Album art is something of an anachronism in these days with first vinyl and now even shrunken CDs going the way of the dinosaur. As MP3s attack, a celebration of my ten favorite album covers from the glory days of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s is in order.
1. Yesterday And Today – June 1966. The granddaddy of all album covers, most of its brilliance owes to inadvertent factors. Robert Whitaker’s design (based on a surrealist conception of the Fabs’ as “flesh and blood” people) was issued unfinished; in contradistinction, the Beatles claimed it was a “protest against Vietnam” only after taking the time to ponder the photo, i.e. they ad-libbed. Of course, the gruesome shot infers Vietnam (with its “baby killers”); better yet, the cover-up suggests the crude reality of wartime’s PR efforts. Setting that heavy issue to the side, however, the primary genius of Yesterday And Today owes to its participatory, even conspiratorial, medium: the “art” required nosy teenagers to seek clues where clues were never before placed. With such graphic theater, the Beatles’ mystique (and pathology) began in earnest: here is where John, Paul, George & Ringo taught a generation to look under the surface of a pop commodity.
2. Power Corruption and Lies – March 1983. Although the “floppy disc” cover to New Order’s 12-inch “Blue Monday” created the initial buzz among the collegiate hip, the LP jacket was the stunner. With a message no more original than “art = product,” the simplicity and bravado of the presentation outdid Warhol himself. To Ignace Fantan-Latour’s 1890 roses, graphic situationist Peter Saville added a printer’s color alignment code (such as those under the tabs of breakfast cereal boxes) that spelled the band’s name. The modified artwork express perfectly the sounds on the vinyl: lush, precious and cynical.
4. E Pluribus Funk – November 1972. Here is generation gap iconography at its zenith. Manager Terry Knight catapulted Grand Funk Railroad to megastardom with a Times Square billboard that featured the band’s faces as large as those on Mount Rushmore. Pushing the idea forward, here the lads from Buick City USA usurp Thomas Jefferson on a 12-inch nickel. Considering the album “shipped gold” to the despair of every record critic in the land, issuing the record as money itself was pretty crass. And metal.
5. Metal Box [UK only] – November 1978. Six years later, PiL took Knight’s idea to its logical conclusion: the metal film canister. As lavish as it is devoid of message, this “cover” perfectly represented the intransigent attitude of the band.
6. Led Zeppelin III – October 1970. With its “groovy” logo and spinning wheel cover, Led Zeppelin’s third album merged the bubblegum cheap effects of Buddah’s Dial-A-Hit with the pyschedelic nerdiness of Iron Butterfly. Cute, fun and delightfully unselfconscious, too bad they go just a bit further and make this for black light.
7. USA – November 1971. Another generation gap classic, and a fine example of the indefatigable comic book style, Bloodrock’s fourth album cover features Satan blasting the plasma out of some hapless hipster’s head. On the back, we see the cause of all the distress: The US White House. Illustrated by John Lockart, who contributed to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book.
8. Blonde On Blonde – May 1966. It was radical enough to use a blurry picture of the recording star, but to omit his name and the album title, as well… was pretty stoned for ’66. The most distant and honest of all the Dylan portraits, Jerry Schatzberg captured the demon poet intensity well.
9. No Earthly Connection – April 1976. Leave it to Rick Wakeman to scheme up the ultimate prog indulgence: an anamorphosis album cover. Complete with mirror silver foil cone to view the extra-terrestrial keyboardist. Like, freaky.
10. Astro Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000 – March 1969. The Sgt. Pepper of lounge, this bachelor pad classic blends Queen From Outer Space tackiness with easy listening insouciance. The cover’s perspicacious design merges the pet font of 1993, a go-go girl worthy of Captain Kirk and the ubiquitous 101 Strings logo. Proto-Stereolab.