We asked design academic and practitioner Craig Burston to tell us about the album sleeves that influenced his craft. Why? Because we like him, and because his work adorns the Pre-New’s latest opus The Male Eunuch. Take it away, Craig…
Just to make it clear, these aren’t necessarily my top ten favourite album covers (but a lot of them are) nor do I think they are the ten best album covers ever (such lists are silly) but they are album covers that had a hefty impact on me as I started not just to listen to music, but when it got to that point when I’d spend hours in record shops poring over the sleeve designs.
Occasionally a sleeve would seduce me but then when I got home the music was a disappointment. A life lesson learnt there pretty early on. Note to self: Do young people buy music without hearing it first anymore?
Anyway, the only other thing to mention for this exercise is that these are album covers that I experienced as near as damn it at the time of their release. This isn’t an exercise in crate digging, you know, like pretending you knew who Lou Reed was when you were six, it’s about the album covers that gave you that tap on the shoulder and encouraged you to think for yourself.
So without further ado, here’s my personal favourite formative album covers.
Adam and the Ants – Kings of the Wild Frontier (photography: Peter Ashworth)
I was ten when this came out and it blew my socks off. I’ve since discovered that Pete Ashworth took the photograph of Adam, although I’m not sure whether it was taken from a domestic television set or whether it was from a monitor when they were making the video, but as sleeves for pop albums go, ones that show a person who is indefatigably cool, frozen in time, this takes some beating. Even the layout with the red typography (as carried through to the inner sleeve) is handsome, emotive as well as typographically super functional. This album artwork takes some beating for pop imagery of any era.
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents (design: Cooke Key)
An interesting album cover for me for a couple of reasons. For one, if we’re talking punk albums, I only really knew about the Sex Pistols from the hoo-hah in the newspapers and at seven years old I can’t say I remember anyone at school having a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks in their pump bag but roughly twelve months later I remember seeing this in a record shop window and thinking it was ace. I loved them in their day-glow t-shirts and socks posing in test tubes (were they supposed to be massive test tubes or tiny lab grown pop stars?) and the name of the group, their logo drawn in that perfect-to-copy-on-your-pencil-case kind of way. I didn’t buy a copy for myself until I was twelve or thirteen but I pored over the album cover in my mate’s big sister’s collection. People quite rightly laud Poly Styrene’s lyrics that were decades ahead of their time, but the cover is also rather prescient when you think about the time spent by labels/moguls since then attempting to create a group that is simultaneously bankable and cool.
Kraftwerk – Computer World (sleeve design: Emil Schult)
Computers came into our school and into our lives. Well, when I say computers plural, I mean computer singular at school, a BBC Micro (I never attempted to programme it but it did have the most amazing version of Defender on it) and a Spectrum 48k at home. Kraftwerk were clever and melodic (at eleven I could have cheerfully listened to nothing but The Model and Rapture by Blondie on repeat forever), weird and nerdy (when nerdy was most definitely not a cool thing). They sang about fashion models (formative stirrings ahoy) and home computers. And Computer World had a cover that looked as much like a computer manual as anything else. This is the one album that as an eleven year old spanned the duel worlds of boyhood (computers = toys) and impending adolescence (the seduction of technology). And they were German into the bargain and therefore incredibly exotic.
David Bowie – Low (cover photograph by Steve Shapiro, typographer unknown)
Right, this falls into a different category when it comes to loving album covers, ones that make you reflect on who you are and who you want to be. Think of it as a mirror. Some album covers that have the pop star on the front just want you to adore them or think of them as special, super human. Digression: Way too many pop stars today are not in the slightest bit super human and they revel in their banality. Buffoons. Anyway, Bowie was a master at star as alter ego as vehicle for your fantasies, but this was different. For a start, his portrait is in profile, not looking at/through you. And then what is he wearing? To my untrained eyes it was an anorak or a duffle coat. He was at once alien cool (even though at the time I’d not heard of The Man Who Fell To Earth film) whilst wearing something not a millions away from what you went to school in. How does that work? A seriously cool pop star wearing something you baulked at. This album cover used to mesmerise me and it still does. The heavy set logo/type, DAVIDBOWIE without a gap between first and last name, neither upper nor lower case and of course, the orange pallet seen right through from the background to his hair colour. The first copy of Low in our house was an original cassette tape that my sister borrowed off a friend of the family (I also remember Lodger coming into the house the same way and I thought that cover was dreadful) but I could stare at the Low cover for ages. My favourite copy of Low that I own is an unopened 8-Track cartridge I found on e-Bay. I could talk about that actual copy for hours.
The Cramps – Smell of Female (cover by Da Lux)
Now we’re onto an album I bought on my own having discovered a band outside of the confines of television (read: TOTP or at a push Whistle Test). I got into The Cramps in, thinking back, 1984, twelve months after this was released. I started buying their back catalogue in earnest but I started here. Apart from the obvious exotica hinted at through Poison Ivy, the Peppermint Lounge (could a venue sound any cooler?), the use of the XXX [triple X] that as a teenager in the ‘80s, was unchartered, dangerous and simply wrong territory. As anyone knows, when you flip through records in a shop, as a front cover catches your eye you flip it over to look at the back and here you saw the sequential images of Ivy go-go dancing along the bottom like a flick book (no pun necessary), Nick Knox’s bass drum skin flame job, the zebra skin guitar and the dumb rubbery school kids spider web, the severed hand on the bongos. Just, brilliant. And then latterly you find out that Lux Interior, as well as being Lux Interior, did the sleeve too. I still miss The Cramps.
Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (concept: Nathanial Hörnblowér photograph: Jeremy Shatan)
I’ve owned more copies of this than Kings of the Wild Frontier and Low put together (which is a fair few). The gatefold sleeve with its ridiculous circular panoramic photograph taken somewhere in New York, it didn’t matter where exactly. It was a photograph of Somewhere Where Everything and Everyone is Cool. Just look at the stores and their signs, the cars and the people (is that the Beasties?). Does that store say Paul’s Boutique? Is Paul’s Boutique a real shop in Brooklyn? I wanted to go there, live there and quite possibly never go anywhere else. It sold me the New York dream in the way that films such as Taxi Driver had me thinking, ‘hmmm, maybe not for me’. I loved the smart arse cover to Licensed to Ill with the rock star crashed jet into the side of a mountain but this, the second Beasties album told me that things had changed. Apart from the photograph, the artwork also included the heavy solarised, trippy, image of the Beasties goofing off underwater and we must not forget the almost illegible black lyrics on that queasy topaz blue inner sleeve. Especially on the cassette version, the lyrics were almost impossible to follow whilst you listened. If Licence to Ill alluded to cocaine and beer (rock star lifestyles), Paul’s Boutique was ecstasy and acid. Hyper-wired and expansive.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik – Flaunt It (art direction: Bill Smith Studio)
The sleeve looked like it should contain a toy robot and that was the idea. The first few thousand copies came in a pizza sized box for no other reason than to make it look like something more than a record and that was a good thing because that was juvenile and stupid. This was the first album where I actively wanted to know who designed the sleeve as well as who produced the music. The musicians were largely irrelevant as it well known at the time that it was all cooked [microwaved] in a studio by disco don Georgio Moroder and smart arse ex-punk Tony James. The cover was beautifully drawn and designed. The day glow pink, neon red and electric blue colour pallet, the use of Japanese iconography (how exotic!), the whole thing was positive, albeit in a confusing upside down sci-fi version of positivity. When you were a teenager who had very nearly crapped yourself watching Threads and generally being scared of nuclear bombs, Sigue Sigue Sputnik bottled the gonzo absurdity of living in the 80s and reveled in it. And they upset the purists and I like that.
The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs (design: Morrissey)
Coming straight after Sigue Sigue Sputnik in this list of my formative album covers makes me look a right contrary sod because whilst at the time, I secretly respected The Smiths through gritted teenage teeth, outwardly I preferred my pop stars to look stupid and I refused to fall in line with the Oxfam cardigan brigade. It was only when I started digging backwards did I find out groups like Suicide and The New York Dolls linked Sputnik and The Smiths, just that they played out their influences differently. The sound of The Smiths resonated around our house when my big sister was in a stereotypically supreme strop and the melodies, hooks and lyrics stayed with me for far longer than I dreamt at the time. I wasn’t a Smiths hater, just not into them. But I did love the sleeves. Consistent in their use of The Smiths [typeset name] in conjunction with a duotone photograph of a television or film star (some you knew others you didn’t) was a stroke of genius/arrogance and I respected that fully. The cover star was listed on the back in the way that Sputnik listed their designers and PR agent and Roxy Music name checked their hairdresser and stylists. Were these people Morrissey’s heroes and heroines? The reason I’ve chosen Louder Than Bombs (it could have been any of the albums in reality) was because this one features Shelagh Delaney, the playwright who wrote A Taste of Honey. I’d seen the film adaptation on television not so long before finding this compilation in one of the record shops in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. I thought it was an amazing choice of cover star and for the first time I felt a kinship with The Smiths but I still didn’t allow myself to enjoy the music of The Smiths for a good ten years more. Silly arse.
The Fall – Grotesque (After the Gramme) (sleeve drawing: Suzanne Smith)
I need to include an album by The Fall, partly because even amongst hardcore fans of the group the album artworks, shall we say, divide opinion. Anyway, I’ve gone for Grotesque (After the Gramme) that incidentally was drawn by Mark E Smith’s sister Suzanne. I was barely a teenager when I discovered The Fall and I remember seeing this at the time in my now almost weekly studying of the racks but the cover put me right off. It looked like a cross between a badly drawn comic and the drawings on the front of the odd kid’s exercise book at school. It confused me and made me not want to hear the content but I love it now, the music and the cover. A smart bit of colouring in. Nice work Suzanne.
Age of Chance – One Thousand Years of Trouble (artwork made in The Designers Republic)
Occasionally, an album comes along where the music is in total sync with the artwork and the whole package is in sync with your head. As I’ve said with The Smiths and The Fall, I liked some ‘indie’ but little in the way of the associated imagery floated my boat. But then one evening I heard Age of Chance on John Peel and I went out to find their single Bible of the Beats. I really got into their early stuff with sleeves that were fast and cheap, cut and paste, post-punk car crash collisions bringing to mind Linda Sterling’s famed Buzzcocks designs. The Age of Chance singles effused a hyperactivity bolstered with shouty shouty sloganeering “Say It! Say It! Be More Beautiful” and my favourite – “Be Unreasonable”.
Soon after these first trebly blasts they released a cover version of Prince’s cheeky pop tune Kiss and began to pay the fledgling The Designers Republic to turn up the visual volume, giving their songs (read: ideas) the requisite texturality through pre-digital typo/graphic design to shout out and be seen. Soon after the Kiss single they released their debut album 1,000 Years of Trouble.
The Designers Republic stole the aesthetic wholesale from Trouble Funk and Hawkwind (Drop The Bomb and In Search of Space respectively) bolting the two together supremely well, just as samplers were being used to bolt pieces of songs together to create something new. In doing so they created a graphic language and modus operandi that could be pushed and remixed ad-infinitum to produce dozens of great sleeves for other groups and b®ands down the years. They also inadvertently created a graphic lingua franca for their own copyists to emulate badly but you can’t blame people chancers for trying.
Pre New play The Social, Little Portland Street, London 17 July, first set at 7:30pm and second at 10:30pm same night.
Craig Burston is an academic and design practitioner based at London College of Communication, University Arts London. As well as The Male Eunuch (out now on 3 Loop Records) you can also find Craig’s recent work adorning the inner sleeve on the triple vinyl version of the new album Moonbuilding 2703AD by The Orb (Kompakt) and on and in the debut album by Axxon N – Heal (Domestic Records).