ten great artist album covers

13 August 2010 § Leave a comment

Howard Finster – Little Creatures

My recent blogs on outsider art led me to recall the wonderful Howard Finster whose work was used for the Talking Heads Little Creatures  cover (he also had works used by TH and REM for Reckoning). Other covers then sprung to mind and I suddenly came over all nostalgic. I wonder if we all realised how much our latent artistic sensibities were inspired by the cover art that was surreptitiously brought into lives via this 12″x12″ piece of card?  The result is this brief, totally random and very incomplete post on some of my favourite ‘real’ cover art! 

To briefly elaborate I should say that I do not regard any colourful design put on an abum cover as ‘art’. I plan to here look at work created specifically by established artists or their appropriated artworks used for covers. I know that many would argue that a lot of album covers have become ‘works of art’ and achieved some sort of iconic position, but how much is the art, how much the band and their popularity?  London Calling by the Clash would spring to mind a perfect example of an iconic cover, but not ‘art’. The designer Ray Lowry, despite being an excellent cartoonist was actually a poor artist!

Let me pick the obvious ones first! Andy Warhol’s covers for the Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones are unforgettable. The Velvet’s banana cover says everything so effortlessly – the provocative little tag says ‘peel slowly and see’. Behind is a pink banana. With usual Warhol genuis the pared-down design makes a grand statement. Provocative, rude and erect, it is a big FU to the world.

The Stones’ Andy Warhol cover is of course Sticky Fingers – with its real zip. Aparantly at a NY party in 1969 Warhol casually mentioned to Mick Jagger that it would be amusing to have a real zipper on an album cover. The cover shrewdly moved the Stones away from their devil/evil thing and into a provocative sexual mode. Banned in some countries and stores, the album also debuted the famous logo: a caricature of Jagger’s lips and tongue.

Peter Blake’s cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a great piece of pop art (fortuitously allied with one of the greatest albums and the best band). What it is not is collage. It is actually a  staged photograph including life-size cardboard cut-outs, props – and the Beatles of course. It does not therefore exist as a ‘work of art’ other than possibly as the original photograph. Should it be in my list under my ‘rules’? Marginal, but in it is! Blake by the way also did Paul Weller’s Stanley Road cover amongst others, but none fitted with Blake’s significance as a ‘pop’ artist.

Robert Rauschenberg is not someone who springs to mind as a someone who would be involved with albums, but David Byrne of Talking Heads (again) persuaded him to create an artists edition of the Talking Heads’ 1983 album Speaking in Tongues. Actually the art is the LP rather than cover and was issued in a limited 50,000 copies complete with spinning plexidiscs and layered images. Showing Rauschenberg’s interest in collaged objects the coloured discs included photographs of bedrooms, number plates and car bumpers. It resembles his 1967 work Revolver, with similar motorised discs set in a concrete base with a motor to spin the prints. It’s interaction with the public matches Rauschenberg’s aim to work in the area between life and art.

Mike Kelley included music, performance and poetry within his art practice, being a member of the avaant-garde band Destroy All Monsters. In addition, as a long-time collaborator with with the band Sonic Youth, he designed the cover art for Dirty. It feature one of his disturbing stuffed animals – imaginary childhood toys that represent both repressed memories and hidden adult perversions.

Patti Smith’s 1975 album Horses is often cited as one of the top records of all time, an early influence of punk rock. It is certainly helped by the great cover shot by the NY photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It is an intimate, androgynous portrait of Smith against her (their) Chelsea Hotel apartment wall. Vulnerable yet  defiant it is one a many great images that Mapplethorpe took of Smith – another was used on the 1987 Dream of  Life.

Another great American photographer, Robert Frank, was commissioned by the Stones for their 1972 album Exile on Main Street. The cover is photograph of various circus freaks, is not a collage but a 1950 photo of a tattoo parlour wall somewhere on Route 66. The comparison to the notorious Stones – jet-setting tax exiles, cocaine-fueled satyrs and perpetual outsiders – is clear. To emphasise the point the back cover has an identical layout with his photos of the Stones themselves, shot on the seedy Main Street, LA.

The wonderful Hiroshi Sugimoto has provided the photograph for U2’s recent, and mediocre, No Line On The Horizon. Sadly U2 ruined the image by adding a strange ‘equals sign’ over its heart, but I have illustrated it without! These are zen-like images for contemplation, representing time and pondering existence. In his own words: ‘Water and air. So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence. Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing’. Pity it is U2!

For my final image I have picked The Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace album cover from 1969. It is actually Yves Klein’s Blue. Lennon and Ono added a single cloud: “John and I were being very artsy at that point in our lives. By us putting a cloud there it suddenly became the real sky – and the real world – as opposed to perfection.” Bless ’em!

Brilliant covers – but with insufficient ‘art’ pedigree – that I have not included, but wished that I could, include Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes, Led Zep’s Houses of the Holy, It’s a Beautiful Day, Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp, Blind Faith and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. More? Please send me your thoughts!

If you liked this post please make a comment or like it. If you like the blog please subscribe for regular updates (top right of page). Many thanks! akuta

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