Record sleeves and the rock era

pile of cardboard album covers, with the vinyl records sticking partly out from some of them

© Harris

As rock music began to take on an air of seriousness in the 1960s, album sleeve design began to reflect these new found sensibilities. Progressive rock album covers of the late 1960s and 1970s were often elaborately produced and costly affairs that sometimes employed well-established visual artists.

Developments in sleeve design in this period also began to echo developments in how bands, critics and audiences began to see the album as a form. As rock musicians began to move away from making albums that were seen as a compilation of unrelated songs, so sleeve design began to move from employing images of the band themselves to more conceptual designs. Rock albums from the late 1960s on were often configured around a unifying musical concept or theme, or were at least presented as a demonstration of a coherent musical identity on a given album. Unsurprisingly, as albums began to exhibit stylistic and thematic identity, this was reflected in sleeve design.

Perhaps the most famous sleeve of the rock era is the cover for the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' (1967). Conceived by Paul McCartney and art director Robert Frazer, the cover was designed by the prominent British pop artist Peter Blake and featured cardboard cutouts of famous figures from the worlds of literature, art, music and culture. The eventual package consisted of a gatefold sleeve and a page of cut-out novelties including a moustache, badges and an image of the band. The cover became so celebrated that it almost immediately became subject to parody and plagiarism. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention's album 'We're Only in it for the Money' (1968) had the band posing in a pastiche of the Pepper cover. Likewise, the Rolling Stones 'Their Satanic Majesty's Request' (1967) featured a cover that was clearly an homage to Blake's iconic collage (although somewhat less directly referential). The 'Sgt. Pepper' cover has gone on to become one of the most commonly copied images of the late 20th century and has been parodied on countless album covers over the past 40 years from artists as diverse as Acid Mother's Temple and the Simpsons (see the Am I Right website for examples).

Late 1960s album covers such as 'Sgt. Pepper' set a benchmark in sleeve design and packaging which continued throughout the rock era. Designers continued to experiment, producing ever more elaborate packaging and highly conceptual cover art. The Rolling Stones' 'Sticky Fingers' album, for instance, featured a sleeve designed by Andy Warhol, which included a working fly zipper that opened to reveal an inner sleeve shot of a pair of men's Y-fronts. Other designers of the era took the artistic and conceptual qualities of rock sleeve design to its logical conclusion by abandoning any typographical information at all, purely concentrating on image without recourse to the artists' names or album title on the front cover. The cover art for many bands of the period (most notably the majority of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin's 1970s albums) featured often enigmatic imagery that was left to speak for itself. The oblique nature of these images helped to contribute to the mystique of the musicians and the seriousness of the albums themselves.

Other graphic artists became synonymous with individual acts, often providing a clear visual fit between the music and the style of illustration used. Roger Dean's long-running association with the British progressive rock group Yes throughout the 1970s provided album covers that perfectly matched the band's music. Dean's series of fantasy landscapes provided a strong parallel to Jon Anderson's quasi-mythical lyrics and the drawn out and meandering song structures that characterised the band's work. Dean became a stalwart of early 1970s sleeve design, producing many other sleeves for acts such as Budgie, Osibisa, Uriah Heap and Gentle Giant. Likewise Stanley Mouse's distinctive psychedelic style became synonymous with the San Francisco scene of the late 1960s through his renowned poster art for Bill Graham's Fillmore West venue. Mouse went on to design album sleeves, t-shirts and posters for the scene's most successful act, the Grateful Dead, providing an enduring visual legacy that constitutes a major part of how the band is remembered by fans and critics.