One of the recent additions to MoMA’s design collection is the record jacket for the Rolling Stones album Let it Bleed, with cover art by Robert Brownjohn. Those of us of a certain age are likely to remember not only our first LP purchase (mine was Flowers, an earlier Stones release), but also the wonder of the whole record-listening experience, in which the album packaging itself was a big part of the ritual.
When you got home from a trip to the record store (its own reward), you tore away the cellophane wrapper—or, for imports, the thicker clear polyethylene envelope—slid the record out of the jacket, freed it from the paper sleeve—taking the trouble to avoid the face of the vinyl, handling it with fingertip pads on the outer rim or on the disk label only—and placed it gently onto the turntable platter. With the tone arm in position you lowered the stylus—an automatic function if your equipment was good—and let the needle settle gently into the lead-in grooves. You were careful; your music was worth it.
And that was only the half of it. There was also the album cover art and any graphics on the label, sleeve, or, hopefully, some kind of poster, booklet, or bumper sticker insert to check out. And finally there were the liner notes, which gave intel like who wrote what, who played what, and all the other important who, what, or wheres of the recording. If you were really lucky there was the singular joy of an insightful essay written by a talented reviewer/critic/fan.
On the front of the Let It Bleed jacket is a picture of a big wacky cake with layers comprised of a plate, film canister, clock face, pizza, and tire topped, amid white frosting with jeweled candies, with miniature figurines of the Stones themselves playing a concert. The layer cake is cued up next on the automatic changer spindle of the record player, while a record with a Rolling Stones label plays below. In the time it takes to turn the jacket over it’s all fallen apart. On the back cover the cake is a shambles, the tire has sprung a leak, the pizza has fallen to the now-broken record below, and the Stones figurines have toppled—except for Keith Richards, who, though knee-deep in icing, is still on his feet strumming away.
Brownjohn was hired by his close pal Keith Richards to design the cover, and he in turn hired Delia Smith—the same Delia Smith who would go on to become a well-known British cookbook writer and television celebrity—to bake the cake. As quoted in bassist Bill Wyman’s memoir, Rolling with the Stones, Smith recalled, “I was working then as a jobbing home economist with a food photographer who shot for commercials and magazines. I’d cook anything they needed. One day they said they wanted a cake for a Rolling Stones record cover, it was just another job at the time. They wanted it to be very over-the-top and as gaudy as I could make it.”
This all makes slightly more sense when you learn that the album’s working title was Automatic Changer, referring to a feature on some turntables that allowed you to stack records on a tall spindle with the mechanics to drop one record at a time to the platter after the previous record finished playing.
Despite the final title change, the Stones liked the imagery so much that they choose to stick with Brownjohn’s design. The Royal Mail agreed, and in 2010 the iconic album cover image was chosen for a set of stamps featuring classic rock album covers.
The Let It Bleed liner notes list the recording personnel—including Robert Johnson’s pseudonym, Woody Payne, for the “Love in Vain” writing credit—and gives the playlist in correct order; Brownjohn had switched the order around on the jacket for design purposes.
And aside from the flash motto “HARD KNOX AND DURTY SOX” offered before the playlist of side one, and the parting dictum “THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD”—excellent advice for the listener—there are no essays.
Brownjohn, a major player on the New York and London advertising and design scene of the 1950s and 1960s, is also well known for his film-title design work, including the award-winning title sequence of Goldfinger, which was also recently acquired by MoMA.
The Let It Bleed jacket with Delia Smith’s cake imagery will be included in the upcoming MoMA exhibition Designing Modern Women, 1890–1990, on view October 5, 2013, through October 1, 2014.