling hips were once banned from television (he was shown on the Ed Sullivan Show from the waist up), but The Clash emphasized just how far the "devil's music" had come from the early days. The photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar was taken by Pennie Smith and is considered on the greatest rock and roll photographs of all time. Which is fitting, because the album is great as well.

Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones

What can one say about an album cover featuring the crotch of a clearly aroused man clad in a pair of jeans...with an actual metal zipper! Of course, everyone wanted to pull the zipper down to see what was there (white briefs!). The photo for Sticky Fingers (an apt title if ever there was one) was taken by Andy Warhol (who had suggested the idea to Mick Jagger), but the crotch is not Mick's but supposedly one of Warhol's friends, a street hustler named Joe Dallesandro (and one wonders if Andy did the fluffing). The album itself was designed by Craig Braun, who got into all sorts of trouble with the record label because the zipper scratched the song "Sister Morphine" when the albums were stacked during shipping. Braun's ingenious idea? Ship the albums with the zippers pulled down. And so they were.

Trout Mask Replica - Captain Beefheart

No, that is not a trout Don Van Vliet (otherwise known as Captain Beefheart) is holding in his hand. It is a catfish purchased from a farmer's market by album designer Cal Schenkel for the Trout Mask Replica photo shoot. But the bizarre image suits the bizarre album to a tee, and Captain Beefheart's green smoking jacket, matted fur wrap and absurd hat sets off the ensemble quite well. One of the most weirdly striking album images you'll ever see, and one that will remain, like the retching memory of bad smoked salmon at a dinner party, wedged in your cranium forever.

Strange Days - The Doors

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. 

Weasels Ripped My Flesh - The Mothers of Invention

 "RZZZZZ!" I couldn't have said it any better. The retro 1950s artwork found on the album Weasels Ripped My Flesh had its genesis when Frank Zappa saw the kitschy cover of a September, 1956 issue of Man's Life magazine (above). Zappa absolutely adored the picture, and enlisted the aid of artist Neon Park. Zappa showed Park the magazine cover and asked him if he could top it. Park said he could design a parody of a similarly silly add for Schick electric razors using the "weasels ripped my flesh" theme from the magazine cover. Frank approved but, of course, the record label hated the cover.

Nothing's Shocking - Jane's Addiction

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).

Peter Gabriel III (Melt) - Peter Gabriel

Never mind that this was Peter Gabriel's third straight solo effort titled simply Peter Gabriel. He would release a fourth self-titled album, but the U.S. distributor of the album demanded that it have a proper title, and thus released the record as Security in the States. Yet Gabriel was never one for lengthy titles, as later releases with such monosyllabic monikers as So and Us seem to imply. But let us forget about semantic gymnastics, it is the Dorian Gray-like dissolving portrait of Gabriel, an altered photo taken with a simple Polaroid instant camera, that is most striking. And so the album later received by unanimous accolade the title Melt, for obvious reasons. Storm Thorgeson of Hipgnosis (the album designer) can't recall whether it was he or Gabriel that altered the photo. Perhaps Peter should ask for his money back.

Diamond Dogs - David Bowie

Guy Peellaert, a Belgian artist, painted this depiction of Canis Bowieum Argenti, David Bowie as a golden sideshow dog-man for the sinfully underrated Diamond Dogs album (Peelaert also did the cover for the Stone's It's Only Rock and Roll and the poster for the film Taxi Driver). Missing from the original painting are Bowie's genitals, which were blacked-out prior to the album's release. Obviously, doggy dongs were demented in the mid-70s (perhaps, like many uninhibited dogs, Bowie might perform the hind-lick maneuver). So, here's the original painting sans the shadow hiding Bowie's censorious canine crotch:


The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys - Traffic

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."  

Who's Next - The Who

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!").

ZoSo (Volume IV) - Led Zeppelin

It's not what is on the cover of Led Zeppelin's fourth album that makes it interesting and important, it's what is missing. Oh, the framed painting of the grizzled old geezer carrying a bundle of fags hanging on a demolished wall with decrepit wallpaper has its homely charm. No, what's different is, as Jimmy Page said, "We decided that on the fourth album, we would deliberately play down the group name, and there wouldn't be any information whatsoever on the outer jacket. Names, titles and things like that do not mean a thing." Zeppelin's press agent lost his mind! The record company called it "professional suicide"! No band had ever released an album with absolutely no identification on the album cover! Naturally, the album has sold over 32 million albums worldwide. The gatefold opened to reveal a recreation of the Rider-Waite tarot card "The Hermit", and the inner record sleeve had the four famous symbols that defined each member of the band...

And one for Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny for her stellar vocal contribution on "The Battle of Evermore"...

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles

Photographed by Sir Peter Blake (I guess Queen Elizabeth knights just about anybody these days), this often imitated album image (see the next cover) is the holy grail of rock covers. The garishly psychedelic '67 Beatles stand front and center, and next to them are their alter-egos the "Fab Four" (made of wax - appropriate), as if to say their former selves are now museum pieces. Surrounding the band are various touchstones images of historic, literary and entertainment significance, but it is who was left off the list that may be even more interesting: Jesus Christ, because Lennon felt there may be lingering resentment to his statement that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus; Adolf Hitler, who remained in the photo but was eventually obscured by Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan); Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys, who wanted a $400 fee for his image (The Beatles declined, but his partner Huntz Hall was included without charge); Mohandas K. Gandhi, due to record company concerns that the album might be banned in India; and Mexican actor Germán Valdés (known as Tin-Tan), who was replaced by a piece of Mexican art.

We're Only in It For the Money - The Mothers of Invention

The greatest rock and roll parody required a satiric album cover as biting as its lyrics, and so Frank Zappa and the Mother decided to lampoon Sgt. Peppers in their savage indictment of Flower Power, hippies, suburbia and what Zappa viewed as the vacant culture of the late 1960s. Fearing a law suit, concerned record execs at Verve bowed to pressure from Capitol Records (The Beatles' label), and The Mothers' cover mocking Sgt. Peppers was forced onto the inner sleeves of the gatefold album. The outer cover features the band members dressed in drag. Of the Sgt. Pepperesque cover, Zappa had designer Cal Schenkel and photographer Jerry Schatzberg create the image as "a direct negative" of The Beatles' album. The Beatles had a blue sky background, while The Mothers had storm clouds, and as Schatzberg said, "Instead of flowers and wonderful dreams, Frank wanted garbage and old food and what you see around on the floor." As an added bonus to the mudshark in your mythology, Zappa's buddy Jimi Hendrix came by for the photo shoot (he's on the right hand side of the band).

Cheap Thrills - Big Brother & the Holding Company

Featuring the artwork of R. Crumb, the subversive founder of the Underground Comix movement (including his pornographic adventures of Fritz the Cat), the album cover for Cheap Thrills is vintage 1960s pop art. The members of the band originally conceived the album cover to be a mock high school yearbook, with Crumb's contribution on the back of the album (hence, all the band information in the separate comics panels); however, Crumb's artwork made the front cover when none of the band's ideas could top his. In such ways are masterpieces created.

The Magician's Birthday - Uriah Heep

So many album covers designed by Roger Dean! At one time, it seemed he was in the permanent employ of the band Yes (creating over 30 album covers between Yes and various solo projects by the band members). But I think this cover Dean did for Uriah Heep's The Magician's Birthday is the most arresting and vivid (he did another famous cover for Heep's Demons and Wizards, and a few more for some regrettable reunion albums in the 80s). Spoiler: I also liked Dean's design for Gentle Giant's Octopus, which will be appearing in the follow-up to this article.

Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd

The first image from Wish You Were Here is not a touched-up photo, the guy was actually on fire. He was a stunt man on Warner Brother's studio lot, and the wind changed direction and burnt off his moustache (the two stunt men changed positions and the shot was retaken). This image of two businessmen shaking hands indicates one of them is "getting burned" (and musicians always felt they got raw deals from record companies). The second image from the album is the black plastic wrapper with the sticker of a mechanical handshake that covered the artwork on the original releases. Designer Storm Thorgerson believed the lyrics of the album contained elements of absence, deception and concealment, and so hid the album cover. Continuing this concept, the back cover once again shows the figure of a salesman in a suit, but this businessman is faceless and without a body - an "empty suit" - who more than likely mirrors the empty-headed record sales exec so ruthlessly satirized in the song "Have a Cigar".

The Slider - T. Rex

If anything says spaced-out 1970s rock star more than this hazy photo of Marc Bolan wearing an over sized stovepipe hat, then I'd like to see it. Depending on who you believe, the photo was either taken by Ringo Starr (who received photo credits in the liner notes) or Tony Visconti, the producer of the album, who claims he snapped the iconic photo of the T. Rex frontman during a documentary Ringo Starr was doing for the band. The battle for picture credits rages to this very day, with septuagenarians Starr and Visconti beating each other with canes and walkers. I'm joking.

Nevermind - Nirvana

In the U.S., we start 'em out early chasing the almighty dollar! Actually, the dollar on the fishing hook was added later by the art department. The Kirk Weddle photo of the circumcised swimming infant (the baby must be ready for AARP benefits by now) was seen by Curt Cobain and Nirvana, who wanted it for the album cover when their record company denied in no uncertain terms their first request - a graphic photo of an underwater birth. When the record company wanted to censor the baby's penis, Curt Cobain was happy to comply, on one condition: a sticker must be placed over the offending infant projectile that read "If you're offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile." The record company changed their minds.

The Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd

One of the most recognized graphic design symbols in history - right up there with the Nike swoosh and the men and women symbols on public restrooms. It's as if Dr. Pink Floyd did the original treatise on prisms and optics (who said rock music was anti-intellectual?). Once again, it was Storm Thorgeson and Aubrey Powell of the Hipgnosis team (previously roommates of Syd Barrett, no less), who came up with the concept. "The prism was a way to talk about the fact that this band, preeminently among all bands, would do light. Light and sound," Thorgeson recalled, and Floyd truly did have one of the greatest laser light shows of all time (light, also being the antithesis of the "Dark Side of the Moon"). Also, the series of waves on the inner gatefold represents a human heartbeat. As Thorgeson said, "They had people discussing these mad little bits about their lives, and they used the heartbeat as a rhythm underneath it."

War - U2

The photograph is of Peter Rowen (the brother of one of Bono's friends), whose likeness appears at various ages on the U2 albums Boy, Three and this one on War. The photo is striking and coupled with the theme of the album "war", is an indictment of violence and the incidental casualties of strife, such as children. As Bono said, "Instead of putting tanks and guns on the cover, we've put a child's face. War can also be a mental thing, an emotional thing between loves. It doesn't have to be a physical thing." By the way, Peter Rowen is now 38 years old, and probably uses this album cover as a great way to melt the ice with women. An album cover is a lot easier to get into a bar than a puppy.