The Art On Your Sleeve #1

Sorry for that terrible pun-of-a-kind in the title of Blog #4. It just seems appropriate. And we like being ‘appropriate’, don’t we? So there it is. This one is about looking more than listening, I must confess; it’s about the infinite beauty and variety of record sleeve design. In this case all LPs but I’ll get round to the 45s don’t you worry. So the other day I just had a skim through the spines of a rack or two of my long-suffering long-players and plucked out just a few that appealed to me on that afternoon – had I done it today there would have been others, no doubt, as although I love a list, I am also aware of their mutability. So these aren’t my Desert Island Designs, they are just ones I liked reconnecting with. Shall we begin?

Buzzcocks: A Different Kind Of Tension (United Artists 1979)

This was the third and final LP by the original iteration of the band. Everything happened so fast at that time that this was issued less than 18 months after their debut. It seemed like ages at the time but feels like nothing now. Buzzcocks records, albums and singles, always had great sleeve designs, and this one is by Malcolm Garrett who also designed the covers for 1978’s Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites .

This one has more of the anxiety of the first album than the poppy confidence of the second, this time working with lurid, faintly nauseating colours as opposed to the steely industrial greys and chromes of the debut album’s cover. This queasy colour scheme was appropriate to the musical material which even at the time clearly had a ‘success sucks and we’re just about to break down’ quality. Garrett went on to more mainstream acclaim, designing covers for huge selling albums by Simple Minds and Peter Gabriel amongst others. He’s now the CEO of a massive design agency in London with an international reputation. Nicely done, Sir.

The band’s raised profile is doubly registered here by the cover shot of the band in silhouette being by Jill Furmanovsky, the pointing of whose lens at a band meant they had Made It. We saw Buzzcocks promoting this LP at Leeds University (supported by a powerful if rough-as-old-boots debutante band called Joy Division) and Pete Shelley sang the last two songs with a towel over his head. He clearly wanted to get off the roundabout. And shortly afterwards, he did: this was the last Buzzcocks album for a decade, and arguably the last ‘real’ one, as none of the later records featured this original quartet.

Bob Dylan : Slow Train Coming (1979) (Russian ‘samizdat’ version)

I think this is a record people either adore or which they run screaming from. It’s the first of Dylan’s ‘Born Again Christian’ albums, from 1979. It was his best produced record ever, with a very FM-friendly sound and made substantial use of Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers, guitarist and drummer from then pub-rockers but by ’79 newly emerging stadium conquerers to be, Dire Straits. The idea being, we suppose, to make the record sound so good on the radio that the ‘message’ would permeate and spread.

As I say, it’s Love or Loathe. I happen to Love, so when I saw this copy on a street market in Baja in southern Hungary in the early mid 90’s I willingly coughed up the 100 forints asking price. To quote Nigel Tufnel, however, if you can see, this is very special…not only are Dylan’s name and the album title rendered in the Russian (ie the Cyrillic) alphabet but also if you compare this sleeve to the CBS original you will, on close-ish inspection, see that it is not the same drawing. That is because this is a ‘samizdat’ copy of the album – due to state control of music distribution, a kind of ‘grey market’ existed for western music in the old ‘Eastern Bloc’, and great efforts would be gone to to recreate the original sleeves as well as make the record sound as good as was possible using the copies and resources available to ‘independent’ producers. Samizdat records like this one were effectively bootlegs in a market where the original didn’t officially exist.

Plenty of ‘controlled’ releases were made available in the East to satisfy the markets and also to demonstrate to the West that, hey, we have NO censorship here!, but appetites were whetted and so much lay beyond the reach of the everyday music listener that strategies of copying, sharing, duplicating and so on arose. Most of these methods- covert tape to tape copying, wide circulation of single copies of a third generation tape -were much more discreet than actual physical albums with recreated covers like this one, but this is a great example of this odd little corner of record production history that I am very pleased to own.

Gabriel Yared: Music from Betty Blue (1986)

It was this movie, along with Paris, Texas around the same time in the mid-80s, that first got me taking notice of ‘music in film’. ‘This movie’ being the epochal Betty Blue which was the English language title of the French film 37° 2 le matin – the sleeve as you can see above retains that title on the main image, and adds the English version in a floaty scrawl next to Beatrice Dalle’s left hand. It was one of those films which were somehow markers of identity and personality, and I felt about it in a way not unlike how Kenneth Tynan felt about Beckett’s Waiting For Godot in his famous review of the play’s London debut for The Observer in 1956: if you didn’t like it, we couldn’t be friends.

Back I went to the Bluecoat Chambers cinema in Liverpool, as often as I could afford to, in order to try and soak up some more of what mystified and delighted me about the film. I didn’t even notice the music first time around; the girl I was with when I first saw it said ‘Wasn’t the music great?’ after we came out and I said, gasping for air in The Old Post Office pub opposite the Bluecoat, ‘Music? What music? There was no music‘. So I went back the next evening to listen as well as look. But, I mean, Beatrice Dalle. BEATRICE DALLE. No wonder I didn’t hear the music. But once I did, I was off.

Anyway, the sleeve; beautiful intense blue and streaks of sunrise (or is it sunset) over the beach house which is a key part of the ‘happy’, earlier section of the story. And Mlle. Dalle, looking off into the uncertainty of the new day, her gaze a plea for tenderness and also a marvellous Fuck You to fate. Hardyesque, certainly – oh all right then, Tess-esque, certainly – but living so faithfully in the belief of good and right and natural justice in life eventually costs her everything. That’s why so much of the music in Gabriel Yared’s score has an uneasy undertow, even when the top line is bright and clear. And, come to that, the music is actually the same colour as the sleeve.

In fact one of my favourite pieces of music of any and every kind is on this album, the famous ‘theme’ ‘C’est Le Vent, Betty’, an exquisite thing which exemplifies the musical embodiment of Betty’s own fragile psyche. I always fancied working it up as encore for Innocents Abroad – we had the big drum, the languid rolling bass, the harmonica, the accordion, the mile-wide guitar strokes – but we never quite made it that far. C’est Le Vent, Pete.

XTC: GO 2 (1978)

Some covers are just great images to look at. Some are, ‘ow you zay, High Concept. This one is both. XTC’s second album cover keeps the monochrome aesthetic of their debut White Music (also 1978) but abandons the idea of showing you the artist in a pleasing way or even making clear what the record is inside the sleeve, or giving you a clue as to what the music might be like. Instead, there is a densely worded block of text about the psychology of advertising and design. The conceit was extended to the adverts placed in the music press to promote the album, and also to the cover of the cassette and, later, the compact disc editions.

It’s doubly revealing (as well as being obscure – a great and characteristic XTC trick) in that this design was actually a ‘ready-made’ or ‘dummy’ cover, not made specifically for the album. The band found it after rejecting other more bespoke designs (I wonder if they survive somewhere) at the studios of Hipgnosis, probably the most famous sleeve design agency of their day – run by old friend of Pink Floyd Storm Thorgerson, they were de rigeur in the 70’s, chiefly because of the work they did for ‘The Floyd’. Hipgnosis designed all their album covers from Saucerful Of Secrets up to Animals, as well as providing cover art for many, many other artists. You could spot their work a mile off. If you’ve read this far, you’ll have several in your collection, I guarantee it. Anyway this one was atypical because it was a kind of ‘in house’ spoof revealing a humorously cynical insight into what they were actually doing in creating their ‘artworks’ for a commercial product. It’s the classic Art vs Commerce dilemma, there in living black and white.

This faintly itchy mood was accidentally appropriate to the music inside the wrapper too; a year and a bit in to their recording career they were no longer debutantes and, in addition to mounting commercial pressure from their employers Virgin to deliver hits, growing internal stresses built as keyboardist Barry Andrews began writing and ‘singing’ his own songs and pushing for their inclusion. This all ruffled feathers, and those of Andy Partridge in particular. Something had to give. And it did. Andrews was Out before this record had really been given the chance to succeed or fail. That tension is right there in the sound – you can hear the music about to burst a blood vessel on ‘Red’.

In early ’79 Dave Gregory joined and XTC were reborn, remade, became a different animal altogether. But that’s another story. And this is the RECORD COVER.

Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (1979)

This was the 1979 follow up to Rumours, which had conquered the world in the previous two years. Everybody expected more of the same but Lindsey Buckingham had other ideas.

He had become a big fan of so-called New Wave acts, particularly Talking Heads and The Clash, and wanted the new music to walk in that direction. His songs on the record do exactly that, in a very pared back, home-demo style. He even shaved off his King Of California Soft Rock curls and beard! The rest of the band, including former paramour Stevie Nicks, stayed resolutely where they were, writing-wise, but met him partway by scaling back the dreaminess and left their tunes with a few rougher edges than they might have otherwise had. The pictures taken by legendary LA rock photographer Norman Seeff (see Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, Van Morrison’s Wavelength) on the inner sleeves of this double-album-in-a single-slipcase show off this dichotomy beautifully: Fleetwood, Nicks and both McVies look as they had done before but are gazing at the newly shorn Buckingham, part in admiration, part in concern.

The front cover does its best to illustrate the change too. Sandpapery textures, suggesting spotty abrasion, encapsulate the faintly schizophrenic mood of the 20 track, two record set. The cover image is not of the band but of the album’s producer/engineer Ken Calliat’s dog, Scooter, who was always around at the sessions and was by all accounts best approached with caution; this may well have been a subliminal message about the musical contents therein. It’s a very beautiful record, and a weighty musical package, often smooth and caramel creamy, but one which, like Scooter, sometimes bites. It’s also one of my very favourite albums, capable somehow of being, like life, love and matters arising, multiple things at once.

Tusk!

3 thoughts on “The Art On Your Sleeve #1

  1. In the late 80s, I frequented an art bar in Seattle called the Two Bellos. Betty Blue has been one of the cult films in town, certainly among the patrons. And the soundtrack CD ended up on regular rotation there for years. I had the cassette at home. Several years ago, one of the tracks rattled through my brain, and after I was able to work out what it was, I bought myself a copy. Don’t play it often, but I don’t need to. It’s in my head now. And yeah, Beatrice Dalle…

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  2. Well … I can’t remember Pete Shelley with a towel on his head – and Slow Train Coming in the Cyrillic alphabet – lyric sheet (????) also I love ‘ Tusk ‘wasn’t sure we appreciated it at the time – my fav cover Venus and Mars !

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  3. Fun piece, Pete. Furmanovsky had previously photographed Buzzcocks for the cover of their debut album which Garrett packaged in a black plastic bag emblazoned with the word ‘product.’ A lot of fuss has been made about Peter Saville’s conceptual designs for Factory Records, but Garrett can stand the comparison: consider the run of brilliant 7″ sleeves he created for Buzzcocks from Orgasm Addict (with its Linder Sterling collage) to What Do You Know? Each one is an object lesson in design history and totally plugged into whichever song it happens to be promoting. That third album is an underimagined gem, needless to say. Everything about it offers up a new road map for where punk might be headed. Pity they broke up soonish after its release.

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