Dream sleeves: How a 40-year-old idea could save the music industry

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Digital downloads and free streaming have changed the music industry for ever. Now record labels have hatched a plan to revive the album format with 1960s-influenced, art-laden packaging. John Walsh thinks the idea rocks

Remember the days when you bought a record not only because you wanted to hear the music but also because you wanted to own the packaging? Those days may be coming back.

The music market is in dire trouble. Album sales here and in the USA were down by 14 per cent last year, while digital downloads, perversely, went up. No matter how much record companies discount brand-new CDs, they remain on the shelves of HMV; potential buyers prefer to select a few tracks of a new album and download them from iTunes, rather than shell out on the whole work. Young listeners, the companies claim, have lost the acquisitive impulse that makes you want to own a record album, or build up a collection of the things in your wobbling CD tower.

So how does the industry plan to persuade music fans to buy albums again? By changing the packaging to echo the design of albums from 35-40 years ago.

Apple, creator of the iPod and the iTunes store – the sworn enemies of commercially-packaged music – is getting into bed with the four largest record labels, to help them stimulate album sales. They're working with EMI, Sony Music, Warner Music and Universal Music Group on something called "Project Cocktail" that will produce all manner of extras to go with albums: interactive booklets, sleeve notes, photographs, lyric sheets, even video clips. Buyers will be able to call up album tracks through the interactive booklet, while leafing through pictures of the band and trying to make sense of the lyrics.

Does this remind you of anything? Of course it does – it describes the experience, among slightly older rock 'n' roll fans, of Owning An LP Record. The people at Apple, to their credit, recognise this as a calculated piece of applied nostalgia. "It's all about recreating the heyday of the album," said one (unnamed) Apple executive, "when you could sit around with your friends looking at the artwork while you listened to the music."

Yes yes – but it was about so much more than that. To a generation that grew up and went to university in the 1960s and 1970s, the long-playing album was a thing of wonder: a thin but substantial 12in square package of cultural signifiers and quirky allusions, a window onto a world of psychedelic weirdness and fey romanticism, rock posturing and folkie dreaminess. It was, even more than the clothes you wore, the main signifier of your identity. The album you were currently digging, in 1967 or 1971 or 1976, said more about you than money, uniform or Ben Sherman shirt ever could.

"When I was at school there were strict rules about uniform and the length of your hair," recalls the writer Paul Newman. "There were few opportunities to 'express yourself'. One way was to carry LPs around – the coolest boys did so for months until they were banned. You carried the album low by your side, in one hand, obscuring as little of the cover as possible. Break times turned into this bizarre scene of boys walking around the school carrying albums. In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson was probably the hippest thing anyone could carry, but most of us didn't have the nerve. We contented ourselves with the album everyone knew confirmed your cool credentials: Led Zeppelin II, with its cover photograph of German World War One pilots and the faces of the band airbrushed onto them."

The gurning face of the 21st Century Schizoid Man on the cover of Crimson King (the only known painting by Barry Godber, who died of a heart attack at 24) was a vivid statement of alienation to carry around with you – a 1960s version of Munch's The Scream. No wonder Newman and his pals liked it. But imagine it on the cover of a CD – all its effect would be lost. The size of LPs made them statements of identity, as if their owners were carrying pictures of their ambitions. When Keith Richards had his first serious conversation with Mick Jagger in a train carriage, it was prompted by the fact that Jagger was carrying a pile of imported rare blues LPs (by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Little Walter) under his arm.

LP albums were perfect objets d'art, functional packages for keeping vinyl records safe from harm, but also things of beauty in themselves, big enough to convey impressive visual statements. Early albums (pre-1960) mostly featured nothing more on the sleeve than a photo of band members pulling faces for the camera or doing something vaguely appropriate for the record's title (one thinks of the dire cover of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys). But the arrival of The Beatles changed that. "During the band's lifespan," wrote Travis Elborough in his history of albums, The Long-Player Goodbye, "the mere phrase 'Beatles LP' enjoyed a kind of privileged, totemic existence. To use these words was to conjure up a Platonic form of pop, one with which few rival practitioners could be compared or contrasted."

Their debut, Please Please Me, showed the Fab Four looking down from stairwell of a high-rise building, like besieged but genial council tenants. A Hard Day's Night, the soundtrack to their first film, showed the boys in a grid of Popperfoto snaps, a clever nod to Frenchified artiness that had already been confirmed by the unsmiling, rive gauche monochrome portrait on the cover of With the Beatles. Something of palpable cultural significance had happened. As George Melly noted in his study of the Sixties, Revolt Into Style, "their first two LPs were to be found lying about in quite smart drawing rooms". By their third album, the record cover had established itself as a style statement rather than just a picture of blokes with instruments.

It was Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, however, that changed everything and set the template for the LP as a package of goodies. The cover, with its photo-collage of cardboard cutouts depicting the Beatles' heroes, alive or dead, was devised by the art dealer Robert Fraser and designed by the pop-artist Peter Blake and his wife, Jann Haworth. But just as significant were the extras. One was the gatefold sleeve, something the pop world had previously seen only on recordings with two discs. The Beatles had planned to feature more songs and ordered a double-sleeve to accommodate two records: finding they had enough material for only one, they went ahead with the fold-out anyway. Sergeant Pepper was the first-ever LP to print the song lyrics of the recording: they were laid out on the back cover, a little obscured by the heavy red filter, but presented as if they might be poetry. Another bonus was a page of cardboard cut-outs – a moustache, stripes, badges, Sergeant Pepper himself and a stand-up card of the band. Originally, they'd planned to include lots of pencils and pins and whatnots, but it proved too expensive. (Recording the album cost an unheard-of £25,000; the cover alone cost £2,868, about 100 times the cost of the average cover in 1967.) It was a gorgeous package of stuff, however, and years ahead of its time in being planned as interactive. "The idea," Paul McCartney told the illustrator Alan Aldridge, "was to do a complete thing, that you could make what you liked of a little presentation – a packet of things inside the record sleeve."

Thus was born the concept of the LP record as more than packaging, as a thing of beauty and intrigue. It offered a complex relationship with its owner that went beyond the music.

Other rock bands followed suit. The Rolling Stones answered Sergeant Pepper in December 1967 by bringing out Their Satanic Majesties Request, one of their worst albums, but a humdinger of a product. The inner gatefold featured a multitude of faces apparently from a Hindu prayer manual, and a graphic maze that can never be completed (you can never get to the "It's Here" spot in the centre) and the original cover carries, stuck on the front, a 3-D lenticular picture of the band by Michael Cooper. When you hold it at a certain angle, the musicians' faces turn towards each other – except for Mick Jagger's. (Too cool to do anyone's bidding, you see.)

***

Apart from these expensive visual tricks, record companies liked to offer buyers a bonus of a few cheery words about their purchase. Many album covers of the 1960s tried to involve their audience by offering sleeve notes that would introduce or praise the band in appropriately cool and groovy terms. ("The Warm Trousers hail from Berkshire and live a semi-existentialist lifestyle ... ") Others featured the artist himself or herself, musing about something. Bob Dylan was the most egregious purveyor of opaque rumination. His 1965 liner notes on Highway 61 Revisited, for instance, offered some incomprehensible prose-poetry: "On the slow train time does not interfere & at the Arabian crossing waits White Heap, the man from the newspaper & behind him the hundred inevitables made of solid rock & stone – the Cream Judge & the Clown – the doll house where Savage Rose & Fixable live simply in their wild animal luxury ... "

A less opaque but arguably more annoying alternative to such sub-Kerouac/Burroughs rhapsody was the glutinous hippie prose style that spread over record sleeves like poison ivy after the Summer of Love in 1967. T Rex, before they were the kings of glam rock in the early 1970s, began life as Tyrannosaurus Rex. On their 1968 album My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair ... But Now They're Content To Wear Stars on Their Brows, the DJ John Peel provided this rigorous analysis of their musical provenance: "Tyrannosaurus Rex rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer. During the hard grey winter they were tended and strengthened by those who love them. They blossomed with the coming of spring, children rejoiced and the earth sang with them ... "

Indeed. It may be just as well that the sleeve-note endorsement, once so ubiquitous on the cusp of the 1970s, died off before punk was kicking in, and the main expression of enthusiasm was a gobful of saliva. In its place came lyric sheets, elaborate musicological information about who played what on which track, and extended acknowledgements to the band members' friends and extended family. But the physical nature of the LP kept mutating, and coming up with new little surprises. The Rolling Stones' 1969 masterpiece Sticky Fingers featured a denimed crotch (it belonged to the Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro, dressing to the right and photographed by Paul Morrissey) with a genuine, working zip stuck onto the cardboard frontage. You yanked the zip down, but found only disappointing white cardboard behind it. This was itself an homage to The Velvet Underground and Nico, the debut album by the Velvets in 1967, whose cover (designed by Andy Warhol, who had created sleeves for the Blue Note label in the 1950s) featured a removable sticker of a ripe banana. An arrow tantalisingly directed buyers to "Peel slowly and see" – but it revealed only a flesh-coloured banana beneath. Only the earliest waxings carried the removable stickers; they were prohibitively expensive to produce.

Progressive rock threw up all manner of LP-sleeve excitements, as the artwork around records grew ever more sophisticated. The cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon showed a stark prism splitting light into rainbow colours on its front and back covers – while inside you could find several little postcards of cartoon pyramids and palm trees whose significance didn't immediately leap out and grab you. In 1973, Emerson Lake & Palmer's fourth studio recording, Brain Salad Surgery (the title is reportedly a euphemism for fellatio) carried a disturbing image of industrial machinery and a human skull – a circular screen lets you see that behind it is a scarred human face, the LP cover is split vertically down the middle and, when you open up the sides, they reveal the beautiful troubled face of a scarred woman. The design was by HR Giger, the Swiss surrealist artist who, six years later, won an Oscar for designing Alien.

Led Zeppelin also enjoyed giving their fans value for money in the packaging. Their third LP offered a brilliantly busy cover, containing lots of circles into which you could introduce bits of artwork by turning a (hidden) circular card on a spindle. For their untitled fourth album, the one whose cover shows a picture of an ancient woodsman mounted on a peeling suburban wall, you needed a mirror to get the special effect. The gatefold sleeve showed a long stark picture of a hermit holding a lantern. If you held the sleeve so that the hermit was upright, and you bisected the image with a mirror, you could make out a face among the rocks beneath the hermit's feet. Oooh-er. Spooky. Two albums later, Physical Graffiti was another triumph of gratuitously complex design: a double album displaying a New York tenement block whose windows were holes in the cardboard – the inner sleeve carried track and title information seen through the windows. The artist Mike Doud won a Grammy for Best Album Cover of 1978. Elsewhere, there were queues round the block in 1970 to buy Airconditioning by Curved Air: not just for its driving electric violin by Darryl Way, nor even for the glacial Nordic beauty of its singer Sonja Kristina, but because the sleeve contained the first-ever vinyl picture disc in recording history.

Alongside the heavy-metal and pomp-rock superstars, the new generation of singer-songwriters was revelling in visual excess. Elton John's golden period began in 1970 with Tumbleweed Connection, a love story to America, whose Civil War/Wild West theme was reflected in the packaging: it included a 16-page booklet of sepia photographs of the singer and his lyricist Bernie Taupin looking moody in period hats. His next four albums, Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, were all stuffed to the gills with special effects: if he'd crammed pairs of jewelled spectacles and a feather boa into each sleeve, you wouldn't have been bit surprised. David Bowie too, after hitting the big time in 1972 with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, couldn't resist the lure of packaging gigantism. His successive mid-70s albums, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, were big-production artworks (especially the latter, with paintings by the Dutch visionary, Guy Peellaert). Rod Stewart showed himself a fan of the gatefold-plus-extra-bits when he released his massively successful solo albums, Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment. His last studio LP with The Faces, entitled Ooh La La (1973) arrived in one of the most ambitious album sleeves of all: the cover featured an Italian (rather than French) music-hall character called Gastone, whose eyes rolled and jaw leered when you pressed down on the cardboard; if you adjusted the sleeve another way, it opened up into a fabulous gatefold of a Moulin Rouge dancer with her left leg extended miles above her head ...

And then things suddenly hit a wall. The punk era was no time for any rock band to indulge itself with record sleeves the size of cushions and 20-page photo-booklets of poetic types fingering their brows. Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, with its sleeve graphics as stark as a ransom note, was like a manifesto announcing that pretension and pomposity were now over and henceforth rock was going to be stripped down, savage and without airs. Yes, in 1979 Johnny Rotten's band Public Image Limited contributed to the record-sleeve-as-artefact tradition with its second album Metal Box – three 12-inch 45rpm records inside a metal film-stock canister – but otherwise the old LP flair seemed to dissipate. Albums were still released with gatefold sleeves with lyric sheets but they didn't make your blood jump in the way a new Bowie album used to do. When compact discs began to appear in 1982, it seemed as if the heyday of the album had well and truly passed.

It was a 10-year design phenomenon, mid-60s to mid-70s, that dragged the presentation of commercial music from infancy to sophistication to decadence. Record sleeves ceased to be mere cardboard packages; they were statements of identity and portals of learning. They supplied teenagers who knew nothing about art with their first shock of visual extremity, and gave poetry-hating music fans their first taste of metre and rhyme. They made us into enthusiastic young fetishists, as we sat in bedrooms minutely inspecting the lyrics, the graphics and photographs while the music looped and puzzled around our heads, and the bizarre cover images by Storm Thorgerson (for Pink Floyd) or Roger Dean (for Yes, Uriah Heep et al) took up residence in our mental image-banks.

When these life-altering special effects were miniaturised by the arrival of CDs, we lost more than just visual impact. We lost a sense of ownership – of the music, of the band, of the song-writing, of a whole complex of identities. That's why my children and their friends are content to download certain tracks, cherry-picked from certain new albums; because they've no sense of owning the band and being part of its creative adventure. No wonder the record companies are so keen to bring that feeling back. Whether it will encourage a new generation of musical youth to walk around the schoolyard ostentatiously holding CDs of the hot new album by The Horrors remains to be seen.

Spiritualized: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, 1997

There are plenty of albums which may or may not be about drugs. But there are no ambiguities here. The special edition packaging was designed to look like a large pill packet; a sticker on the box like a UK prescription label; the CD was presented in a "blister pack". To get at it, you had to "pop" it out of its silvery pod. Subtle.

Pulp: Different Class, 1995

The sleeve notes read "Please understand. We don't want no trouble. We just want the right to be different. That's all." Of the photograph, Andrew Harrison, associate editor of 'The Word', says "Rankin did various shots of Jarvis and the rest of the band in chip shops, at weddings and the like. You got 12 of these things and with the slot in the record sleeve it meant you could chop and change the image on the cover."

Beck: The Information, 2006

The cover was a bit of graph paper, and the LP came with a set of stickers, meaning that you could decorate it to your psychedelic-funk-infused delight. The only problem was, an initial print run didn't include a sticker of a barcode, so a chunk of record sales weren't recognised in the official UK charts. Oops.

Man: Be Good to Yourself at Least Once A Day, 1972

This LP by the now-little-known rock band (think Wales's answer to the Grateful Dead) had a prize-winning gatefold sleeve which, when unfurled, revealed a two-foot-square cartoon map of Wales, showing the origins of various Welsh groups, including this one. The inner sleeve showed the band's musical heritage in the form of a family tree.

Daft Punk: Discovery, 2001

Daft Punk spent thousands of pounds setting up Daft Club, a download site that revolutionised how their fans could get their new music. Inside the 'Discovery' CD case was a credit card with a unique user number giving them access to exclusive remixes. "The service stopped in 2003 when all the tracks offered were released as an album in their own right," says Nick Stevenson, news editor of 'Mixmag'. "Did Daft Punk invent the download site? Sort of."

Ice-T: Power, 1988

Well, it's not PC, but you can't accuse veteran rapper Ice-T of not having a laugh at the high street's expense. The front of this album saw the New-Jersey-born rapper standing with his then-girlfriend Darlene Ortiz; flip the sleeve over and a full scantily-clad rear view (with huge guns) is revealed to all. You just can't get away with that these days (take note Eric Prydz).

Rob Sharp

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