Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Art Goes Pop

Recently, I rummaged in my old bedroom at my parents and found two books of music album artwork; I hadn't seen them in about 25 years! But they really took me back to my childhood and the enthusiasm I had even back then for graphic art - I used to LOVE browsing through those catalogues looking at the immense variety of styles and art. What always jumped out at me is how music album art was so immediate, so 'in yer face' and was/is designed to grab your attention immediately. It's so crass - there's no subtley.

Album Cover Album book by Paper Tiger

It was album art from my early childhood that inspired me to be a graphic designer, so I thought I would try and recall a few covers that really stuck out for me. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of influential album art, I'm sure there's plenty out written out there already...but just a few of my memories. Having two older brothers it was their music albums that I first saw and perhaps influenced me and they were kids of the 70s. So that giant yellow banana has always stuck in mind from The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967 - yes I wasn't born!), well, it's by Andy Warhol so who knows better about pop art and what grabs your attention than him, and still now in the nouties it's influencial and remembered!

The Velvet Underground & Nico. Artwork by Andy Warhol
It has to be said just because I remembered the album cover doesn't mean that I actually liked the music. For me, the two art forms seemed somewhat separate! I think the cover that I have the most fondness for is Joni Mitchell - Clouds (1969). As a young teen, I loved listening to her voice and songs and it was my eldest brother that told me she painted the portrait herself which just amazed me. There is something hypnotic and sad about that painting that keeps you staring at it wondering what she's trying to say.

Joni Mitchell - Clouds
I do mourn the loss of the space, size and impact that viynl records had to give you two fantastic art forms for the price of one, especially if the recording artist had a double album which which gave rise to the glorious, indulgence of the gatefold album! There are two that stick in my memory - that of ELO - Out of the Blue (1977) and Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (1979). The art is just out there, bold colour fantasy. What I remember is that there used to be an electronic game called Simon and the spaceship reminded me of that.

ELO - Out of the Blue. Cover and gatefold

Fleedwood Mac's Tusk wasn't gatefold as such, but had a double album with 2 separate inner sleeves. What I do remember is that it was an understated suble cream colour with raised tactile embossed dots. What was really weird was the photo of the snarling, biting dog which was really unexpected and does what it's supposed to...throws you off kilter a bit. The inside sleeves featured a surreal montage of photos that I spent ages as a 10 year old trying to figure out!

Fleetwood Mac - Tusk

And then, there's Roger Dean. As a kid with a huge imagination, I was a sucker for anything and everything Roger Dean. Looking back, I suppose those images are really overblown, mad fantasy kitch, but at the time, in the late 70s, prog rock itself was really overblown, fantasy music, so it matched. I don't know that I heard much of the music, but I used to love the fantasy landscapes and dragons. Roger Dean worked for a design company called Hipgnosis and were responsible for the album art of bands such as Yes and Asia.

Fantasy landscape - Roger Dean
So fast forward a little into the 80s, we leave behind the overblown fantasy and illustration of the 70s and start to look to the future with the world moving towards the digital, computerised age. At the start of the 80s, as hard as it is to think now, computers were only just emerging.

New Order - Blue Monday
After prog rock, punk and new wave came electro music - synthesized music which at the time was pretty radical. The band that I remeber being a tour de force is New Order with Blue Monday (1983). I can't add to anything that hasn't already been said about that single except to say, for me it's the soundtrack of the early 80s. And for all you youngsters out there, it's designed to look like a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk! But at the same time, but it's announcing that they are part of the future - that they have their finger on the pulse. Do you want to be part of the digital age with them?

Grace Jones - Living my life

And before, this entry goes on for too long, I'll finish off with another icon of the early 80s, Grace Jones. Her covers always portray an astoundingly, strong image of a black woman. At the time, in general, women were portrayed with lots of sex appeal with lashings of makeup, big hair, big shoulder pads and frocks, soft focus, air brushing to make them look the epitomy of alluring womankind. During this period of time, in the UK there was a lot of racism towards blacks and minorities, so Grace Jones challenges the societal norm of how blacks are seen. She challenges you, rather than soft edges she's a stark cutout - black on white, and she's still an icon even now.

I know that bands still try to impress and shock us or use art to try and emote their music with their album art, but the size of CDs just doesn't really give us the impact album art used to. And now with digital downloads - it is a dying art. But what bands do give us now, is an interactive, visual experience when we see them live! Art moves on.