September 16, 2011

Out on the Town, I Bring You... The Album Cover (with links & links)

Album covers from top L to R:
1. S. Neil Fujita 2. Jim Flora 3. William Eggleston
4. R. Crumb 5. Josef Kalousek 6. Andy Warhol
7. Salvador Dalí 8. Saul Bass 9. Saul Bass

The other night I had the pleasure of catching up with my dear friend and date, Richard Seibert, while attending a talk for The Colophon Club.
A Colophon is an inscription at the end of a book which states the name of the printer, bookbinder, foundry, publishing information as well as the typeface(s) used and the edition size (amongst other things and not necessarily all or in that order).
In this case, the Colophon Club is a group of Bookbinders, Printers, Typographers, Designers, Calligraphers, Rare Book Dealers, Artists and general Book Lovers here in the Bay Area. It's an organization dating back to the late 1970's, whose main objective was to curate a monthly discussion (along with cocktails and dinner) and to provide a meeting place for like-minded enthusiasts to get together and share ideas. A traditional Salon, if you will. I have not attended for quite awhile, so when I saw the Invitation saying that Milo Miles was giving a talk on Record Album Art, I knew it was time to get back in.
Milo Miles is a music critic and a lively speaker, harking back to his Montana Days with his old friend, Peter Koch (former Colophon Club President/whose Print Shop/Studio is where I learned to print). His presentation was short, but very sweet. There were some kitschy (I know this is subjective) offerings as well as some striking and straightforward graphic design. I was well aware of Andy Warhol's iconic album cover (the banana) for The Velvet Underground & Nico, but I had never seen the Kenny Burrell or Johnny Griffin album covers that he did for Blue Note. Lovely and simple, much like his earlier/Andy Paperbag drawings. Miles offered a Jackie Gleason (presents) album, Music to Make You Misty, and I have since found a copy of his infamous Lonesome Echo (cover art by Salvador Dalí) which sounds equally schmaltzy.
Personally, I have always been interested in music. For me, the album covers and liner notes were a giant part of the listening experience. It wasn't until I started consciously learning about typography and graphic design, that I started seeing these pieces with a new perspective. Much like the sign painters of the last Century, this type of graphic design was part of a trade. A skill, where larger Record Labels (Decca, Columbia and RCA to name a few) employed real artists—in house—to create their packaging. Most of the artists were uncredited but these unsung heroes helped to create a large part of the American landscape and pop culture as we've come to know it. Listeners like myself would sit and listen to an album for hours, with the sole purpose of just experiencing it. The album cover and liner notes were there to teach, and to entertain. I wasn't already sitting at a computer, listening to music while I was also doing a bunch of other things at the same time. It was a different pace and bird all-together.
And I'm also the first to admit that I see parallels between the craft of letterpress printing and vinyl records. Both were pushed aside by the shinier, faster 'improvements' (offset/digital printing for letterpress printers and compact/digital downloading for the vinyl industry). While letterpress printing has certainly enjoyed a renaissance, the record industry has been almost completely wiped out; the entire business has changed. It warmed my heart to hear Miles saying that he believes (vinyl) records are going to make a (perhaps small) comeback. People are realizing that these too, are tactile objects. Like books. Like print. You can sit with it, feel it and experience it.
Of course the days of high-end production for said-albums are waning/gone, but there is a new movement of self-produced albums and smaller record labels, offering well-crafted album covers and cds. The art of the album is coming back. Bloodshot Records, Arhoolie and Bear Family Records are all coming to mind as I type this. Jon Langford is a fantastic artist/musician and his work is (to me) becoming as iconic as others mentioned. While they mostly put out cds, Winter and Winter's Editions offerings are just lovely.
In the spirit of this week's talk, I have been compiling a collection of album covers and I thought I would put something together. But forget about the unsung heroes-portion of this writing. In this sampling, I am showing off some now-famous (again with that subjective part) artists' offerings to the world of Album Covers. And oh, I know; the irony is not lost on me that I am putting all of this together on that greatbighug known as the internets, but I digress. I will leave you with this lovely earworm (click on "earworm") while I sit here and continue to mourn the loss of the little red string in the band-aid wrapper... Happy Friday! xo

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