When Covers Rocked
As Hard as the Music
There has been many a requiem for the vinyl album. After a post-war apogee of the thick 78s, the 33 and 1/3r.p.m. record reigned supreme for 30 years. But its demise was swift, vanquished by the CD, which like replicants of the era, wasn’t built to last.
During its glory, though, it was a perfect conduit for the music that engraved hearts and minds of three generations. While the sound outlast formats, the albums’ art covers were the signposts pointing to the narrative of changes that their songs were about.
The names of the artists who created the jackets and sleeves of the soundtracks of the 1950s, 60s and beyond never became nearly as familiar as the superstars who came to dominate the age. Nevertheless, some of the work has arguably surpassed the content they were supposed to illustrate and complement.
Peter Blake, Alan Aldridge, Roger Dean, H.R. Giger, the recently deceased Storm Thorgerson, along with already established artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Crumb, were some of the outstanding creators of seminal works of contemporary art, for the packaging of pop hits they were designed for. That art, unfortunately, is no longer around.
Elvis, Beatles and Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and Nirvana, Yes and Led Zeppelin, along with some notable jazz labels such as the Blue Note, have all benefited from the explosion of the art of album cover, and some of the era’s greatest hits are forever linked with the images that graced their albums. Some were controversial, but most were deeply inspiring.
END OF THE STANDALONE RECORD
Their downfall may have started with that shortest-lived of the formats, the Compact Disc, which arguably cut down on the space for art on the cover. When it went the way of the cassette tape, which it’s also buried, what was left was the disembodied music, to be digitally copied and sold, and forever divorced of its contextual packaging.
The so-called iTunes revolution, actually just an understandable evolution more in line with the times, was what has de facto ended sleeve art as we knew it by disassembling the songs from their ‘long play’ concepts. Even if it somehow emulates the throwback one-hit release of 45s of the early 60s, it also decreed their absolute obsolescence.
So many would go on and on about the demise of such a beloved artifact of the counterculture, along with the big happenings and the tune in, turn on, and drop out motto. And would line the examples of such a lost art form as if they were masterpieces about to be incinerated by some deranged Romanian mother.
What they forget is that the album cover, albeit having transcended its original purpose of merely illustrating and packaging the cultural tenor of the times, were in fact designed to be as ephemeral and disposable as much of the attitudes and even the music of the period.
WHAT THE FUTURE MAY HOLD
Album jackets were pop artifacts, zeroing on a particular conjugation of events and mores, with no claims to immortality, even though some of their creators did achieve it. And if some survived and are still admired, despite being devoid of the cultural context in which they were conceived, it’s out of their sheer originality and foresight.
It’s not farfetched to believe that recorded music will reestablish its partnership with graphic and visual arts in the foreseeable future. After all, as it’s reduced to a wave of sound, it may as well be someday enhanced by moving holographic images, dancing to the beat. Oh, sorry, that’s already out there.
So who knows in what ways painting, photography, illustration, graphic design and other forms of industrial or fine arts will choose to catch a ride with pop music again? One may even argue that they’re already becoming indistinguishable from one another. And they may as well all find themselves inhabiting the surface and insides of our bodies.
Perhaps. All we know is that there was indeed a golden age for the album cover art. It was as exquisite and visceral as the music that spun from the black vinyl discs tucked inside them. As for when such a fortuitous combination will ever come together again, maybe when the Moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars.