Sleeve art: punk and beyond

vinyl record in a faded tattered sleeve with a simple cover design of concentric circles

© Taylor

The crossover between art and music continued into the punk era. Jamie Reid's use of ideas inspired by the Situationist movement in his sleeve designs for the Sex Pistols contributed to the controversial impact of the band. They also helped audiences to place the Sex Pistols in terms of rebelliousness and an engagement with contemporary politics. Reid's artwork for the 'God Save the Queen' single (an image of Queen Elizabeth II with a safety pin through her nose) used the Situationist technique of reusing existing images associated with the political establishment in order to subvert and comment upon them. The artwork thereby echoed the record's controversial engagement with Queen Elizabeth II’s 1977 Silver Jubilee year.  Similarly, Linder Sterling's photomontage work with the Buzzcocks and her own band Ludus used visual representations of women from advertising and pornography in order to highlight an awareness of women as commodity in contemporary culture.

The punk era’s DIY aesthetic also led to a resurgence in picture sleeves for seven-inch vinyl records. Although picture sleeves existed before punk they were usually limited to EP releases, whilst singles were usually sold in paper cut out sleeves carrying the logo of the particular record label. In the wake of punk thousands of small independent labels sprang up. The seven-inch single was a mainstay of the post-punk scene and sleeve art was used to give a clear identity to these releases. Labels often tried to give individual and innovative sleeve designs to their releases in order to distinguish them from the thousands of seven-inches that were being released at the time. Seven-inch single releases by such labels proliferated because they were relatively inexpensive to produce. Low financial outlay for both recording and production costs meant that barriers to releasing records were lowered in keeping with the values of democratisation and access that were central to punk and post-punk. Sleeve art became a central part of this seven-inch culture, with some sleeves even directly referencing the DIY nature of the post-punk culture. Celebrated sleeves for releases by Scritti Politi and the Desperate Bicycles for instance, both included information about how to release your own record, whilst others drew attention to their status as DIY objects through the use of hand made covers such as foldover paper sheets wrapped in plastic coverings.

Many post-punk record labels used artwork and sleeve design to provide a coherent brand identity for their records, regardless of the act that appeared on a particular recording. One of the most prominent and influential creative partnerships of this period was between Factory Records and the designer Peter Saville. Influenced by modernist typographers such as Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold, Saville perfected an ordered and stripped down style for the label that became instantly recognisable as a Factory trademark to a generation of British rock fans. So important was design for the label that when Saville created the famous 'floppy disc' style packaging for New Order's 'Blue Monday' single in 1983, the packaging was more expensive to produce than the record could actually be sold for.

A sense of strong visual identity has continued to be important for record labels, especially in the independent sector. Many prominent independent labels have built up relationships with individual designers or agencies to produce a body of work in which music and design are intricately connected. The electronic music label Warp, for instance, has become associated with the work of Designers Republic whilst 4AD worked closely with 23 Envelope, a design company that was located in the basement of the label’s offices. The connection between visual representation and label identity is reflected in the fact that several independent record labels have been run by graphic designers such as Andy Votel’s Twisted Nerve and Trevor Jackson's Output Recordings in the late 1990s and early 2000s.