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Cover up

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was attempting to discover new music at a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images; subsequent popular formats (cassette tape, CDs, downloads) didn’t provide such a good showcase for album art so the recent trend for releasing new music on vinyl is a positive step in returning artwork to the status it had in the 70s. My father was an Art teacher and would drag us around galleries whenever the chance arose; I seem to recall Abbot Hall in Kendal as being a popular destination. I guess his efforts to interest us in art were successful because I subjected my son to the same sort of treatment, despite me ending up as a scientist, and I continue to visit galleries wherever I travel especially if there's some prog-context like Salvador Dali's The Endless Enigma (1938) in Madrid's Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía or Rembrandt's The Night Watch (1642) in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Anyway, not knowing how the music industry actually worked, thinking that art direction was the responsibility of the group rather than the label, I hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music.

The Endless Enigma (Salvador Dali, 1938)

There are a handful of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock though prog wasn’t necessarily the only genre they worked in. The most obvious examples include Roger Dean and Yes; Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd; William Neal and ELP; Mark Wilkinson and Marillion; Paul Whitehead and Charisma acts Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator; Philip Travers and the Moody Blues. The relationship was most rewarding, in a symbiotic kind of way, where bands stuck with a particular designer over the course of a number of releases. This conforms to what Wagner described as ‘gesamtkuntswerk’ where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, fitting the idea of the concept album and consistent constructed mythologies.

Mark Wilkinson's cover design for Marillion's Script for a Jester's Tear, featuring motifs that would recur on subsequent albums and vocalist Fish's stage image

When I started to listen to music, I took the presence of printed lyrics for granted and consequently I found it irritating when I didn’t have a lyric sheet, having been reduced to replaying sections of albums to work out what Greg Lake was singing on Tarkus (1971), for instance. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the original rock concept album, was the first rock LP to have the song words reproduced on the sleeve and the cover specifically related to the idea that the album had been released by the fictitious Sgt Pepper. Prior to Sgt Pepper most album covers featured a photograph of the band, but Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content of contained within.

Roger Dean’s work with Yes created a narrative that took on a life of its own, incorporating stage design for live performances (with Dean’s brother Martyn) and later inspired Jon Anderson to write and release Olias of Sunhillow (1976). It’s been suggested that Anderson had asked Dean to provide the album cover illustration for Olias of Sunhillow but the artist was too busy to take the commission, however David Fairbrother-Roe interpreted Dean’s Fragile spaceship and the attendant Anderson imagined characters exceptionally well. I was rather surprised when, following the group hiatus from 1975 to 1977, Yes reconvened with an album that didn’t have a Roger Dean cover. The Hipgnosis effort was similar to material that they’d provided for other bands, but I didn’t think it was a good fit for Yes music. Perhaps this was to coincide with the Yes reaction to punk; the title track of Going for the One (1977) is more direct than any of their preceding output but the rest of the material on the album ranks as being pretty cosmic, especially the epic Awaken. Hipgnosis shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Tormato (1978) – one of the worst album covers, ever. It did neither Yes nor Hipgnosis any favours, when it could have been so good!

No, not good - The Hipgnosis cover design for Yes' Tormato

I used to be an avid communicator and I’d buy postcards of the Yessongs panels from the union shop at Goldsmiths’ College when I was a student to send to friends detailing in minutiae what I’d been doing over the preceding week or two, any gigs I’d attended, field trips, books I’d read and albums I’d bought. On reflection, it seems strange that illustrations for a progressive rock album released five years before I went to university should be readily available as a medium at a time when even punk was in decline. Nevertheless, I approved of Dean’s Drama (1980) sleeve, was indifferent to the 90125 (1983) illustration and thought the artwork for Big Generator (1987) was poor, the covers of both 90125 and Big Generator having been designed by Gary Mouat using an Apple IIe computer, but then I remain rather dismissive of the music Yes produced in the mid 80s. For the record, I’m not at all keen on the Peter Max cover illustration or the music on Talk (1994) – apparently even Chris Squire had initial reservations about that particular sleeve design.

Roger Dean's Yessongs postcards

Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant is one of my favourite Dean covers and it’s interesting to see how Patrick Woodroffe incorporated another of my favourites, Dean’s Greenslade multi-limbed wizard figure for Time and Tide (1975) after Spyglass Guest (1973) which only featured the Dean designed Greenslade typography (the typography itself on Time and Tide is a subtle alteration); though the cover of the first Dave Greenslade solo album Cactus Choir (1976) is also illustrated by Dean, his working relationship with Woodroffe continued on The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony (1979), an album I’d picked up a number of times at record fairs but hadn’t bought because of the reported poor quality of the music before recently taking the plunge, and I’m not too sure whether I like the work of Woodroffe, either.

I do like the work of Ashok (Chris Poisson) for the Mahavishnu Orchestra that runs from Birds of Fire (1973) to Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) incorporating graphics, photography or both. This provides the illusion of continuity, even though the group disbanded in 1973 and reconvened with a different line-up for Apocalypse (1974) and I find the images reflect the spiritual nature of the music.

Sitting with the gatefold sleeve of Rubycon (1975) and listening to the album through a pair of headphones was a favourite pastime during the mid 70s but I like all of Monique Froese’s covers for Tangerine Dream with the silhouette image on Ricochet (1975) influencing my own technique with a camera. The graphics for covers of albums by jazz rock outfit Isotope were certainly part of the hook that got me interested in the band. I’d seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test shortly after they’d formed but my first purchase was their second release, Illusion (1974) with the mercury-like liquid splashing between the two earpieces of a pair of headphones. This form of surreal photography was repeated on Deep End (1975) and the continuity of band image was maintained by the use of the same ‘Isotope’ logo on all of their albums, created by award winning graphic designer John Pasche who, apart from providing covers for releases on the Gull label, created the ‘tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stones. Pasche provided artwork for a number of bands in the mid 70s, but I believe that his photographic work for Isotope is his best.

The John Pasche cover artwork for Illusion by Isotope

The hypothesis that a good cover is somehow an indicator of the quality of the music within the packaging is totally misplaced. One look at Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste (1971) might be enough to put off the casual browser and there are many examples of awful music wrapped in beautiful images, so the hypothesis needs modification. On a visit to Barcelona’s Impacto Records my wife picked out a second-hand copy of Pendragon’s The Masquerade Overture (1996) for me, suggesting that it had a ‘prog’ cover. The artwork, by Simon Williams, has hints of Mark Wilkinson about it but there’s a lot going on from art to architecture, mysticism and Eastern exoticism. If the images reflect the components that make up the music, a cover like this could only be for a work of epic proportions, i.e., prog.

Tasteless, but hiding some excellent music. The cover of Acquiring the Taste by Gentle Giant

Part of growing up with prog was poring over the album sleeve, whether it was a hand-drawn creation such as Nick Mason’s design for Relics (1971) or Fruupp’s Peter Farrelly (Future Legends, 1973 and Seven Secrets, 1974) or the complexity of PJ Crooks’ work for King Crimson, looking for clues linking the images and the music; thinking about the music and actively engaging, not simply playing music to create some background noise. That is what a good record sleeve is for.

Iconic covers helped define progressive rock, from Barry Godber’s depiction of a Schizoid Man to the simplicity of The Dark Side of the Moon – memorable covers may not always enclose incredible music, but they invariably had the power to draw the attention of a potential audience.

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1 Comment

Dec 04, 2022

I was asked about using album artwork for political purposes. There is very little evidence of 'political' covers in the progressive rock genre - even radical left-wing Henry Cow eschewed political symbolism, preferring variations on their iconic sock image that first graced Legend (Leg end.) Rush, whose (early) politics were far from progressive, were a band who came closest to politicising album sleeves. Their naked man rejecting the star (socialism) logo can only be interpreted as supportive of the works of Ayn Rand. Just seeing that is enough to make me never want to buy a Rush album, regardless of the quality of the music. A second example might be ELP's Tarkus where there are multiple interpretations of the meanin…

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