by Jim Davies
Since the advent of the microgroove vinyl record in 1949, the cover portrait has been the stock-in-trade of the record sleeve designer.
Walk into any new-fangled record store during the 1950s and there they'd be: rack upon rack of quiffed crooners, dressed like knitwear pattern models, making eye contact and beseeching you to put your hand in your pocket. This overused design route took its cue from an earlier form of promotional art the movie poster which used the familiar features of Hollywood icons to great effect.
With movies, at least there's a rationale behind using images of leading actors to tout the product. After all, you see the same stars in ten-foot-high celluloid when you go to the cinema. Movie posters are a static taster, a fleeting impression of what you might expect to see after you buy your popcorn. But follow the same line of reasoning for records or CDs, and it would make more sense to produce a snatch of audio to advertise a forthcoming release rather than a use a contrived photograph of the man, woman or group of people who created it.
The promotional video, now such an integral part of the record industry marketing machinery, addresses this conundrum up to a point, presenting a more complex version of an artist's personality than a single still portrait. But how often have you heard the criticism that video diminishes the song for the listener, that the imagination is compromised by the director's imposed images? At best it can offer true iconic status to a track and its performer, but at worst it presents a false or crass image, and often exposes the artist's lack of performing ability.
It's quite ridiculous to believe that a simple snapshot of a musician can somehow suggest the essence of their music.
A publisher wouldn't consider using an author's portrait on
the front of a book cover to convey the contents of a novel,
no matter how intriguing or soulful they looked. Fiction is a monument to the imagination, nothing to do with the composition of a face. Even so, the practice of plonking musicians on record sleeves has become an industry standard, and often record company executives genuinely believe it's a commercial imperative. Faced with this constricting brief, graphic designers need to be imaginative and resourceful, stretching their ingenuity and skill to find new ways of distinguishing one pretty 20-something from another.
When an artist's face and music is familiar enough, perhaps you can excuse the head-and-shoulders format. If you saw a photograph of George Michael on a CD cover, for example, you might well anticipate a George Michael record. But even this is presumptuous. (The Wedding Present famously used a photo of football icon George Best, and Sonic Youth a detail of Madonna's face). You're basing your expectations on what has gone before. What if George is planning a change of direction? Say he's after a completely different groove from the last album?
When Stylorouge collaborated with George on his 1987 album Faith, he was looking to do just that to produce a more sophisticated, adult sound. This was reflected in the gritty side-on Russell Young photograph, where George, in distressed leather jacket, appears to be, well, sniffing his armpit. With hindsight, it's quite a camp image, but at the time it was taken very much at face value intimate, introspective and moody. There was no type at all on the original front cover image (just a row of gold heiroglyphics drawn by George himself), a confident decision though, intriguingly, artist and title were added to subsequent reprints.
If you've no idea who an artist is, however, a cover photograph can mean next to nothing you're left guessing what the sound might be like by appearance, clothes, photography and art direction.
If the subject on the cover is black you might anticipate soul or rap music, depending on how they are dressed. But again, you're speculating. It could just as easily be a jazz or rock record. Unfortunately, today's CD buyers have been conditioned to recognise musical genres by established visual clues, which encourages pigeonholing and can channel design solutions in predictable directions.
Good looks also send mixed signals. In the right context, a photograph of a high-cheekboned boy or pouting girl may well appeal purely on a sexual level, but to 'true' music lovers, physical perfection can raise suspicions. Pushing sex appeal may suggest packaging and contrivance can this guy really sing or play?
Does he rely on session musicians? Is he more than a pretty face?
Today's consumer is far more savvy about promotional trickery than their parents or grandparents. They recognise that the mug shot is a marketing-driven clich, that the face peering from their CD is probably there at the insistence of the record company, or possibly the egotism of the artist, whether it works on a visual level or not. At worst, a full-on head-and-shoulders CD cover will be greeted with derision, at best as a post-modern joke. But more often than not it will be regarded as mere wallpaper a missed opportunity perhaps, but no more than you'd expect.
With the blessing of Dave Balfe, then CEO of Food Records, Stylorouge's cover for Blur's Leisure album poked fun at the music industry's apparent obsession with the head-and-shoulders format, placing an extravagantly kitsch photograph of an anonymous woman in a bathing cap centre stage. Despite their indie darling looks, Blur have never actually appeared on any of their.covers. This may seem perverse, but it was a deliberate tactical move, underlining their non-conformist credentials, a decision taken safe in the knowledge that their media profile would make up for it.
For many artists, however, cover portraits remain an integral part of the graphic vocabulary. Records aimed at the less sophisticated end of the visual market, chart-oriented pop for instance, are obvious candidates for this treatment. It's so-called Ôrole-model' marketing, where the audience identifies with and aspires to the values and cool, glamorous lifestyle of the artist. Mainstream MOR records aimed at mass-market consumers of tabloid newspapers and celebrity magazines like Hello and OK! pander to this format, as though it were the only visual language the market would understand.
But if, as a designer, you are Ôencouraged' to feature an artist, there are countless different ways of going about it. One of the first record companies to exploit the possibilities was the jazz label Blue Note, which used smoky, atmospheric black-and-white shots by the photographer Francis Wolff on many of its ground-breaking covers. They depicted the label's impressive roster of artists as bona fide musicians, often capturing them in the heat of performance. No cheesy grins to threaten integrity here these guys were artists, they were cool, the real McCoy.
The Beatles also took a progressive tack by employing fashion photographer Robert Freeman to shoot the portraits for their early sleeves. The 1964 album Beatles for Sale showed the band outside looking windswept and ruddy faced in black coats and scarves, a blur of red and green foliage in front of them. The title and photograph knowingly acknowledged the face as a sales tool.
As a designer, moving away from the constricting head-and-shoulders composition is always a good start. What can you do with such an uninspiring set-up, except rely on photographic trickery perhaps throw it out of focus or play with the colour. This is the real challenge how to give a cover that features an image of the artist an original look, a unique selling point. A Stylorouge cover for Mick Karn former bassist with the 1980s band Japan showed him stripped to the waist and smeared in what appeared to be thick, black motor oil, a radical departure from his preened contemporaries. On the face of it this idea seemed self-effacing, destructive even, given Karn's acknowledged good looks. But it gave the image a sculptural quality, casting the subject as a living embodiment of art apposite as Karn also happens to be a talented sculptor. And the overall effect was unnerving. Karn appeared bug-eyed and threatening, his eyes the only part of him free of make-up.
The back cover featured an altogether more passive portrait of the bassist, eyes closed, caked in flaking clay. This raises an interesting point. In this context, facial expression is all-important. The designer and photographer between them must decide what they are trying to convey about the artist and his music early on. Closed eyes can suggest an enigma or thoughtful demeanour, open eyes an invitation to the viewer, perhaps even a confessional honesty. Of course it depends on the particular eyes too if you have eyes as unique as David Bowie's at your disposal, it's a sin not to use them. To smile, scowl or smoulder is another perennial question.
Placing the protagonist in an unusual setting is always worth considering. Photographer Andy Earl, a regular Stylorouge collaborator, often uses dramatic natural landscapes beaches, dunes, cliffs, fields to frame musicians. This serves to add a sense of intrigue what are they doing? How did they get there? Does the location have some connection with the music? It also implies that the artist is alone with their thoughts or in their own real or imaginary habitat, that you're being allowed a glimpse of their unique world. The visual message is generally subliminal, you perceive colour, texture, atmosphere and associate them subconsciously with the music.
Musicians who are not so comfortable playing to the camera can still offer scope for creativity. Not everyone is prepared to expose themselves like Robbie Williams, but putting in a convincing performance can add spark to a portrait. For the 1984 single Apollo 9, photographed by Marc Lebon for Stylorouge, Adam Ant went outside the small Soho barbershop where the photo shoot was taking place in the early hours of the morning and did a couple hundred press ups on the pavement. Suitably pumped up, the resulting image has a powerful sense of aggression and adrenalin. It is not common enough for an artist to actually consider what they wish to say about themselves in their own image. Is there a story to tell, a feeling to evoke or a point to be made? This could be a once-in-a-lifetime situation. Surely you owe it to yourself to make this opportunity of self expression count.
With a close-up portrait, even the smallest facial gesture becomes exaggerated. A glint of the eye, a twitch of the mouth can become potent signifiers. But this is like reading meaning into a cashew nut. Unless you are a band like Kraftwerk, deliberately trading on a robotic aesthetic, paring a photograph down to its basics, placing a flawless face on a bland, bleached-out background adds nothing to the overall story. Rather than being enigmatic, it implies that the artist has nothing to say. Merely going through the motions of producing this kind of album cover picture can give the artist the look of an empty shell (the lights are on but there's nobody home).
Worse still are instances when an artist's true features are deliberately disguised. Flattering photography and digital retouching have become so over-used that in reality artists have come to bear little resemblance to their spruced-up promotional persona. Taking their cue from glossy magazines and press advertising, record sleeves seem to be telling us that we live in a world without skin blemishes, where everyone is slim, has luxuriant hair and no-one is dentally challenged. Eighties heart-throb Paul Young was known to have joked that it would probably cost his record company less to check him in for cosmetic surgery than to lay out for photographic retouching.
Of course there have been some iconic mug shots.
Marvin Gaye on the cover of What's Going On, David Bowie on Aladdin Sane, the Ramones' eponymous LP, Bob Marley's Catch a Fire, T Rex's The Slider and U2's Joshua Tree. For every one of these, however, there have been literally thousands which have passed into obscurity. The portrait may be a legitimate design solution, but it's a decidedly limited one compared to the many alternative visual possibilities inside a designer's head.