Whitney Pow: Iconic album art, and how it sculpts our conception of sound

BY WHITNEY POW
Fine Arts Columnist
Published September 14, 2009

Album art used to sell music. Before music preview blogs, before Pitchfork, one of the primary things that spoke for the music, besides the music itself obviously, was the illustration stuck to the front of the LP, cassette tape or CD. I specifically remember being 12 and going to the record store to pick up Oasis’s Be Here Now not because I knew any of the songs, but because of the album art.

The cover of Be Here Now depicts a collage of images: a white Rolls Royce sunken in the middle of a turquoise pool of water, a despondent-looking Gallagher brother standing in the foreground next to a European motorbike with a gramophone aimed at him. The surreal imagery, I think, is what sold me. I assume that many others have experienced the thrill of strongly associating an album’s musical twists and turns with the images provided on the album cover. One of my most vivid childhood memories is listening to the intro crescendo of “D’You Know What I Mean?” while I, in my mind’s eye, floated around in a surrealist landscape of sinking cars and motorbikes.

While album covers try to sell you their musical contents with images, with time these images really do begin to speak for themselves — they become iconic. You can spot the pop-art banana on The Velvet Underground’s album The Velvet Underground and Nico from 50 yards away and still know which album it is. And, similarly, Chicago’s twin Marina City towers on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot have become so iconic that, when I recently found myself in the windy city and looked up to find those towers above me, hinged on the skyline, the first thing I thought was "Wow, those are on the cover of YHF," not "Wow, those look a lot like corn cobs." Because they really do.

You wouldn’t be surprised, then, that many bands have renowned contemporary artists create these iconic album images for them. Take Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation — the album’s prominent candle was taken from the painting Kerze by Gerhard Richter, an influential contemporary German artist. Richter is most notable for his photorealistic paintings in which he emulates the imperfections of photography — the blur of a motion shot, the scratched quality of damaged negatives — using careful brushstrokes. The image of the candle on Daydream Nation, then, presents the album’s music visually, where Sonic Youth’s purposeful, sometime messy dissonance parallels itself with Richter’s ability to capture the imperfections of photography on purpose.

Another notable piece is the cover of Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. The album’s memorable photograph of a man’s tight jeans — complete with a bulge in the groin region — was conceived by Andy Warhol, the pre-eminent pop artist of the 1960s and '70s. Sticky Fingers’s cover reverberates with Warhol’s signature penchant for turning the mundane or odd into the iconic, from soup cans to car crashes. On Sticky Fingers, we have an embarrassing, if not commonplace happening emblazoned on one of the best rock albums of all time. It seems like the band was trying to get at an unsettling visual experience to advertise the album, and, in fact, it sold the contents very well.

Similarly, the cover of Radio Ethiopia by Patti Smith contains a striking image indebted to New York photographer Judy Linn. There’s an almost a voyeuristic quality present in the album art, where a skinny, waif-like Smith sits on the floor in a windbreaker, looking away from the camera. Linn was a close friend of both Smith and her roommate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and this intimacy can be seen through the cover photo — there’s an odd sense of vulnerability and grace present in Radio Ethiopia’s album art that perfectly matches the emotional frailty present in the album and the album’s ballad, “Pissing in a River.”

Album art is important not only to our immediate first impression of an album, but to the way in which we interact with the album as well, listen after listen. If it weren’t for Pink Floyd’s cover art for Wish You Were Here, which depicts two businessmen shaking hands, one bursting into flames, would the song “Have a Cigar” be nearly as affecting? And similarly, album covers themselves can become so iconic that we look at them and are instantly transported to the aural pathways of the music itself. For me, the garishly colorful cover of Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles instantly takes me to the hot-green fields of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

The visual and the auditory are deeply intertwined in music albums. Even with the advent of the MP3 and iTunes cover flow, it still might be a better idea to go out and buy the physical CD or LP just to be able to flip through the liner notes and get the full musical experience. While music might be great, and art might be memorable, when the two are paired together, a whole new experience erupts from the scene. And why would you choose to have one without the other?