Interview With Designers Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz – Talking Heads Fear Of Music Album Cover

Designers Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz discuss the making of the album package for Talking Heads-Fear Of Music, with design by Talking Heads and Spencer Drate; John Gillespie, art director, released in 1979 on Sire Records.









By Mike Goldstein,

When you’re the lead designer assigned to work with a group of very creative people on a project, and that project turns out to be one that is considered to be one of the most-praised examples of that type of work EVER, it’s a safe assumption that this work would ultimately provide some long-lasting impact on your career, no? Well, in the case of Spencer Drate’s collaboration with David Byrne and Jerry Harrison – who both brought considerable training and talent to the table when working on designs for the packaging for their 1979 release on Sire Records titled Fear of Music, based on their educations at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design – it served to both inspire Drate to bring a an enhanced sense of independent and experimental thought to future projects for the label and its roster of musical acts and to continue to open doors for Spencer as he later set out to work as freelance art director, producing many memorable covers for clients in all areas of the music business over the past 30+ years.

All these years later, after finding itself on “best record” lists in major music and design publications (including the Los Angeles Times, New Music Express and The Village Voice) beginning in 1979 and continuing throughout the years (on the BBC and in print in The Guardian, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone), Fear of Music remains a great example of what can happen when a group of brash, driven and extremely-capable people get together to create something different, in spite of challenges from management, bean-counters and those in the production process who can only say “well, we can’t do that because we’ve never done that before”. And when such a package, even today, continues to inspire other artists to try something new – new in design, techniques, materials, etc. – it makes me want to find out more about how and why it was done, because you know that there must be stories behind “the making of” such a trend-setting work of art, and so I’m happy to be able to share a recent interview I conducted with Mr. Drate about those details (and, happily, discovering several instances of “wow – I didn’t know that” along the way).

Spencer, along with his long-time partner Judith Salavetz, is also an author of a number of books about design for the music business, including the seminal Designing For Music, a book published in 1992 that served to introduce readers interested in the topic of album art and packaging to a selection of creatives/producers from around the world, along with books on rock posters (Swag and Swag 2) and Rock Art, co-authored with famed designer Roger Dean.

Getting to chat with and interview another passionate “album cover lover” was both exciting and a bit perplexing for me as I found it difficult at times to stay on the subject at hand (i.e., the Talking Heads album art) and not leap from story to story about Spencer’s experiences working with the often-unique (and perplexing) personalities he’s met in the music world. It took me a while to organize my notes and his follow-up communications, so I’m happy finally to be able to put this up for you to read and share. And while, according to the lyrics of a tune featured on the record “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”, here on Earth, during the creation of this Grammy-nominated package, quite a bit took place in order for us to be rewarded with such a memorable design…

Mike Goldstein, – I’d like to begin by first thanking you for the time you devoted to this interview and for the materials you were willing to share. I know you’ve been busy lately, in particular as a judge for the recent Alex Awards presentation during the “Making Vinyl” trade show in Detroit, so it’s great to finally be able to organize ourselves and bring this story out for fans of your work to read. So, let’s get to it…

Why don’t you begin by telling me how it was that you were first introduced to you’re the people that would be your clients and artistic cohorts on this project – i.e., the Harvard and RISD-trained group that made up the Talking Heads? Had you worked with them before?

Spencer Drate – Sire Art Director John Gillespie assigned me the Talking Heads design projects and my first major project was for the album Fear of Music and also designing the sleeves for the Talking Heads singles “Take Me to the River” and “Cities”.

Mike G – Were you familiar at all with the band and its particular style of music? Was there a particular track – or something special about the music – from the song list of what was to be included in the package that served as the inspiration for the package’s overall design?

Spencer D – I’d always followed Talking Heads since their singing to the Sire label and I always listen to the all of the music first on all albums I design. In the case of Fear of Music and listening to the entire album, I thought that the entire album had a totally creative sound, which inspired me.

MG – Knowing what you knew about the people who’d be involved and your overall knowledge of the music business at the time, what was it that made Talking Heads and the folks at the Sire label different from other similar labels in their “category” at the time? Was Sire or the band known to have a particular approach to promoting/packaging music?

SD – Seymour Stein – who is now in The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame – was the owner of Sire Records and a “visionary” in music. I was fortunate to design for this man. He would sign groups that were all “out of the box” like Ramones, Talking Heads, Madonna, The Pretenders, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground and many more. This label was an “indie” record label that had no rules. Members of Talking Heads had incredible visual backgrounds and, therefore, much of their packaging ended up having incredible graphics.

MG – Now, I read an interview with Jerry Harrison from a couple years ago about this record and the Sire label and he expressed frustration that he’d propose ideas and that the Sire team – I’m not sure exactly who – would tell him all of the reasons why his ideas couldn’t be turned into reality. Now, having worked with people who were more “idea people” than “reality people”, I understand the delicate balancing act, but can you give me any more detail regarding the back-and-forth between you and other label personnel and Misters Harrison and Byrne, both who are credited for album cover design on this project? I’ve seen in previous interviews with you on this topic that there was an alternative scheme that was rejected, but can you enlighten me a bit more – who ultimately had the final say, for example?

SD – The first concepts for Fear of Music where passed through the art director, so the initial concepts by Jerry and David were presented first to Sire Records’ art director John Gillespie and then he presented these ideas to Warner Bros. Records – who owned the label – to see if production-and-budget-wise these ideas could be done. Originally, Talking Heads proposed concepts that entailed using an actual vinyl surface to print on or using a styrofoam box embedded with tiny electric lights and ink that would disappear when you lifted the shrink-wrap. John Gillespie told me that we’d need the help of Russian scientists to make that idea work! These concepts were so visionary, but they were too expensive to produce and the folks at Warner Bros Records just freaked out!. In the end, we all agreed to use a beautiful matt board with embossing instead of real vinyl tile and, after that final decision was made, I entered the picture as the co-designer with David Byrne on both the type treatment on the cover and the inner sleeve design.

MG – A job this complicated looks as though it would have required a team of designers, illustrators, graphic artists, etc., so how did you choose the talent who would work with you on this effort? Can you help me better understand the “who did what” on the project?

SD – This was a total collaboration. Jerry Harrison conceived “The Vinyl Pattern” and Queens Litho – the people who printed the cover – created the desired effect on a card paperboard with an embossed pattern and a matt coating. As I mentioned before, I worked with David Byrne to design the entire typography treatment for the album cover and inner sleeve. Also, this was their last album before barcoding, so it let us keep the front and back cover graphics completely clean. The original covers were printed with a “dayglo” special green color for the type, which was an extra great design touch.

MG – You’ve said that that Jerry Harrison came up with the vinyl design idea, but I’d appreciate some additional details. A friend of mine who used to run a Talking Heads fan club in the UK told me that he had heard that the vinyl pattern was the same or similar to one found in use by Tina Weymouth’s brother Yann’s architecture firm. Was that the case? How was the final pattern and color determined?

SD – Tina told me the real story. The cover concept came after Jerry Harrison visited Tina Weymouth’s brother who was an architect and saw that the vinyl floor covering that was being used on several projects his office was working on had a cool pattern and bam – that was the cover concept!

{Editor’s note – Yann Weymouth has been the architect on a number of world-renowned projects, including the renovation of The Louvre Museum in Paris (for I.M. Pei), the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing in Washington, DC (also IM Pei) and the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL. Quite the talented family, wouldn’t you say?}

MG – Can you help me clarify some other things about the production? My research lists the following participants: John Gillespie is listed as Art Director and, for the record, is the person from the label that received the Grammy nomination) and you’re listed as designer. Jerry Harrison and David Byrne are credited for artwork, with two other people – Jimmy Garcia and Phillip Strax – credited for the thermograph photography. Is this correct?

SD – Yes. The inner sleeve on one side was a heat-sensitive thermograph portrait by Jimmy Garcia courtesy of Dr. Phillip Strax, but I don’t know who that person is.

MG – I’d like to ask you to add a bit more meat on to the bones of this story…although you’ve described some of the inspirations and how you collaborated on the project, do you recall just how involved the artist/artist management/the record label was in the day-to-day development and review process of ultimately deciding what you should produce? Do you feel like you were given all the resources you needed to do what you wanted to do? Were they happy with the results? How did they express that to you?

SD – I worked very well with Talking Heads and, since they were totally happy with my design, it was “clear sailing” all the way through the project. The Art Director in this case just wanted to make sure that the folks from Talking Heads worked well with me. I was very good at typography and graphics and was able to blend with their mindset. I was paid a reasonable amount but, more importantly, this album really catapulted my music design career. The album won many major awards, was nominated for a Grammy Award for album packaging the next year and has been included in museum shows and major archival collections. I also know that the record company and Talking Heads were happy with my design because I was given more work assignments for Talking Heads after that.

MG – So, taking into account all of the project and pre-and-post-production coordination, can you tell me how long this process took – from start to finished product?

SD – I cannot remember the actual time span, but this was not a “rush” job and we all had enough time to create the designs, see all steps of the creative process through and finish.

MG – Since this was created in the time before Photoshop and Illustrator were available, can you tell me whether any special tools were used and incorporated into your work processes and how it helped you create the finished product?

SD – You’re right – this was totally created by “old school” methods, with type sheets and stats pasted on boards with one coat rubber cement and shipped on to the printer. We used an IBM Selectric typewriter font after looking at a selection of several different typewriter fonts. This type face was used for the front cover design and inner sleeve lyrics and credits. We then typed “Talking Heads” and “Fear of Music” and I placed a “box” around the type to “hold it together”. W then just enlarged these letters to show their jagged edges. The justified type blended well with the industrial quality of the deck plate pattern. The cherry on the cake!

MG – As I’m always looking to give my readers something that they might not have seen before about the album art projects featured in my interviews, without betraying confidences, I’d like to ask you if there is any other anecdotal info about this project you’d be willing to share. I’ve discovered that every project I’ve ever looked into seems to have something of an “a-ha moment” or an “OMG moment”, so anything you’d be willing to share would be quite a treat!

SD – What I can tell you is that I believe when you have ALL the right elements together in a successful design project, great things happen and this is the case in this album design. All the parts combined and created an award-winning album design – it’s as simple as that.

(Note – it was at this point that Judith Salavetz joined in and contributed answers on the pair’s behalf to some questions about doing business for clients in the music world):

MG – I hope that you understand why I’m digging a bit here. I always try to give my readers more insight into the PEOPLE that worked on well-known projects, so understanding a bit more about you, your careers and what you think on several related topics that helps personalize things, so let’s get started.
Are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm from your music industry clients to invest time and money in promo designs and packaging that help their products stand out from the crowd?

Judith Salavetz – Right now we are designing for independent musicians who respect our award-winning design portfolio and our abilities to bring free-wheeling creative design and our “out of the box” ideas to jobs that are affordable to print. There is a great respect, appreciation and excitement for vinyl design today, with a resurgence and new-found love for the perfect sound of the music packaged inside a 12″ sleeve. ..

We get paid a fair amount for our design ideas, and the artists who hire us definitely understand the importance of image, design and packaging. We work for and with musicians that are visionary in their own right. So, overall, “yes”. Packaging is extremely important and musicians who hire us know we will give them the excitement and uniqueness in the designs they seek .

MG – What are your feelings about album artwork-related design, photography and production these days? Are there any musical acts, labels, art directors, etc. that you think are keeping the field alive or important? Do you think album art and packaging – including work you’ve seen for “special products” – matters that much anymore?

JS – There are many great music designers doing amazing designs out there, with many keeping the field and the importance of album design alive. We really do not want to mention names and leave other names out. It is like being asked about your “favorite” album covers, because there are so many great covers. Spencer was asked that very question once on a MTV/VH1 interview!

This is a different world today, with more independent music design and the need for musician-branded merchandise for fans to pick up at the merch table or online. The record companies themselves have also expanded into designing and selling various products. And because of the resurgence and interest in LPs, the album art and packaging aspects are important to musicians and their music. It’s really come full circle.

MG – Do you think that album cover art help us document modern human history? Personally, it is my belief that, in many ways, iconic album cover art has had a noticeable effect on Pop Culture. What’s your take on this – is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??

JS – We wholeheartedly believe that popular music culture is influenced by both the music and the imagery of the music. Historically, there were musicians who were able to afford great artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg and chose them to design their album covers. Music affects youth culture and will continue to do so. Fashion and art play a big part as well. It changes every generation if you are familiar with album cover design history. Just look at the clothes, the popular colors of the season, furniture design, technology design, the make-up, the art…

If you take into account the fact that examples of our iconic and award-winning music design are included in shows and archival collections at MoMA, the AIGA, the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and other museums and galleries, we’re sure that we’ve left a lifetime legacy, where people can go and see our work. This past May, we were part of a presentation and discussion at the Howl Arts Gallery in New York called “It’s a Long Way to the Top!” We were there along with Sylvia Reed and John Holmstrom and were able to share some of the stories of “the making of” some of these album covers. The turnout was high, with standing room only, and it made the event so successful that we are taking the show on the road and sharing the experience on social media.

There are other great music designers with their work displayed in major museums and gallery shows, etc. and, like us, have been profiled in major books about music and music design. We’ve also authored and designed over twenty books on design and music design, with two of them – “45 RPM”, the first comprehensive book on 45 record sleeve design history that we published in 2002 and “Five Hundred 45s” in 2010 – selling tremendously because interest in the topic of music design is so great.

MG – You both have continued to be active in this area while the music business has gone through the switch over to the electronic delivery of music products. While electronic music products, along with the resurgence in sales of of vinyl records and box sets both growing at a fast pace, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm on the artist’s – or the record label’s – behalf to invest time and money in packaging and related printed materials and branded merchandise that appeals to – and extends their relationship with – their fans?

JS – There definitely has been an amazing resurgence in the sales of vinyl and box sets, with both enabling more design on larger surfaces. This area – so far – is alive and well. Both the musicians and the music buffs realize the importance of the delivering the best sounding music on vinyl and we predict this interest will possibly get even larger, with these works having a longer lifespan!

We no longer work directly with record companies. Because we are a part of music history, independent musicians who have seen our design work come to us hoping to benefit from being included this new world of music design we now operate in.

We certainly hope that vinyl record recording and production continues to grow. Since 2010, Spencer has interviewed many musicians on his radio show who attest to the importance of vinyl to their careers. I can only say that the musicians who hire us know and appreciate the importance of great design and production in securing their place in time and in history.

MG – Based on your vantage points as designers, authors and people that actively promote album art-related shows, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm within the fine art world – that is, the collectors, gallerists and museum curators who operate in that world – in their consideration for adding album cover images and packaging designs to their collections? Is the market for these works – as works of fine art and, therefore, collectible – improving, stagnant, etc. and, if so, why do you think that is?

JS – There have been gallery shows showing original album cover art all over the world, and we’re now ourselves working with others, including our friend Sylvia Reed, on a show all about vinyl – 12”, 10” and 45s and their sleeves – that’s tentatively titled “For The Record: The Total Vinyl Cover Show” and should be on display in NYC sometime in 2018. Art gallery curators and artist representatives that specialize in album cover art have now thrown themselves head first into the art gallery world. There has always been interest in buying and selling original album cover art – just take a look at what you can buy on line!!!

The tragedy about album cover art and design is that, historically, the major record companies owned the original artwork and kept it – there were very few artists who wrote art ownership into their contracts!.

MG – In an effort to make it clear about “how did what” and “who owned what” on the ACHOF site and for my book, I found examples of something that made me want to work harder to make sure that credits are given where due – those being several incidents over the years where an artist’s work had been used and, on occasion, abused by various interested parties. It seems that, in an age where people seem to find it permissible to “borrow” an artist’s work to help them promote and sell their own products – it sounds so much better than “steal” or “plagiarize”, right? – folks that create original art have been forced to police the media and web sites to do what they can to either stop this unauthorized use or, at least, receive credit for the work they’ve done. Have you – or any of the acts you’ve worked with – been victimized in this way? Is there anything that can/should be done about it, or do you simply chalk it up to being one of the costs of doing business these days?

JS – This is common, with friends of ours – Bob Gruen and Mick Rock – both having been ripped off by merch people using their photos on t-shirts. Years ago, Spencer called up Bob upset about this and suggested that they get a lawyer to rep photographers in this area, but Bob told him to never forget that this is a difficult and expensive thing to do.

Our album cover design contracts with record companies always included a buyout, so we were paid well for the work but still, even up to today, we see so many iconic album covers – including our own designs – printed on so many t-shirts using photos ripped off from social media sites and the internet. We don’t get any additional payments for these extra uses. We have to ask the bands and merchandisers about how they’d like it if their music was stolen and they didn’t get paid – we are ALL in the same boat!

We have some incredible stories where designers not credited or not given the awards they rightly deserve. In the old album cover design days, photographers were never credited, and we’ve seen too many cases of both designers and photographers being ripped off. This is where we find that the digital world is criminal, but it’s almost impossible to control the stealing! Spencer’s photo on the front cover of The Best of John Lee Hooker on Rhino Records was ripped off – something we found in a Tower Records store purely by accident! Spencer did get a lawyer in this case and, fortunately, he also had the original negs from the photo shoot so, unbelievable as it may be, he was finally compensated!

We understand the disrespect rock photographers face and have heard many other stories about their photos being used without permission, only to be found later on only by accident. We also seen a lot of examples w where so-called artists rip off examples of album cover art, logo art or photography and use them without permission, but these are the times we live in. The internet highway is open to everyone and there is no one guarding it!! Once your art is in the public eye, it seems to be open season for anyone to use your materials WITHOUT PENALTY, so unless you have the time and a great deal of money to pursue these offenders and sue them, you are very likely to become road kill on that open highway!!

About the people featured in this interview – Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz –









Drate/Salavetz Design – notable album cover credits include – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – Album, Glorious Results of A Misspent Youth and Good Music; Bon Jovi – Bon Jovi; The Ramones – It’s Alive, Road To Ruin and End Of The Century; Richard Hell & The Voidoids – Blank Generation; Talking Heads – Fear Of Music; The Searchers – The Searchers; Billy Squier – Don’t Say No; Lou Reed – New York and Magic And Loss; Buster Poindexter – Buster’s Spanish Rocketship; Marshall Tucker Band – Walk Outside The Lines; The Fabulous Thunderbirds – Hot Number and Powerful Stuff; Bobby Brown – King Of Stage; The Beach Boys – Summer In Paradise; Dee Dee King – Standing In The Spotlight

This NYC-area team is responsible for a large portfolio of design work for a broad range of entertainment industry clients and the authors of many notable books about music industry design. Among the books that Drate and Salavetz have written and published include Rock Art: CDs, Albums & Posters, published in 1994; SWAG: Rock Posters Of The 90s (with a forward by designer Art Chantry, published in 2003) and its follow up titled SWAG 2: Rock Posters Of The 90s And Beyond (2005); 45 RPM (the first visual history book on 7″ record sleeve design) and Five Hundred 45s (2010).

Spencer was schooled in design by an all-Yale faculty and took his first job in the record industry working for the ESP-DISK label before working as the in-house designer for Sire Records. After designing the cover for Billy Squier’s multi-platinum album Don’t Say No, Drate became the first album cover designer to be interviewed on MTV/VH-1.

Since teaming up over 35 years ago (1982), Drate and Salavetz have been the recipients of many design and music industry awards, including AIGA and Art Directors Club awards, Billboard Magazine‘s Billie award and, in 1980, Drate co-designed (with the Talking Heads) the Grammy Award–nominated album package for the band’s album Fear of Music. Drate was also a four-time member of the music packaging committee for the Recording Academy’s Grammy Awards and recently served as a judge for the music packaging industry’s Alex Awards and the Southeaster International Film and Music festivals. Their works are also part of the collections of the AIGA, the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design, the Brooklyn Museum and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, among others and, together, they’ve designed covers and packaging for 23 R&RHOF inductees.







Drate and Salavetz were also hosts of the radio and web-based series “THE INDIE CAFE” (part of Red Velvet Media’s Blogtalk Radio) where they covered the latest in music, film and the arts, interviewing the “visionaries in Pop culture”.

Archived episodes are available at
More information on this design team is available via their Facebook page at

All images Copyright 2017 Spencer Drate and are used by permission to illustrate this article. All text Copyright 2017 Mike Goldstein/ – All rights reserved.