Interview with author Jason Draper on his book – A Brief History of Album Covers
As I continue on with the efforts to make the AlbumCoverHallofFame.com site a most-comprehensive offering, the amount of time I spend doing research is truly amazing. Never did I imagine the amount of digging I’d need to do in order to find out more about the people who’ve created everyone’s’ favorite album covers, separate the fact from the fiction, and then present the results in a hopefully-enjoyable fashion to the fans of album cover design that come visit from time to time.
Along the way, I’ve come to rely on general information sites such as Wikipedia, music-oriented databases like the ones underlying ArtistDirect and AllMusic and many, many specialty sites, from those of professional organizations such as the AIGA and the Recording Academy to the sites hosted by both the designers/artists/photographers themselves and those run by their fans and admirers. I’ve also turned to a number of books that I’ve added to my personal reference library over the years, most of which I’ve listed on my reference page on the topic. Recently, I came across a book – published in the U.K. in 2008 – that I hadn’t seen before and through the miracle of Amazon.com, found a copy that I purchased to enhance my collection (always a collector, right?). Recognizing the name of the author as a journalist and editor working for one of my favorite music magazines (Record Collector), I thought that I’d reach out to him to find out more about him, his own love of album cover art and “the making of” this book.
With such an enormous range of covers to choose from, it has always puzzled me as to how someone goes about choosing what to/not to include in a book that provides a survey of album cover imagery. Some authors have attempted to present “the best of” or “the worst of” record sleeve design (based on whatever selection criteria they’ve developed, including their own experiences as designers and/or simply critics of art/music/pop culture) while others have narrowed their scope to genres and sub-genres (“Classic Covers of the 60s” or “Top 20 Death Metal Covers”). For me, it’d be an exercise in frustration as there is so much great and/or interesting work that the final product would be encyclopedic and would take another 50 years of my time to compile. I’ll admit right now that this is NOT something I’m going to be undertaking so, instead, I’m going to work hard to get inside the heads of those enterprising authors who’ve shown a greater degree of dedication to this quest and then present their stories to my adoring readership…
Jason Draper is the Reviews Editor at Record Collector Magazine and has written for a number of magazines, music encyclopedias, books and web sites. In his book titled A Brief History of Album Covers, he’s put together a detailed, chronological retrospective of “classic album covers” – beginning with Elvis Presley’s debut in 1956 and ending with the (Best of) Oasis record from 2006 – that attempt to represent each included decade’s prevailing styles and approach to promoting music products. I caught up with him recently (via email) at his home in the U.K. and asked him to interrupt his busy schedule for a while to give me the details on his book which, graciously, he obliged to do…
Interview with Jason Draper – conducted February, 2013
Mike Goldstein (curator, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com) – Jason, thanks for your time today. While I’m impressed with the scope of your book, I would like to better understand more about what motivated you to do a book on this topic, particularly the Inspiration for the decision to focus on certain genres more or less than others. Was there something about, for example, “60s classic rock cover design” that impressed you more than any other era?
Jason Draper (author, A Brief History of Album Covers) – Hello, Mike. I’d like to preface our discussion with some important details. In actuality, this book was a commission, so my principal involvement was in writing it. The publishers asked if I would be interested after having drawn up an initial list of album covers that they thought were the most pertinent. I did have a bit of input, picking one or two that stood out for me and which I thought should have been included but, in the main, the list was theirs. I’m sure that their focus was on “classic rock” sleeves that still resonate down the years and – in many music fans’ minds – remain pinnacles of album cover artwork, no doubt helped by the LP-sized sleeves available at the time. I’m sure that these elements played a part in drawing up the list of entries.
Regarding the timing of the book…while I can’t speak directly for the publishers, in looking back I thought that by 2008, when the book came out, a lot of people were saying that downloads were killing the CD, just like CDs had allegedly killed vinyl. As I remember it, sitting here doing my day job at Record Collector, there was a lot of talk about the future of album art and whether we would ever get large-format artwork again. How could artists be expected to make an iconic piece of work for something that’s just going to be viewed thumbnail-size? And, also, from the digital side of things, what else could album artwork “do” now? Some digital releases had started to explore interactive artwork. I suppose it was as good a time as any to look at some of the more classic artwork from the both the LP and CD eras.
Mike G – What do you think that the effect of the cover art was on a music fan – that includes YOU – and your decision to purchase certain music…
Jason D – I think it works in different ways, which includes things such as a fan’s relationship with the musician, or what type of music you’re interested in, or just your particular feeling on a particular day. If you’re THAT much of a fan of a certain musician, you’ll buy their record regardless, but you can also buy into the image, too simply by carrying a Bowie album or a Guns N’ Roses album or whatever. It’s a statement about who you are and what you’re into, like wearing a badge and being part of a club.
This idea of identifying – both identifying with the music, and also having the music identify you – is more broadly applicable when it comes to different types of music. If you’re a fan of Turkish psych or Persian pop from the late 60s to mid-70s, you know that any time you see one of those cool sleeves that the likes of Finders Keepers, Guerssen or Sublime Frequencies designed to go with them, it’s going to be your sort of thing. You might, then, become a fan of a particular record label, which links back to the first point about the relationship you have with the music. As an example, I collect everything that the Trunk label puts out. Any sleeve that bears its logo – to me, it’s like a seal of approval.
Some artwork just speak for itself in terms of what the music’s going to be like. For instance, Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – it’s about as Golden Age hip-hop as it gets so that, even if you don’t know the musician or the album, etc., you’ll know that this is the sort of thing that’s going to appeal to you. If you’re the curious type, you might stumble across some old weird library music artwork or something similar and just pick it up because, on that day, you happen to have some money to burn and have seen something you find intriguing… How many times have you thought, “I have to check this out – something that looks this cool has to sound good, right?” Though I guess it can work the other way, too – ‘The Partridge Family? No thanks!’
MG – Regarding research for your book – I’m assuming that you talked to both folks on the design side and folks on the artist/artist management/record label side. Can we discuss examples of who were the most insightful, who were the most-involved in the process, who were the most bizarre, etc.?
JD – Sorry, but here’s another less helpful – but thankfully short! – answer for you. I’ve been a music journalist for 10 years now – five when I was writing the book – so I’ve been lucky enough to have amassed a certain amount of knowledge about music history, album art, etc. Partly due to time constraints, I didn’t do any interviews for the book as it was more a case of telling the story of each sleeve in smaller chunks, while trying to string them together into a broader narrative, as opposed to embarking on an in-depth, academic study of album artwork.
MG – What do you think the relationships are – or have been – between the talent on the visual side of the music business – those that produce the album covers, packaging, set designs, tour merch, etc., – and the musical acts and the money/business side of the business? Why have some labels and acts been so supportive, while others look at it simply as overhead?
JD – Well this ties in with the above points about identifying with an artist – that whole badge thing. You can wear your allegiance on your sleeve, so to speak. Iron Maiden’s Eddie character is a great example of this. It’s marketing genius and about as iconic as it gets. The character resonates with the band’s music and, as long as the ideas are there, endlessly adaptable. This weird zombie-punk character’s been a mummy, a cyborg, a soldier, carved into a pyramid… Stick that on a T-shirt, key ring, whatever, and people will buy it. Fans want to identify with the artist and with each other. It’s more or less a given that artists and labels mostly make their money on merch these days and Iron Maiden has totally nailed it.
When it comes to overhead and the serious business side of things, I don’t know if I’m really qualified to comment. Some labels have more money, some don’t, I guess. I’ve interviewed a number of independent label heads for Record Collector and I’d say that 99 per cent of the time the look and packaging of their releases is very important to them. The general approach seems to be that, if they had more money to package their releases lavishly, then they’d spend it. Look at the Get On Down imprint – they do these amazing hip-hop releases, each packaged uniquely – GZA/Genuis’ Liquid Swords with a chess kit; Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… on purple cassette, in a nod to its original tape incarnation. They’re dedicated to making their releases look like works of art.
MG – Is cover art something that reflects the times it is created in, or does it help – along with the music it packages – push the music industry and music fans into new directions culturally? Put another way, how does cover art help document human history?
JD – I think here it’s a little bit from Column “A” and a little bit from Column “B”. Partly, this has to do with fashion. You can identify a great number of 80s record sleeves from about 100 paces – the colors, clothes, fonts used, etc. – they definitely document that history in that sense. And then you have someone like Robert Crumb, who documents history in a different way with his drawings for 20s and 30s blues albums. His work captures that era, from the vaudeville aspect to Robert Johnston-style mythology.
Insofar as whether it pushes the music industry… of course, you can point to things like Sgt Pepper and The Velvet Underground and Nico’s debut and see how certain covers broke the mold and invited a rethink of what a sleeve can do. I think that any pushing-forward is still probably limited to the evolution of album artwork, though, as opposed to the evolution of the industry or the music. The Velvet Underground didn’t record, say, “European Son” because Andy Warhol put a “peel slowly and see” banana skin on their album cover. That said, I’m sure someone will be able to make a case for something like the introduction of gatefold sleeves and how that changed packaging forever…
MG – As you know, I’ve been fighting to establish the notion that cover art – and the artists that make it – can be great examples of “fine art” and “fine artists”. Iconic images are well-known by millions of people – for example, over 40 million people own a copy of Hipgnosis’s Dark Side of the Moon image – so why aren’t 99% of the artists more well-known and treated with due respect by the traditional art establishment?
JD – You’ve made a really good point. I guess you have to be a particular type of fan to even want to know who or what a Hipgnosis is, right? Not to mention who the artists behind it were. I’m guessing this is in part because album covers are often seen as a by-product of the music itself. That is, they’re designed to sell the album. If one goes on to stand on its own as a piece of great art, which many rightly do, then that’s just a bonus for all concerned. I guess Warhol, again, trod that fine line between ‘commodity’ and ‘art’, while the likes of Roger Dean and Mati Klarwein – who was an established artist before he appeared on Santana and Miles Davis sleeves – are both revered as artists by hardcore fans. But then this brings up the question of what they did first – that is, did they get into the music first and then the artist? Or, like in your earlier question, did the art draw someone in because it said something about the music?
Sorry, I know I’m being digressive with this answer. I guess, in the main, people do still think of album art as a bolt-on to the music. And though things are changing up to a point, I guess most album art is seen as secondary. Of course there are any number of album art book collections out there – from various publishing houses all the way up to high-end art-book publishers such as Taschen – while you can also buy 12” frames to mount your LP sleeves in. Here’s an interesting anomaly – in 2007, a really great visual artist called David Shrigley had a bunch of musicians record songs based on his lyrics for an album called Worried Noodles. I guess this flips the trend a little in that some fans of the musicians involved in the project would have wanted to hear what those artists recorded, but I guess the biggest interest would have come from David Shrigley fans.
MG – What are your views regarding the future of graphic/visual design in the music industry as it moves on to the many new distribution platforms? Are you seeing new opportunities for talent already established in the area and for new talent who might be looking to get into this field?
JD – I guess like anything, up-and-coming artists will master new technology and create their own art with it. Interestingly, Jonathan Barnbrook, who created the sleeve for Bowie’s The Next Day album – which is very interesting in itself – is a font designer by trade, or so I’m told. So he wasn’t even a cover designer in the more obvious sense – at first, he creates new-look text, with the new Bowie sleeve showing the first use of a font he’s designed called “Doctrine” (Editor’s note – he’s interviewed about this project here – http://virusfonts.com/news/2013/01/david-bowie-the-next-day-that-album-cover-design). I believe that, half a century or more ago, the font designer would not have been the man behind the camera taking the photo, who wouldn’t have been the man who conceptualized the album cover, etc… There would have been more of a design team at work, working to a house style, perhaps. Now, like music-making itself, technology has enabled people do this sort of thing in their own bedroom.
This said, Pennie Smith will always have taken that iconic Clash photo for London Calling, and, say, Peter Saville’s Factory-label artwork will always remain a high watermark for graphic design-based sleeves. The best works of art won’t become obsolete. But, just like those two artists, people will use the tools available to them to work out how to do something new with them. There’s always room for new talent.
About the interviewee – Jason Draper –
Based in the U.K., Jason Draper is the Reviews Editor at Record Collector Magazine –
He’s published books including Led Zeppelin Revealed (2008 Flame Tree Publishing), The Rolling Stones Revealed (2011 JG Press) and Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution (2011 Hal Leonard Publishing) and has contributed to The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. He is also a regular contributor to NME Magazine and has written for a number of other music magazines and web sites, including Buzz, Metal Hammer, Sound Nation, Uncut and Big Issue Cymru.
About Jason’s book – A Brief History of Album Covers
Paperback: 384 pages, 174 illustrations
Publisher: Flame Tree Publishing; published August 1, 2008
Publisher’s description – Cover art can be an influential factor in a record’s success, and some designs are so memorable that they go down in design and music history – who doesn’t instantly recognize the covers for the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon? Now celebrate some of the greatest covers of the last 50 years alongside entertaining and informative text, in this great little book that will make an ideal gift for any music aficionado or art and design enthusiast.
About this AlbumCoverHallofFame.com interview –
Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.
All images featured in this story are Copyright 2008 – 2013 Jason Draper and Flame Tree Publishing – All rights reserved – and are used by the author’s permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2013 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.