Before streaming and downloads, music was available as compact discs, and before that, long play vinyl record albums. Albums measured about 12 inches by 12 inches. They were round, so the dimensions were equal.
The records or albums, came in a package made of paper and later of a plastic material. The album covers contained artwork or photographs on the front and back. Sometimes the albums folded open to reveal additional artist or recording information, photographs or song lyrics.
During the 1950s, or ancient history for some of you, albums started to infuse more artistic flare. Jazz albums in particular incorporated bold graphics or color filters, accentuating the mood of the music inside. Broadway plays or movie soundtracks often had big, bright, incorporated Technicolor accents emphasizing the large production values.
Popular music, appealing to the masses, began to have big ad agency influences. Bright photos of the artists appeared on the cover, or fanciful romantic scenes that exemplified the them of the music on the disc. Major stars like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Nat King Cole and others, were prominently displayed on the covers, but you typically didn’t get much information about the recording, maybe “liner notes” written by a record company rep or a music critic.
Then, rock and roll happened. Notice the album covers of Elvis Presley. Instead of just the standard head-shot, the covers began to inject more creativity and excitement. Elvis and others of the genre weren’t trying to appeal to the Mitch Miller or Bing Crosby crowd.
Jazz albums, and even Sinatra, injected something more thematic in their artwork. The phenomenon of “the concept album” was still a decade away, but in the 1950s, Sinatra created listening events with songs designed to convey a unified mood linking his songs. In the next decade he would take it to another level, particularly with September of My Years.
In the 1960s, album artwork began to develop into a cottage industry as record companies began to put big money into developing artists. Photographers and designers became very well-known and in demand.
The Beatles were recipients of record company support. Beginning with their second album, With the Beatles, that featured artistic black and white head shots of the boys, each succeeding cover upped the ante with more skillful photography or complex artwork. Sgt. Pepper completely changed what an album cover could convey with the collage of influential figures surrounding the Beatles as Sgt Pepper and the band. Three years later, Abbey Road, the last recorded collection of songs, featured the boys crossing the road outside of their recording studios in one of the most iconic photographs of the decade. A simple shot, with no words or graphics on the cover, but hugely influential.
Sgt. Pepper also featured a gate fold, meaning it opened up like a book. Inside was printed the words to each song. That was something new. Instead of essays written by others, record buyers began wanting lyrics and recording information.
Album artwork not only helped to market the product, it pushed the artistic statement of the artists.
Here are a few of what I consider to be some of the most influential artistic albums of the classic rock period.
The Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. Not a groundbreaking cover design but it exemplified the bohemian spirit of the times and the intricate nature of their vocal harmonies. There were several variations of the cover. Their debut album that featured the classics “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin'”.
Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Drawn by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, it replaced the original cover which was to feature the band naked in bed. Vetoed by the record company, it was replaced by the drawing which was intended as the back cover. The original title was to be Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills, again, vetoed by the record company. This was the last group album with Janis Joplin.
Whipped Cream and Other Delights by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Perhaps the most viewed album cover of all time. Dolores Erickson became immortal with this cover. The music on the inside was good too. According to Billboard Magazine, “Erickson, who wore a bikini with the shoulder straps pushed down and hidden, was for the most part surrounded by cotton batting and many cans’ worth of shaving cream because actual whipped cream turned runny and smelly under hot lights.”
Morrison Hotel by The Doors. A very famous photograph by Henry Diltz. They did not have permission to photograph inside the hotel, so they took the photo while the clerk was away. The music of the Doors had a casual quality of seedy hotels, late nights and lonely highways. Released in 1970, it was greeted as a comeback after the disappointment of their previous album.
The debut, self-titled album by Crosby, Stills & Nash. The photo, by Henry Diltz, reflects the folky, relaxed, unpretentious nature of the music. Taken at a house 815 Palm Avenue, West Hollywood. The story goes that they were considering a retake (so they would be lined up according to their group name) but discovered the house was razed.
In Search of the Lost Chord by The Moody Blues. Their second album, and a classic. The songs featured intricate, but friendly arrangements, hinting at deeper meaning and layers of mellotron in the textures. The band sought great experimentation with the album, which was reflected in the album painting by Phil Travers. “Legend of a Mind” was written about Timothy Leary.
Abraxas by Santana. The second Santana album and it was an eclectic blend of rock, jazz, blues and Latin rhythms. The artwork is a 1961 painting entitled Annunciation by German-French painter Mati Klarwein. Carlos Santana saw it in a magazine and wanted it on his upcoming album. The album title is from Hermann Hesse’s book, Demian,
All Things Must Pass by George Harrison. The third solo album by Harrison but the first one intended for the mass audience. The photo was taken at Harrison’s Friar Park estate with some of the gnome sculptures that adorn his home. Harrison looks very un-Beatlelike, not like very polished, full color Beatle photos. Harrison’s album sold millions and was more popular than John and Paul’s solo efforts, even though it was a 3-LP box set and included a poster of a very spiritual-looking Harrison. The 2011 re-release used a cover rich in color as opposed to the stark black & white photo.
Aqualung by Jethro Tull. The third album by the group but their most iconic one. Instantly recognizable. Tull music had a folk base, which during the 1970s gave you the impression that they were rock minstrels. In 1971, Terry Ellis, the co-founder of Chrysalis Records, paid Burton Silverman a flat $1,500 fee for the three painting that became the artwork for the cover. Seven million albums and a lot of merchandise came from that small payment. Silverman used band leader Ian Anderson as his model. Anderson says the cover is “not very attractive or well executed,” and has never liked the cover.
Fragile by YES. Part of YES’s appeal was the Roger Dean artwork that adorned their albums and marketing materials. The art reflected the progressive nature of complex musical and abstract lyrical songs. Fragile yielded their most popular song (up to that point). The group has maintained a long relationship with Dean. “Fragile’ described the psyche of the band. And I thought about that very literally, painting a fragile world that would eventually break up,” Dean said.
The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. The one thing about Bob Dylan you can count on is that he is unpredictable. He was about to enter his electric period. Most of his albums have an iconic appearance but this one features a happy Bob with girlfriend Suze Rotolo. This was Dylan’s second album, full of Dylan originals like “Blowin in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”.
In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. The album that started the five decade journey of Robert Fripp and company. Regarded as one of the first progressive rock albums, it features a drawing by Barry Godber that illustrates the strange, cerebral journey you get with King Crimson. “The face on the outside is the Schizoid Man, and on the inside it’s the Crimson King. If you cover the smiling face, the eyes reveal an incredible sadness. What can one add? It reflects the music,” said Fripp.
Deep Purple has been around since the late 1960s. Deep Purple in Rock may not be their most popular album but it was the first with what was their classic lineup, and would define their sound. The artwork cemented the lineup as one of the foundations of modern rock music.
Who’s Next by The Who. At the height of their creativity and popularity, The Who made this classic almost by accident. Most of the material was leftover from a failed project called Lifehouse. We should all have such failures. The Who were born from restless, rebellious youth, defying and giving the finger to authority. Photographed by Ethan Russell, urinating on a slab, which reminded Russell of 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to the story, only Townshend urinated on the slab, water represented the other three band members.
The Captain and Me by the Doobie Brothers. At the time, the Doobie Brothers were associated with long haired pot smoking motorcycle gangs, even though they were getting play, not only on FM but AM radio. The photo has nothing to do with the music on the album but it presents a nice juxtaposition of different times. According to wikipedia: The setting for the cover was located at the Newhall Pass interchange of the Interstate 5 and California State Route 14 freeways near Sylmar, California that collapsed during the 1971 San Fernando earthquake. This same section of freeway would collapse again during the 1994 Northridge earthquake
Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The most famous album in history and one of the largest selling albums of all time. The Floyd were ahead of the curve in metaphysical concepts, marrying oblique lyrics and spacey musical journeys. Pink Floyd embraced creative artwork for their albums, incorporating it into their live shows. Designer Storm Thorgerson said the design, “… related mostly to a light show. They hadn’t really celebrated their light show. That was one thing. The other thing was the triangle. I think the triangle, which is a symbol of thought and ambition, was very much a subject of Roger’s lyrics.”
American Pie by Don Maclean. The album is remembered for the title song, which pointed out the passing of a special time in our country. The was a tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson, all of whom died in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959. The artwork is simple and direct, but timeless.
Diamond Dogs by David Bowie. Bowie appreciated the power of art, particularly in defining his own image. This during Bowie’s glam period of blurring the line between the genders. The painting is of a half-man, half-dog by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert. Diamond Dogs is one of Bowie’s best and most accessible musical albums.
Trilogy by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. At their height of creative energy and success, Trilogy offered very intricate musical concepts and sensitive radio-friendly songs. The iconic artwork designed by the London artwork company Hipgnosis, depicts a combined bust of the three members.
Blue by Joni Mitchell. A singer, songwriter and artist, Joni Mitchell was already establishing herself as a musical force. The songs on Blue were did not have big, layered arrangements, Mitchell’s voice and primary instrument are front and center. Like the photo on the cover, the music is straightforward but powerful in it’s honesty. The album’s song tell of her deeply personal with James Taylor, and is ranked as one of the best albums of all time.
Band on the Run by Paul McCartney & Wings. This was McCartney’s breakout album, smartly written, hook-laden songs. The cover photo by Clive Arrowsmith includes the band, plus numerous friends, some of which were very famous. As a former Beatle, McCartney could relate to the confines of fame. The album could also define the challenges he had recording the album in Nigeria.
Chicago X by Chicago. Aside from their first album, each one has a Roman Numeral. This was also the chocolate bar cover. designed by John Berg, resembled a Hershey’s chocolate bar and earned Grammy Award for Best Album Package. The distinctive Chicago logo was part of each album. It was not uncommon for bands to have their own logo or brand.
The Royal Scam by Steely Dan. Known for complex jazz chords inside their pop songs, Steely Dan had music all over the radio. Their songs were difficult to label, in fact that was the allure of their music. When you thought it would go right, it went left. The artwork on their albums rarely had anything to do with their songs, just another mystery. According to wikipedia the cover was created originally created for Van Morrison’s unreleased 1975 album, Mechanical Bliss, the concept being a satire of the American Dream.
Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult is probably their most commercial album. BOC had some strange lyrics and powerful guitar thumping songs. The cover painting of a magician with Tarot cards keeps with the occult and darkness of BOC’s earlier album covers. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was from this album and their biggest hit, one in which they thought was too commercial, but later accepted the success.
Judith by Judy Collins. Collins’ most successful album of the decade, which yielded the hit, “Send in the Clowns”. Sweet Judy Blue Eyes is radiant on the cover, as beautiful as the music on the inside. The photograph was by Francesco Scavullo.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. Bruce established himself with this album. Although the songs were as strong as previous albums but there was a swagger in the recording and it showed on the cover and the marketing. The title song became his signature song. The album cover photo was taken by Eric Meola, who shot 900 frames in his three-hour session. Springsteen is leaning against saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin. You could pick any Led Zeppelin album as representative of the bond between their music and album artwork. This was a double album set with the windows on the cover cutout, exposing lettering on one of the inside album covers. On the other inside cover were images of various events and famous that would show through the windows. The album was designed by Grammy-winning graphic designer Peter Corriston.
Destroyer by Kiss. Kiss did everything big in the 1970s with their costumes and makeup, pyrotechnic light show and concert explosives, and their album graphics. The cover, painted by fantasy artist Ken Kelly, shows the band standing on remains of their destruction. Probably what every parent feared. Destroyer was one of their most popular albums, featuring the original members.
Boston’s self-titled debut album sold a gazillion copies in the late 1970s. It yielded many singles and made fans wait a few years for the follow-up. The guitar logo with the flames became Boston’s brand. You found a copy of this album in about every record collection in America. On the back cover was a photo of the band although the band was really Tom Scholz, the only member to remain with the band.
Fleetwood Mac by Fleetwood Mac, was a massive event when it was released. Although the band had been together since the late 1960s, this was now the big time. The album sold millions. On the cover are Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, the namesake of the band and the only members through its history. The simple cover shot belies the intricate musical blending of songwriting styles and personalities.
Hotel California by the Eagles. Sold millions, won awards and defined the decadence and illusion of the decade. The Eagles worked with first-rate graphic professionals, in case, Kosh. The photograph, of the Beverly Hills Hotel, photographed at sunset, captures the glitz and pretense of the songs. The album has sold more than 36 million copies.
Slowhand by Eric Clapton. A surprise hit and is one of his most enduring albums. Slowhand was his nickname and in the 1970s his style slowed from the slick guitar histrionics of the previous decade. The artwork is simple but underscores the album’s theme. The artwork concept was by Clapton himself.
London Calling by The Clash. Who knew these punk rockers would go mainstream. This album did it. The cover is lifted from an Elvis Presley album and given a late 70s attitude, bassist Paul Simonon smashing his instrument at the Paladium in New York City, after being told that security would not allow concert goers to stand on their seats. The Clash saddled their punk roots with a more commercial sound, which seemed to work.
In the late 1970s Blondie broke through from their punk days to find a mainstream vibe. Five guys and a blonde. The artwork has a distinctive but fresh look with the alternating use of black and white. Parallel Lines sold more than 20 million copies.
One more iconic cover, but not classic rock related. In the early 90s, alternative rock took over the musical scene, and the most successful of the groups was Nirvana, with Nevermind. The cover photo evolved from an idea of water births. The label considered using a similar photo but didn’t want to pay to license it so they created their own. The album, fueled by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sold more than seven million copies in the U.S. alone and topped the charts.