FROM THE minimalism of The Beatles' 'white album' to Jimi Hendrix's parent-outraging collection of the unclothed on Electric Ladyland, the record sleeve has regularly provided as big a talking point as the music inside.
University students would debate the symbolism of the cow on a Pink Floyd cover before turning the sleeve to more utilitarian use as a surface for tobacco, cigarette papers and allied implements.
For all such uses the compact disc - let alone the even smaller mini-disc and digital compact cassette - are next to useless. And most importantly it appears to be giving little scope to the best and most avant-garde artists and graphic designers who used record covers as an artistic outlet for almost three decades.
A new book on album covers looks at how compact discs are trying to emulate the record sleeve, but concludes that most attempts have failed.
Storm Thorgerson, who has produced covers for Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis, is one of the authors of Album Cover Album 6, a book of the best in album design in the late Eighties. He laments: 'You could always read the information on the LP covers. Now you need a bloody magnifying glass if you want to see anything . . . The real sadness in the certain death of vinyl is the death of the record cover. It's got to be the size. The gatefold wallet opening out on your lap, spreading its mighty two-foot wing span; the inner bag with lyrics and information that you can read without technological aids.
'These physical dimensions allow for different and more expansive design, literally and metaphorically. Far more detail is possible: more double meanings, more ambiguity, more textures, in fact just about more of everything. It's not just the nostalgia of good designs, it is essentially the stimulus; the platform for good work in the future is about to disappear.'
Attempts to package compact disc in ways that allow for album cover design have largely failed. The long box was tried but proved bendable and breakable and did not fit on to a CD shelf. The digipack, a cardboard container with leaves, is too small to have much of a visual impact.
However, Roger Dean, who has designed covers for bands including Yes and Uriah Heep, does not feel that the death of vinyl necessarily means the end of interesting artwork. But he feels that while overall quality is better now than 15 years ago, there is little that stands out and makes people gasp.
'I don't mind the smaller size, but the package is very unpleasant. I hate the plastic it goes on. And why do they have to stick with that same shape? They don't have to. The demise of record covers is bad news for the business because it was such a powerful selling tool. You could see it in a shop from across the street.'
Peter Blake, who was responsible for the most famous album cover, the montage of celebrities on Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, says that this is a transitional period in which artists have probably failed to adapt to the smaller size and simplify their designs accordingly. That will change, he suspects, as a new generation grows up unaware of LP covers. 'They will have to be simpler drawings, and quite possibly more abstract. Something like Sergeant Pepper looks too fussy on CD. I sense we will go back to the earlier days of the Blue Note jazz covers which were very simple. But at the moment it is a bad time because people are not adapting.'
Meanwhile record companies are striving to find ways of packaging CDs that bring back flair into the design. Some have the same theme running through cover, disc and booklet. One, the Bulletboys' Freakshow, has a concertina effect, and Paula Abdul's Spellbound is packaged like a powderpuff.
A re-issue of the Small Faces' Ogden's Nut Gone Flake harks back to a more inventive era; but, as the book notes, the tobacco tin-shaped CDs 'are difficult to open and don't fit so well on the shelf with the rest of the CDs'.
Album Cover Album 6; Dragon's World Ltd, 26 Warwick Way, London SW1; pounds 12.95.
With reference to the article 'Artists lament decline of album sleeve' published in the Independent on 3 December, we have been asked to make clear that DIGIPAK is the registered trademark of AGI Incorporated.