There’s More than Meets the Ear

highlights the innovative but overlooked spirit of album cover design

Image: John Coulthart

It’s only natural that feverish, rousing points in musical history are about more than just the sound. Consider what those moments stood for and were influenced by. Various big names inexorably loom in British cultural history, on a pedestal not just for their impact, but for ushering in approaches and sounds that would crackle world over. But it’s not just the sound that got people interested – it’s the art that went with it.

The force of an album cover can be vast, but most of the time we haven’t got a clue where they came from or who made them. Cover art marks a rich, overlooked vein in British cultural history: a glorious coalescence of the visual and the sonic, when original, innovative artists and designers were shaping the look of music, rather than record label marketeers. Music can be intensely nostalgic; certain songs can elicit an almost electric reaction, sailing you rapidly down the hazy stream of memory. And more often than not, a distinctive album cover is part of the package.

Pop art is a distinct starting point. The mid-1960s marked a moment when popular culture and commercial imagery became an artistically relevant raw material. Peter Blake was a key player, and the multi-layered approach favoured by pop art worked a treat for album covers. While we might deem The Beatles’ clean White Album cover to be the most conceptually provocative, we all remember Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with a wistful, playful fondness. A band who commanded the cultural pulse as strongly as The Beatles had to find their equivalent in an artist, and Blake was the natural fit. Creating such a cover necessitated a massive production; a collage of 57 photographs and 9 waxworks, the cover is a vivid paean to high and low culture. Scattered about are a few Self-Realisation Fellowship gurus, Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Lewis Carroll, the occultist Aleister Crowley, Robert Peel, Carl Jung. The list goes on and the variety is heady. The cover cost about £3000 to produce, an incredibly decadent sum for something that usually cost around £50. But those involved decided that this cover could and would provide an imaginative, eclectic summation of a very distinct moment in time.

However, only The Beatles commanded money and influence to such a level. Others had a far more modest budget to work with, and that’s when the more overlooked talents came to the fore. You probably haven’t heard of Barney Bubbles, but he’s often extolled as the cover artist par excellence. He had a multi-disciplinary art education, covering all the basics alongside collage, cardboard design, display and packaging, all of which would inform his cover art. Bubbles could command various different artistic styles, and used these to visually capture the expanse and sense of an artist’s sound. Take Hawkwind’s In Search of Space, which is often high on greatest album cover lists. It’s jagged but ordered, the black background heavy but with dusty rainbow hues softening, looking back on psychedelia but anticipating electro. Just like the music itself, which occasionally veers towards lunacy (soaring, bleeping sputnik sounds inject some sci-fi whimsy), this cover could so easily slip into messiness, but Bubbles’ nimble eye has kept it just on the right side of madness.

Yet Bubbles didn’t restrict himself to the psychedelic scene; he could turn his hand just as deftly to an impressively diverse array of musical styles. He was prolific and veered in the new-wave, post-punk direction. He designed covers for Ian Dury and the Blockheads, who undercut bright funk with a spare, seedy tone. Bubbles used curious shapes and bursting colours, but always with an element of bleakness. There were over a dozen design variations for their single, “Do It Yourself”. All were based on traditional, mainly floral, Crown wallpaper prints and each variation was a specific hue. With the name printed in heavy block letters, it’s as if they are stamping down on the chintzy and safe, taking the familiar and giving it a good shake.

Bubbles also took on Generation X, a punk band fronted by Billy Idol, and the cover is more striking than any of their musical output. He took visual cues from the Constructivist and Bauhaus movements and the thick, industrial shapes echo the expansive sound. Such allusions saturate punk music with the same rebellious forward-thinking vigour as those movements – the visuals adding a considered yet hefty layer to the message behind it all. Bubbles designed definitive covers for various new-wave names, from The Damned to the Psychedelic Furs; he even lent Elvis Costello a certain enviable aesthetic. Bubbles recognised Costello’s inherent awkwardness and ambiguity and each album provided a different platform on which to reinvent himself. Costello’s different covers are winningly diverse, each visually referencing the retro feel of his music but still commanding an unmistakably contemporary, progressive look.

Bubbles was fascinated with graphics and conceptual themes; a pioneer of the so-called ‘age of plunder’. Music itself was picking around in turn, with influences seized from diverse sources, all amalgamated in an exciting, soupy yet distinct mix of sound. And Bubbles did the same. At the core, there’s an engagement with the sound, but he created novel, unexpected possibilities with his designs, infusing them with multiple meanings and ambiguous layers of interpretation. Engaging with contemporary art movements, Bubbles elevated the whole creative process behind cover art, cementing an album’s potential to become truly iconic. Because what’s a good sound without a suitably evocative look to complement it?

Covers proffer an enticing clue as to the sound shrouded inside the record sleeve, and can act as a visual symbol for the members of a musical tribe to gather around. A great cover can provide the pure aesthetic anchor to encapsulate a cultural identity; clothing style mimicking cover style, the creative, visual layers of a particular scene coalescing together. The Sex Pistols were a jarring addition to the musical landscape and Never Mind the Bollocks is arch and emphatic, grabbing your gaze and making a statement. The perfect accompaniment to the musical onslaught of jagged guitars and controversial subject matter delivered with a snarl. And the cover is suitably true to those disenfranchised roots (no disheartening marketing gimmicks here), designed by Jamie Reid, a fully-fledged anarchist who got to know Malcolm McLaren at art school. Reid cut up graphics, letters and symbols, fusing them together like some bizarre, lurid ransom note. This rough-and-ready look perfectly illustrates the confrontational nature of the music.

But with far more panache than a ‘fuck it’ attitude and a grimy demeanour could offer, Reid gave punk a creditable identity. While it effectively negates the very spirit of punk, you can go so far as to call this cut-up look the ‘punk brand’; it’s a unifying, memorable feature that visually sums up the movement. As with all great albums, it takes the spark of unforgettable graphics to help cement their place in cultural history.

Graphic design permeates society in a way that not much high art can manage. It highlights the visual on an accessible and meaningful level, especially in the case of cover art. But those behind the work tend to remain anonymous. Next time you look at an amazing, iconic cover, remember that someone had the vision, subtlety and creative intuition to make it so.

One comment

  1. I understand you’re focusing on British cultural history, but in the grander scheme of things the Pop Art movement was hardly the beginning of album cover design. No mention is made here of Alex Steinweiss or of Reid Miles. The latter’s incredibly modern work for Alfred Lion prefigured in many ways the striking artwork highlighted in your article (not least in terms of their prominent typology).