The New Album Art

Inspired by Warhol and other contemporary artists, album covers are now becoming as creative as the music within

Orignal Broadway Cast Recording Of 'Hair' Credit: Blank Archives/Getty

Andy Warhol created a new fine art style by painting the labels of Campbell's soup cans and other masterpieces of American commercial packaging.

Neither Warhol nor Campbell's ever managed to improve on the screaming ugliness of the tomato soup label. But pop art has turned on everybody to seeing all kinds of everyday things —– soup cans, detergent boxes billboards –— in an entirely new way: as potential art works. At the same time, a flood-tide of new artists is turning out work for commercial purposes which has all the independence and power traditionally restricted to the museum and gallery scene. Art with a capital A is going out of style, and the rigid wall between fine art and commercial art is ceasing to exist.

Nowhere is this happening more dramatically than in album-cover design; record-store walls are becoming as interesting as poster shops and galleries. Everybody suddenly seems hip to what a record jacket is all about.

The standard method of producing an "art" jacket use to be by pasting in a reproduction of some familiar Miro or Picasso; a really far-out art director might even commission an original painting. There were the artsy, soft-focus photographs of Miles or Coltrane ebbing into the deep purple. Another big prestige pitch was to cover the entire jacket with some chic, innocuous design, usually department-store roccoco. These ideas were lavished almost exclusively upon jazz and classical jackets; no one ever bothered dressing up a pop album.

No one seemed to worry about whether a Picasso painting had anything to do with the music inside, much less with the rest of the album cover. And this is the huge difference that is revolutionizing album covers now, especially in the rock field. The best of them begin with the fact that they are album covers — –high-gloss cardboard, with limited color-printing possibilities and a 12-inch-square format that somewhere has to observe such rules of the game as indicating a title and who the artists are– — plus, of course, the label. And they go everywhere from there.

Not surprisingly, some of the biggest pace-setters in cover design have been Beatles albums. Early covers like "Beatles '65" (Capitol ST 2228) set the style for the formalized group photograph, everyone rigidly posed, looking straight in the camera and holding umbrella staves or guitar necks dead up-right in a severe geometry. The whole idea pokes irreverent fun at the phony "candid," "live action" poses of standard press-agent photos, exaggerating the carefully posed group picture of 19th-century photography and primitive photographers the world over. The aim is also, of course, what primitive art so often captures without trying: aggressive, penetrating Presence.

Almost every group in the business has come out with an album cover, poster or press picture that represents some kind of variation on the theme —– more rigidly stylized, or more loosely posed in landscape or street settings. Probably the most familiar, for better or worse, is the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow cover (RCA Victor LSP-3766), which has been reproduced all over in posters and press photographs. One of the more successful informal poses is the Mama's and the Papa's If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears cover (Dunhill D 50006), showing the group, fully-clothed, inside a bath tub. The idea is carried to a logical conclusion in the cover for John Wesley Harding (Columbia CS 9604) which is simply a polaroid snapshot by John Berg. The top corners are rounded off, and the picture is outlined in white on the flat gray cover layout like a page from an old family album. It has a beautiful graininess, a glare of fresh sunlight and a totally candid, documentary honesty which make it one of the best album cover photographs.

Klauss Voorman's 1966 cover, Revolver, was one of the first jackets to use Art Nouveau-style graphic work. It reflects a realization that, after all kinds of jackets portraying the Beatles in various close-up poses and, if you didn't get the point, re-iterating "The Beatles" in big bold letters, everybody knew who the Beatles were and what they look like.

The black-and-white cover reduces the group picture to small-scale photo-collage, nesting in Medusa-like strands of hair that cascade over the Beatles' stylized, mask-like faces. In a field that is now swamped with covers in every variety of dime-store psychedelic, it is still one of the strongest out.

One of the few other graphic covers that touches it is Jeremy Steig's own drawing for his album, Jeremy & The Satyrs (Reprise RS 6282, R 6282). Also in simple black on white, it portrays a Bacchanale, or solstice rite, in a web of free, sinuous lines that generate into trees, flowers, figures. The backside also does an imaginative job with the group pictures, using each of The Satyr's New York cabaret cards next to a picture of some cops making an arrest.

The Beatles' big leap forward came with the cover for Rubber Soul (Capitol T 2442), still one of the best covers made. Robert Freeman's Rubber Soul cover is a variation on the formal picture, but subtly distorts the Beatles' faces into a soft flaw of rippling images, like reflections on the surface of a quiet pool. Their heads are arranged in a dizzyingly undulating semi-circle, which is echoed in the liquid lettering of the title —– the cover's only use of words, except for an inconspicuous Capitol bug. The fish-eye has been used on covers before and since, but mostly with gimmicky effect. In Rubber Soul, it turns a deceptively quiet composition of brown and soft green foliage into a literal fish eye view, as subtle as the music inside.

The new Beatles' trend-setter is the Sergeant Peppers' cover (Capitol MAS 2653), with the group, in bright, bizzare bal costume against a cast of-thousands photo-collage of real and wax-work figures that looks like the crowd scene finale of Fellini's 8-1/2. It is the diametric opposite of the close-up, formal group photograph (that's on the inside fold-out, in vivid color) like a surrealistic junk-shop window that yields up stranger treasures the more you look at it. The fresh, outdoor light and garden color emphasize the incongruity like a paste up of Marilyn Monroe in a painting by Theodore Rousseau. The credits are beautifully disposed of: the title, lettered on the bass drum head, and "Beatles" written in flower, in front of a row of cannabis plants.

The Mothers' wild version of the same theme on We're Only In It For the Money (Verve V/V6 5045X) is an instance where the parody is almost better than the original, more bizarre without the beauty. 8-1/2 by way of Mad Magazine. The Mothers, in frilly, thrift-shop female garb, are portrayed in grotesque close-up on both sides of the jacket's outer lining, a counterpart of the Sgt. Pepper inside fold-out. The crowd scene inside is an outrageous conglomeration of transvestite Mothers, plaster figures and a pop collage of famous personages ranging from President Johnson to Hopalong Cassady, the eyes blocked out in "True Detective" style. A lightning bolt crackles through a purple sky and, on the sod beneath, "Mothers" is spelled out in vegetables. The whole production (by Frank Zappa) is a kind of beautiful atrocity.

After so many major album covers, the Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol 2835) is a disappointment. The cover itself is third-rate carnival camp. The back-side has a mildly effective multiple-image color photo, and the entire concept is too much. But the 24-page picture book is also an undistinguished job; the photographs, with one or two exceptions, are cliche avant-garde photo-journalism, of interest only to those who think that anything the Beatles do must be interesting, and Bob Gibson's drawings are slick Little Annie Fanny pop cartoons.

The best album covers are — –like most album covers in the past– — products of photography; but they reflect all kinds of advances in imagination and technique; commercial photography, like TV commercials, is yards ahead of what still passes for art photography in Establishment galleries and art journals.

Some of the best of the other new covers: •

William S. Harvey's cover for The Doors' Strange Days (Elektra, EKL-4014). This is a breath-of-fresh-air study in soft-spoken surrealism, a cloistered, out-of-the-way street populated with a circus strong-man, musician, juggler, acrobats and a dancing, fat-faced little boy who re-appears on the flip side of the jacket, offering a tambourine to woman in an East-Indian gown. The whole scene, bathed in an atmosphere of monochrome blue with a few bright touches, has the uninhibited charm of a film like "Red Balloon" or of the romping outdoor scenes in Hard Day's Night. The credits are neatly taken care of with a poster of "The Doors" on one of the building walls, partly covered by another strip that says "Strange Days." •

The Who Sell Out, (Decca DL 74950). This jacket makes the most direct use of pop advertising art, specifically most of the worst of the unregenerate food and health-aid ads that fill all those front pages before the index in slick magazines. Daltry rides in a bowl of Heinz Oven Baked Beans, carrying the can; Peter Town-shend holds an Odorono container up to one arm-pit, through a distortion lens, and Keith Moon squeezes a raunchy paste out of a Medac tube. The photos, all in flesh and baked bean technicolor, are complete with white-space and bold-face copy layout. If you couldn't feel the cardboard, for a minute you might think it was the real thing. •

Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant. (Reprise, R-6267). A magic-realism of Arlo, in an atmospheric orange light, topless with bib, sitting between two burning candles at a dining table. The table setting has some of the jewel-like simplicity of an old-master still life; Arlo, with his bowler hat, projects the quiet incongruity of a figure out of a Magritte painting. •

Daniel Kramer's photo for Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home. (Columbia, CL 2328). An arty, but still honest, view through a diffusion color lens of Dylan in a contemplative mood, holding a cat and a magazine with a feature on Jean Harlow; a note of soft-spoken social protest is provided by a "Fallout Shelter" poster, a Time magazine Johnson cover and a vacuously beautiful chick who lounges in front of a fire place behind him, nonchalantly holding a cigarette. •

The photographs for Donovan's "A Gift From a Flower to a Garden" (Epic L2n 6071). The cover photograph has the fragile, delicate beauty of a sprig of fresh lilac; the reverse-side photo is a soft color study of Donovan and His Holiness the Maharishi. Like the Beatles, Donovan seems to project his own essence into everything that touches him: soft-spoken, pure and sensitive. •

The Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons (London, LL 3499). From a flood of whispy, soft-focus color covers, this one stands out for fresh, sunrise atmosphere, the poetic natural ness of the Stones' expressions and the white-light halos that radiates between the buttons of lettering that names the title and group. •

The Grateful Dead cover (Warner Bros. W1689, one of the few psychedelic covers that come off, mainly because it was designed by two of the best psychedelic poster makers, Mouse and Kelly. The cover is a typical Kelly photo-collage of multiple image figures against liquid lights; the lay-out is turn-of-the-century sheet music, a la Mause. The album also has a fine liner pair of reverse, negative-image black and white photos. •

The Dirty Blues Band cover on BluesWay (BLS-6010), out of a large crowd, one of the best using a color negative photograph. •

Their Satanic Majesties Request (London, NPS-2). Another approach toward op effects, with a cover color-photo of the group swimming behind one of those eye-bending screens used in "Nervous– — Tired Eyes?" ads. It seems to screw up an otherwise first rate, far-out photo, although you can't be sure; it may be as atrocious as the garish and contrived montage of old-master paintings, planets, ancient maps and mazes on the inside fold-out. The back-cover psychedelic is even worse.

The whole scene in album-cover design remains spotty and erratic, like any new development. It lags behind the poster tidal wave, and is far from equal in all musical departments; mostly, jacket stylings reflect the music audience.

Rhythm and blues albums continue to feature the cliche press agents' artist's photo — –or, if the artist doesn't have the looks, sometimes an entirely unrelated glamour picture. Country and western covers are even more dismally traditional; jazz and folk, with a few notable exceptions, continue in the Art and artsy traditions — –occasionally coming up with some that score. Another thing altogether are the covers of Blues Classics and Arhoolie albums; reflecting the puristic taste of their audience, they carry on the art-documentary black-and-white photographic tradition of Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange. For bold simplicity, earthy honesty and consistant quality, they are the best album covers out.

The big cover art revolution, is where the music revolution is, in rock albums. They reflect an audience with a taste for quality, but no taste at all for rigid strictures on what art is supposed to be, or where you find it. It's mainly a product of the last few months, but already it's produced its own major and minor master-works. And even the imitations are getting better.