This is quite a sweeping choice of topic, so in the interest of conciseness this is probably going to end up in several parts. The idea started out with my initial appreciation of cover art which I have always felt can be just as important in the overall experience of enjoying that occasional damn good album (or EP). Vinyl’s especially, with their large sleeves, let you truly admire the qualities of the cover art as well as the music itself, which I think is partly responsible for its welcomed resurrection and timeless style. While music itself is of course an art, hence music performers being called ‘artists’, there is so much more than just the sound that can fold into its expression and creation. Well known examples can be taken from the late David Bowie and Prince who created iconic personas, costumes, live performances and music videos that all went towards constructing unforgettable and distinctive music.
There’s so much to encompass from the holy mountains of Kanye West and celebration of motherhood by Beyoncé in the recent Grammy awards to the widespread culture of branded logos, subtle and not-so-subtle music videos and the odd dubious haircut.
Today though we’re gonna stay focused on the initial cover art where I started. During my time at university I made several posters of some of my favourite album covers and I still wonder what exactly drew me to them in the first place and whether the artists actually put much thought into their design or whether they were just contracted off to some freelance graphic designer.
To kick us off, let’s take a cult classic that we will all know as the opener and dig into what might have given it such legendary status.
Here we have the unmistakable Pink Floyd cover for their most famous and commercially successful album; it garnered an estimated 45m total sales and a still unbroken record of 17 consecutive years on the US Billboard 200 chart – yes you read that right – almost double that of 2nd place. For such an unbelievable sensation, the cover art is really quite simple in design and minimal in colour, spared solely for the vibrant rainbow bursting out from the central prism. Yet it has become synonymous with the band and iconic in its own right. Why?
The design was thought up by Storm Thorgerson (I know, what a name) of the highly respected ‘Hipgnosis’ art design group which he and his co-founder Aubrey Powell ran. During its time they commissioned several Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd covers among others. The idea for this one, however, came after he found a similar image in a physics textbook and felt it resembled the impressive light shows of Pink Floyd’s gigs as well as the madness and conceptual themes of the record. The band’s keyboardist, Richard Wright, said he wanted “something clean, elegant and graphic” rather than Hipgnosis’ usual use of photography. This plays a major part in its attraction. The bold lines, solid colours and ‘elegant’ symbolic geometry make it visually arresting. All methods of which have become all the more relevant in contemporary band logos, which I’ll save for another day.
Furthermore, The Dark Side of the Moon’s cover works so well because it completely fits with the album’s sound as a visual counterpart. As an example of the complete opposite, the year before its release an album with almost the same name ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ by Medicine Head, a British blues rock band, was released and, shall we say, not so successful – with this as its cover:
Now I can’t speak for everyone but to me that doesn’t seem like the most ‘visually arresting’ picture I’ve seen and gives me little urge to explore the album’s music. At least relative to Pink Floyd’s cover. I hope this demonstration of an unfit cover badly affecting an album reveals to some extent the effectiveness of one more cohesive in style.
I feel like a break. If you don’t need to read anymore and I don’t need to write anymore I would say that’s a win-win in this situation, so to give us both a little break here’s two genres of album cover art I’ve merged together to give an idea of certain traits and similarities that can pop up. These have been picked out but represent a much larger collection of similar covers I’ve seen.
Notice any themes?
For Pop hopefully it is fairly apparent. Every single one is a portrait of the artist, for some of those shown it is the same for their entire discography. Pop has connotations of celebrity and glamour so the focus is often on the Artist. In some cases, the name and/or title is removed entirely to advance this even further. Both proclaimed Super divas are here as well, Beyoncé and Adele, see if you can find any other examples.
As for Rap, there are themes of childhood and innocence, from the Teddy Bear in Kanye West’s debut album to the children gracing covers of several Rap and Hip Hop albums. This fits with the lyrical threads many rappers explore of their past, the neighbourhoods of their youth and how this influenced them. I put the Run the Jewel album cover in as well as an example of the use of jewellery but foremost for the gun gesture symbolising protest which Killer Mike especially, one part of the Run the Jewel duo, is heavily involved in and has expressed throughout his musical and public life.
I have one more genre to show you and that is one I’ve just made up. The iconic genre of album covers. From some of the ideas we’ve looked at let’s see if there’s any related themes we can find.
Now this may look like a jumble of some (hopefully) recognisable albums but there is one thing I can take from almost all of them. A tool that I’ve found popping up more and more in researching this article but also in film theory and logos everywhere. Geometry – the zebra crossing, the framed swimming pool, the Ziggy lightning bolt and the satisfying ripples and lines. Remind you of anything from our first cover? They direct the attention of the eye and are instantly distinguishable. In the case of Nirvana’s album this could be seen through perspective, however what’s more important here is the fitting themes of money and its influence in our lives the moment we’re born and dropped into the vast expanse of life before us. That escalated quickly. It lays this all down in a single simple and gripping shot.
Anyway! All in all, yeah, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ is a pretty awesome album cover.
Bonus Feature! Here is my first album cover poster I made at University. See if you recognise any:
The Man Without A Plan