Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Nice Things #4 - Album Covers

Choosing unbiased favourites in the album sleeve design sub-genre is close to impossible – it’s almost invariably inseparable from personal music taste. Yet, bias is excusable. Hell, it’s part of the fun. People will always be swayed by the mental associations they make between cover art and the music they love, stemming as it so often does from the intensity of teenage devotion. With that in mind, feel free to disagree with a few of my own choices…

1. Pink Floyd – Animals (1977) 

This cover concept, although executed by Floyd designers Hipgnosis, was originally dreamed up by Floyd bassist Roger Waters. He imagined a huge pig flying over the towers of Battersea Power Station. He and his bandmates just happened to be rich and nutty enough to actually try and make this daydream a reality…
The sleeve somehow captured my teenage imagination more strongly than almost any other album cover. Living in Poole, we’d get the train to Waterloo on daytrips. After clattering though endless suburbia, the huge chimneys of Battersea Power Station would proclaim our arrival into London. The photograph of the power station, kissably lovely on a full size vinyl sleeve, represented the dream of London somehow. It was melancholy, old and rather grubby. It stood for a bygone, polluting age – and spoke for dirty, smoggy skies. But it was beautiful, heroic, hopeful and exciting too, it was all the contradictions of the city in one place. The flying pig played its part too – wonderfully small and understated in that context, but offering just a little stab of surrealism to ensure the sleeve hinted at adventures in suburbia which wouldn’t sink too deep into kitchen sink mundanity.
It’s remarkable in these days of photoshop (where a flying pig could be drawn on a graphics tablet and grafted onto a photo with relative ease) to think that the ‘Animals’ sleeve designers went to the extremes of sourcing an overseas company to construct a real giant pig balloon, which they then intended to fly over Battersea.
According to Nick Mason’s autobiography, the pig acquired the nickname ‘Algie’. On the big day, the wind caught Algie and snapped the steel ropes before the crew were ready. Off he flew at alarming speed… He soared into the sky, causing immediate terror of a major aviation disaster. He came down safely later, in a field in Kent, but after all that fuss and expense, the Floyd found they didn’t even have a suitable photo of Algie flying over the power station!… He had to be pasted in later.
2. The Durutti Column – The Return of the Durutti Column (1980)

Firstly I admit I’ve never actually seen a copy of this album. But that’s the point, I don’t need to have seen it – it’s like a piece of conceptual art, a mythical object. It’s just an idea. The Durutti Column’s debut album (designer unknown) is a sleeve made of real sandpaper. No track listing or band name, just abrasive paper front and back. Could there ever be a more punk album cover? It’s designed to graze, damage and ultimately to destroy the rest of your record collection. The sleeve is a direct nod, too, to the French Situationist International – whose members Guy Debord and Asger Jorn collaborated on a 1959 artists book with, you guessed it, a sandpaper cover. Jorn was drawn to the idea of the book ruining the polished mahogany tables of its middle class readers.

After it was released, the album was apparently, as one might expect, fraught with practical problems. Abrasive grains would come loose from the sandpaper and all too easily find their way into the inner sleeve. The precious vinyl got scratched in no time. How many copies (of the few that survive) would actually play?
Bizarrely, the album is now also something of a collectors item amongst die-hard Joy Division fans. The record was manufactured in 1980, in a short edition. Singer Ian Curtis, who committed suicide the same year, is said to have helped Factory Records out by hand-assembling the sleeves for extra cash he needed. As the cult of Curtis grows, the thought of a relic glued together by his own doomed hands is hard for some fans to resist.

3. Pet Shop Boys, actually (1987) 

Mark Farrow’s sleeve for ‘Actually’ is a good example of ‘less is more’. In very simple fashion, it gives a pretty good manifesto for Pet Shop Boys. The duo are wearing tuxedos and bow ties – so not exactly your average 80s pop group. They aren’t afraid of looking slightly middle class, nor of wearing their intelligence (and pretensions) on their sleeve. Neil Tennant’s yawn suggests a different (indifferent) attitude. In Tennant’s words; “not a ‘please please buy me” image”
PSB were at this time considered pop with a capital P, riding high after the huge global success of ‘West End Girls’. They’d originally been managed by the same impresario who’d go on to mastermind the careers of Bros and East 17. Yet where many pop sleeves, then as now, depict young bands living it up, beaming with pearly white smiles in glorious sun-drenched technicolour, this muted sleeve of two bored unimpressed men puts the group firmly in a different territory. They may be pop, but they are capable of sarcasm, cynicism, ennui – and of course, dry humour.
The album title plays it’s part. A nice small serif font – but no funky shouty 80s lettering - just a matter of fact statement, complete with rather punctilious full stop.
In my city of Brighton and Hove, people on the Hove side of the border react snobbishly to assumptions they’re Brightonians with ‘It’s Hove, actually’. This phrase is an expression of dismay at being assumed to live on the wrong side of the border – only employed, of course, with knowing humour. This is what Neil and Chris are saying, with dry wit. We’re not just any old pop group – we’re Pet Shop Boys, actually.

 Tennant and Lowe originally intended a very different sleeve, as their book ‘Catalogue’ relates. They approached Scottish painter Alison Watt, who was then riding high after winning the National Portrait Gallery annual prize. She painted them from a photograph, but the band rejected the results.

 The eventual ‘yawn’ photograph came from a Cindy Palamano shoot for Smash Hits magazine, in which the band were framed by reflective sheeting. After realizing it was perfect for the sleeve, they went on a mad dash to buy back the results of the shoot from Smash Hits only hours before it went to press. And the rest is history…

4. King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

I didn’t hear this album until I was living in Japan. Whilst out there, I realized that pretty much everyone above a certain age possessed a vinyl copy of this, certainly in rural north Okayama.
A work colleague, Mrs Watanabe, insisted on playing me the whole thing at a dinner party. I loved (and still love) it. Listening to the strains of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ in that most unusual of settings, I found it quite an eerie, rather unsettling record. It wasn’t depressing, but it made me feel a sense of unease. Staring at the sleeve, I could see it matched the music perfectly – colourful, sure, but sad and difficult and surreal and perplexing at the same time.
Prog rock is a bit of a Marmite music genre – and prog album sleeves are almost invariably horrible. Two notable examples, (which you’ll have to look up on Google, as I refuse to sully my blog with them) would be Nursery Cryme by Genesis, and Demons and Wizards by Uriah Heep. Both look ridiculously clunky and dated now – where the King Crimson cover still looks punchy and fresh.
The original King Crimson dissolved in 1969 – this was the only album the classic line-up ever delivered. The band members found success difficult to cope with, and sought solace in solo projects. Perhaps it is appropriate that such an influential but weird record would be an ending as well as a beginning.
The album cover, like the music it clothed, also contained it’s own strange and sad tale of short-lived success. It was painted by Barry Godber, a computer expert and acquaintance of lyricist Pete Sinfield – who approached him to see if he had any ideas for the cover of their forthcoming LP. He came up with this image – which is thought to be the only painting he ever did. Just a few months later, at the age of 24, he died of a heart attack.


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