The aptly named “Total Records” exhibition at C|O Berlin showcases some of the best examples of album art from the 1950s to the early 1990s. For vinyl fans past and present, Total Records recalls an element of music largely absent in the digital age: A physical object intimately connected with the sound. Combining the visual, tactile and aural, C|O Berlin presents the record as a truly total work of art.
Album art as a unique visual medium
Album covers not only reflected the style of the music within, they defined and often influenced an entire era. From the trippy “Dark Side of the Moon” to the playful androgyny of Prince and Grace Jones in the 1980s, the images became focal points for how each generation saw itself. The beautiful artists and models reflected who the listener wanted to be. The images and scenes evoked how they wanted to feel.
Executing the striking images were often visual artists every bit as famous as their musical collaborators. The work of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground is perhaps the best example of this synergy between the two mediums. The banana that adorned the first Velvet Underground and Nico album manages to be striking, absurd and oddly thought-provoking at the same time — what better symbol for the world’s first art rock band?
Many of the albums displayed the pre-Photoshop creative possibilities of the time thanks to careful scissor work and collage elements, sometimes with a 3-D effect as with Led Zeppelin’ “Physical Graffiti” album. Others, like Roth & Rainer‘s “Misch- und Trennkunst”, consisted of exuberant freehand drawings. From the amateurish to the highly skilled, the analogue artwork perfectly compliments the analogue sound medium.
The music lover’s first point of contact
Beyond their artistic merits, album covers existed as an advertisement for the music within. It was the listener’s first point of contact with the material. No algorithm was going to suggest your next favorite band back in 1970, so someone browsing a record store would generally purchase an album, in part, based on how it looked. Some albums like David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Nina Hagen’s “Nina Hagen Band” used mysterious poses to create an instant, unforgettable connection. Others pushed the boundaries of the socially acceptable in order to capture the buyer’s attention and establish their work as avant-garde.
Pushing the boundaries
Part of the history of album art is the dance between artists and what society would tolerate in terms of provocation or perceived obscenity. One such example is John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s joint album “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins”. Released in 1968, it featured an image as controversial for the times as the experimental music it contained: A forward-facing and fully-naked John and Yoko. The back, quite logically, displayed the couple from behind. As a result, the record company was forced to provide a brown paper bag to cover the album in stores – probably only adding to its allure.
Sometimes the offense was not so obvious. The original image for the album “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears” by American folk band The Mama’s and the Papa’s couldn’t be released in America in its original form. The offense? The picture of the fully clothed band members playfully seated in a bathtub included a toilet. This was first covered with text and then cropped out of later releases.
Such examples highlight the way album art operated at the very edges of social acceptance. Due to cultural differences, it was common for the same album to have different covers in different markets. Legendary photographer Helmut Newton’s steamy image for the Scorpions album “Love at First Listen”, while considered just fine in Germany, had to be replaced by a tamer picture of the band in the United States.
Tracing musical influences
Just as artists influenced each other musically, album art became a source of inspiration. The most powerful images created new mini-genres as they were copied or cited in other works. Using similar album art could also be a way to pay homage to a beloved artist. John Coltrane’s classic 1958 album “Blue Train” was clearly the inspiration for Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue”. Mitchell’s decision to imitate the style of Coltrane’s album art creates a link between the two works that are not obviously connected by musical genre: Jazz with Coltrane and singer-songwriter/folk with Mitchell. Mitchell’s later jazz work indicates that artists like Coltrane were, indeed, always inspirations for her.
The most famous example of an iconic album cover that’s been “covered” by multiple bands, is, of course, The Beatles’ Abbey Road. The picture of the John, Ringo, Paul and George walking single file across a zebra crossing has been imitated by artists from Kanye West to George Benson. Total Records has an entire section dedicated to just this, including an interesting version by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The digitalization of album art
In the first heady days of digital downloads and music streaming, album art was largely forgotten. Slowly, however, many users have begun to recognize album art as something that defines and distinguishes individual artists. The return of vinyl is, in part, a reaction to this missing visual element. Some streaming speakers, like Teufel’s Raumfeld line, prioritize the display of album art within their apps. With Raumfeld, songs and artists can be identified as easily by their album art as by their titles thanks to large and prominent graphics. This trend, along with the increasing popularity of vinyl, is sure to continue as music consumers return to the concept of the album as a total work of art.
For more information, contact:
C/O Berlin Foundation
Picture #1: Jean-Paul Goude, Grace Jones, Island Life, 1985 © Island Records
Picture #2: Iain Macmillan, The Beatles, Abbey Road, 1969 © Apple Records