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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Top Five Album Covers of the Rock Era

Following my last four posts of album covers which I consider the top of the art form, here are my five favorites of all. Each of these images has the power to pull me in no matter how many times I look at them. They can either make me laugh, impress me, beguile me, or even freak me out. Hope that they're at least interesting to some of you!

With the Beatles, 1963

Robert Freeman's cover photograph wasn't planned. He caught up with the band in a hotel on a British tour, constructed a makeshift background, and shot them in the black clothing they were wearing off-stage at the time. Shot in August 1963, just into Beatlemania and only a few months prior to their U.S. breakthrough, this cover captures them in what one could consider their last stage of innocence.

The stark black-and-white image is, of course, iconic--it's been parodied by many artists--and, in its shockingly high quality, mirrors the Beatles' growth as artists from their first album (
Please Please Me) to the second. The group had several great photographers, including Robert whitaker, Iain MacMillan, and Ethan Russell, shoot their covers, but did any of them have such great source material to work with?

And dig the lettering...lovely 60s lower-case type, but jumbled and off-center. How groovy is that?

As for the boys themselves, they look fantastic--young and confident, sexy and cool, and Ringo even a little sad and silly--but they're not smiling, not light-hearted, not interested in playing your game.

That the Rolling Stones and Pretty Things were able to convince people that they were somehow "cooler" than the Fabs because they were "tougher"...well, the evidence doesn't really point that out. It's a retrofit at best. As has been written elsewhere, the Beatles had to create the center before anyone else could go left (or right).

This image is so great that even tinted funny (and given a truly ugly banner) for the U.S. market's
Meet the Beatles, it was still an amazing introduction to the world's best band.

The Supremes A' Go-Go, 1966

Whaaaat? A Supremes album?

While much credit is given (and deserved) to Atlantic and Stax for their fine album covers of the 1960s and early 1970s, Motown sleeves don't usually get a lot of kudos. But there are some terrific ones; the Supremes always looked good, the Temptations had some great images, and of course the Jackson Five were cartoon-beautiful even before they were cartoons.

This sleeve is simply the happiest, bounciest invitation to dance, sing, and laugh that I've ever seen. Horace Junior designed it; Frank Dandridge, an accomplished magazine photographer, shot it. But the sassy "check me out" of Mary Wilson on the right? The beguiling but shy swinging of the lovely, tragic Florence Ballard in the center? The spirited boogie of Diana Ross on the left? Nobody could have created that but the girls themselves.

The typography is brilliant--the arrows on the two "G"s means
action, and the blue background goes great with the pink cover. It's feminine, as are the girls' up to-the-minute fashions, but ripples with pure energy. And indeed, this album is full of foot-tappers and booty-shakers. This ain't no set of Broadway tunes.

Forever Changes, Love, 1967

Love's first two albums featured nearly identical front covers of the moody, frankly unpleasant group hanging around their Los Angeles hangout, a big house with a castle-like design.

For their third album, a grand statement from Arthur Lee (who believed he would soon be dead) about his adopted Los Angeles in the alternately glorious and gloomy psychedelic summer of 1967, Elektra hired Bob Pepper to illustrate the band as a five-headed organism.

Ironically, this was the album where the group began deteriorating due to the anomie, hard-drug abuse, and assorted mental anguish afflicting its members. But never did a collapsing group sound so together...and never did a cover better epitomize the color, vivacity, and beauty of the best music of its time.

This is simply a gorgeous piece of art, laid simply on a stark white background, with the band's inimitable logo--maybe the coolest band logo ever?--just large enough to serve as an effective inducement. Pure genius all the way around.

Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd, 1973

While this is a terrific album, I almost wish that the cover image wasn't such a ubiquitous hot-button for classic rock. DSOTM's sleeve is almost a victim of its own effectiveness; these days it's tough to see with fresh eyes what an amazing image this is.

Dark Side's cover's beautiful use of color AND black, and utterly simple delivery of a complex (and, in fact, physically impossible) image could befit any number of artists.

Experimental ambient guitar groups, sunshine pop combos, progressive house DJs, modern folk revivalists, etc. etc., all do music that could fit an image like this very well. But who did it? Pink Floyd, who were in 1973 a fully established, popular rock group which had already topped the charts in England and established a strong following in the states.

Only Floyd, among contemporary groups, were egoless enough--or smart enough--to consistently keep themselves off their album covers. The Floyd, not sharp dressers or great lookers (David Gilmour aside), hadn't appeared on a sleeve since 1969, and that's the way the quartet wanted it. As a unit, they were uninterested in rock stardom but very interested in creating entire packages that fit together, from music to album covers to tour visuals.

Groups that followed in Floyd's wake never quite got it, and even Hipgnosis, who designed this cover and others by the band, never duplicated the magic with other artists, because Pink Floyd's music worked in a special way that strongly affected what it touched.

You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, Orange Juice, 1982

I suppose this one will be somewhat polarizing. Some people will get it immediately, while others will say, "what's the big deal?"

But from the moment I saw it, I knew I had to have this album without having even heard the band.

First off, the image of the dolphins was extremely unusual. Let me put it into context.

1982 was a weird time in music. Punk was over. Post-punk, with its rough industrial images, was in vogue in Britain. In America, the corpses of stadium rock bands, and sappy MOR drivel, littered the charts. What was new and interesting generally had a new wave or punk-oriented sensibility. The fluffy groups featured silly retro-futuristic images or prettified portraiture to accompany their insubstantial songs. The "relevant" groups were usually self-consciously arty.

An album cover with an optimistic image--a playful, bright, splashy image rooted in nature--was highly unusual among the Dexys and Loverboys of the time. That's why I wanted to hear what this band sounded like.

And I wasn't disappointed. Glasgow's Orange Juice delivered on everything that could have been promised by people who had enough space in their hearts for the Buzzcocks, Al Green, the Velvets, Chic, and the Beatles.

While big-mouth leader Edwyn Collins blabbed about how 'tunnel vision' was good, his own music belied his brave punk-inspired words, evoking the angularity of early Talking Heads as well as the lovely melodies of a McCartney, the harshness of Nico and the bounce of Motown. Love songs for skeptics; funk songs for the Scottish; pop for punks.

Anyway, I love this sleeve, right down to the obviously faked water splash on the bottom, the understated graphics, and the brilliant use of the 'infinity' symbol instead of an "a" in the word "can't." Pure genius, alternately smooth and amateurish, done in a way that beguiles rather than bludgeons. And I'd rather be seduced than brutalized any day of the week.

I wish that the quality of this particular image were better.

As always, thanks for reading!!


Blogger Amy said...

Ahhh yes... great musical geek minds think alike.

I'm in complete agreement on the Supremes and Love covers (I even mentioned the Forever Changes cover in a comment I made about your 60s covers).

12:34 PM, September 28, 2009

Blogger Bob Purse said...

As always, a fascinating read, and a great opportunity to swim around in your brain. That's always worth it!

I had guessed With the Beatles, but was also guessing "Wish You Were Here", which I think is much better than "Moon". I also really like the Supremes cover, mostly for the irresistable shot of Mary Wilson on the right. Three shots of her would have been even better!

Again, a great and fascinating series.

7:14 PM, September 28, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stu, I agree with many of your choices and disagree with many as being special. That is why people react to pictures or designs differently. One thing that makes a difference to me is whether I know and like the music. That SHOULD NOT matter for this message, but in my head, I cannot disconnect the two. I don't know many of the albums shown and the covers mean less then.
The Beatles and Floyd covers are indeed great to ME because I have always liked geometrical designs like the Floyd cover. The Beatles is just great music, picture, also reminds me of "Deface the Music" by Utopia! The lettering idea, whether original idea or not, is still popular. "got milk?"
HEY, for some really groovy non-LP cover photos, check out THIS site and you will probably like some and dislike some photos, as I did. Clark Besch

5:51 AM, October 02, 2009

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