May 3, 2010 / 2:51 PM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: Sex, drugs and classic record covers

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A new book of record covers shows how musicians forged an identity and communicated with fans, using an art form that has sometimes endured longer than the music between the covers.

“The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995,” by Ben Wardle and Johnny Morgan, which will be published in the United States and Britain on Tuesday, groups rock, pop and jazz images by theme: sex, drugs, death, and escape.

The escape theme has cropped up in lyrics and imagery of popular music since the beginnings of rock ‘n roll half a century ago.

The imagery on album covers became an important part of the music experience. In the book fans will find Eric Clapton, ABBA, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Tony Bennett and others.

Morgan spoke with Reuters about the images, baby boomers’ deep pockets, and why some album covers were more useful than others.

Q: Album art got shrunk for CDs, and now in the iPod age it’s reduced to about one inch square. Are we seeing the death of an art form?

A: “I genuinely think we are. You haven’t anything to replace it with. For a while I had high hopes for the front pages of websites, but every site now has to have everything on the front page. There was a time when teenagers would carry albums around with them. The covers served to identify these tribes. The whole Baby Boomer generation’s world changed after World War Two.

“Music has become incredibly homogeneous. There are no style tribes anymore. You can become a national star much quicker. Look at Lady Gaga. What’s interesting is how old-fashioned her references are, whether it’s David Bowie or Grace Jones or Madonna. The names she drops are ‘70s and ‘80s stars.”

Q: Is the loss of this art form something deeply regrettable, or more akin to small losses like people no longer able to handwrite neatly?

A: “It depends on what age you are. I have a 13-year-old daughter and she really doesn’t care. She wants the songs and she’ll watch the video on YouTube, but actually having the CD is a pain. It gets ripped and put onto the iPod. I’ve got a great collection of vinyl and tell her, ‘This is your inheritance.’ She says, ‘Great, Dad, why not sell it now?’”

Q: Did musicians decide on album covers, or their label?

A: “There were some, like Pink Floyd, that had absolute control. Others, like Scorpions, claim they had no idea. The covers were landed on them. That’s mainly because the covers were so awful and they’re covering their backs.”

Q: Anyone nostalgic for the ‘70s and ‘80s can see Pat Benatar with REO Speedwagon this year, James Taylor with Carole King, or AC/DC, Scorpions and Jeff Beck with Eric Clapton. Are baby boomers increasingly the target audience?

A: “People in their 40s, 50s and 60s now have the money and they have the interest. I’m hoping there are covers here that people don’t remember and might get people to search them out. There’s a lot of stuff that’s a bit more underground. Baby boomers missed a lot the first time around. There’s a band called Gang of Four. Tickets for the reunion gigs were impossible to get.”

Q: The images in the book have smudges and creases. These sleeves are clearly not just art objects to be held at arm’s length. You intentionally avoided pristine images?

A: “Absolutely. And also, of course, they were used to roll joints. You’d put the tobacco and the dope in the crease. You look at prog rock albums, they’re all gatefolds — and that served a function.”

Q: The book ends in 1995, when CDs took over. Have there been great covers since then?

A: “There are interesting unknown artists working on CD covers but when you see them blown up they don’t look quite right. CD cover artists are working at that size but they don’t stand up. But we have a recent trend toward vinyl again.”

Q: What’s behind that? Is it just a fad?

A: “I think it’s probably a fad, because there’s a whole retro thing. If look at emerging bands, there’s a lot of guitar bands. Look at the equipment they’re using. All of it was made before 1980. Part of it is a return to what rock and roll is supposed to sound like, going back to the whole Ramones and Clash thing. That’s driving the vinyl (resurgence).”

Q: If these things go in cycles, is a 1980s New Wave revival next?

A: “My prediction is disco. Gaga is really pushing it. Gaga has emerged in a similar economic situation to the way disco emerged.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney

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