The Beatles’ Revolver, with Klaus Voorman’s haunting illustration and photo-collage work, was the first LP cover added to the design collection in my time at MoMA and I was thrilled to see it arrive. Recently Help!, Rubber Soul, and Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Heart’s Club Band LP covers were acquired and all are currently on view in Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye along with The Beatles, aka the White Album, from MoMA’s drawings and prints collection. Exhibited together, these Beatles album covers offer a design-based narrative of the band’s evolution, and at same time read as a cultural narrative of the times.
Help!, the first release in the sequence, from 1965 , shows a Robert Freeman photograph of the Beatles, looking decidedly mod in their blue jackets, positioned to almost spell out the word “help” semaphorically. Apparently the British photographer, Freeman, found the real semaphore spelling positions of “help” graphically boring so he simply re-positioned them spelling “NUJV” instead; a photographer after our own good-design-loving department’s heart.
With Rubber Soul things start getting a little trippy. It’s another Freeman photograph of the Fab Four, but now the perspective skews, there’s a psychedelic title, with font by British illustrator Charles Front, and no band name. Then comes Voorman’s Revolver signifying a change is gonna come. Or is it already here? Up next: Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, with British artist Peter Blake , the American sculptor Jann Haworth and British photographer Michael Cooper‘s playful, colorful, and visually imaginative collage of the Beatles sureounded by a carnival-like crowd of (other) famous people; we’re not in Kansas any more, we’ve landed on Oz.
And then we come to the White Album, 1968, with a cover concept and design by fellow British artist Richard Hamilton: all white, “The Beatles” embossed slightly below and right of center, and the edition number stamped beneath that. The MoMA copy is A 3118919. There were millions of copies. Millions! There must be billions of copies of the Beatles’ album covers out there in world by now. It’s simply mind-boggling to imagine how many people’s lives these graphic works have entered. So, you can see why I’ve been having a hard time not using the word icon to describe every image, every design concept, and every cover, in every single sentence.
The LP covers of the rock and roll era are its most patent cultural icons, not as in cartoon images on your computer desktop, but actual venerated objects. And it’s not just the Beatles.
If rock and roll is the counter-culture’s soundtrack, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers LP cover—with the Andy Warhol working belt buckle and zipper, is the perfect totemic symbol; sex, drugs, and rock and roll personified. How to talk about Andy Warhol’s imagery without using the word iconic? It’s too tricky, but that brings me to Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. The cover design by Hipgnosis was apparently inspired by Warhol’s Cow wallpaper. Hipgnosis, with George Hardie, also designed Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon, and another famously popular gatefold album cover: Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. This is hallowed graphic art ground; this work has been burned into the brains and held in the hands of millions.
The covers each have their own backstory with backstories to the backstories, and “front-stories” as they’ve come to be the inspiration for later works. And we have our own stories for them. We make strong personal and emotional associations with the music we listen to, and an album cover was never just the protective case; it’s been an essential part of the overall musical experience.
These and many other (iconic) album covers are on view now through November 2015, but if you can’t make it down to the gallery—and even if you can—please share your favorite album cover with us at #MakingMusicModern.