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Judging albums by their covers

Stack of albums

Stack of records

Photo - Lyn Randle/Getty

Do people buy records — or decide they like them—because of the art on the jacket? So much has been written and said in the last few years about the LP, its “totality,” its mood, its “concept,” that it’s still surprising there are so many lousy jackets. Columbia and Epic seem to have fallen into a deadly pattern for most of their regular-price albums—color photo on the front, fuzzy black and white picture on the back. Higher priced Columbia unipaks like Nashville Skyline are often lovely, but most of their releases have that shoddy feel, as if they were designed by a computer.

Elektra has come up with a few good ones in recent months, notably their madly gay painting on the cover of the Roxy album (by Etienne Delessert), the perfect punk photos on The Stooges (designed by Robert Heimall), and their crowning achievement, the cheapie cover of the Wild Thing’s Partyin‘. This last showed a bunch of straight-looking cats and, as they used to say, kittens, dancing under horribly out-moded Twist Era lettering and framed by ugly colors. All it lacked was a little sticker in the upper right-hand corner reading “Reduced to 39c” (it will come). In every case the jackets told the buyer exactly what the record was like, and in the end actually heightened (or in the case of Wild Thing, lowered—but it’s all the same) the impact of the music.

Album covers are designed for commercial effect, of course—that must be why A&M decided to alter the striking cover on the English version of the new Fairport Convention album, Unhalfbricking, designed by Diogenic Attempts, which consisted of a simple color photo of a pleasant elderly couple in the foreground and the group, taking tea, in the background. On the other side was a homey shot of the group eating dinner; the whole package was unpretentious and full of good feeling. But old people apparently don’t sell to the rock and roll audience unless they’re grotesque—so A&M plastered together an innocuous collage of elephants and group shots. No one will ever notice that album by the cover.

The best new jackets are coming from Blue Thumb Records. They seem to consider album art an opportunity to have fun and show off, and the results are fine. Percy and the Garbage People designed the brilliant cover for Southwind’s Ready to Ride, that enormous fat broad dressed up like a Barbie doll sitting on a barstool. Inside was a gorgeous picture of the band playing on two huge flatbed trucks, and the back was simple black and maroon, setting off the mood of the album, giving it a feel of excellence. Blue Thumb’s cover for the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation’s Retaliation (now there’s an imaginative title) screams teddy boy—and the jacket is perfectly designed, even to the point of creases in the picture to make it look like a moldy old photo from the Fifties. It’s so impressive it belongs on the wall instead of in the shelf; and the final touch is on the back, with the lead guitarist reading an old Rolling Stones fan magazine. Designed by Hipgnosis (and where did they get these clothes? The bass player has a leopard suit!), the cover is a pure essay in British pop history, without being the least bit arty or pretentious.

And with all the forgettable jackets lining the stores these days, it seems Columbia is missing a bet with their new Johnny Otis album. First called Everybody Get a Little Bit, with a drawing by Mad Magazine’s Jack Davis of black looters ripping off a Watts appliance store, it was pulled—”offensive,” “bad taste,” etc.—to return with a new title, Cuttin’ Up, and a photo on the front. Shades of Beggars’ Banquet. For all the record stores that would have refused to display it, there would have been hundreds of potential buyers who would have noticed it.


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