Album Art

By Peggy Roalf   Monday April 16, 2018

The LP—or long-playing record—will be 70 years old this June. Introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, the micro-groove 12-inch vinyl disc, rotating at 33-1/3 revs per minute revolutionized the music business, and still remains the standard for non-digital sound recording.

But it wasn’t until rock and roll took over from pop music that album art became a design niche. The first record released by Elvis Presley, a single from the 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock, had a jacket based on poster art for the film.  With the advent of stereo sound and the release of Everley Brothers hits in the early 1960s , the industry was transformed and album art became a prize assignment for photographers and designers.

Record stores became mini-art galleries with photography and art by the likes of David Bailey and Andy Warhol. Men like Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, scouted and developed talents like Ray Charles, Buddy Holly and Aretha Franklin—and later snapped up hot groups such as Led Zeppelin and Crosby Stills and Nash + Young.

Ertegun befriended the young David Geffen over negotiations for the CSN deal, and urged his talented competitor to launch his own label, which was Asylum Records (1970). Geffen arguably became guru to unknown talents that under his guidance became legend: Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Tom Waits, to name a few. Later, when he founded Geffen Records, every unknown in every basement venue from coast to coast yearned to have a Geffen A&R scout in their audience.

With the British Invasion, led by The Beatles, Peter Blake and Jann Howarth’s cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (above) broke the mould for being an album where music and visuals began to meld as one creative entity. Around that time designers Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell founded the firm Hipgnosis, whose clients included Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. They created conceptual art that expressed the nature of the musical experience within as progressive rock made “album rock” the main currency; the single 45 quickly vanished.

In the U.S., psychedelic rock and the Grateful Dead prevailed in San Francisco, with art created by a hot-rod painter named Stanley “Mouse” Miller, who created the Dead’s enduring skull and roses logo. In New York, Andy Warhol, yet unknown to the gallery/museum world, created album after album as a freelance illustrator/designer, with the famous banana cover for The Velvet Underground And Nicomaking its mark in 1967. That put Warhol in line for the assignment of the decade: The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, in 1971.

American artist/designer John Van Hamersveld, whose covers for The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour), The Stones (Exile on Main Street) and Steve Miller (Fly Like An Eagle) helped set the tone for the album rock aesthetic, and he later introduced Punk fashion through his covers for Blondie (Eat To The Beat). In fact, his sophisticated work for the double album Exile on Main Street was an anomaly in the business: while LA photographer Norman Seef was hired to photograph The Stones for the album, the producers eventually went with photographs by Robert Frank after he walked in, unannounced, to a meeting. The final design, including some of Frank’s images from The Americans, was given final approval by Ahmet Ertegun. 

In the late ‘70s the music business transformed again--this time into a mammoth corporate industry. Along the way, album art, often created by friends and individuals close to the musicians changed course again. The decade became the age of celebrity photographs, with Annie Liebovitz shooting The Rolling Stones on tour; Robert Mapplethorpe, or Judy Linn with Pattie Smith; and Lynn Goldsmith (Debbie Harry, Frank Zappa, Michael Jackson) leading the way.

One of my personal favorite albums, for both music and art, has to be The Clash’s London Calling(1979)—and for an unusual reason. I had picked up Fleetwood Mac’s double album Tusk and when I slit the shrinkwrap, four LPs spilled out. Thanks to low-wage worker protest, I guess, each sleeve included, along with Tusk, both disks of London Calling. I never saw the album art until later; it turned out to be an homage to the breakout Elvis jacket from 20 years prior (above)


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