Posted May 27, 2022 by Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com
Last November (2021) I’d received a comment on the ACHOF site that read as follows – “My partner and I love album covers so much that we have written 2 books about it: Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (2017) and Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance (2021), both published by MIT Press. We range far and wide in the Designed for Dancing book and feature many rock n roll albums from the 1950s and 1960s. We tried to identity photographers, illustrators, and designers, and celebrate album cover art”. Now, considering that most of the submissions to the comments section are either complaints about things I’ve left out of a description or that I hadn’t praised or panned with sufficient vigor (or are spam links to CBD product sites), you must admit that this comment deserved some degree of follow-up, so I contacted the writer – Jonathan Schroeder, William A. Kern Professor in Communications, Rochester Institute of Technology – to learn more about them and their interest in album cover design.
After learning a bit more about Prof. Schroeder and his partner, Professor Janet Borgerson (who sports a PhD in Philosophy and, since 2018, has been the Senior Wicklander Fellow at the Institute of Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University), admiring their credentials and then taking a look at the scores of articles, papers and books they’ve written on this and other topics, I have to admit that I was more than a bit concerned about entering into a discussion about album art with two people who are in a much-better position than I am to approach the topic. As most of you know, while I have appreciated the capabilities the people that make album cover imagery for a long time, my background is that of a content developer and producer and someone with a deep curiosity about art, music and technology and the people that excel at applying their talents and abilities to projects that combine these things, so while I might have learned a lot about the subject over the years, I’m a mere fan boy when compared to those who have studied it to the degree that Profs Schroeder and Borgerson have, which is why its such an honor to be able to present them and their thoughts to you in today’s article.
After some extended thought and deep breathing exercises, I built up my confidence a bit and set out to outline how best to find out more about these two fascinating individuals (particularly, how they came together both in their personal lives and as academics and authors) and then ask a series of (hopefully) intelligent questions designed to elicit answers that would showcase both their expertise and their passion for the topic at hand. With that in mind, I first asked them how they met and then decided to combine their talents to produce the articles and books that have established them as experts in this area…
Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – Thanks so much to you both for the time you’ve spent putting together answers for this article. Since my site’s readership is primarily made up of fans of album cover art and the people that have produced notable examples of it, it’s been my goal to be able to both bring fans a bit closer to the talented individuals and design/production teams that have made their favorite packages and to give a forum for “super-fans” of album art – writers, curators, gallerists, marketing gurus and collectors at all levels – to share what it is about their favorite covers that make them stand out within some pretty impressive collections. Based on what I’ve seen and read about your personal collection(s) and the books you’ve written, I’m taking it for granted by thinking that your love and knowledge of album art/imagery goes beyond the specific topics you’ve written about, so I would like to ask you a bit more about what some of your favorite covers/packages are from the rock/pop era – from 1960 to the present, in ACHOF parlance – whether you have them in your collection or not.
I’d like to get a better understanding of just why you like them, what you think they represent -i.e., whether they’re representing design trends from the times, or leading others to follow trends that these covers have started – and anything else you believe makes them stand out from other examples from the same era.
Before we get started down that path, as a lead-in your bios I’ll share at the end of this article, I do want to ask you a personal question. Since I’ve seldom interviewed married couples for this site, did your mutual love of album art and music initially bring the two of you together – as a couple and, later, as co-authors? How and where did you meet? At an educational symposium or a record swap or something along those lines?
Prof. Jonathan Schroeder – We both grew up in Flint, Michigan and met each other as toddlers on the shores of Duck Lake, near Interlochen Music Camp in Northern Michigan. Our grandparents and parents had cottages and would take us to see great musicians like Dave Brubeck and Count Basie when they performed at Interlochen. We sang together in the First Presbyterian Church of Flint choirs, where Janet’s mother Mary directed us as four and five year-old choristers. In high school, whenever we saw each other, we talked about the records we were listening to – from Neil Young to Talking Heads. I snuck Janet in to bars to dance to the latest “new wave” music. We always managed to find each other on the dance floor when the B-52’s “Strobe Light” came on. So, we were on each other’s radar, but it took a while for us to get together.
In the 1980s, Janet headed off to grad school in Wisconsin, and I to Berkeley, but we still met up on Duck Lake and occasionally on a dance floor over the years. When I invited Janet to my family reunion in the early 1990s, we realized that we really needed to do something about our long-standing attraction to each other and began a three-year process of getting together, including Janet moving to Providence, Rhode Island, where I was living at the time. Once we moved in together, our vinyl collection grew and grew and grew.
Mike G – So, music did have a little bit to do with it, but things seemed to blossom naturally over time – a very heart-warming story. It’s also wonderful to see that you both shared a passion for music and that, ultimately, it provided some additional incentives to pursue your specialties in education, which we’re all bound to benefit from today. So, let’s continue…My research finds that the both of you have been credited with a LOT of writing – books, articles, research papers, etc. – even an exhibition – about recorded music packaging and design, so the obvious first question should be about what it was that moved you both to focus on this topic as seriously as you have, taking your interests beyond those of most fans of music and art (and music-related art and design)?
Profs Schroeder and Borgerson – We have both been buying and collecting records since we were in elementary school in the 1960s. In the 70s and 80s, thrift stores exposed us, not only to clothing styles and housewares from earlier decades, but also to thousands of vinyl records – unusual ones, such as Fire Goddess and Hear How to Plan a Perfect Dinner Party. Many featured covers with unfamiliar design elements or photographs of bygone eras and faraway places. We discovered and poured over the wonderful and pathbreaking Incredibly Strange Music books (*1) that gave context and history to the albums and artists. The Incredibly Strange Music books connected us to figures in the alternative music and pop culture scene who specifically collected and explored the forgotten, yet often innovative, aspects of out of the ordinary LPs. The more we noticed striking colors, distinctive fonts, set-pieces from yesteryear, and unexpectedly compelling, sometimes hilarious, liner notes, the more records we took home.
Remember, during the 1990s, there were almost no new records being released, so we were faced with bin after bin of used, often mixed-genre, mixed-era records. Many records from the 1950s seemed to represent an earnest story of the quest for modernity. By that we mean modern sounds, modern equipment, but also modern lifestyles and modernist design. We were fascinated and, as one did with LP records, we took time to look at and analyze them. These discussions and related follow-up research led to sometimes startling discoveries and revelations about US history and popular culture. We published our first articles on our records in the late 1990s, including a few for a magazine called Cool and Strange Music.
For a long time writing about records felt like a side project, a novel source of data for approaching more traditional topics such as marketing ethics and branding, but also a chance to write differently and connect to a new audience (we’re both academic researchers). In 2013, we gave a presentation about 1950s “lifestyle” records that we had collected, including Columbia’s “Music for Gracious Living” series and other “home entertaining” albums from Carlton Records “Hear How” series. People liked it. We were obsessed with these records and thought we should try to write a book.
So, we had to get serious about writing about records. We worked up a book proposal, sent it off, and after a few rounds of reviews, we scored a publishing contract with MIT Press. MIT Press had published a beautiful and insightful book, California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way, with varied sized color photos and illustrations and different fonts. They seemed a good fit for our image-heavy layout.
We had a couple of goals in writing our first book on album covers – to reevaluate neglected or denigrated records and album cover design using a modernist, and cultural, lens, and to reveal a story of postwar US as told through the imaginative visions presented on album covers. We set about choosing albums to include, organizing the individual LPs into resonating chapters, and seeking out permission to reproduce the covers from the record companies that were still in business. So that book, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America, gave us a chance to delve deeper intoalbum cover design. We did a lot of research on cover photographers, designers, and illustrators. Some were well known, like Richard Avedon, but others we felt had been neglected, like Mozelle Thompson (Editor’s Note – Born in 1926 in Pittsburgh, PA and a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in NYC, Mozelle Thompson was an illustrator whose commercial work included designs for Glamour and Mademoiselle Magazines, as well as for clients in the book and theatrical arenas, plus scores of album covers, mostly in the classical genre).
Mike G – After we’d completed this preliminary discussion (and now that we all have a better understanding of some of what makes these two “tick”), I then decided to ask them to let me follow them as they presented some of their favorite album covers they’d obtained during their years of collecting. Initially, they presented me with a list and anecdotes about some of the records that they’d featured in their two books (mostly from the 1950s and 1960s) and, while I was interested and intrigued with these choices, I started to think about the expectations of you, my readers, and the precedents I’ve set over the 12 years since I began writing for the ACHOF – that is, learning more about the album covers found on many of the best-known rock/pop recordings of the last 60 years, along with the stories of how they were produced and who produced them – and made the decision to push them a bit and get them to share a different list than they’d supplied initially (please note that, as a bonus bit of content, I will share details from the first list with you afterwards). What I wanted to know was what their favorite album covers were from the rock/pop era (since 1960), why they chose the albums they did and, of course, what they thought about the current “state of the art” of the packaging/graphics used to market and sell recorded music today and, I must say, their answers did not disappoint because, in the end, album cover lovers of all backgrounds turn out to be some of the most-passionate and best-informed fans and collectors you’ll find in any area in the fine art world.
Here’s a summary of the information and observations they’ve shared, with each presenting their own list of favorites. After that, you’ll find more of my interview with the pair:
Prof. Jonathan Schroeder – In our two books on album cover design, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America and Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance, we focused largely on records released before we were born. In the following list, we delve into a few favorites from more recent times (along with a couple from our Designed for Dancing book).
– Bobby Jay and the Hawks, The Watusi, The Ska and The Monkey, all on Warner Brothers Records; produced by Joe Saraceno, with art photos by Ed Thrasher, 1964.
Sometimes it’s interesting to look at less well-known covers from celebrated designers and photographers. For example, we included a series from Bobby Jay and the Hawks in our book Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance: Everybody’s Doing It Volumes 1,2, and 3 – The Watusi, the Ska, and the Monkey, respectively. The cover photographs, credited to Ed Thrasher, were taken at “P.J.s, Hollywood, Calif.” P.J.s was one of the first discothèques in Los Angeles, and attracted celebrities such as Lenny Bruce, Mia Farrow, Ann-Margret, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman (the Santa Monica Boulevard spot became the Starwood in the 1970s, helping launch the careers of many heavy metal and punk bands, including the Runaways, Quiet Riot, and X). Each cover has blurry, action dance shots, laid out a bit like a high school yearbook, and detailed instructions on the back, complete with more photos (sharp studio shots, numbered for easy cross-reference to the notes).
Thrasher, a 2020 Album Cover Hall of Fame inductee, was an influential album cover art director and photographer (Sidenote: Thrasher was married for a while to Linda Gray, who played Sue Ellen Ewing on the iconic 1980s television show Dallas). His covers, which included Boots by Nancy Sinatra, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced, and Astral Weeks by Van Morrison “helped define the look of rock” in the words of renowned design writer Steven Heller. Although the Everybody’s Doing It covers may not have attained the accolades of his more well-known work, they do reveal an important trend of 1960s album cover design. As Heller noted in his New York Times obituary of Thrasher: “It was no longer enough to show a staid studio photograph of a recording artist; the new generation wanted more inventive, quirky pictorial representations and decorative logos, signs that would brand them as part of the youth culture.”
– The Supremes A’ Go Go, Motown; photo by Frank Dandridge, 1966.
The Supremes A’ Go Go, from 1966, was the first album by an all-female pop group achieve a number one spot on Billboard’s US album charts, knocking The Beatles Revolver off top position in the process. (The Supremes held that record until March 1982, when the aptly named Go-Go’s reached the top of the charts with their album Beauty and the Beat).
Motown promoted their artists as “the Sound of Young America,” and young America was listening and dancing to Motown hits, including the Supremes’ five number ones in 1963 and 1964. The Supremes A’ Go-Go’s bright, pink, red, and bluecover finds the trio of Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson posed in separate shots, smiling widely, dressed in slacks and long-sleeved tops, showing listeners how to dance to their records. The cover marked a change from their previous album covers, which generally favored matching, more formal outfits. Thus, the LP signaled a cultural shift for the band. As Andy Fyfe wrote in Mojo magazine: “By mixing Day-Glo pop art with classic Blue Note-styled graphics and dressing the Supremes in Carnaby Street fashions instead of their usual sequined evening gowns, A’Go-Go’s sleeve caught the breezy mood and firmly anchored Motown in the modern pop world.” The LP features the Supremes’ sensational hits “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” as well as cover versions of “These Boots are Made for Walking,” and “Hang on Sloopy.”
The cover photos were shot by Frank Dandridge, a photojournalist who received notice for his photos of the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 Harlem riots, the aftermath of a police officer shooting an African American teenager. His work appeared in many popular magazines of the day: Good Housekeeping, Life, Look, Paris Match, Playboy, and Saturday Evening Post; his album cover photos seems to have mainly focused on Motown. Dandridge was one of the few African American photographers covering the civil rights movement for leading national magazines. He went on to a successful second career as a script writer for popular television, including Fantasy Island, The Incredible Hulk, and The Six Million Dollar Man.
– X-Ray Spex, Germfree Adolescence, EMI; produced by Falcon Stuart and X-Ray Spex, cover design by Cooke Key, photograph by Trevor Key, 1978, and Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food, Sire; produced by Brian Eno and Talking Heads, art direction by David Byrne, cover photograph by Jimmy De Sana, 1978
I find it fun to compare album covers – and I find compelling graphic connections between Supremes A’ Go Go and a couple records that were among my favorites in high school – the 1978 punk classic, Germfree Adolescence, from X-Ray Spex and Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food, also from 1978. Each feature separate, full-body shots of the individual band members. Each is characterized by clean lines and bold colors. Each contains “quirky pictorial representations,” like Thrasher’s groundbreaking album covers.
The X-Ray Spex cover was shot by Trevor Key, who, while not well recognized during his lifetime, shot numerous classic covers, including Tubular Bells from Mike Oldfield, The Sex Pistols The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Love Will Tear Us Apart, by Joy Division, New Order’s Technique, Phil Collins’ Face Value, and So, by Peter Gabriel. Key, a 2017 Album Cover Hall of Fame inductee, helped create the Rolling Stones Let it Bleed cover, and founded the Cooke Key Associates design firm, which produced numerous covers for Virgin Records. The X-Ray Spex cover remains an iconic punk document. Their lead singer Poly Styrene was recently featured in a well-received documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché. Germfree Adolescence included her enigmatic, signature song “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
The More Songs About Buildings and Food cover was based on an idea from front man David Byrne and shot by artist Jimmy De Sana. The cover consists of a mosaic of 529 Polaroid photographs (remember those?). De Sana shot hundreds of photos of the band members, then handmade a collage for the final image. More Songs About Buildings and Food’s cover is a memorable, celebrated image from the New Wave period. There’s a poster of the album cover in Museum of Modern Art’s architecture and design collection. A few songs from the album, as well as its cover, also pop up in the 2016 film 20th Century Women, which is set in the late 1970s. De Sana was known for his portraits of downtown New Yorkers, including Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, and David Byrne, and shot a few album covers, including Contort Yourself by James White and the Blacks and You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With from Laurie Anderson, John Giorno, and William Burroughs. If the X-Ray Spex cover conjured up visions of chemical control, perhaps the Taking Heads image represents the grid that captures us all….
Psychedelia represents another graphic trend from 1960s album covers. As listeners were dropping acid, album cover designers came up with visual themes to reflect their ensuing mind expansion. Psychedelic colors, experimental shapes, surrealist references were deployed to reflect
– Love, Forever Changes, Elektra; art direction by William S. Harvey, with cover art by Bob Pepper, 1967.
Forever Changes is one of those classic albums that I never owned until recently. I remember seeing it reproduced on innumerable inner sleeves from other albums – its bright, psychedelic colors really popped and made it stand out from all the others being promoted. Most of Pepper’s work was for classical albums, which he infused with psychedelic touches. Harvey played a role in the design of hundreds of records, including classics like The Doors’ Strange Days and The Stooges. The cover of Forever Changes bears some similarities to designer Milton Glaser’s famous poster of Bob Dylan in profile – with wild, colorful hair – that was included in Dylan’s Greatest Hits from 1966. That poster, similarly to the Forever Changes cover image, embodies the “psychedelic dazzle of the flower-power era,” in the words of journalist Owen Edwards. Both the music and album cover from their Forever Changes remain iconic artifacts of the 1960s.
– Wasting Light, Foo Fighters, art direction, Morning Breath, Inc., RCA, 2011.
Wasting Light, from the Foo Fighters, was famously recorded in “back-to-basic” analog, and the cover design followed suit – no computer graphics were used. The striking cover was produced by Morning Breath, the design firm led by Doug Cunningham and Jason Noto, which has designed dozens of notable covers, including World Painted Blood from Slayer and Queens of the Stone Age’s Eva Vulgaris. Their design for Wasting Light features the band members’ photographs grouped into a collage that bears a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Forever Changes from over 40 years before. Each headshot is bathed in bright reds and blues, set against a dark background with fuchsia type. As the album itself was a look back at earlier recording techniques, the 1960s feel of the cover brings a nostalgic glow to the effort. Cunningham said in an interview with the website Dumbo Beta “Our aesthetic is really about nostalgia. Some people view nostalgia as the enemy of creativity – that you can’t look back, only forward, but for us half of our conversations are about remembering things from when we were young.” He doesn’t mention Forever Changes, but I think he must have had it in the back of his mind for Wasting Light. In any case, it’s fun to find visual connections between disparate album covers. I remember looking through the various Album Cover Album books (*2) when I was in college (and buying lots of records) and enjoying the layouts that featured similar covers from a wide range of artists, grouped together on a page to make the connection clear.
And now, Prof. Janet Borgerson’s picks –
– New Order, True Faith (single and remix), on the Factory/Qwest label, with design by Peter Saville Associates and photograph by Trevor Key, 1987, and Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924)/Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Decca; cover design by Alex Steinweiss (as Piedra Blanca), 1958
Legendary graphic designer and art director, Peter Saville, along with photographer Trevor Key, created the cover for New Order’s True Faith single: a single vibrant yellow-gold sweet chestnut leaf seemingly floating down from a brilliant blue sky. The cover is abstract and collage-like but invokes a realism even in keeping the natural world at a distance. In 1987, Key and Saville invented a process they called the “dichromat” which was “like silk-screening but using a colour enlarger and putting light through it instead of ink.” On his SHOWstudio website, Saville reflected: “This was different for me because it was not re-creating images, it was not using found or sourced historic images, so it felt very progressive.”
As sleeve art obsessives do, I noticed that the multiple colorful leaves gracing the True Faith 12-inch Remix echo a 1950s Alex Steinweiss LP graphic of brightly colored cutout shapes, evoking falling, twisting leaves. I had the pleasure of meeting (and reporting this observation to) Peter Saville. Jonathan and I were once in London giving a talk on our book, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America. Saville had provided a back cover blurb for us and, in another stunningly generous move, attended our presentation. Stylish and charismatic, he discussed the founding era of Factory Records and his work on my favorite LPs from Joy Division and New Order. Saville said he wasn’t attempting to achieve any style but was drawing upon design elements he found around him, and he would put them together in ways he found compelling. When we made our visual comparison, Saville, never one to obscure his influences, remarked that he had not known the Steinweiss cover and graciously accepted the offer to send him an image of the two side by side. Earlier in the day, I’d bought a copy of New Order Movement at Sister Ray on Berwick Street (Editor’s Note – who promotes itself as “the world’s most visited record store”, located in London’s Soho district) and Saville signed the inside cover with his drafting pencil.
– New Order, Movement, Factory; design by Peter Saville, Factory, 1981
The whole package of New Order Movement presented an abstraction and a vagueness in harmony with my general response to the album. The black Elegant-Grotesk font, spelling out “New Order,” displaced the information it provided. The typography transcended the name, creating uncertainty, “doubts even here”: Is this the band I think it is? The dissembling continued: the word, “Fact.” wasn’t short for Factory Records, but precisely meant fact – something decided, concluded, a closing.
Was the pale blue LP version the same as the off-white? Clearly, as a collector, I needed copies of both versions. Song titles do appear on the back cover of Movement, but the apparently discrete songs seemed to merge, create non-melodic, indistinct canons. I never remembered to determine which song was which. I still don’t know. However, when the lyrics drone: “white circles, black lines surround me,” the album cover suggested a concrete image. Movement is my favorite album, in the early 1980s often listened to over and over with the turntable set for continuous repeat. I told Saville how important Movement was to me and he replied that Movement wasn’t an album most fans focus on when discussing Joy Division and New Order. Indeed, I said, for many years Movement barely seemed to exist, a document from a period to painful to recollect, and he gave me a quick kiss. Saville’s album cover design helped me understand the emotional reality of that album.
– Alice Cooper, School’s Out, Warner Bros; jacket concept and album design by Craig Braun, Ernie Cefalu, and Tom Wilkes; photography by Robert Otter (desk), Roger Prignet [sic] (Alice Cooper), 1972
As an elementary school student who had memorized all the lyrics and obsessed over the Drew Struzan gangster cover characters on the sepia-toned Sgt. Pepper-esque Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits, acquiring a (miraculously) ‘intact’ copy of School’s Out seemed an age-appropriate next step. Desks at my school were shiny with an uncarvable surface, but I had drawn and surveyed plenty of graphite initials and hearts and aimless doodles, so AC’s gouged dark wood surface appeared familiar enough. And inside? A treasure trove of childhood privacy, a place to hide secret passions like my own watermelon Jolly Rancher wrappers, Richie Rich comics, pocket knife, stolen Frito Bandito erasers, and romantic forays folded into lined paper.
The jangly rhythmic intro to “School’s Out” climaxed into the first lines: “We ain’t got no choice, all the girls and boys … ‘cuz we’ve found new toys,” and spoke directly to sparks of adolescent discontent already beginning to fire. But what of the underwear encircling the black vinyl? A free gift! But weirdly plain and cheap, like Handi-Wipe material! Who would wear those? Still, I folded them carefully (they were from Alice, after all) and tucked them into the drawer behind the white and pastel cotton Carter’s.
Despite the LP’s appeal to juvenile personal experience, the design team of Tom Wilkes (Monterey Pop Festival, Stones’ Beggars Banquet, Neil Young Harvest) and Craig Braun (Velvet Underground’s banana, Stones’ zipper) brought technical and marketing knowhow to the package. Roger Prigent’s monochrome photo, taped to the inside desktop like a pinup pic, presented the band with a trashcan, streetwise style. Robert Otter had an eye for documentary detail, often applied to 1960s and 70s New York City’s outdoor life. For School’s Out, Otter trained his lens upon an antique desk, carved and kitted out, reportedly, by Wilkes and Braun: a fantasy tattoo red heart, a French bulldog with lightbulb, upside down phallic gothic cross, and a tiny set of lips.
Here the album cover art story takes an unforeseen serendipitous twist. Ernie Cefalu did a 2009 interview with then RockPoP Gallery’s (and now ACHOF’s) Mike Goldstein (https://rockpopgallery.typepad.com/rockpop_gallery_news/2009/10/index.html). The details place Cefalu at the center of rock music packaging history, including claims to initial creative credit for the Sticky Fingers’ zipper and the drawing and design of the Rolling Stones lips and tongue logo. More interesting still, Cefalu apparently played a role designing Alice Cooper’s School’s Out: Cefalu left Braun’s company after initial creative work, and his efforts were passed on, without acknowledgement, to new art director Tom Wilkes. Suddenly an easily missed aspect of the desk stands out and may offer a trace of Cefalu’s work: Just to the right of the Prigent photo: a pair of open mouth lips have been carved in around a knot in the wood.
Interview with J. Schroeder and J. Borgerson (done via email in May, 2022) –
Mike Goldstein – While, of course, I must thank you profusely for sharing all you have with me and, soon, my readers, as a reader of my site yourself, you know that, as it is a standard practice of mine, I have to ask you some general questions regarding your backgrounds and what led you both into becoming “album cover lovers”. Then we’ll discuss your feelings about the current “state-of-the-art” in cover design and what you see for the future in this arena.
Before we dive straight into my questionnaire, I’d like to set the stage a bit. One article I read of yours that I found of great interest was the one in which you talked about how stereophonic sound – and the equipment needed to play and appreciate it – was sold “to a skeptical public”. The subject resonated with me because my first jobs out of school were in sales and marketing for companies who made and sold home entertainment products – nostalgically called “stereos” or “stereo components” back in the late 1970s/early 1980s when I got started – so my efforts came after the initial sales job was done on the public but during the time when the two main target markets were a) people who wanted something decent to play their records or tapes on (often guided by reviews in Consumer Reports) and b) the “audiophile” market – that is, those customers who spent an awful lot of time and money on systems, sound rooms and half-speed mastered source materials – pressed on ultra-heavy virgin vinyl discs or, later “Super Audio CDs – so that they could tell their friends that their amplified sub-woofers would play a 25Hz test tone
With that trip down memory lane now behind us – for me and other geeks like me, at least – that leaves me with a few areas of discussion I’d like your takes on.
Profs Schroeder and Borgerson – On a related note, we have a growing collection of “introduction to stereo” LPs. The way they teach listeners how to listen and how to appreciate stereo is fascinating. Many have great graphics that attempt to communicate the wonders of stereo and hi-fi. We’re intrigued by the music selected to demonstrate the then-new technology: Must have firing cannons! Must have drums ricocheting between left and right channels!
Mike G – I found that the Cincinnati Pop’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on Telarc (Telarc Digital DG-10041, 1979) helped me sell a lot of sub-woofers back in the day…but let me get back on topic. While the gap between the haves/have-nots in the music business has closed greatly, with most people listening to their music via headphones hooked up to their mobile devices or through multi-channel/multi-room Wi-Fi-or-Bluetooth-enabled sound systems at home, I’ve seen innumerable articles stating that “the album cover is dead”. While I disagree completely with the authors of these articles, which, I think, are done mainly as “click-bait”, I would like to understand what your feelings are in general about album artwork, packaging and promotion-related design, photography and production delivered these days? Are there any musical acts, labels, art directors, etc. that you think are keeping the field alive or important and, more importantly, do you think album art and packaging – including work for “special products”, stage designs, merch, etc. – actually matters anymore?
Profs S & B – People like character-creating, mood-building visuals, even if not for every song. What is the mood? Who is making these sounds? Does their story resonate with mine? Think of video games, mobile apps, TikTok. Some people listen to the majority of their music on YouTube which almost always provides a visual component. Album covers continue to promote styles, emotional responses, and personal choices. We believe that one of the drivers of the vinyl revival is that people like having 12 inch by 12 inch pieces of art. A lot of record buyers don’t even play their vinyl – some download the files, and others just want to own the object and fill out a shelf. And, as you mentioned, album covers are still used in streaming services. No, the album cover isn’t going away.
It is interesting to look at recent Grammy winners for “Best Recording Package”, which is an instructive title for the album cover design award they hand out. Several winners are elaborate, complex assemblages. This year’s winner, the fairly obscure – at least to us – record Pakelang, by the Taiwanese group with the catchy name, 2nd Generation Falangao Singing Group and The Chairman Crossover Big Band, was designed by Li Jheng Han & Yu Wei. It’s a beautiful cover that looks like a topographic map of a coastline – a kind of pastel, 3-D Unknown Pleasures). The deluxe box set is a noteworthy trend, for example, with a recent winner, Chris Cornell, designed by the team of Barry Ament, Jeff Ament, and Joe Spix. With all the box sets and compilation reissues that seem to appeal to collectors, we expect in the future to see elaborate design contributing to the overall attractiveness and valuing of the package, and designers from Asia seem to be poised to gain recognition.
Mike G – Album art fans here in the U.S. should really spend some time looking at the work being done outside the U.S. and U.K. – there’s some truly impressive packaging being created that deserves our attention. That said, it seems clear that the switch over to the electronic delivery of music products and the resurgence of physical products such as vinyl records and limited edition/box sets are both showing continued growth and consumer acceptance. From the vantage point of serious record collectors, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm overall on the artist’s – or their labels’ or electronic distribution platforms’ behalf to invest time and money into retail packaging and related printed materials/merch items that appeals to – and extends their relationship with – their fans? Are those efforts effective in ways that both helps them extend their “branding” and differentiates them from the crowd and at the same time, makes them more collectible?
Profs S & B – We have found that even local and regional bands produce merch – it’s so much harder to earn money through royalties. And during the pandemic, touring has been difficult. Another big trend is limited editions, colored vinyl, and, of course, Record Store Day releases. We think that record package design will remain important to musicians – it’s part of the culture to design a record cover, and it represents a tangible output for their work. It’s an old tradition for ‘artists’ to decry commercialization or pandering to mass market desires, and unless the artists have cultivated an organic brand-building relationship with a distinctive hue, we’d typically expect a musician’s concern to be more with the music and less with the vinyl color. However, if a certain color captures associated artistic or emotional characteristics, why not use that on T-shirts, pillowcases, trainers, and vinyl releases? Why not take advantage of a visual equivalent to a ‘sound’?
Mike G – Signature colors, memorable logos and things derived from a well-designed package all seem to deepen the connection between musical acts and their fans and also allow the music-makers to make good money on the bonuses they’ll include in special packages. For example, if you want a limited-edition set of the garden gnomes you see on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass package, you had to spring for the “Uber deluxe edition” of the 50th anniversary re-issue package, which sold out at nearly $1000 retail! To create successful packages like that, you have to be working with “the best” package designers and producers, so I’d like to know whether you’d care to share your opinions about the current “state of the art” in music product packaging and promotion? Riffing again off of your article on how stereo was sold to the public (https://theconversation.com/how-stereo-was-first-sold-to-a-skeptical-public-103668), I’d like to ask you to compare those efforts back in the 50s to what we’ve learned about how modern record packages have advanced from the plastic discs inserted into printed cardboard sleeves (Editor’s Note – thanks, Mr. Steinweiss) that were first sold to a public used to buying them in blank paper sleeves from their local music retailers.
Profs S & B – Stereo, as we discussed in that article, was a technological innovation that involved the public in purchasing new equipment. How do you get people to care about these new sonic possibilities? And convince them to discard their mono systems, ‘update’, and spend more money? The current wisdom suggests that there is something that newer digital technologies fail to capture – warmth, depth, bass, material engagement, cover art – and that means going out to buy aspects of a retro technology. So, you need a turntable! And speakers! There are surely certain industries not disappointed with this turn of events. That vinyl records are crucial objects in this setup means also firing potential buyers’ desire to own them. It’s about the sound, of course, but the medium that delivers the sound has the possibility to be desirable in itself. And history proves that covers, inner sleeves, and inserts can increase attraction and engagement.
An emphasis on subjectivity and personal experience is a key tenet of modernity – “It’s about me, my interpretation and feelings, my story.” We sense this in pop music’s splintering into smaller and smaller genres. There’s so much music being released, and most listeners are aware of only a fraction of what’s available. Streaming is a two-way street – if you make certain choices, algorithms can expose you to a wider variety of music than you might seek out on your own. But many people seem content to stream and listen to a very narrow range of music. Think of Pandora’s Thumbprint radio, a continual playlist comprised of your ‘thumbs up.’ You’re only hearing music you’ve already said you liked!
When we look back at covers from the 1950s and 1960s, they often addressed a more general “you.” That is, the covers told stories about an imagined community or group of people captured or picked out by selected images and attitudes – city dwellers, suburbanites, sometimes teenagers, sometimes older record buyers. In this way, the covers reflected broader social themes, as we discuss in Designed for Hi-Fi Living. Today, many album covers, especially for rock, rap, pop, and jazz, focus on the personality of the individual artist. This is an expected outcome of emphasizing subjective experience: How authentically personal? How singular, unique or eccentric? And how does the artist speak for ‘me’?
Take Billie Eilish’s multiple Grammy-winning debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? from 2019. You cannot get much more subjective than your own subconscious, apparently the locus of sleeping dreams. The cover was photographed by Kenneth Cappello, who also shot covers for The Kills’ No Wow and Snoop Dogg’s I Wanna Thank Me, as well as magazine covers with Iggy Pop, Dr. Dre, and Jimmy Iovine. The When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? cover is a great example of the inward-looking, all about me ethos of much contemporary pop. Eilish sings about her dreams and her subjective reality, recording much of it in her bedroom, as the story goes. Of course, the title asks about “all” and “we”, where do “we” go? Maybe Eilish gestures to an experience, sleep, shared by all humans and a collectivity, a shared dreamspace, Maybe the extreme individuality circles back to the community, and Eilish calls that out. Maybe.
Compare Billie Eilish with a mainstay of 1960s pop – let’s say Petula Clark, whose music addresses a wide audience, and works on a more universal register. For example, her hit “Downtown,” which won a Grammy for “Best Rock and Roll Recording” in 1965, was all about the shared experience of going into the city. Downtown was a place for everyone to go. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares” she sings, in an inclusive sense.
Granted, the cover for her LP, also titled Downtown, shows Clark in a generic color portrait with a blank background, but nothing personal there. She looks at the camera and seems open for personal interaction. Tellingly, we can’t find information on who photographed Clark for the cover, no name is listed, and our internet sleuthing proved futile. It’s likely that Ed Thrasher, who was art director for Warner Bros around the time Downtown was released, shot the cover, or at least designed it. Ellish, in contrast, is unreachable, gone so deeply into herself that her eyes, the ‘window to her soul,’ are blank.
Another recent album that we find intriguing is Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, which we listened to over and over during the early days of the pandemic. The cover photograph was shot by Hugo Comte, a young French fashion photographer known for his “dream-like” imagery and was designed by art director Guillaume Sbalchiero.
The Future Nostalgia cover inspired a nice bit of analysis from journalist Rachel Hahn in her January 2020 Vogue article, “Dua Lipa’s New Album Artwork Is a Retro-Modern Mash Up.” Hahn notes the “Googie-esque retro vehicle” that points to 1950s-themed restaurants and Lipa’s “’50s style pink button-down shirt.” Other elements, though, including the mismatched earrings and geometric cutout white gloves appear “slightly futuristic.” Hahn interprets: “Lipa’s poised to add a fresh twist on some classic sounds.” So, clearly, the art of crafting meaning in album cover design is still alive. And, of course, Future Nostalgia was a smash hit, and won a Grammy for “Best Pop Vocal Album” and a Brit Award for “Best British Album of the Year”.
Mike G – I’m so pleased to see learn that you’re finding album cover work on a number of today’s records as intriguing as some of those from the earlier days of your record-collecting. So, taking into account the aforementioned “resurgence” of the collecting of vinyl records and the “special products” that are being released to appeal to collectors, it seems that folks of all ages are still somewhat interested in building personal music collections not stored on a disk drive. For example, I bought the 50th anniversary re-release box set of Let It Bleed box by the Rolling Stones that, in addition to the inclusion of two vinyl LPs, came with a wonderful photo and info book and three limited-edition prints – if you can call an edition of 27,000 copies “limited”! – of various states of the artwork produced by Robert Brownjohn. What’s your take on those products? Also, although music is mostly sold in digital formats, don’t you find it interesting that people (app developers and consumers both) still use album covers – albeit in thumbnail size – to search thru their phones, music players, etc.?
Profs S & B – We are amazed at how many records are being re-released! We used to refer to “used” record stores, as that’s where we bought so many records over the years. But now, it’s not really accurate – most record stores offer a large range of new records. So, even if we would rather buy an “original” from the 1970s or 1980s, they are hard to find amidst the brand new, shrink wrapped, collectible, 180 gram new releases.
The album cover lives! Even if in a tiny size online. We pay attention to this use of album cover images on Spotify, Pandora, and Sirius radio, and find it strange at times, when streaming, that a song will appear with an odd cover – maybe from a film soundtrack that it was on, or a “greatest hits” repackage. We’d much prefer to see the original record cover that the song appeared on when it was released!
Mike G – I have often stated that it is my belief that, in many ways, iconic album cover art has had a noticeable effect on what’s referred to as “Pop Culture”. Do you think that a study of album cover art helps us document modern human history? What’s your take on this – is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??
Profs S & B – That’s what we have been trying to discuss in our books! Album covers are a form of midcentury media, one that has been overlooked in comparison to movies, magazines, television, radio, and books. As with those media forms, album covers both reflect and construct aspects of culture. Record covers have been overlooked, yet record covers survive – not many people are reading 70 year old magazines or watching everyday TV from the 50s, but many are listening to music from the 1950s and 1960s and enjoying the accompanying album covers. And, you’ll note that album covers themselves show up all over the internet.
Mike G – Let’s spend a moment on the “intellectual property” question. While doing the research for my site and for some of the bios featured it, 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 labels, print publishers, licensing companies and/or other musical acts without permission or without giving proper credit for the work being used. It seems that, in an age where people seem to find it permissible to “borrow” – it sounds so much better than “steal” or “plagiarize” – an artist’s or writer’s or photographer’s work to help them promote and sell their own products, folks that create original art have been forced to police the media and the web to do what they can to either stop this unauthorized use or, at least, receive credit for the work they’ve done. Have any of the artists or producers or gallerists you might have been in contact with regarding album art – 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?
Profs S & B – One thing we have found is how hidden so many of the designers and photographers of early album covers are. Two of our favorite cover photographers, Wendy Hilty and David Hecht, are not well known at all outside enthusiast circles. Yet we think their work should be included when we think of important trends in 1950s album cover art, and more generally, in photography. So, part of our work has been rediscovering these artists, trying to learn more about them, and celebrating their efforts. Occasionally, we find an earlier record cover layout or design or photo or font-use that seems ‘copied,’ or at least drawn upon, for a more recent cover. For example, the Steinweiss cover we showed Peter Saville and the way the Foo Fighters cover echoes Love’s Forever Changes. So far, we’ve found these resonances to be exciting discoveries. If we ever find egregious plagiarizing, we’ll speak up!
Mike G – Please do and let us know what you find! Thanks so much to the both of you for your time and effort on this article – it was certainly a pleasure to meet you and hope that we all have learned something from your answers. I know that I’m eager to see what you write about next!
(*1) RE/Search – Incredibly Strange Music books – A two-volume series, first published in 1993 by RE/Search Publications and authored by V. Vale and Andrea Juno. Features interviews with producers of “kitchy” music (e.g., surf music, music for strippers, exotic island music, bird recordings, etc.) and those that collect it. 2nd Volume published in 1994.
(*2) Album Cover Album books – by Storm Thorgerson and Roger Dean, with aid from others including Vaughan Oliver. A series of several books on the topic of album cover art (and the stories behind many of your favorites), first published in 1989 and with the latest edition published in 2008 by Collins Design/Harper Collins Publishers, New York.
About our interviewees – Professors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder
Borgerson and Schroeder together at the 2021 Polka Festival in Cedar, Michigan.
Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder are a creative team – writing, teaching, and collecting vinyl records together for over 25 years. They call their work together “an analog rescue project”, with the results of their efforts appearing in a wide range of publications from Cool and Strange Music to the World Financial Review. Having collected records over several decades, our enthusiasm for modern design, retro aesthetics, and travel abroad found expression in their 2017 book published by MIT Press, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America, which was named a best book of 2017 by the Financial Times and a best music book of 2017 by Vinyl Factory, and again in 2021 with Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America To Dance.
Photo courtesy of the Flint Institute of Arts
The couple have been presenters at several conferences, such as one at the Flint Institute of Arts in 2018 (see picture, above) and, more recently, curated a Designed for Hi-Fi Living exhibition in the McKenzie Commons at RIT in Rochester, NY that opened in April, 2019 (and, due to COVID, is still on display – see flyer, below).
Designed for Hi-Fi Living show flyer, featuring album cover design by Sy Leichman
Janet Borgerson studied philosophy, economics, and writing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, completing postdoctoral work at Brown University. Early on, a writing fellowship from the Cranbrook Institute gave her a taste of living with modern design. Her writing – mostly about consumer culture, aesthetics, and identity – often draws on her background in art history, film studies, and branding.
Jonathan Schroeder studied perception, music, and psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and received a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California-Berkeley. Currently, he is the William A. Kern Professor in the School of Communication, Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and writes a lot about branding, identity, photography, visual communication – and records.
When not out on the road, the couple lives in Rochester, New York, surrounded by midcentury design, furniture, and a lot of records.
To see more about the authors and their work, please visit the sites for their two books –
Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America – https://www.designedforhifiliving.com/
and their latest book
Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America To Dance – https://www.designedfordancing.net/
Includes almost 300 full color reproductions of midcentury dance albums with insightful and entertaining commentaries on each one.
Bonus content – The Professors share a list of their favorite Midcentury Dance Albums
While we have many many favorite album covers – from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, designed by Peter Saville, to Dua Lipa’s recent Future Nostalgia, photographed by Hugo Comte – we thought we would select some of our favorites from the book we recently published Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance.
- Rodriguez and His Orchestra, Latin Dance Party,
Hi Fidelity C 4016; cover design by C. Arnold Carlson, 1959.
- Dance, Be Happy!
Columbia CL 967; photo by Ormond Gigli, 1957.
- Marty Gold and His Orchestra, Skin Tight,
RCA Victor LPM 2230; 1960.
- Ray Conniff and his Orchestra and Chorus, Dance the Bop!
Columbia CL 1004, 1957.
- Perez Prado and His Orchestra, Havana, 3 a.m.,
RCA Victor LPM-1257, 1956.
- Eddie Gomez and His Latin American Orchestra, Caribbean Rendezvous,
Crown CLP 5043; cover photo by Todd Walker, art direction by Florette Bihari, 1957.
- JC Heard, Calypso for Dancing, (Teenager’s Calypso),
Epic LN 3348, photo by Hal Reiff, 1957.
- “The Home of Happy Feet”,
Capitol ST 1243; 1959.
- Billy Larkin and the Delegates, Don’t Stop!
World Pacific WPS 21863; art direction by Woody Woodward, photo by Ivan Nagy, 1967.
- Prado, Cugat, Puente, Esquivel, Arcaraz, Garcia, The Dancing Beat of the Latin Bands,
RCA Victor LSP-2087; 1959.
- Mambo in Havana,
Hollywood LPH 24, 1959.
- Bebo Valdez and His Orchestra, Cuban Dance Party,
Everest SDBR 1057; 1959.
- Hawaii Calls: Waikiki,
Capitol T 772, 1957.
- Orquesta Aragón, That Cuban Cha Cha Cha,
RCA Victor LPM 1294; photo by Ben Rose, 1956.
- Let’s Dance the Cha Cha Cha,
Seeco SCLP 9054; cover art by Haas-Dexter, 1955.
- Modern Square Dances,
Diplomat DS 2609, c. 1963.
- Joe Loco, Rockin’ Cha,
Mercury MG 20373, cover model Margo Rodriguez, 1958.
- Louis Martinelli and the Continentals, Latin Twist,
Crown CST 197; photo by Joseph Tauber, cover design by Hobco Arts, cover model Irish McCulla, 1959.
- Afro Can Can: Jack Costanzo’s Version of Cole Porter,
Liberty LRP 3137; photo by Garrett-Howard, Inc, cover design by Pate/Francis & Associates, 1960.
- Tiny Doolittle and the Twisters, Twist,
Hurrah H 1001, 1962.
- Lester Lanin, Thoroughly Modern,
Audio Fidelity AFSD 6180; art director Rhea Atkins, photo courtesy of Pan American World Airways, 1968.
And one that didn’t make it in to the book due to length considerations –
- Sylvio Mazzuca and His Orchestra, Baile Latino/Let’s Dance Latin,
Columbia ES 1784; photo by Henry Parker, 1962.
Except as noted, all images featured in this story are Copyright 2021 – 2022 by Jonathan Schroeder – All rights reserved – and are used with the author’s permission for the purposes of illustrating this article. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2022 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) – All rights reserved.