It is a truth universally acknowledged that no great album has a crap sleeve. From Sgt Pepper to Ingenue, from Let it Bleed to Listen Without Prejudice, what you see is what you get. The artist with a great ear usually has a good eye.
And as much energy is expended on the outside of pop records as on the in. Committees sit in judgment, clauses are written into contracts, and musical differences ensue. Imagine the meeting between band, management and record company executives at which the cover of Iron Maiden's The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was discussed.
Derek Riggs, the designer who creates the band's, er, distinctive visuals, would have been there. He is not the sort of artist you would fancy meeting in a dark alley.
'Can I just run this idea up the flag-pole, boys?' Derek might have said. 'How about a semi-skeletal man without any nether regions emerging from a lake, right? And as he appears, he produces a foetus from his rib-cage. Oh, and his head is on fire.'
'Yeah, Del, we love it.'
How did record covers get this way? Before the Sixties, sleeve decoration was minimal - a picture of Cliff or Marty and the piece's title. Early pop stars' contracts insisted that the record company could dress the sleeves as they wished. Some designers worked hard against this background of conformity. For instance, the angled shot of The Beatles on the cover of Please Please Me at once ties in with and gently twists the conventions of the period.
But then in 1967 came Peter Blake's design for the Sgt Pepper album, supervised by the Beatles themselves. It exploited the extent to which an album cover could be an integral part of a record, rather than a disposable wrapper for it. And after that, any self-respecting rock act wanted a go at the drawing board. Fancy some clever model making? Let It Bleed; some nudes perhaps? Electric Ladyland; nothing at all? The White Album.
In the Seventies, designers were forced to extremes to make the product stand out on the shelves. Gate-folds were everywhere (288 square inches of playground). The boxed set was invented, the inner sleeve, the lyric brochure. And then there was Roger Dean.
No student bedroom was complete without a Dean dreamscape on the wall above the futon. His over-blown designs perfectly completed the over-blown music they decorated - Yes, Urian Heep, Asia and, indeed, Steve Howe's absurd solo album. Dean's work showed icebergs in the sky, panthers galloping across fields, serpents emerging from ocean depths. The only relief was that his covers rarely featured the musicians concerned.
There were great covers in the Seventies, though. Lou Reed's is-it-him-or-isn't-it cover photo for Transformer is as classy as they come. But putting Dean out of business seemed to be the principle goal of the punks. Jamie Reed's cut and paste job for the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks was everything Dean's output wasn't. No gate-fold here, no long lists of synthesisers or percussion instruments: just a bald statement telling you everything you needed to know. In many ways, it was a reversion to traditional methods. And as a happy by-product, it produced endless good publicity by being banned across the land.
The new wave era was fertile for designers. In came the late Barney Bubbles, who almost single-handedly created a house style for music emerging on the Stiff label. His punchy graphic designs for Elvis Costello make some of the finest and most concise record covers. The anti-glamour chic gave designers the opportunity to depict artists in front of shabby shops (Ian Dury) or shooting up in tawdry armchairs (Chelsea) or vomiting copiously in suburban kitchens (the Cortinas). Everyone, incidentally, seemed to be knock- kneed and pigeon-toed in those days.
You might think the advance of feminism would have restricted that last refuge of the design scoundrel: if in doubt, shove a scantily clad woman across your cover. In fact, this is not the case. Take, for instance, the Average White Band's 1981 Best Of AWB compilation in which a woman's naked buttocks form the W of the title. Or there is Robert Palmer, Batley's version of Neil Lyndon, ready to enliven his music with a quick flash. Not of himself, of course. The cover of Pressure Drop features a woman with preposterously long legs wearing nothing but high heels; Palmer, meanwhile, wears nothing but a two-piece tweed suit and an open necked shirt. His feet are out of the picture, but they are probably clad in Church's brogues.
This kind of thing can be done well: Kari-Ann Moeller crawling across the gate-fold of Roxy Music's debut album is perhaps the most sophisticated example. But mainly it is done with all the style and grace of a pornographic magazine cover. Even today, rap and heavy metal cheerfully scurry for this lower ground. Two Live Crew and the Scorpions may occupy opposite poles musically, but both outfits have a marked preference for sparsely clad female flesh decorating their output. The only distinguishing feature between the two is the colour of the flesh concerned.
Still, sleeve design continues to evolve. It's worth remembering the difficult position sleeve designers are in. They have to satisfy the demands of the record company's marketing department and the stipulations of the artist, as well as their own desire to produce something visually arresting. It is widely believed that, even these days, if record companies had their way, almost every album would come plastered with a basic portrait shot of the artist - the most direct route to product awareness. Meanwhile, the artists conceive of ever more capricious notions of their own. Stephanie Nash, the designer of the sleeve for World Party's Goodbye Jumbo, was restricted in her interpretation, when Karl Wallinger insisted that any design should incorporate him dressed as an elephant in a gas mask.
And these days designers have much less room for manoeuvre. Instead of the lush acres of the 12in sleeve, they are confined to the backyard of the CD cover. Many record buyers have suggested this will bring about the end of sleeve design as we know it. After all, with a CD, once you have put the band's name and title on, you can barely squeeze in a photograph.
But for the sleeve-makers, it is just another design problem. In recent years, they have juggled the demands of the two formats, large and small, with the aim of producing something which works on both scales. The result has frequently been an unsatisfying compromise. Now they can concentrate again and the result is a sleeve like the one decorating Bruce Springsteen's Human Touch. In a photograph by David Rose, Springsteen's muscular wrist holds a Fender guitar by the neck. It is one of the first CD covers not to look like a shrunken album sleeve. And like the Never Mind the Bollocks artwork, it says all it needs to say. -
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