“Dad, who were the Velvet Underground?”
I was a bored and curious twelve year old, looking through my family’s record collection when I first picked up that white LP emblazoned with the slick, yellow Warholian banana. I was instantly intrigued as to what kind of music these people would make. Maybe a father shouldn’t play his young daughter songs about heroin, prostitutes and sadomasochism, but soon enough The Velvet Underground & Nico became one of my favourites, and remains with me today as one of my most revered albums. So much so, that we decided to borrow our blog’s title from the inscription on the early version of the LPs which invited the listener to remove the skin of the fruit to ‘Peel Slowly and See’.
There is a definite charm about owning a record, instead of an invisible, impalpable download. Besides the physical alchemy of playing analogue music, there is something so significant and charming about an album’s cover art. Some of the greatest visual modern artists have worked alongside musicians to create these pieces of everyday art, which serve as visual representations of a musician’s work, yet themselves become iconic artefacts, autonomous of the music.
So, here are some of our most favourite album covers of all time. You should probably buy them all.
The Strokes – Is This It (2001, RCA Records)
Artist: Colin Lane
Banned in the US for being too saucy, this controversial cover is sexy, simple, crude, and completely unforgettable. Captured by a relatively unknown photographer of his girlfriend at the time in just 10 shots, the exposed, raw nature of the image suits the stripped back, unadulterated nature of the tracks which made the album so important upon it’s release. It’s a testament to Is This It that thirteen years on, both the music and the art still manage to pack a punch.
Talking Heads – Speaking in Tongues (1983, Sire)
Artist: Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, one of America’s most celebrated artists and a precursor of pop art, won a Grammy for his packaging for Talking Heads’s seminal album Speaking in Tongues. Famed for his Combines, composite paintings which incorporated found objects onto the canvas, Rauschenberg employed a similar collage technique for the album cover. Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne, who commissioned Rauschenberg, explains the complex process:
“His package consisted of a conceptual collage piece in which the color separation layers — the cyan, magenta and yellow images that combined to make one full-color image — were, well, deconstructed. Only by rotating the LP and the separate plastic disc could one see — and then only intermittently — the three-color images included in the collage. It was a transparent explication of how the three-color process works, yet in this case, one could never see all the full-color images at the same time, as Bob had perversely scrambled the separations.”
Due to the difficulty of producing such exquisite covers, only 50,000 were released and now go for a handsome sum on eBay.
Sonic Youth – Goo (1990, GDC)
Artist: Ray Pettibon
Sonic Youth’s bassist Kim Gordon admiringly wrote about Pettibon’s work for Artforum in the 1980s and later commissioned the contemporary NYC artist to produce the cover for the band’s 1991 album Goo. Pettibon’s anti-authoritarian illustrations have become synonymous with punk band Black Flag, but perhaps his illustration for Goo, based on a paparazzi shot of Moors Murders witnesses Maureen Hindley and David Smith, is his most celebrated cover.
Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978, Kling Klang)
Artist: Karl Klefisch (typography) and Günther Fröhling (photography)
With a strong emphasis on urban life and technology in both their lyrics and music its self, no artistic movement seems to suit the German electronic band Kraftwerk better than the Russian Constructivists. Kraftwerk’s highly influential album The Man-Machine borrows clear visual imagery from works by El Lissitzky and Rodchenko, particularly the use of a bold graphic line and the Soviet palette of red, black and white. We think El Lissitzky, who promoted the use of modern forms of artistic technology to displace the canvas, would have approved of Kraftwerk’s innovative music which extended the boundaries of contemporary music.
Patti Smith- Horses (1975, Arista Records)
Artist: Robert Mapplethorpe
The artistic, romantic and personal relationship between two of New York’s most creative residents, musician Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is fascinating. The pair were lovers in the late 1960s before Mapplethorpe identified himself as being gay, yet Smith and Mapplethorpe still remained close friends and collaborators until Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989. Mapplethorpe’s potent black and white photography is most widely known for documenting the dark underbelly of New York life in the early 1970s, but his oeuvre also included many shots of Smith, including the cover of her 1975 album Horses. Austere, striking and androgynous, this image has even been lauded as “one of the greatest pictures ever taken of a woman” by the feminist writer Camilla Paglia.
David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973, RCA Records)
Artist: Brian Duffy
Aladdin Sane is an example of an album where the art work’s legacy has arguably surpassed the musical content. Though by no means a bad album, Aladdin Sane probably wouldn’t top many Best of Bowie lists. However, Duffy’s image of a beautiful, androgynous, eyes-closed Bowie adorned with lightening bolt face paint has become almost as synonymous with the musician as Space Oddity or Ziggy Stardust. Endlessly pastiched and parodied in pop culture, this image is surely one of the most iconic album covers of all time.
By Kitty Malton