For my generation, cover artwork is an inseparable part of the concept of an “album”. Here are a few famous examples of what I mean.
However, David Byrne has recently argued on his blog that the link between the artist and the cover of an album is usually a tenuous one.
The usual assumption is that much of this imagery, like music videos, is a reflection of, and extension of, the music creator’s sensibility. As if the packaging and the videos were usually under the direct control of the author. This is absurd. Though pop artists attempted to wrestle control of the way they were presented from the distributors beginning in the 60s, most LPs design, and music videos as well, are directed and designed under the control of the record companies.
I usually see eye to eye with the great man, but I’m not entirely with him in this. Is it necessarily a bad thing for artwork to be arranged by the record label rather than the artist? When I was a book publisher, I was amazed at how many cover suggestions from authors were predictable (all my Chinese authors wanted a book in red and gold), irrelevant (“but it’s my wife’s favourite painting!”), or downright tacky. Some writers, like some rock stars, have a great feel for design, but in my experience many are completely clueless. (This is not to say the record labels and book publishers always get it right of course. There is nothing more depressing than entering a book store to see an old friend enfolded in a picture of Meryl Streep or Johnny Depp, just because a second-rate film adaptation has just come out.)
Still, the role cover artwork plays in forming the concept of an album is an interesting area. No doubt it was immature of me, but in my teenage years the photo of the Doors leaning up against the bar on the inside sleeve of Morrison Hotel (and my yearning to look as cool as Jim Morrison) meant at least as much to me as the driving Roadhouse Blues. It may the case as David Byrne says that “The (sometimes) imaginary connection between the author and the packaging of his or her product is not in fact a direct link. It is a marketing button that the sales people have learned to press, over and over”, but couldn’t one say the same about some of the music, the clothes, the image? If I listen to “Life During Wartime” (as I am doing now) how direct is my connection to the four human beings who made this song? Even just after Fear of Music, the album it is on, came out, the relationship between me and the artists who made it was filtered through the opinions of the music press, of my friends, of other music. All in all it was a cloudy brew that made up my relationship with the bands of my youth -- the "art", for want of a better word, was the main thing of course, but there were plenty of other elements too.
And at a gap of more 25 years the relationship to the artist gets even more complicated, covered by layers of nostalgia, irony … oh man.
The point I’m slowly coming to is, even if the packaging was to a large extent a commercial decision, that doesn’t really matter. For a fan, especially a young fan, while there will be album covers, like songs, that you prefer to others, generally you buy into the concept hook, line, sinker, and artwork.
Funnily enough it doesn’t seem to matter too much whether you like the cover artwork or not. Take the Aladdin Sane cover (above). If ever there was an iconic cover (and I’m quite pleased that I avoided using that word until now) the androgynous rockstar with the Z across his face is it. Yet, although the cover artwork of its more path-breaking predecessor, the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, was a much more drab affair (being a touched up photo of David Bowie in a rainstreaked street in Soho), we loved it anyway. (Though now David Byrne mentioned it, I could well believe that this one was dreamed up over a boozy lunch by a lazy marketing executive.)
The relationship between the cover and the rest of the “concept” becomes apparent from the sense of dislocation you feel on encountering an album you know well with a different cover. The Spanish version of Sticky Fingers (with its brilliant Warhol-designed zipper jettisoned in favour of a jar of treacle in deference to Franco-era sensibilities) is a good example. Somehow such vandalism taints the whole notion of Sticky Fingers; how can you enjoy Sister Morphine when it is wrapped in treacle?
Finally, going back to the 1960s-1980s heyday of vinyl album covers, there is the practical function they perfomed as drug paraphernalia. iTunes ain’t gonna be be much use for that is it?
There, I’ve rambled on for so long I haven’t even come to one of the main points in David Byrne’s post—what the digitization of music means for cover artwork. However, he knows much more about this than I ever will, so if you are interested in that subject here is that link again.
Thanks for the link Butch.