Celebrating 40 years of creative album covers

Co-authors/editors Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle present The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers, 1955-1995.

A gorgeous example of the way a quality coffee table book should be put together (despite its unwieldiness), The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995 is far more than a bunch of cover art assembled into one oversized glossy-sleeved manual. It's a thoughtful celebration of the imagery so closely linked with the music we love, as well as a casual examination of the inspirations and influences that compelled the powers-that-be — whether it was the artist, label or some other deciding party — to realize a particular vision.

The Art of the LP represents more than 350 full-color album covers ranging from artistic to realistic and beginning in the year that LP covers were revolutionized (1955) through the year when vinyl became the least significant of the three formats to house recordings (and excluding the recent revival all together).

The introduction sets the context and gives background on the evolution of the album cover, which was driven, as most things are, by money.

The steady increase in home "jukebox" purchases in the mid-1950s and the millions of 7" singles sold as a result prompted the music industry to look into any and all ways of marketing music to as broad an audience as possible. Frank Sinatra and Co. took the initiative in '55 by pioneering a new type of long-player record. In the Wee Small Hours was Sinatra's first LP and it was called a concept album at the time because all the songs were written and recorded specifically for the album as opposed to the usual pop LPs, which were little more than randomly compiled collections of hit singles and filler arranged without consideration as to sequence, selection or cohesiveness.

Small Hours also set a precedent for cover designs that followed with its novel way of presenting the album and its artist to the public. Conventional industry standards asserted that in order to sell an LP, you needed a pleasant, vanilla-flavored portrait of the artist smiling nicely and invitingly on the front. Small Hours did the opposite, reflecting the album's late night feel with a brooding, smoking Sinatra staring off into a dark and deserted streetscape. Elvis Presley manager/career molder Col. Tom Parker caught wind of Sinatra's LP success and devised a similar way of marketing his own shining star with Presley's 1956 eponymous debut and its frenetic still of the King captured in mid-performance, his eyes closed tightly as he played acoustic guitar and sang with seeming wild abandon.

Parker unwittingly helped spawn the proto-rock album cover and along with Sinatra, was responsible for transforming the media as a whole.

The Art of the LP kicks off from there, but rather than organizing the book by genre or decade, co-authors Morgan and Wardle created chapters that touch upon 10 distinctive visual themes: "Rock & Roll," "Sex," "Art," "Identity," "Drugs," "Ego," "Real World," "Escape," "Politics" and "Death." Each selection includes juicy tidbits of information, background to put the image in its proper context, funny and interesting anecdotes (including the tale of how Ween's original idea to feature a gay sailor on the cover of Chocolate and Cheese was axed because the label was nervous about "The HIV Song" being linked nack to it), and analysis about why a particular image was used (or why not, like the original rejected cover for Electric Ladyland and its gritty group of nude women, so dark and unappealing that Hendrix himself apparently hated it), the reasons it made an impact (or the reasons it didn't), and its inspiration and influence (as in the case of Andy Warhol's zippered pants on the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers and the Mötley Crüe Too Fast For Love cover that blatantly imitated and updated it).

A small red (!) indicates albums considered tasteless, senseless, absurd or general failures, and these are just as fun to look at as the ones that work, if for entirely different reasons. Among these are Whitesnake's Lovehunter and its tacky fantasy-style illustration of a naked woman straddling/being devoured by a snake, and Elvis' Separate Ways, which features a jumpsuited King gracelessly cut and pasted onto a picture of a wide highway.

It's not a perfect guide by any stretch. American readers will likely notice the content skews a little heavy on artists from England and light on hip-hop overall, the chapter on "Escape" is a bit dull and redundant (how many cover shots featuring vehicles can you really show?), and some obviously important album covers and their respective bands are entirely absent; the Grateful Dead's influencial and widely-recognized cover art is the most glaring omission, and the exclusion of The Band, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers (no Mother's Milk in "Sex"?), Madonna (although her exclusion might have been more snub than oversight), and Michael Jackson (although there is a nod to the Jackson 5's ABC) is also a bit of a surprise.

But plenty of iconic LP cover art made its way to the pages: the unconventional portraiture of The Beatles' Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper, the rainbow prism from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and the industrial smokestacks of Animals, the Warhol banana-clad self-titled third album of The Velvet Underground, the naked underwater baby of Nirvana's Nevermind. Pairing these perennial classics with lesser-known and unexpected gems, The Art of the LP manages to cover a great deal of ground, making it a must-have for any music enthusiast's collection.

The Art of the LP is available for $29.95 beginning this week; call your local indie book retailer to secure a copy. To check out some of the aforementioned cover art, visit cltampa.com/artofthelp.

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