What makes a classic album cover?
Inspired by the new Blackwing pencil, we got to thinking about vinyl and all our old albums languishing in the loft. How fondly we remembered the crackle of the stylus, the paper sleeves and those rectangular black cleaning things. But most of all we remembered the covers. And so we wondered what was the best album cover of all time?
When CDs came along the artwork seemed a lot less important and now with Spotify I hardly notice it at all. But once they were an integral part of the experience, something to be studied and cherished, almost as much as the music. But which were the best examples? We discussed this in the office and I looked through my dusty boxes for inspiration but it turns out to be a lot harder than I thought to find the best three.
What makes a classic cover? Is Abbey Road a classic cover because it is a great piece of design? Or is it great because it has become a cultural icon over time? Much copied and mimicked? The more I looked at covers the more I couldn’t decide what made a good cover. Dark Side of the Moon seems to appear in most lists of great covers but to my mind it is rather boring though again, a cultural icon now. I preferred Pink Floyd’s cover for Animals with the large inflatable pig flown over Battersea Power Station. Apart from it being a great photo, the pig apparently escaped and caused havoc at Heathrow, resulting in cancelled flights and eventually upsetting a Kent farmer after it landed in his field and frightened his cows.
Which brings me to the conclusion that what I like is a good story and so my choice of the best albums covers is based on that. Feel free to disagree and if you have your alternative best three please comment below.
My best three (or four) record covers of all time
Blue Monday – New Order
The design on this 12” single was made to resemble a 5¼” floppy disc, cutting-edge technology for 1983, and the cover die-cut to resemble the sleeves they were stored in. There was no text but a colour code which, if decoded, stated the title and band and other info.
The story goes that manager Tony Wilson, having been told it would lose money for each sale due to its high cost to produce, went ahead anyway as he liked it and thought it wouldn’t sell anyway. It did of course go on to be the best-selling 12” ever ensuring Factory Records made no money from it and, some time later, went bust. Not sure how accurate it really is but it is a story we love and often quote here in the office….
Metal Box - PiL
Ever the innovators, the original design for this album cover was to be made from sandpaper so as to damage any other albums placed on the shelf next to it, your own included – shades of Banksy and his picture shredding surely? In the end they settled on a cannister which contained three 45rpm discs, deliberately tricky to remove, easy to scratch in the process and needing regular turning and changing to get through all the tracks. Apparently it rolled off the record store shelves too. Completely brilliant.
God Save the Queen/Never Mind the Bollocks – Sex Pistols
The 7” single cover looks like a subversive postage stamp and was very much frowned upon in its day – the silver Jubilee year. I still have my copy purchased as an entranced 12 year old which my mother raised her eyebrows at and said “I’m not sure I approve of you having that”. Which made me very happy of course. The ransom note style of cut-out lettering came from the have-a-go culture of punk. In the days when Letraset transfer lettering was a common solution for designers, it was simply easier and cheaper to not bother and cut out letters from newspapers and magazines.
Their subsequent album Never Mind the Bollocks landed them in a courtroom after a policewoman decided to arrest the manager of a Virgin store over the album window display on obscenity charges. In court they were defended by John Mortimer, he of Rumpole of the Bailey fame, who argued successfully that since the Guardian and Standard had printed the word in their coverage and not been arrested, it was discrimination. Those were the days.