By ProgBlog, May 19 2015 10:03PM
The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was attempting to discover new music at a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images; subsequent popular formats (cassette tape, CDs) didn’t provide such a good showcase for album art so the recent trend for releasing new music on vinyl is a positive step in returning artwork to the status it had in the 70s. My father was an Art teacher and would drag us around galleries whenever the chance arose; I seem to recall Abbot Hall in Kendal as being a popular destination. I guess his efforts to interest us in art were successful because I subjected my son Daryl to the same sort of treatment, despite me ending up as a scientist... Anyway, not knowing how the music industry actually worked, thinking that art direction was the responsibility of the group rather than the label, I hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music.
There are a handful of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock though prog wasn’t necessarily the only genre they worked in. The most obvious examples include Roger Dean and Yes; Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd; William Neal and ELP; Mark Wilkinson and Marillion; Philip Travers and the Moody Blues. The relationship was most rewarding, in a symbiotic kind of way, where bands stuck with a particular designer over the course of a number of releases. This conforms to what Wagner described as ‘gesamtkuntswerk’ where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, fitting the idea of the concept album and consistent constructed mythologies.
When I started to listen to music I took the presence of printed lyrics for granted and consequently I found it irritating when I didn’t have a lyric sheet, having been reduced to replaying sections of albums to work out what Greg Lake was singing on Tarkus (1971), for instance. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the original rock concept album, was the first rock LP to have the song words reproduced on the sleeve and the cover specifically related to the idea that the album had been released by the fictitious Sgt Pepper. Prior to Sgt Pepper most album covers featured a photograph of the band but Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content within.
Roger Dean’s work with Yes created a narrative that took on a life of its own, incorporating stage design for live performances (with Dean’s brother Martyn) and inspiring Jon Anderson to write and release Olias of Sunhillow (1976). I used to buy postcards of the Yessongs panels from the union shop at Goldsmiths’ College when I was a student, to use as notes to friends detailing in minutiae what I’d been doing over the preceding week or two, lectures attended, field trips, books read and albums bought. I was rather surprised when, following the group hiatus from 1975 to 1977, Yes reconvened with an album that didn’t have a Roger Dean cover. The Hipgnosis effort was similar to material that they’d provided for other musicians but I didn’t really think it was very fitting with Yes music. Perhaps this was to coincide with the Yes reaction to punk; the title track of Going for the One (1977) is more direct than any of their preceding output but the rest of the material on the album ranks as being pretty cosmic, especially the epic Awaken. Hipgnosis shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Tormato (1978) – one of the worst album covers, ever. It did neither Yes or Hipgnosis any favours, when it could have been so good! I approved of the Drama (1980) sleeve and was indifferent to 90125 (1983) and Big Generator (1987) – they weren’t Yes music.
Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant is one of my favourite Dean covers and it’s interesting to see how Patrick Woodroffe incorporated another of my favourites, Dean’s Greenslade multi-limbed wizard figure for Time and Tide (1975) after Spyglass Guest (1973) which only featured the Dean designed Greenslade typography (the typography itself on Time and Tide is a subtle alteration); though the cover of the first Dave Greenslade solo album Cactus Choir (1976) is also illustrated by Dean, his working relationship with Woodroffe was continued on The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony (1979), an album I’ve picked up a number of times at record fairs, some in very good condition, but never bought because of the reported poor quality of the music and I’m not too sure whether I like the work of Woodroffe, either.
I do like the work of Ashok (Chris Poisson) for the Mahavishnu Orchestra that runs from Birds of Fire (1973) to Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) incorporating graphics, photography or both. This provides the illusion of continuity, even though the group disbanded in 1973 and reconvened with a different line-up for Apocalypse (1974) and I find the images reflect the spiritual nature of the music.
Sitting with the gatefold sleeve of Rubycon (1975) and listening to the album through a pair of headphones was a favourite pastime during the mid 70s but I like all of Monique Froese’s covers for Tangerine Dream with the silhouette image on Ricochet (1975) influencing my own technique with a camera. The graphics for covers of albums by jazz rock outfit Isotope were certainly part of the hook that got me interested in the band. I’d seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test shortly after they’d formed but my first purchase was their second release, Illusion (1974) with the mercury-like liquid splashing between the two earpieces of a pair of headphones. This form of surreal photography was repeated on Deep End (1975) and the continuity of band image was maintained by the use of the same ‘Isotope’ logo on all of their albums, created by award winning graphic designer John Pasche who, apart from providing covers for releases on the Gull label, created the ‘tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stones. Pasche provided artwork for a number of bands in the mid 70s but I believe that his photographic work for Isotope is his best.
The hypothesis that a good cover is somehow an indicator of the quality of the music within the packaging is totally misplaced. One look at Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste (1971) might be enough to put off the casual browser and there are many examples of awful music wrapped in beautiful images, so the hypothesis needs modification. I visited Impacto Records in Barcelona and bought a second hand copy of Pendragon’s The Masquerade Overture (1996). My wife picked out the CD for me, suggesting that it had a ‘prog’ cover. The artwork, by Simon Williams, has hints of Mark Wilkinson about it but there’s a lot going on from art to architecture to mysticism to Eastern exoticism. If the images reflect the components that make up the music, a cover like this could only be for a work of epic proportions, i.e. prog.
Part of growing up with prog was poring over the album sleeve, whether it was a hand-drawn creation by Nick Mason on Relics (1971) or Fruupp’s Peter Farrelly (Future Legends, 1973 and Seven Secrets, 1974) or the complexity of PJ Crooks’ work for King Crimson, looking for clues linking the images and the music; thinking about the music and actively engaging, not simply playing music to create some background noise. That is what a good record sleeve is for.
In your personal opinion, what would you say is the greatest album art cover?
Were such album covers intentionally designed to provoke a political reaction? For instance, Greg Lake has claimed that the armadillo-tank hybrid on Tarkus was meant to be viewed as a symbol of the prevalent military-industrial complex. Did such artwork intend to intentionally reach out to their audiences in this manner?
Also, considering that album covers such as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon probably helped boost sales and make them as "iconic" pieces that they are today, do you think such examples set a precedent for album artowork of future genres?
There's very little evidence of 'political' covers in the progressive rock genre - even radical left-wing Henry Cow eschewed political symbolism, preferring variations on their iconic sock image that first graced Legend (Leg end.) Rush, who I don't really count as prog because their (early) politics were far from progressive, were a band who came closest to politicising album sleeves. Their naked man rejecting the star (socialism) logo can only be interpreted as supportive of the works of Ayn Rand. Just seeing that is enough to make me never want to buy a Rush album, regardless of the quality of the music. It's interesting that you cite Tarkus when there are multiple interpretations of the meaning of the title track. As a pacifist with traces of hippie ideals, I quite like the idea that Tarkus appears to be anti-war and William Neal’s design for the beast, if it does represent the unrestrained military-industrial complex, is finally defeated by an organic creature which may represent reason. ELP's general audience may not fully agree with me, preferring the sheer bombast of the piece rather than the message. I get the feeling that ELP were closer to the Dionysian model of rock 'n' roll than many of their prog counterparts.
It's my hope that the resurgence of vinyl albums will boost good cover artwork, whatever the genre. Sadly, art direction is often in the hands of record companies who have different values to those in the creative industries, including musicians and designers. Having said that, I agree that iconic covers do help to boost sales, something that record company executives will be aware of.
Best album cover? It's a hard question to answer but I'm going to plump for the series of covers by Roger Dean for Fragile, Close to the Edge and Yessongs because of the narrative thread...
We're long past the golden days of great artwork on covers, but the environment for it should be better now than it was a handful of years ago. I think that's because albums are gaining in popularity again (as you said) but also because it's now easier for smaller acts and keen independent record companies - the myriad of ones run by actual music fans, not the gits dressed in pinstripes at the majors - to record, issue and distribute small batches of releases for a reasonable cost. Whilst these guys aren't going to be able to afford a Roger Dean extravaganza they certainly can tap into the network of fans and the cottage industries that are out there and come up with something half decent, or at least something that has had the artist's input and blessing.