Friday, February 08, 2008

Mourning The Golden Era of Rock Album Cover Design

Back in 1981, I began a gig working full-time for the Harvard Cooperative Society (a/k/a "The Coop") in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I worked there for five years altogether. My job title was "Merchandise Transfer Clerk," and I worked in their Record Department, in the main store in Harvard Square.

All shipments from distribution companies were sent to the main store. There were three smaller Coop stores which also had their own record departments. (Those stores were located in downtown Boston, and near M.I.T. and the Harvard Medical School.) The buyers for the three smaller Coop stores would call me and read off a list of record titles they wanted to order in specified quantities. Sometimes they'd also come to the main store and pick up the records they wanted and load them onto a rolling cart; but in either event, I was responsible for counting all of the records and summing them up according to prices (e.g., 10 records at $10.99, etc.) and then processing the paperwork needed in order to effect the transfer from the Harvard store to the other stores. And of course, I had to box them all up and take them up to the shipping department. The tape gun was one of my most frequently used tools. A computer, unfortunately, was not. I had the benefit of a small printing calculator, but that was it.

During the time when I worked for the Coop, I was probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the store when it came to the totality of what types of albums were available at the time. Some of the store clerks there specialized in just one style (such as rock), but I had to be familiar with everything, from rock to country to classical to world music to comedy and spoken word. And I loved to spend my free time going through the racks, making mental notes about things such as the album cover design ideas I saw on those album covers.

When I first started working at the Coop, digital Compact Discs had not yet been introduced. Those products were introduced during the time when I was working there. In my view, CDs were (and are) marvelous in many respects. No more pops and clicks. No more hiss whenever one got a little dust on the surface of the discs. No more hassles with expensive cleaning solutions and brushes. No more accidents in which a record was ruined because one inadvertently dropped the tonearm onto the vinyl LP, causing it to careen across the disc and to emit a cacophony of sound reminiscent of fingernails on a blackboard. (This didn't happen to me often, but once is once too often!)

In many respects, the smaller size of CDs was also a blessing. With CDs, it was a lot easier to take a box containing one's entire library of favorite recordings, put it into one's car and take it over to a friend's house.

But there was one drawback: The graphics got smaller. Sadly (and unnecessarily), that spelled the beginning of the end for what I now consider to have been the golden era of album cover illustrations.

In the late 70's, I remember buying a book by Roger Dean, entitled "The Album Cover Album". Roger was the artist who illustrated a number of classic album covers by the group Yes. His book (published by Paper Tiger) was a beautifully printed survey of album cover illustrations spanning several decades. It showed how album cover designs had gone from being merely functional graphics to works of art in their own right. A few of the cover designs in the book were sleazy and sexually explicit, but there were enough good designs to keep me occupied for many hours, brainstorming about ways I could use similar concepts to express Christian ideas.

The Beatles and other music artists who were active during the hippie era were probably the most influential people when it came to changing the types of art seen on album covers. The creation of epic rock operas and concept albums demanded a new kind of packaging which visually complemented the music itself, rather than merely portraying the musicians on the cover. "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was one example. Progressive rock groups such as ELP, Kansas and Yes likewise found the traditional album cover design paradigm to be inadequate for their needs. Psychedelia, from bands such as the Grateful Dead, led to some pretty bizarre album covers. R&B groups and jazz fusion groups likewise felt the influence. For example, in terms of jazz, album covers by people and bands such as Chick Corea and the John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra were considerably more creative than the somewhat generic stylized album covers created by labels such as Blue Note for older jazz musicians playing in styles such as bebop.

Some bands gained a substantial part of their identities by creating visually attractive logos which were repeated from one album cover to the next. The band Chicago was particularly noteworthy (and creative) in this respect, but Yes, The Carpenters, Journey and numerous others followed suit.

Double-fold album covers with slick lyric sheet inserts and even booklets replaced the cheap covers of the early sixties. Designers began paying as much attention to the backs of the album covers as they paid to the fronts. The results were covers which were much more thoughtfully constructed.

Painting styles often featured slick and futuristic tools such as the airbrush, which had previously been used mostly as a tool for photo retouching and for hobby work such as painting model airplanes. Charles White III, Alton Kelly, Stanley Mouse, Drew Struzan, Doug Johnson and numerous other illustrators found the airbrush to be indispensable, especially when it was desirable to minimize the appearance of brushstrokes in favor of an industrialized or futuristic style of painting featuring lots of chrome, plastic and vinyl, liquids, young female skin and other smooth surfaces.

Magazines such as Airbrush Action came into being in order to celebrate the new breed of airbrush illustrators. Eventually, illustrators switched in large numbers to computers, finding programs such as Photoshop and Corel Painter and Adobe Illustrator to be much easier to use than mechanically finicky airbrushes and noisy compressors. (Plus, there really wasn't anything an airbrush could do in terms of 4-color illustration art that couldn't be done just as easily or more easily with a computer. Today, there are still a few holdouts, but airbrushes are mostly used now for applications, such as painting the fuel tanks on motorcycles, for which digital tools are still poorly suited.)

The trends in album cover design did not go unnoticed in the world of contemporary Christian music. A number of Christian album cover designs during that era (by people such as Andrae Crouch, Love Song, the Sweet Comfort Band and the Resurrection Band) were beautiful works of art in their own right.

Sadly, that era is now mostly a distant memory. Walk into most Christian bookstores today, and you will see that almost all of the CD covers feature photos of the musicians. Now, I like portraiture as much as the next guy, but when that's just about the only kind of image being used on CD cover designs, it's incredibly BORING!!! I'm not saying that there aren't any exceptions, but such exceptions are far too rare.

Come on, folks. Enough with the stupid cookie cutter designs. It's time to get creatively busy once again.

5"x5" is admittedly a smaller space than the 12"x12" album covers of old, but it's still more than enough space for high quality CD cover designs which show some real creativity.

Even if your primary method of selling your music is via iTunes and other music download sites, you can still create suitably small graphic images with enormous visual appeal and relevance to the primary message you're trying to proclaim or image you're trying to project for your music business or ministry. There are more tools with which to work than ever before, so you have no excuse for lazily copying other artists and graphic designers.

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