Forget downloads, Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili are busy making records beautiful again

As Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili designs his first album cover, Chris Mugan traces the history of fine artists collaborating with musicians back to The Beatles

In his colourful career to date, Chris Ofili has won the Turner Prize, outraged New York Catholics with his The Holy Virgin Mary and designed a Royal Ballet set. Now the British artist has reached a new landmark by designing his first record sleeve.

It may not have the same impact as Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but by collaborating with an old friend, veteran electronica artist Dobie, Ofili joins a select band of fine artists that stretches back via Damien Hirst to Andy Warhol and, of course, the designer of that iconic Beatles cover, Peter Blake. Indeed, Blake and Hirst continue to dabble in this area, even though few people will see the finished product in its classic 12-inch form.

Described by Gilles Peterson as “the Ghost Dog of Stoke Newington”, Dobie is signed to Big Dada, the Ninja Tune offshoot also home to Brit rappers Roots Manuva and Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle. So there is bound to be interest in his latest album and some fans are sure to opt for its tempting two-disc vinyl package, yet We Will Not Harm You drops just as the record industry finally achieves a rapprochement with downloads, especially as a means of reviving the once despised singles chart. When punters can pick and choose album tracks rather than buy a whole package, to provide cover art now seems a rather perverse act.

Especially so, given Ofili has long been a passionate music fan and even dipped his toes in the genre's shark-infested waters via his short-lived Freeness project, a means for black music creators to break free of the restrictive “urban” tag.

Dobie, meanwhile, is a key figure in underground dance, who as a DJ and producer worked on Soul II Soul's first albums and as a trip-hop maven remixed the likes of Björk and Massive Attack. While his output has received much critical acclaim and crate-digger devotion, the title of his 1998 debut album, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, predicted the impact he would make as a beat generator in his own right.

So as his recording career takes a new direction under the Ninja Tune umbrella, Dobie could do with whatever support he can muster. And while Ofili may be a rare example of an artist working with an unheralded figure, several of his peers are still attracted by pop and rock. Blake's latest contribution arrives this month – an ornate piece for Paul Weller's Dragonfly EP, the pair reunited for the first time since the veteran pop artist devised the sleeve for the Modfather's 1995 Stanley Road album. In October, his text-heavy cover graced Madness's latest album Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da (the band claim he simply wrote in various titles discarded by them once they had commissioned him – “The Rake's Progress”, “Circus Freaks” and “Men of Steel” among them).

These two recent contributions join an impressive selection, headed by the Sgt Pepper's sleeve, a collaboration with his then wife Jann Haworth. Blake also devised the sleeve for the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It's Christmas?” and The Who's 1981 Face Dances. In 2011, Damien Hirst came up with his fly-and-capsule artwork for Red Hot Chili Peppers' 10th studio album, I'm With You – his most high-profile cover after having come up with a variety of skull-based works for his mates The Hours and more eclectic covers for Joe Strummer's late nineties releases with The Mescaleros.

It should not be too surprising that British artists have such a strong connection with pop, given the provenance of both in the nation's art colleges. Blake has described himself in the past as a “prototype Mod” and taught Ian Dury at the Royal College Of Art before designing the cover for a 2001 tribute record for Dury, Brand New Boots And Panties. Hirst studied at Goldsmiths College, which gave him a connection to Blur (Alex James and Graham Coxon are fellow alumni) before he directed the video for their No 1 smash “Country House”. Other acts from an art or design background have kept even more direct control over their visual identities, hand-picking images, design houses and photographers for album sleeves, most notably Roxy Music and David Bowie. Roxy's Bryan Ferry studied fine art at Newcastle under pop artist Richard Hamilton (who worked on the design of The Beatles' “White” album), though preferred models, two of whom he dated, on his band's records.

Such a roster gives the cover-art concept a classic feel, as if musicians who seek high-profile designers must be linked to rock's late-Sixties peak or at least cite its influences, as Weller does with mod. This shifts a lot of CDs to record buyers of a certain age.

These points, though, can hardly be the case with Ofili and Dobie, two artists who in their own ways are forward-thinking and constantly evolving. Perhaps, in the download age, a musician's visual identity is more important than ever, as output becomes subsumed into a mass of data on hard drives, MP3 players and smartphones.

While few fans may get to appreciate a physical record sleeve, they probably will see that imagery as the background to an artist's home page or as proudly tweeted by them. As Peterson's description suggests, Dobie prefers the margins and back rooms to taking centre stage, so Ofili's sketchy depiction of two figures playing cards while another serves drinks provides a handy point of reference, something Kevin “DJ Food” Foakes, Ninja Tune's one-time de facto art director agrees with: “Artwork clothes a record, gives a personality to it. If a track is like a naked human being, then a sleeve distinguishes groups from others and helps casual punters identify what the music's like, even what tribe it belongs to.”

Paul Weller's 'Dragonfly' EP is out now on Island. Dobie's album 'We Will Not Harm You' is out on February 4 on Big Dada

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world