01 Nov 1997
At some point in the last couple of decades, the album cover faded in significance. It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment at which this happened, and hard to explain exactly why. It was possibly something to do with the arrival of Punk; it definitely happened before the appearance of the CD. Certainly as a vehicle for design, the CD cover just doesn’t work: it is not just the piddling scale with its visibly screened photographs and illegible five point type, but the fact that you are looking at the image through a millimetre-thick block of scratched, poorly-moulded plastic
Perhaps the only type of design that has successfully addressed the problems accompanying the emergence of the CD as the dominant music medium is the very graphic type of imagery, associated with companies like Designers Republic, that has adorned electronic music in all its various flavours. But even this kind of artwork looks better on a 12-inch vinyl sleeve than on a 5-inch CD box, and, ironically, the only people taking a serious interest in vinyl cover design today are the dance bands for whom the 12-inch single is still a viable medium. All in all, despite the efforts of designers like 23 Envelope for the 4AD label (who knew that people will buy a record for its cover), contemporary sleeve-design is in a pretty sad state. Bands and record companies still take imagery seriously, but perhaps they are just not as visually literate as they once were. The Britpop contingent, while certainly addressing their image in a very conscientious and commercially-aware manner, can hardly be called visually adventurous and seem to have formed a symbiotic, rather than the traditionally antagonistic, relationship with their labels’ marketing departments. Blur, despite a promising start with Leisure (1991) with its back cover reference to Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970) echoing the music’s homage to early Floyd tracks like ‘See Emily Play’, sped downhill from then on, though they did try. The anti-Modernist, ‘realistic’ painting of Modern Life is Rubbish (1993) and Parklife (1994) were at least an attempt to loosely match the band’s embrace of drab populist life, while The Great Escape (1995), with its condensed Garamond typeface and cheesy thrusting-young-executive look only succeeded in encapsulating everything that was shit about the early 90s. Let’s not mention Oasis. But this has always been the case: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, with a couple of notable exceptions, suffered from dreadful visual presentation. Maybe that’s the prerogative of the mega-famous, or else you just don’t need to bother when you have a teenage market.
Perhaps it is really all to do with the sensibility of the bands themselves and consequently the audience their music enjoys. Some of the most interesting and abstract cover design appeared on Jazz releases of the late 50s and early 60s. The scratchy drawings of a pre-Pop Andy Warhol and the distressed typography of Reid Miles gave many Blue Note covers a very distinct aesthetic that appealed to the ‘sophisticated’ tastes of both performers and listeners, and initiated a pact between avant-garde art and cutting-edge music.
The late 60s and the emergence of London as the centre of the universe saw a tightening of this link through the art-into-pop metamorphosis that we all know and love, with many bands emerging from art college backgrounds expressing more than a passing interest in the way that they were visually represented. The integration of pop with the avant-garde is mirrored in the mainstream by the Beatles’ move away from in-house packaging and moody fashion shots by Robert Freeman to Peter Blake’s cover design on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967, did someone say Acid Brass?) and Richard Hamilton’s bleak, quasi-industrial packaging for the White Album (1968). The latter design was the first Beatles album that did not bear their picture and proved that if a band was big enough they could sell a record without one. Throughout the 70s many of the more successful rock bands adopted similarly abstract imagery, in particular Led Zeppelin (the album IV, 1971, dispensed with their name and the title of the record entirely) and Pink Floyd, who, following The Beatles, were only the second band to be allowed by EMI to use an outside designer. They chose the fledgling design group Hipgnosis, founded by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell in 1968 while still students at the Royal College
of Art and the London School of Film Technique respectively.
One of the most significant aspects of Hipgnosis’ work is a striking graphic clarity combined with perceptual and logical ambiguity that together reflect a shift away from the sensory excess of psychedelia into trying to actually make sense of it all during the transition from the late 60s to the first half of the 70s. In a pre-digital age, Hipgnosis achieved imagery which appeared perfectly tangible and optically believable without slipping into the over-finished fantasy art that characterised so much American graphic design of the period. There is something strangely contemporary in their employment of montage and hand-retouching, and the use of found or stock photography, which suggests that the past is able to be re-invented and recast into a different form. Hipgnosis created a whole series of distinct designs in which a single, centralised object appears, either as a simple graphic image – the best known is probably George Hardie’s mechanical illustration for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – or as something familiar presented in a way that gives it an acidic, disorientating twist: the close-up of an ejaculating toothpaste tube on String Driven Thing’s Keep Yer ’and on It (1975), the multi-coloured iris of Pretty Things’ Savage Eye (1975), or the wary cow of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, for example. The back end of a cow is potentially the least communicative image that has ever graced a record sleeve, but the fact that the cow is turning her head to face the camera establishes a bizarre relationship with the viewer and uncannily echoes any number of human portraits in which the subject adopts a similar pose.
While many of the Hipgnosis designs avoided presenting images of the band, those covers that feature portraits do so
in an oblique manner and offer a similar sense of disorientation. The covers of Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs (1970), Marvin, Welch and Farrar’s Second Opinion (1971) and Peter Gabriel’s Peter Gabriel (1977), for example, all balance a small, partially-obscured image of the musician at top left or right of the image and play this point of concentration against a patterned expanse that stretches from background to foreground. This tends to create a feeling that the person depicted in the photograph is somehow not on public display as a ‘star’ and, equally, that the person looking at the cover occupies the same space as the musician.
Perception and the mechanics of two-dimensional representation form a common thread running through much of Hipgnosis’ work of the late 60s and 70s and this ties in strongly with issues that were central to much of the conceptually-oriented work using photography that was being produced by artists in Britain, such as John Hilliard and John Blake, who in fact worked with Hipgnosis on a number of designs. An early example of this interest is the cover of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma (1969), in which the band members are photographed from an interior, receding in a line through a pair of French windows and into a garden in the distance. The name of the band is spelled out, not in a flat Letraset overlay, but with solid, three-dimensional letters laid out on the carpet in the foreground and subsequently distorted by perspective. The spatial play is complicated by the presence of a frame on the front wall parallel to the camera. Contained within the frame is an almost identical image in which the band members have been re-arranged. The frame on the wall of this second ‘picture’ of course contains a third image depicting a further permutation of musicians, and its frame in turn contains the final combination and ends the apparently infinite recession with the cover of the band’s previous album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968).
Hipgnosis’ design for Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) saw the appearance of large white borders around the photographic sequence (mimicking the way in which images are presented in art catalogues or framed with mattes in a gallery) and the application of a number of devices that played with the assumptions a viewer makes in looking at a photographic image. Figures appear to be cut out of the photograph and pop up in the blank space of the matte looking into the image like the viewer, or join hands to link images across their frames. While these devices owe much to the underground comics of the late 60s and 70s, they appear again in a much more developed manner in the cover designs for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (1975) and Led Zeppelin’s Presence (1976). Wish You Were Here was shrink-wrapped in black vinyl while the cover inside, like those of the previous three Floyd albums, bore no mention of the band or title at all. The four images used on each side of the inner sleeve and dust jacket dealt in various ways with the theme of absence and included similar plays on the conventions of photographic representation. The images all incorporated breaks that used the matte area surrounding the image to suggest that the photograph was somehow contained as a real space within its frame. The matte around the image of a veil blowing in the wind on the inner sleeve, for example, was warped as if it were a cardboard window that the viewer was looking through onto the scene itself. Similarly, the flames emanating from the burning man on the front cover seemed to have flicked out and singed the edge of the matte.
But it is the design for Presence that marks the most complete and perhaps successful culmination of these ideas. Again the images are presented against a blank matte but there are no attempts to introduce the simplistic, Escher-like illusions of previous covers. Instead, everything occurs within the individual photographs. Found images drawn from magazines of the 40s and 50s were combined with newly shot photographs that simulated the period. The images were retouched in a manner suggesting that the same vitally important central object had been removed from each photograph, leaving a flat, featureless, black void. The result is a very strange mixture of disturbing images of innocent recreation (‘teens’ with their Dansette, an idealised middle-class family at lunch, or a girl amongst a field of daffodils) combined with what appear to be attempts to record, measure and analyse the effects of this missing object – a doctor introduces the object to a baby, a teacher presses her hand to the head of a pupil who stares intently at the empty space where the object used to be, and scientists and engineers fiddle with elaborate equipment around it.
While Presence looked at an ambiguous relationship with the recent past, the cover for 10cc’s How Dare You (1975) dealt with different forms of personal and social breakdown in communication in a contemporary context. The inner spread of the gatefold sleeve depicts archetypal 70s people gathering in an archetypal middle-class 70s interior with everyone present shunning direct contact and only able to communicate by means of a telephone. The photograph is oddly disturbing because it is so concrete in terms of its place in time: it is not a kitsch 70s nor a Utopian 70s but a very real, very mundane one, which makes the image all the more unsettling because it somehow corresponds to fragments from real memory.
On the album’s dust jacket, two extraordinary illustrations by George Hardie describe a telephone conversation in progress: one side shows a mouth talking into a receiver, the other an ear listening to the speaker. But the illustration starts to cut away like a technical diagram as it leaves the point of contact between person and machine – the layers of the telephone are stripped down bit by bit, revealing the interior components, then the cable and finally the strands of wire that carry the electrical signals to other end. Similarly, the head is opened up like an anatomical study, displaying musculature, bone and ultimately the nerves linking ear or mouth to the brain. It is a frighteningly stark depiction both of the body as a machine and of communication reduced to an electro-mechanical process.
The interest in sensory perception and ways of engaging with the world evident in Hipgnosis’ work implies that some kind of clarity, or some form of quantifiability, is required to make sense of things, but that the process of achieving it by analytical means somehow destroys what is being examined. Maybe this is partly a legacy of the more confused, extreme days of the 60s, with all their unfulfilled promises and numerous casualties, but many of these questions are the residue of the late 40s and 50s carried through to the 70s on a raft of media images. Ultimately, Hipgnosis’ work encapsulates questions about our relationship with the technology we use, about the relationship between the interior world and the wider, exterior one, and about the possibility of communication and the constant inability to achieve it – questions that have been with us for half a century and which we still haven’t managed to answer.
Mind Over Matter – The Images of Pink Floyd by Storm Thorgerson is published by Sanctuary, London
First published in Issue 37