The Art of the Matter

Looking at classic-rock record covers is like going to a modern art museum. Here, next to the Rothkos, there's the iconic, prismatic cover for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, designed by Storm Thorgerson's Hipgnosis firm. Over there, just beyond the pop art gallery, are Peter Corriston's Rolling Stones covers, ranging from Some Girls (the boys in the band as girls in wig ads) to Tattoo You (beautiful girl plus body paint equals memorable image). Then there's Andy Warhol's landmark cover for Sticky Fingers, which came complete with an actual working zipper, and Peter Berg's landmark cover for Chicago X, a delicious trompe l'oeil chocolate stamped with the logo of the insufferably jazzy and inexplicably popular Seventies band.

That doesn't even count the photo gallery, which includes the naked ladyland cover on Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland; the grim, tattered American flag on Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On; and the bracing violence of the bass-smashing on the Clash's London Calling. These album covers, and many others -- Springsteen's Born to Run, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols, the Who's Who's Next -- are more than simply album covers. They're works of art, and visual icons of our pop culture to boot.

And it isn't just rock albums that once delivered jaw-dropping visuals. Consider the recent publication of Blue Note and Blue Note 2, two books that collect hundreds of album covers from that venerable jazz label. With Francis Wolff's straightforward, soulful photography counterweighed by Reid Miles's playful, unorthodox designs, Blue Note set a standard for album design that has never been equaled.

That's not surprising. What's surprising is that the standard has rarely been emulated. The cover of Bob Dylan's recent Time Out of Mind had a Blue Note feel, with a simple colored strip across the top and bold font treatment announcing the name of the artist and the name of the record.

But for the most part, this kind of arresting imagery has gone the way of the Hammond organ. Fonts are blander. Images are blander. Designs are blander. And, remarkably enough, this makes for blander album covers.

Some artists have tried to keep package design a priority. Prince has made a subcareer out of launching fonts -- the dreamy Lovesexy lettering, the telltale eye that replaces the first person singular, even the symbol that for several years became his name -- and attempting package experiments, like Tom Recchion's hologram cover for the 1993 LP Diamonds and Pearls. Artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bjsrk, Suzanne Vega, R.E.M., Rickie Lee Jones, and Lou Reed have consistently insisted on interesting design. In some cases -- like Pearl Jam's, the old health texts excerpted for Vitalogy and the spooky Polaroids packaged with No Code -- the art direction is more compelling than the music it embellishes. But these are the exceptions. The truth is that today's record covers suck.

There are many reasons for this suckage. First, and most obvious: Format sizes have shrunk more drastically than the American labor movement. The LP -- that's the long-playing record, kids -- was twelve inches square, significantly larger than a hardcover book. Compact discs are five inches square, smaller than a mass-market paperback. Cassettes are four inches by two and a half, only slightly larger than a credit card. Even worse, they're not square, which means that images created for the dominant square formats -- LPs and CDs chiefly, but don't forget about TVs -- have to be distorted, or cropped in a procedure that is the equivalent of creative circumcision. The wonderful cover art for Steve Earle's recent El Corazón went under the knife in its transfer to cassette. (In standard heart surgery, they don't usually just lop off the sides.)

Think of it this way: What if Brueghel or Bosch or Balthus had been forced to paint on a canvas the size of a credit card? Well, you might have a kick-ass American Express card ("Don't leave home without The Garden of Earthly Delights"), but you probably wouldn't be reading about those painters in art history books. When it comes to images, whether it's Picasso's Guernica or the cover of Interview magazine, size matters.

And things aren't going to get any better. The trend toward miniaturization in information storage is irreversible, and the new software formats (MiniDisc, DVD, and whatever supermini innovation next year's technology brings) will eventually result in CD-quality sound stored on plastic discs no larger than condoms. Some designers will no doubt try to invent a compromise solution, perhaps a nice big package that contains the tiny, potent, music-bearing spore.

Before they waste the effort, though, designers would do well to recall the fate of longboxes. Used by the record industry from 1980 until 1993, the six-by-twelve-inch cardboard CD packages were half the size of LPs -- exactly half the size, in fact, since they were designed to help record stores conserve LP display racks and bins. But longboxes wasted cardboard, and ecologically sensitive rock stars like Peter Gabriel, Sting, U2, and Don Henley joined forces with green marketers to pressure record companies to stop the madness and do away with them. The record companies complied, though their reasons were more about conforming American product to international markets than about saving a few forests. (Remember, trees don't buy records.) When the longbox went the way of the dodo bird, it set a precedent for small packaging that will never be reversed.

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