The LP’s death knell has been heard several times over the past thirty or so years. First the arrival of the CD was thought to mean its demise and then the advent music streaming was felt to mean the end of music in physical formats. Somehow, though the LP has not only survived, but has grown in popularity, dur in no small part to its format.
The 31.5 x 31.5 cm cover affords the music lover not only brilliant art but can be made into a gatefold or shaped. During the nineties, when the CD seemed to have killed the LP, record collectors kept searching for original copies of their favourite albums on vinyl. And in recent years, more and more artists have embraced the beauty of the LP album and limited editions with different colour vinyl have become more and more common. Record collecting has grown enormously. People collect records for many and varied reasons, not solely for the music, though, obviously, that is what gets collectors started. Once someone gets going, there are unlimited ways of specialising: some will collect a particular artist, others their favourite record label, still others want picture discs or coloured vinyl and an ever increasing number collect record cover art, either by particular artists or designers or particular designs. There are those that want pictures of motorcycles or geometric shapes, and there are those who collect typefaces.
Music and art have always gone together. Designers recognised the possibilities of the LP format and many famous designers have designed or illustrated LP covers. The first was Alex Steinweiss (1917-2011) at Columbia Records. He was hired aged 23 by Columbia’s advertising section and thought illustrated covers of albums could increase sales over the boring plain card covers that were then used. His bosses were sceptical but agreed to allow him to design a few. The first, released in 1940, was a collection of Rodgers & Hart’s Smash Hits.
Steinweiss would go on to produce over 2,500 record covers, a number probably only beaten by his successor at Columbia, John Berg (1932-2015), who is said to have been responsible for about 5,000 covers.
At Columbia Steinweiss’ designs increased album sales and he was soon hard put to produce designs himself and began commissioning other illustrators to help out. When Columbia introduced the LP, Steinweiss designed the card sleeve to house the vinyl. The company began reissuing its back catalogue in the new format and many new designs were required. Steinweiss hired Jim Flora (1914-1998) and in 1949, when the young Andrew Warhola (later Andy Warhol, 1928-1987) arrived in New York looking for commercial art commissions, gave him work too.
The first commission Andy Warhol received from Steinweiss was for an illustration for the cover of a reissue of a 1940 album “A Program of Mexican Music”, a recording of a concert at The Museum of Modern Art. MoMA had produced a programme book and Warhol took a picture from the book for the illustration.
Warhol produced two more covers for Columbia in 1949 and 1952; an illustration for Eugene Ormandy’s recording of “Alexander Nevsky” and illustrations for the cover and record labels of CBS radio programmes “The Nation’s Nightmare” and “Crime on the Waterfront”. Warhol had illustrated newspaper adverts for these radio programmes and won his first design prize for the illustrations.
Warhol would go on to design more than fifty covers before his death in 1987. Warhol’s cover designs followed his constant experimentation with various production techniques: illustration (always from photographs), then photobooth photos, silkscreen, and his famous celebrity portraits. However, it was his design for “The Velvet Underground & Nico” album, released in March 1967 that attracted most attention. The front cover mentioned neither the album’s title nor the band, only showing Andy Warhol’s name.
The cover was remarkable for a several reasons. The release of the album was delayed several month because Eric Emerson, whose picture appeared on the back cover, demanded to be paid. So initial copies were withdrawn and a large black sticker pasted over the offending photo. Emerson was airbrushed out of the photo on later printings and only reappeared (without payment) on the 45th anniversary reissue. Another lawsuit involving the cover took place in 2012 when The Warhol Foundation wanted to license the banana design for cases, sleeves and bags for Apple products. The Velvet Underground, owners of the banana image, sued and the suit was settled out of court.
Warhol’s fascination with music and rock stars continued throughout his life. He was asked by Mick Jagger to design the cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1971 “Sticky Fingers” album and he produced the famous zip cover.
He also designed the cover of the Stones’ 1977 live album “Love You Live” taking the photos for the cover and intended there to be no writing on the front. Mick Jagger, however, scrawled the band’s name and the album title over Warhol’s design, which displeased Warhol intensely. Warhol, who usually signed anything put in front of him, usually refused to sign the front of the “Love You Live” cover preferring to sign the inner spread.
Jagger also asked Warhol to design a cover for a proposed greatest hits album. This design has thus far not been found. In the final five years of his life Warhol produced eleven album covers for Billy Squier, Diana Ross, the Japanese group Rats and Star, Miguel Bosé, the Swedish group RATFAB, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon’s posthumous album “Menlove Ave” and allowed his “camouflage” painting to be used in Stephen Sprouse’s design for Debbie Harry’s “Rockbird” album. His final album cover, for MTV’s High Priority breast cancer charity, was unfinished when he died and was completed by his studio assistants.
In Part 2, we’ll move onto more sixties and seventies milestones in album cover design in both Britain and America.