In the pre-digital days, the only option for owning music was the physical purchase of an album.(Or you could record your friend's copy on a cassette tape, scribbling the title and tracks on the label with a pen. Yes, this was music piracy back in the day.) The 12 by 12 album cover provided a good sized canvas for an artist, a canvas which would be handled every time you chose to play that album.
My first albums were teen idols covering oldies and movie soundtracks. The covers featured photos of attractive people smiling impossibly white smiles. There might be lyrics and possibly a "special message" for the musician. Maybe I pretended that the blinding smile in the photo was for me specifically (hey, I was 13 and a bundle of hormones). The vinyl disc polished a white ring in the cover, encircling the beloved image.
As my musical tastes widened, I purchased albums which tweaked the idea of the cover photo: Billy Joel gazing longingly at a mask on the bed beside him, Elton John stepping up into a poster as he peeled at the corner. There were also albums without any musician's photos at all:an insect on a Steely Dan album, fantasyscapes illustrating the music of Yes.
One of the first albums I owned which made me look at cover art as its own entity rather than the extension of the band was Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."It is possibly the most recognizable album cover in rock music. A beam of light is fractured by a prism into a rainbow; on the back of the album the image is reversed, the rainbow melds back into a beam of light. When opened, the inside of the album showed the bands of color over the lyrics, with the center band zigzagging at intervals, like a sound wave or a heartbeat. The entire cover could be rotated from front to back endlessly, with the ray of light morphing to colors and back again. Searching the credits turned up this notation: "Cover by Hipgnosis."
Hipgnosis billed itself as an art collective, although much of it was the work of a man named Storm Thorgerson. (After the dissolution of Hipgnosis, Thorgerson continued designing album covers.) During its existence, Hipgnosis was responsible for some of the most memorable album covers in rock music. Hipgnosis art was often surreal, using distorted images or creating impossible looking juxtaposition of images. I examined the cover of Peter Gabriel's third album, wondering how the melting effect was created: was it wax? Ink smearing? (Drugs may or may not have been the impetus for this examination.) I painted the sleeve of Led Zeppelin's "In Through the Out Door" with the water-activated inks printed there. This interaction was part of the listening experience.
Some of the images created by Hipgnosis resemble a dreamscape (or in some cases, a nightmare). Some are just plain puzzling – the cover of the Scorpions' "Animal Magnetism" had to be the inspiration for the cover described by Spinal Tap for "Smell the Glove". But they all show an attention to detail which engaged the eye as the music engaged the ear.
Although vinyl is enjoying a resurgence, I can't say I miss records themselves.They were easily scratched and unwieldy. I like the convenience of carrying my music in my pocket and the easy storage of CDs and digital albums. But (clearly) I have a nostalgic feeling about the cover art, even though it was so very much of its time.
Many cool images here: