on the cover: 50 years of music illustration (1940-1990)

By Carol Arán

The year is 1940. The decade approaches the middle of the century holding a new invention under its arm. Illustrators, photographers and designers find a new path to creative experimentation. New York designer Alex Steinweiss has just revolutionised the record industry with the creation of the first album cover, and his visionary invention fires of the starting shot, to explore an entire territory to be conquered.

During its first twenty years of life, the album cover is adored mainly with photographs accompanied by graphic design elements, with the exception of the burst of creativity revealed by the illustrated jazz records of this era. Record covers were conquered by pioneers who dare to stain the blank canvas that was still the cover of the vinyl, as is the case of Jim Flora, creator of unmistakable and eccentric style that fits so well with Latin jazz, or that of S. Neil Fujita, forerunner of cover art with contemporary paintings, which consolidates forever the link between jazz and abstraction.

It is in the 60s that creativity in the cover design culture definitely emerges, under the banner of Flower Power and at the rhythm of lysergic psychedelia. The new subculture gives rise to mysterious covers, which have become today’s classics, such as that of the unforgettable «Revolver» by The Beatles (1966), an enigmatic collage of drawings and photographs in black and white, the work of Klaus Voormann. It is also in this decade that Andy Warhol creates one of the most emblematic covers of all time, the album «The Velvet Underground & Nico» (1967). We all keep the famous yellow banana of the pop artist in some corner of the subconscious, but it is not so well known that on the cover of the first copies a slogan instructed “Peel it slowly and you will see”, encouraging us to remove the sticker and expose a pink banana. Also from the irreverence, Robert Crumb, pillar of the underground comic, illustrates on commission the cover of the second album of Big Brother & The Holding Company (the hitherto Janis Joplin’s band). According to Crumb himself, he created all the crazy cartoons on the cover of «Cheap Thrills» (1968) on one night under the influence of speed.

Artists like Mati Klarwein spread psychedelic butter until the 1970s, enriching it with an overflowing and pictorial complexity. Klarwein inherits the use of paintings on the covers, using techniques from the Flemish school to populate his spiritual works for Santana or Miles Davis. But, as far as new languages are concerned, the undisputed protagonists of the covers of the 70s are the members of the British group Hipgnosis. This association of artists and graphic designers illuminate many of the most creative covers in the history of rock, with a prolific work of its own, hypnotic and surprising style, for groups such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. For this last band, Hipgnosis creates the iconic and memorable cover of «Dark Side of the Moon» (1973), which has emerged as one of the immortal images of the history of music. At the end of the 70 the visual paths of the cover images multiply. Photomontage becomes one of the favourite techniques, key in works as significant as that of Mike Doud for Supertramp’s «Breakfast in America» (1979). His image of American consumer society is forever marked with fire in the public consciousness. The turn of the decade also brings new minimalist aesthetics and conceptual graphic languages, which find their clearest example in the unmistakable (and reproduced in T-shirts to satiety) cover of «Unknown Pleasures» by Joy Division. The frontal image for this 1979 album is a graphic representation of the radio waves of a pulsar, found by a member of the band in an ancient astronomy volume, and adapted for the cover design by Peter Saville.

In the 80s the disciplines flow totally intertwined; the great artists of the time do not hesitate to put themselves at the feet of the music and there are indelible covers that add to the album an almost incalculable artistic weight. Discs illustrated by HR Giger, Jean Michel Basquiat, Gerhad Richter or Keith Haring turn the album shelves into art galleries. The most controversial face of the time comes from the hand of the darkest musical subgenres of rock. Although many would like to forget them, in the memory of all those terrifying scenes still live characters from the dead, under blood storms, skulls and lightning, not suitable for lovers of good taste. A good examplecare the legendary and terrible covers of Iron Maiden, starring «Eddie», the cadaverous mascot created by Derek Riggs. However, the biggest controversy of this most scandalous side of rock comes with a mythical cover that is withdrawn from circulation shortly after publication. The original front for the famous «Appetite for Destruction» by Guns n ‘Roses (1987) depicts the scene of a woman recently raped by a robot, while a devilish monster comes in revenge. The cover is the work of Robert Williams, one of the fathers of Lowbrow, and founder of Juxtapoz magazine. It is so controversial that it is finally replaced by another in the face of media pressure.

Since those distant 40s, records are no longer the same. Everything is different in the consumption of music since vinyl exchanged its simple, centrally perforated cardboard case for an infinite catalogue of visual creations. In the first half century of its journey, the illustrated cover definitely becomes the great added value of musical work. It is a language of its own in illustration and contemporary art, a magical ingredient of the recipe that unites music and visual creation, in a perfect binomial that changes the rules of the game forever.