Monday, April 18, 2016

Paper Over Vinyl: Classic Album Covers

-By Arnie Fenner

Design by MC Productions & The Apple, photo by Michael Cooper.

In this MP3, streaming, file sharing day, Millennials have rediscovered the wonders of music on vinyl records and are happily plunking down anywhere from $15 to $50 for new and reissued albums. The thought being that the music sounds better, more pure, on vinyl than it does digitally. True? It's open to debate, I guess.

Though phonographs and "records" have been around in one form or another for over a hundred and twenty years, the albums themselves (whether made of tin or shellac or, eventually, vinyl) originally came in brown paper sleeves without any art. Until the mid-1940s the most popular method to listen to music, other than in person, was over the radio (the sound was much better than what was possible with a phonograph or gramophone) and the idea of buying music to play at home was something of a novelty. At the end of WWII that began to change as war-time technology and materials became increasingly translated into commercial applications. Inexpensive and portable record players were followed by stereos and "Hi-Fis" with giant speakers and subwoofers as the Baby Boomers embraced rock'n'roll and bought singles and LPs of their favorites to play whenever they wanted. Plain brown paper sleeves were replaced with full-color cardboard jackets; early on most featured studio-pin-up style photos of the singers or bands, but they quickly evolved into more conceptual, expressive, and creative imagery, particularly for rock performers. Before the arrival of big-box retailers, every town and city had "record stores"—most run either by the mob or hippies or sometimes both—jammed to capacity with racks of product priced at a couple of bucks a pop and the period of the 1960s to the early 1990s were the heyday for memorable album art.

Album covers became hugely important marketing tools as well as an influence on popular culture. Back in the day they were among the most lucrative jobs for illustrators, photographers, and designers so it's of little surprise that virtually everybody who was anyone were doing jackets. Now? Well, as with all things, times changed; marketing, branding, and the "delivery of content" moved in other directions and the labels found different ways to spend their money. While the big-paying assignments occasionally pop-up today, they're relatively few and far between.

But since vinyl is "hot" again, at least modestly so, I thought it would be fun to take a walk down memory lane and show a very few of my favorite album covers from days past; if anyone reading this wants to chime in with their favorites, please do.

Art by H.R. Giger for Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery.
Giger's painting scared the stuffing out of Cathy's son Arlo when he was little.

More people saw Frank Frazetta's "Death Dealer" (and became fans) on the Molly Hatchet
album than did when it originally appeared as the cover of the Flashing Swords anthology.

Art by Roger Dean for the Yes album Relayer.
Dean's band logos and title lettering also became symbols for the era.

Art by Drew Struzan. He also provided the painting directly below for the album.

Art by Don Ivan Punchatz

Art by Patrick Nagel

Art by Richard Corben

Art by Michael Whelan

Art by Bernie Wrightson

Art by Philip Garris

Art by Drew Struzan

Art by Norman Rockwell

Art by Burt Silverman

Art by Iain McCaig

Art by Robert Crumb

Art by John Collier

Art by Charles White III, lettering by Michael Doret

Stan Watts, a one-time member of Don Punchatz's Sketchpad Studio,
created this memorable airbrush painting. 

Art by Alberto Vargas

Art by Peter Phillips


  1. I'm curating an exhibition of record covers drawn by comic book artists at the Nuvango Gallery in Toronto next month, as part of the annual Toronto Comic Art Festival.
    The exhibition was originally commissioned by LICAF in the UK last year, and is now travelling around the world...

    1. Sounds like an interesting show, Sean: good luck with it!

  2. Thanks very much. There's a poster for it over on my blog...

  3. At Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 1, I knew Iain McCaig was going to be there and I wore my Jethro Tull Broadsword and the Beast T-Shirt. As I approached his table, he saw it and darn near exploded. Boy did we hit it off! :-)

  4. I never knew Rockwell did a Rolling Stones cover. Super cool!

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  6. Burt Silverman did AquaLung, never knew!