In this here age of digital music, iTunes and streaming services, it might be easy to forget about the power of the humble album cover. Moons ago, when you had to buy a whole album and not just the songs you like, the cover art was a defining element of the little plastic discs you spent ages trying to find amongst the usually disorganised racks of your local music store. Some of the most interesting and widely-owned art in the world is that which graces the sleeves of some of our favourite records, but there’s more to the little covers than just pretty pictures.
First up: Warhol. Pop artist Andy Warhol started his career in New York as an illustrator for magazines and advertisers. After his ink-blot drawings started to catch people’s attention, Warhol was hired by RCA Records to design album covers and promotional materials. He designed a plethora of covers both under RCA and thereafter, for artists like Tennessee Williams, Paul Anka, The Rolling Stones, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, John Lennon, and Aretha Franklin. Undoubtedly, one of the most famous covers ever designed by Warhol is that for The Velvet Underground & Nico. That banana; most people know it even if they haven’t a clue who Warhol or The Velvet Underground, are. The original LP featured a sticker (punctuated by the invitation to “peel slowly and see”) underneath which hid a peeled, flesh-coloured banana. Warhol was formally credited as the producer of the album, although he really only paid for studio time, and he even managed the band for a time before he and Lou Reed had a falling out.
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s is a multi-talented woman. Not only does she make great music, but she also studied film at the Tisch School of Arts and has exhibited her art (other than music) several times. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the album cover for the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s It’s Blitz is a fabulous work of art in itself. A photograph of the front-woman’s hand as taken by Swiss dada-surrealist sculptor Urs Fischer, the band was inspired to work with the artist after seeing his work on the cover of a friend’s album (Eat Prey Love by the Services).
Speaking of surrealists, the album art above is by perhaps the most famous one of all: Salvador Dalí. Jackie Gleason and Dalí were friends, and of their nights on the town together, the artist said: “Like Cinderella, when I was out with him [Gleason], I always tried to be home by midnight, because I couldn’t keep up with his nonstop pace.” On the sleeve of the album Dalí describes the artwork in his own words, saying: “The first effect is that of anguish, of space, and of solitude. Secondly, the fragility of the wings of a butterfly, projecting long shadows of the late afternoon, reverberates in the landscape like an echo. The feminine element, distant and isolated, forms a perfect triangle with the musical instrument and it’s other echo, the shell.”
Sometimes great cover art is a manifestation of inspirations the artist drew on during the conception of their recordings. For the Australian portion of our look at album art, this is very much the case. Silverchair’s Young Modern features a distinct tribute to the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian on it’s cover, and much of the album and it’s subsequent videos feature influences from the neoplasticism and surrealist movements. In the video for Reflections of a Sound (directed by Damon Escott and Stephen Lance) for example, references are made to Dalí, Da Vinci, Magritte, Mondrian and Warhol.
American rock band Sonic Youth are no strangers to using art on their album covers. Releases by the band have featured contemporary artists such as Mike Kelley, Richard Prince and Raymond Pettibon – but my personal favourite is the cover of Daydream Nation. It features a painting by artist Gerhard Richter called Kerze (or, Candle). The whole album is laden with art, and there is another painting by Richter on the back of the cover. On the vinyl version’s four sides and the CD’s inner tray, there are four symbols; one for each member of the band. It is thought that this was an homage to the symbols used on the fourth Led Zeppelin album.
Lady Gaga wasn’t being particularly subtle when she titled her third studio album ARTPOP, and the loud, lurid and audacious cover isn’t pulling any punches, either. The mind-bending collage is designed by artist Jeff Koons, the man you might best know as the artist behind the 43-foot puppy made of flowers, or any number of sculptural stainless steel balloon animals. Lady Gaga approached Koons to work on her album after having met the artist at the MET Ball some years earlier. Said to have been inspired by several pieces of classical art during the conception of her album, Koons incorporated Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, into his collage work. The cover also features a sculpture of Lady Gaga, as made by Koons.
Love him or hate him, almost everyone has probably heard of Bansky. But did you know that the cover art for English rock band Blur’s seventh album was designed and stencilled by the notorious graffitist? The artist defended his decision to accept the commission–something he doesn’t normally do–by stating that he thought that the record was a good one, and everyone needs to pay the bills. The album’s cover art was sold at auction in 2007 for 75,000 pounds. A single from the album, called Crazy Beat, also featured art by Banksy: a mural painted on a building in Stoke Newington. The mural was destroyed by council workers in 2009 after having been painted over with black paint.
Speaking of divisive artists – let’s talk about Damien Hirst. Hirst designed the cover art for the tenth studio album from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It features a fly on a pill, which is a familiar motif for the artist considering his long running fascination with the pharmaceutical theme. And Hirst is no stranger to designing album art; you might also have noticed some of Hirst’s work gracing the covers of records by 30 Seconds to Mars and the Babyshambles, as well as his own. Hirst has released a single of ambient hospital noise called Use Money Cheat Death, with cover artwork featuring a flayed Kate Moss.
Let’s bookend our journey through the weird world of album art with one more Warhol. Another interactive and sultry record cover designed by the pioneering Pop artist, the cover of Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones is probably the other album cover for which Warhol is best known for. The original vinyl release of the record featured a working zipper and mock belt buckle, which opened to reveal cotton briefs that were stamped with Warhol’s name and a cheeky slogan reading: “This photograph may not be-etc.” The identity of the male model isn’t known, despite many people assuming it to be frontman Mick Jagger, and in spite of it’s obvious artistic value the zipper did pose an issue: it scratched the vinyl. Interestingly, it’s also worth noting that Sticky Fingers was the first release by The Rolling Stones to feature the band’s tongue and lips logo, as designed by John Pasche.