Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bob Dylan's Album Covers, 1979-2009

This is the second of a two-part look at Bob Dylan's album covers. Part one can be found here.

As we enter the 1980s and beyond, Dylan of course ceases to be a cutting-edge figure of the Zeitgeist. Well, perhaps that became true in 1966, in fact... but it wasn't until the 80s that we start to see hackwork from Dylan - albums released for no other reason than to maintain an album release schedule.

Then, for the past fifteen years or so, it's been 'elder statesman' time. Dylan can release whatever he wants - Columbia would never say no to him, and critics would be forgiving. His albums get decent reviews upon release, and then sink back into obscurity. Most of the albums whose covers we're about to look at are quite a bit more difficult to find in stores than, say, Highway 61 Revisited. And since they don't matter much, their covers tend not to be dwelt upon much. But while many are run-of-the-mill, there are still a few that stand out. Let's take a look... And remember, a simple click will make these big-as-life. It'll be like having Bobby Zimmerman right there in your, er, Zimmer with you.

The first cover of Dylan's 'born-again' period is maligned as heavy-handed. I disagree, though. It's Christian imagery, but it's tasteful. And it stands out as a cover design.

This cover was so hated that Columbia withdrew it and replaced it with a generic live cover. But I prefer this one: okay, it's not subtle. And it's pretty tacky. But it states its purpose on no uncertain terms. There's no mistaking the content of this album.

This is the third and final 'Christian album', and God it has a horrific cover.

I think in part one I claimed Blood on the Tracks was shot by Sara Dylan. I think I confused cover and contents - it's this incidental shades-and-holy-man-beard cover that his ex shot.

Okay, it's live, so a live shot for the cover. Fair enough. But it's not a nice one, yellow as hell and unattractive.

Empire Burlesque is the album that is castigated for its inches-thick 1980s production gloss. So it makes sense that it gets a thoroughly 1980s cover too. Is this Max Headroom?

I love this cover... seriously. It has a beautiful dime-store novel feel, two Latin American men fighting for the affections of a sarong-wearing hottie about to smash them over the head with a ceramic urn. None of it makes any sense at all and none of it has anything to do with Bob Dylan, but it's still awesome.

I've seen this album cover praised, but I think it's the first time in Dylan's career we see a descent into nostalgic self-parody. The whole image is much more in keeping with the Dead's ethos than with Dylan's, but the 'retro' Highway 61-era Dylan on the cover speaks to the image of the man 'his people' were trying to establish at the time. Blah.

A weirdly out-of-focus shot of Dylan strumming his guitar on the very edge of the Planet Earth. It's as if he's performing live, but nobody bothered to come.

Dylan's 'comeback' album. It's a decent attempt at breaking the conventions of album cover design - a wall, with a mural on it. It's not a great mural, though, and it has little to do with Dylan.

No, that sky is pretty grey. Nice picture of Dylan the Omega Man, after the nuclear holocaust. Bleak stuff, especially considering the clothing he's wearing.

The black-and-white is fine, and B&W makes sense for this stark collection of ancient folk ballads done solo acoustic-and-gravel-voice. But all the fussiness - the two walls of blue, the poorly chosen font - destroy this cover. It looked dated on the day of its release.

The album is Good as I Been to You part two, but the cover is way better, a great snap of Dylan returned to his status as world's-coolest-man with a top hat and a candle, while a mutant grimaces at him from the wall. Beautiful colours.

I should have mentioned that I decided for this part two to give up on all of the compilations and archival releases out there, because there are billions and their covers don't matter much. But I put this one in because parts one and two are included. But this is way worse than them, a thick black with an incidental picture, and strangey zigzagging yellow script. It doesn't look like a greatest hits album, and why not make it blue? Is that too much to ask?

It's kind of funny putting Bob Dylan on MTV Unplugged. And then having him run through his classics not solo but with a backup band. Shrug, whatever. He was a bit-player, though: the real star was that shirt. It's the highlight of a dated 1990s cover design.

Another comeback. Dylan's had a lot of them. Here, it's a blurry fisheye of the man in the studio. It's all very sepia, and it looks like it wants to be an Impulse! Records cover. Nice, I guess.

Moustache... And hair! Jesus, Bob, you trying to frighten us? This is a weird thrown-together little cover, with that hilarious photo clearly chosen at random from a handful of snaps and the appropriate names stuck on there. It's ony Dylan; why sweat the cover design, right?

A blurry taxi evoking New York City's hustle and bustle. It's a fine cover, I guess, but it seems to have nothing to do with Dylan.

A young couple make out in a car, crammed into the bottom half of the cover, which is otherwise taken up by a 'logo'-styled album- and artist-name image. While this has nothing to do with Dylan either, it has a retro/vintage feel that goes over well.

And his latest album. One hopes it won't be his last, as a Christmas album would make a bizarre epitaph. I guess this is what a Christmas album should look like - round and snow-globey, with old-timey family fun in the snow. Shrug. Who really cares?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bob Dylan's Album Covers, 1962-1979

Of course Bob Dylan is iconic. You can't even count the number of different ways the word 'iconic' is used in association with Bob Dylan. One you don't hear that often is his album covers, though: but a quick look at his covers does indeed indicate that they're quite iconic as well.

Looking at them, particularly that run in 1960s covers featuring his image, you realise he looks cool on the cover of each one not because he had a great sense of what was cool but merely because however he happened to look at a given time immediately became cool thereafter. These images, many offhand, some deliberately so, became focal points for new senses of visual style. He lost it with time, of course, and a lotof his covers become pretty generic as the years pass. Still, some stick out. I'm doing this in two parts: this covers the début all the way up to the last album before Dylan found Jesus.

It's amazing just how young and 'green' Dylan seems here. This is like a little schoolboy posing with a guitar. Aw, how adorable.

Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo arm in arm walking down a wintry New York street. This is someone who couldn't be bothered at all posing for a cover and went with a paparazzi shot instead... Still, for some reason it's resonant, and it's the first cover to have a sense of mystery about it. The best Dylan covers always have a sense of mystery to them.

This is a poster that hangs on dorm walls. Dylan has trasformed himself into a stark, intense poet of the working man here, and this beautiful black-and-white does the job brilliantly. Not his best album, but one if his best covers.

From the short crop on the cover of The Times They Are a-Changin' onward, you can watch Dylan's hair grow out with each album. This is his last acoustic album, but already he's thrown out the folk lyrics and replaced them with something more surreal. The cover doesn't suggest that, though, being a very clean and neatly-designed but kind of boring cover.

I think this is the one cover where Team Dylan tries the hardest to say, 'this man is cool'. It's all very deliberate: the cat, the fallout shelter sign, the popular culture detritus and signposts (albums, magazines), the 'mysterious smoking woman', the vaseline on the lens... To be honest, I think they try too hard here, but if nothing else it underlines the point that one shouldn't expect to hear 'Blowin' in the Wind' here.

Bob looks dangerously cool with his frilly blouse, motorcycle T-shirt, roachclip and blank expression. But why have some random dude's legs stuck in there?

Bob is so cool here cameras can't hold their focus around him. This is actually a gatefold, and you can open it up to get the full length of his suede coat. His hair is a work of art here, but still - would it have killed them to choose a picture that wasn't blurry?

I wasn't going to include compilations, but this picture, with the light shining through his hair like a nimbus, is too pretty not to include.

This is what the mtorcycle crash did to Dylan: transformed him into a bearded mountain man who hangs out with Indian musicians and farmers in a bare winter forest. And a grin!

Speaking of a grin, by now the transformation is complete. Here is a cowboy plain and simple. Posing with a hat and a guitar seems like a deliberate look backward at the début. But the Boy Scout has been replaced by someone who's done a lot of living. In just a few scant years.

And there it is - a self-portrait. I guess. The painting is by Mr Dylan himself, but I don't see the resemblance. Ballsy, anyway, like the album it illustrates.

New Morning is the apology for Self-Portrait, and cover-wise it seems like it's making up for that painting as well. It's quite attractive, a good portrait of the man looking serious and, while still hairy, less rural. Yet it's the third album in a row not to have any text on its cover. Was he making it tough for fans on purpose? (The answer is, of course, yes.)

It's less impressive than Vol. I, but still I love how this cover is of a piece with the first one, live in performance in front of a blue background - but he's older and wiser here. Years later he'd do Vol. III, and give it a completely differently-designed cover. For no good reason.

This is a soundtrack, and then as now, soundtrack covers are usually designed to 'synergise' with the movie they promote. Just text... big, big text. It looks like a western, so that's good.

Columbia's 'revenge' album for Dylan's defection to Asylum, Dylan is justly condemned down the years. But it has a pretty cool cover, stripey Dylan on silver.

Another work of art by Dylan the artiste. Better than Self-Portrait, but that's not really saying much, is it?

Clearly lighters-aloft existed back in the 1970s too. This is Dylan's first live album - they come fast and furious henceforth - and it has a lovely cover of an audience listening to some ballad. 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door', maybe?

Dylan's 'comeback' album. The cover is also a notable one, dylan looking purple-and-organge and very very grainy indeed. I think I remember hearing that Sara Dylan took this picture, but I may be remembering wrongly. In any case, clearly what sells is albums with photos of Dylan on the front, eh?

They didn't really know how archival releases worked back in 1975. This picture is famous, with Dylan and the Band in the basement of a YMCA all dressed up as characters from the songs. Nice, but the picture is from 1975 and the contents are from 1967. And that doesn't make much sense, does it?

What a fashionplate. Remember when I said before that every look Dylan had on his album covers instantly became the new 'cool'? I lied.

Yet another live album, though this pretty black-and-white-and-mascara cover doesn't really show that. It's nice, though.

The Beatles weren't the only people to have their album cover photo taken outside the studio where the album was being recorded. But Dylan seems to be avoiding the cops, not striding across Abbey Road in a forever-famous pose.

Yet another live cover. This time you can tell - it's a snap taken live on stage, as Dylan drills through concrete with that penetrating gaze. But what... he couldn't have shaved?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hipgnosis Selected Album Covers Part 3: 1977-1982

So this is the third and final part (unless I do some more) of my look at the design team of Hipgnosis. 75 covers in all, and these last 25 show the problem that besets anyone who develops an individual style: as fashion moves on, it creates a double-bind: doing what you do best creates work that looks dated, but meeting the new stylistic demands means abandoning the style that made you distinctive. And thus you lose your raison d'être.

There's no easy solution, and Hipgnosis couldn't find it. By the time they broke up in 1982, they were clearly adrift, and breaking up was the right thing to do. But the individual members of Hipgnosis, in particular Storm Thorgerson, carried on making covers. Which means sooner or later I might do a 'solo years' compendium, too.

In the mean time, also check out Hipgnosis: The Early Years and Hipgnosis: The Middle Years.

Warning: this particular entry is quite graphics-intensive, since in some cases I've chosen covers with particularly high resolution (blown-up once you click on them). It might take a while to load and it might take a Ctrl-R or two. Worth it, though.

Can this cheesy piece of garbage really be Hipgnosis?

Hipgnosis did a fair number of Genesis covers, but I find most of them boring. This is just as hazy and whitewashed as the rest - moreso, which is perhaps why it intrigues. Just a tree, and... no, wait. It doesn't intrigue.

This bloated poodle calls himself 'the red rocker', after a song called 'Red' on this album, informally called 'the red album'. Everything in this picture is red, but the photo is not tinted. Everything just happens to be red. Photoshop, where were you in the 1970s?

A pretty picture - well, actually a horribly picture of the band looking like nitwits - becomes a pretty cover through, well, what is it? Grainy photographic film? Pencil sketching? Anyway, it's a pretty black-and-white with cool long shadows.

Another Floyd album, another classic cover. This is the 'floating pig' cover: Roger Waters had a handful of songs comparing modern society to animals, and as such the cover featured the Battersea Power Station, looking about as dark and evil and Dickensian an example of 'modern society' you could find. The surreal touch is the floating pig, and while a few daubs of pink paint on the photograph might have done the trick, Waters and Hipgnosis went ahead and actually commissioned a helium inflatable pig, which then proceeded to break loose of its moorings and float away, only to land in some poor farmer's field. True story. Wonderful cover.

Peter Gabriel's first self-titled solo album and first collaboration with Hipgnosis. It's raindrops on the hood of a car with Peter Gabriel barely visible through the windshield (or windscreen as they call it over there). Not the best Peter Gabriel cover, but it's still very pretty.

There's a cheap 1970s sci-fi aspect to a lot of Hipgnosis's covers, something that seems dated and unappealing to me. So there's squiggles all over here, and we're probably supposed to imagine cold fusion or something is happening there (the album name references subatomic particles). The only real thing that interests me is that this is the inside of our old friend Battersea Power Station, where a giant pig recently flew.

This is one of those great Hipgnosis abstracts - bright colours, basic geometric shapes: boring as a painting, but this is a photograph

A Pink Floyd solo album named after nocturnal emissions, but the cover is blander. There's some female booby on the back cover, but even that's bland. It's a swimming pool, a drink, some guy's shorts, and a toy model ship. And that naked breast (you don't get to see it, ha ha). But nothing makes it less than bland and sun-drenched.

This is nice. Simple, indeed conventional. There's trees and a rustic building, but there's snow everywhere, so while it's pastoral, it's not dewy-eyed. Gilmour is up front looking working-class, and two other guys - perhaps his solo band but perhaps meant to suggest his bandmates in the on-the-back-burner Pink Floyd - stand around behind him.

Old women standing around looking statuesque with Easter Island statues for earrings. This probably means something, though for the life of my I can't guess quite what. Old... The Easter Island statues are old. The River Styx is old. The women are old.

This regularly shows up in discussions of cover art - the cover is more famous than the album within (possibly XTC's least notable). It's a clever-clever 'meta' joke. Click on it, make it big, and read it. There's not much more that I can say. It's good, but it doesn't do the job an album cover should: it doesn't complement the album, or even better yet enhance the album itself. It actually detracts from it by competing with it. The Dark Side of The Moon makes a great poster to hang on university dorm walls; this hangs nowhere.

Hey look! It's the 1970s raining onto the 1980s! And so whoever Renaissance are, they get two covers in one: a prog-rock duotone of trees, and a brightly-coloured portrait of Annie Lennox. And stripey stripes running diagonally across the front. A for effort.

Ths is interesting. It's two suits looking sinister, with ball bearings over their eyes, noses and mouth. There's a long-haired guy who's unfortunately got no balls. This is the kind of cover that probably came instinctively to Hipgnosis: take a standard photo and weird it up somehow. I doubt it's meant to 'mean' anything at all, but it's an arresting image.

This came out in 1979. Prog and singer-songwriter were out, new wave was in, bringing with it a completely new visual aesthetic. Hipgnosis gamely tried to keep up, but stuff like this was fooling no-one. This is a decent enough cover, but it's derivative; it copies looks instead of designing new looks. And it's long-time clients UFO again, and no one is going to confuse them with new wave.

Hipgnosis's most infamous, but I have to say I'm not as offended and angered by it as a lot of people. Yeah, it's juvenile. But I'm not sure there are intimations of violence against women here - I mean, this is bubble gum we're talking about. A man and a woman are in a limousine, both well-dressed. Her breast is connected to his hand via bubble gum. Sure, his expression is a bit dark and hers is a bit vacant, but again all I see is juvenile nudge-nudge-wink-wink silliness. And let's have some context here: this is Scorpions, for Christ's sake. At least it's not a naked child with broken glass across her crotch.

Not sure why this one works: all it is is a cheesy gas-pump leans ad with certain elements whited out (the back cover follows the same idea with band members). But the end-result is classy and enigmatic, even if it today seems very much of its era.

This is probably Hipgnosis's 'greatest hit' - the detail involved is amazing. The inner sleeve was black-and-white but impregnated with dye that sprang to full colour when made wet. The front and back cover show a dour scene in a bar populated by random characters, with a man at the centre lighting a piece of paper on fire. But there are actually six different covers, each depicting the scene from the perspective of a different character. In each case, the image is more-or-less sepia, with a 'lick of paint' across the paper-burning man rendering it true colour. And the whole package came presented in a paper bag (like a lunch bag) stamped with the name of the album. Very nice, from top to bottom. I'm showing only one of the six covers here - the 'most famous' one that was kept on the CD reissue, that ignored all of this complexity.

This would be a profoundly uninteresting cover for an album called "Are You Normal". But it is in fact the cover for 10cc's Look Hear?, and the name is present on the cover, in red and yellow across the top, the only thing apart from a tiny picture of a sheep on a chaise longue on the cover except for those huge three words which are not the title of the album. This makes it profoundly interesting, clever, and undoubtedly an annoyance for record store owners.

One of Hipgnosis's best-ever covers, this is the result of a happy accident: a realisation that if you took a picture with a Polaroid instant camera (the kind where the picture would develop of its own accord within a minute or two of your taking it) and then took to pressing down on and scraping the surface of the picture as it developed, all kinds of interesting effects could be had. This is sometimes called the 'melt' album because of this cover, where the effect seems to be that Gabriel's face is made of wax and is melting. Striking, memorable and distinctive.

One final piece of work for the Floyd, a compilation album of dubious merit, given a tongue-in-cheek title: Pink Floyd are no dance band, you see, and the cover design takes up that particular gauntlet, with a dancing couple tied down by guy wires. Beautiful scene, too: where do they find all these old dilapidated buildings?

This apparently was actually designed for an entirely different album, one by Black Sabbath, who rejected it. Their loss, as it's classic Hipgnosis, seven field doctors, one removing his gloves: it should be boring. The reason it isn't is the undeniably sinister feel to it. Anyone at all afraid of doctors will shiver when they see this cover.

A silly idea - if you don't get the joke, it's that instead of a human reading fantastic tales about aliens, it's an alien reading about humans. Except that this is Roger Taylor of Queen, so the humanity is questionable. The cuteness factor isn't, though, which is why I'm willing to give the album cover the benefit of the doubt: that alien is way cuter than the prettyboy on the magazine.

This was one of Hipgnosis's final covers, released 1982. I think it's safe to say they'd lost the plot by then, as this has none of their personality. It's literal and ugly.

So very simple, this one. The Eye of Horus, a heiroglyph with various meanings and associations in ancient Egypt. Here it just matches that title track. Until budget reissues, the eye was gold foil, which is why you'll see all sorts of shades of gold if you Google this cover.