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

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?