Apology of album covers: a Manifesto

The LP album covers and all the objects related to advertises or similar could be described and retraced as “Music Iconology” because in most cases they actually depict the musicians (actually the members of the band in that case) in studio photos or during live performances, or even with the logo of the group, so this is the very first point to be underlined: before the videoclips era (that started early in the 80’s with MTV) the image on album covers was at that time – together with the tour posters and other advertises – the only way musicians had to be shown and the only way to promote a song or an album. In this sense album covers are really a new media and they merge and integrate with music to become a new way of art and communication as it never happened before in musical history.

Various rock groups (and not only: even musicians belonging to other genres such as jazz or blues and so on) developed this new kind of communication, and fans were always ready to welcome this new “portable” art. Many LP covers are real artworks and sometimes well known artist were involved in the graphical concept, as Andy Warhol with the famous banana for “THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO” cover. Early copies of this album invited the owner to “Peel slowly and see”; peeling back the banana skin revealed a flesh-colored banana underneath. A special machine was needed to manufacture these covers (one of the causes of the album’s delayed release), but MGM paid for costs figuring that any ties to Warhol would boost sales of the album. Most reissued vinyl editions of the album do not feature the peel-off sticker; the original copies of the album with the peel-sticker feature are now rare collector’s items.

So it was not only a printed cover but a brand new media that never appeared before in this context, and the market was now ready to accept vinyls’ sales in such big quantities as musical environment neve knew before.

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The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

The movie La Strada directed by Federico Fellini in 1954 inspired the album cover for The Doors LP “STRANGE DAYS” (1967): the bizzarre figures in the front of vinyl edition were surreal; the photo was taken in a New York street, and according to Jim Morrison there was even an artistic touch similar to Dalì works. The members of the group (and the title itself) could be seen instead only as a small poster hanged in the wall on both sides (front and back in a simmetric way) almost hidden at first sight, in a manner very far from the usual covers of the time, especially for a Californian group.

This cover to be understood must be seen in its entirety (in the CD format many of these features are lost), and it is one of the first to track a common path with the cinema world: the strange characters from the circus world are in both cases out of reality and try to share their human nature in an open street facing the reality in a strange way, as the the title of the album itself suggests.

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The Doors – Strange Days (1967). Front and back cover
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Federico Fellini – Frame from the movie “La Strada” (1954)

Other artist worked in similar directions: the works by the graphic designer Storm Thorgerson (who created the surreal elements in Pink Floyd’s covers through their rich discography) are full of interest. The “UMMAGUMMA” (1969) artwork shows the members of the band, with a picture hanging on the wall showing the same scene, except that the band members have switched positions. The picture on the wall also includes the picture on the wall, creating a recursion effect, with each recursion showing band members exchanging positions. After four variations of the scene, the final picture within picture is the cover of the previous Pink Floyd album, “A SAURCEFUL OF SECRETS”. The latter, however, is absent from the CD release; instead, the recursion effect is seemingly ad infinitum and it is known as the Droste effect.

A small picture of the LP with the original soundtrack from the movie “Gigi” is near the main chair, and so a link between two different media (album cover and movie) can be tracked even in this example.

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Pink Floyd – Ummagumma (1969)
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“Gigi” movie poster (1958)

Similar surreal covers (often with the presence of animals) can be found in Genesis album covers drawn by the British painter and graphic artist Paul Whitehead. The “FOXTROT” album is full of hidden trasures and meanings :

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Genesis – Foxtrot (1972)

And it could be understood with all the quotes, from the Bible (the four horsemen recall the ones from the Apocalypse), to the English society (with the fox hunting), and to enviromental themes (the fishes and the dolphins escape from pollution) only when fully open:

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Genesis – Foxtrot (1972). Front and back cover

The artist Georhe Underwood had a part in the completion of the creation of some of the most complex and well known LP covers of the 70’s, helped by the format of the vinyl LP album that let the artists to create real artwork thanks to its big (but still portabile and accessible) size. These are some of them, for T.REX and Gentle Giant:

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T. Rex – My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (1968)
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Gentle Giant – Gentle Giant (1970)

In 1969 the LP “IN THE COURT OF CRIMSON KING” was published. Barry Godber, painted the album cover and died in February 1970 of a heart attack, shortly after the album’s release. It was his only painting, and is now owned by Robert Fripp. Fripp had this to say about Godber:

Peter brought this painting in and the band loved it. I recently recovered the original from EG’s offices because they kept it exposed to bright light, at the risk of ruining it, so I ended up removing it. The face on the outside is the Schizoid Man, and on the inside it’s the Crimson King. If you cover the smiling face, the eyes reveal an incredible sadness. What can one add? It reflects the music.

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King Crimson – In the court of the crimson king (1969). Front cover (Schizoid Man)
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King Crimson – In the court of the crimson king (1969). Inlay (Crimson King)

Many Beatles albums have particular cover, and one of the most famous is the one for “SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND” from 1967. The Grammy Award-winning album packaging was art-directed by Robert Fraser, designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, his wife and artistic partner, and photographed by Michael Cooper. It featured a colourful collage of life-sized cardboard models of famous people on the front of the album cover and the lyrics printed in full on the back cover, the first time this had been done on a rock LP. In the guise of the Sgt. Pepper band, the Beatles were dressed in custom-made military-style outfits made of satin dyed in day-glo colours. The suits were designed by Manuel Cuevas. Among the insignia on their uniforms are: MBE medals on McCartney’s and Harrison’s jackets, the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom on Lennon’s right sleeve and an Ontario Provincial Police flash on McCartney’s sleeve.
The collage depicted around 60 famous people, including writers, musicians, film stars, and (at Harrison’s request) a number of Indian gurus. The final grouping included Marlene Dietrich, Carl Gustav Jung, W.C. Fields, Diana Dors, Bob Dylan, Issy Bonn, Marilyn Monroe, Aldous Huxley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sigmund Freud, Aleister Crowley, T. E. Lawrence, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, Karl Marx, Sir Robert Peel, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Marlon Brando, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and Lenny Bruce. Also included was the image of the original Beatles’ bassist, the late Stuart Sutcliffe. Pete Best said in a later NPR interview that Lennon borrowed family medals from his (Best’s) mother Mona for the shoot, on condition that he did not lose them. Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ were requested by Lennon, but ultimately they were left out.

Again a variety of different media form different fields (movie stars, musicians, writers, politician ad so on) are here put together to achieve a unique effect, in some way baroque since an horror vacui is one of the most predominat feature of the cover itself.

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The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Front cover
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The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Back cover

Another contact with movie themes and artists can be found in Emerson, Lake & Plamer LP “BRAIN SALAD SURGERY” (1973): the album cover features a distinctive monochromatic biomechanical artwork by Swiss surreal painter H. R. Giger (who will later create and draw xenomorfs creatures in Ridley Scott “Alien” in 1979), integrating an industrial mechanism with a human skull and the new ELP logo created by Giger himself. The lower part of the skull’s face is covered by a circular “screen”, which shows the mouth and lower face in its flesh-covered state. In the original LP release, the front cover was split in half down the centre, except for the circular screen section (which was attached to the right half).

Opening the halves revealed a painting of the complete face: a human female (modelled after Giger’s then-wife Li Tobler), with “alien” hair and multiple scars, including the infinity symbol and a scar from a frontal lobotomy, recalling in that way the LP title. The two images of the woman are very similar, but the outer image (in the circle) contains what appears to be the top of a phallus below her chin, arising from the “ELP” column below. Both paintings were created in pure shades of grey airbrush, to appear metallic and mechanical. On later vinyl printings (and most CD releases), the front cover is a single piece, and the alternate (“face”) view is used on the back cover, and again the original artistic effect is lost in new media as it often happens when LP covers are reduced to CD format.

“The mid-’70s were full of attempts to shock the public,” Emerson says of the band’s choice of artist. “You’d do it on the stage, in artwork, and do it in your music; try to push the limits. We chose this artwork because it pushed album cover art to its extreme.”

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Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery (1973). Front cover
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Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery (1973). Inlay cover

An oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) intitled “Veronica Veronese” was used to promote the single “More Than This” by Roxy Music in 1982. The original artwork is a work of musical iconography thanks to its subject and the presence of a violin (the theme is the artistic soul in the act of creation) and it appears on the cover album untouched, preserving its style and classicity. Other works from this pre-Raphaelite artist appear on the covers of classical music albums.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti -Veronica Veronese (1872). Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware
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Roxy Music – More Than This (1982)

In the Van Halen album intitled “1984” the iconic cover was created by graphic artist Margo Nahas. It was not specifically commissioned; Nahas had been asked to create a cover that featured four chrome women dancing, but declined. Her husband brought her portfolio to the band anyway, and from that material they chose the painting of a cherub stealing cigarettes that was ultimately used. The model was Carter Helm, who was the child of one of Nahas’ best friends, who she photographed holding a candy cigarette. It is evident that a Raffaello paint was used to compose the image.

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Van Halen – 1984 (1984)
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Raffaello – Angels from the Madonna Sistina (1513-1514). Dresda, Gemäldegalerie

Kurt Cobain for the Nirvana’s album “IN UTERO” (1994) was helped by the art director Robert Fisher, who created the enigmatic cover from an original idea of the singer. Most of the ideas for the artwork for the album and related singles came in fact from Cobain, and this cover is an image of a transparent anatomical manikin, with angel wings superimposed. Cobain created the collage on the back cover, which he described as “Sex and woman and In Utero and vaginas and birth and death”, that consists of model fetuses and body parts lying in a bed of orchids and lilies, such as a modern Ophelia. The standing position recalls even an ancient Greek statue.

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Nirvana – In Utero (1994)

One year later (but the main spread of this kind of covers can be found in the 70’s, the golden age of vinyl and therefore of the big format), The Smashing Pumpkins published a cover rich of deep meanings and details, inspired by several elements for the double album “MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE SADNESS”. The background is taken from the classical movies (such as the Méliés ones),  the femal body is inspired from Raffaello’s “Santa Caterina di Alessandria” and the face from Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s “Fidelity” artwork.

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The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness (1995)
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George Méliès – Frame from “Voyage dans la lune” (1902)
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Raffaello – Santa Caterina di Alessandria (~1508). London, National Gallery
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Jean-Baptiste Greuze – Fidelity (1789). Wallace Collection

The work “La liberté guidant le peuple” by Eugène Delacroix inspired the cover for the album cover “VIVA LA VIDA OR DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS” by Coldplay in 2008. In this example the original drawing is almost untouched and was slightly altered for the cover by using a white paint brush to draw “VIVA LA VIDA”. But the new format losts the original proportion and so the pyramidal composition is stretched and becomes more chaotic.

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Eugène Delacroix – La liberté guidant le peuple (1830). Louvre Museum, Lens
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Coldplay – Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008)

So different media are involved in musical industry, especially in Queen context, and many influences can be traced as well starting from stars of the movies such as Marlene Dietrich. Her position with cross arms will be later imitated by Mercury:

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Marlene Dietrich (1932) and Freddie Mercury (1974)

Even classical ballet had a deep impact on Freddie Mercury’s stage movements and garments, especially in the 70’s.

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Freddie Mercury attends a ballet class in Covent Garden (London, 3rd October 1979)

Album covers are the media used in the 70’s to spread and share an image of the musical performer, as in the past centuries it has been with paintings or engravings. Of course there is as well a commercial side in that years, but this won’t change the approach since the studies are focalized on the links between image and music.

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In this point of view (that it is far from a “classical” approach, but new fileds must be investigated as well, since the methodology could migrate and could be applied with some small adjustments in different fileds of study) “musical iconography” has to deal with all the different approaches that merge together music and image, and this is why in these articles have been analyzed both videoclips and the costumes used during live shows, since in these examples it has been possible to draw back a line of mutual interest and influences from different worlds.

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Freddie Mercury in black and white Arlequin dress (1976)

The approach is to give an overlook to the variety of that album covers (for singles and LPs as well) and to show their richness from an iconographic point of view with all the influences. At the same time it will be possible to show a development of the album covers themselves, since in a few years they will decline as well because of the spread of the new media: the samll format CD that shares with covers only some aspects, and the videoclips with the MTV generation that increased the relationship with movie directors on the other side.

© Nicola Bizzo