Thursday, 2:20pm
2 February 2012

Getting away with murder

Good, bad and ugly cover ‘tributes’: a new spin on the death of music design.

The album cover may have lost its mojo as far as contemporary culture is concerned, but its classic era (from Blue Note to 4AD, say) maintains a powerful grip on the imaginations of music-loving designers, writes John L. Walters.

Clever parodies or pastiches such as Cal Schenkel’s scabrous Sgt Pepper’s reinvention for the Mothers’ We’re Only In It For The Money (see Eye 35), or Joe Jackson’s affectionate Blue Note homage (bottom) still pack a certain punch.

Yet until I read Covered (Easy on the Eye Books, £17.99), I’d no idea just how many copycat album covers had been unleashed upon the world. Record industry veteran Jan Bellekens has built up a huge collection of the music design sub-genre, and Covered displays nearly 1000 of them – good, bad and mostly very (and sometimes deliberately) ugly. But highly entertaining.

Covered’s covers are organised alphabetically by name of the imitated artist, usually displaying the original album at a slight rake. Publisher Simon Robinson adds credits, witty captions and typographical critiques. He even dares to suggest that Electric Frankenstein’s tribute to the cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune works better than the John Berg original.

Hee Bee Gee Bees – Meaningless Songs

Sometimes there are sound reasons for the appropriation. The 7" cover (above, artwork/photo by Howard Grey) for the Hee Bee Gee Bee’s ‘Meaningless Songs’ (Original Records, 1980), is a nicely crafted copy of the Bee Gee’s 1976 Children of the World cover (below) with the addition of hairdryers.

Bee Gees - Children Of The World

Others use the cover artwork as a kind of tribute, to the artists’ better known heroes – both musicians and image-makers.

Tindersticks -Donkeys 92-97

Above: Tindersticks, Donkeys 92-97 (Island, 1988). Below: Stan Ridgway, Anatomy (New West Records, 1999). Artwork: UMod007. Just two of several tributes to Saul Bass’s cover for Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack album (top) in Jan Bellekens’ collection. (See review of the new book about Bass in the forthcoming Eye 82.)

Stan Ridgway - Anatomy

And some sleeve designers have simply lifted an idea or image without scruples, perhaps thinking the original too obscure for anyone to notice. And some appropriations, such as Stereolab’s close copy of Win Bruder’s cover for Gary McFarland’s The In Sound (for their 1998 album of the same name), credit the original designer. But the majority of the covers in Covered are so instantly recognisable that they work as a kind of shorthand, and there is a certain amount of fun to be had in seeing the myriad ways certain visual memes – such as the Beatles’ Abbey Road cover photo, Michael Jackson’s Bad or Thriller or Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (below) – have inspired legions of imitators.

Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland (nude cover)

Above: Original UK Electric Ladyland cover designed by David King (see Reputations in Eye 48) with its notorious photograph by David Montgomery. Myriad copies below.

Audio Active - You're No Good

Above: Audio Active, You’re No Good (Dream Machine, 2000). Artwork: Tatsuya Horin.

Below: Fun Lovin’ Criminals, King Of New York (Chrysalis, 1997). Artwork: Morph Iconography / Gerb / Dr Revolt. Photo: Bob Gruen.

Fun Lovin' Criminals - King Of New York (inside)

Sex Pistols - Substitute

Sex Pistols, ‘Substitute’ on the ‘Virgil’ label.

Joe Jackson - I'm The Man

Above: Joe Jackson’s I’m The Man (Island, 1979), art direction by Michael Ross & Joe Jackson and photograph by Bruce Rae, is recycled for a 1995 single (below) by Fitz of Depression on Yoyo Recordings. Photograph: Reuban Lorch-Miller.

Fitz Of Depression - I'm The man

With the possible exception of Joy Division (whose Disney tribute T-shirt recently excited controversy), few music deities (or dinosaurs) and their graphic designers emerge unscathed from Covered’s collection of copycats. They’re all here: AC-DC, Black Sabbath, the Clash (whose London Calling Presley pastiche is perhaps too famous to feature), Elvis (both kinds), Kraftwerk, Ornette Coleman, Roxy Music, The Smiths, Ohio Players, Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground and Nico, whose Warhol ‘Peel slowly’ cover has inspired a whole bunch of bananas.

Covered is available from Easy On The Eye books in Sheffield.

Joe Jackson - Body & Soul

Above: Joe Jackson’s 1984 homage to … below: Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2 (Blue Note, 1957). Photograph: Francis Wolff, design by Harold Feinstein (see ‘Cool, calm, collected’, Eye no. 1).

Sonny Rollins - Vol 2

Eye 76 is a music design special issue, still available from the Eye shop.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It’s available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.