Commerical Beauty: The birth of album artwork

By Lucia Skelton


One of the most accessible forms of art and the medium we are most likely to interact with on a daily basis is also often the most overlooked: Album artwork. Since the rise of the internet, visual art has become an increasingly used tool in a musician’s repertoire. Some artists- like Billie Eilish  even taking this to the extreme by claiming her music videos are as artistically vital to her as the songs they are set to. But even before the birth of the music video, visual art was utilised by musicians through their album artwork.

While album artwork can be traced back to Columbia Records in 1938, record covers were then primarily used, as one might expect, as a form of marketing. Record store layouts encouraged people to flick through albums by the image, not the spine as you would a book. Therefore, in order for album covers be immediately recognisable, it became the trend to display the artist’s face.

But by the 1960s, bands were beginning to experiment with this medium as an art form in its own right. The artwork grew beyond simply marketing the record and became an extension of the album as a whole – a material stand-in for the intangibility of the music. One of the first and most iconic cases of this was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This album cover, conceptualised by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, illustrates the unique struggle of this kind of art to be both meaningful and commercial.

The initial idea was to show the band surrounded by fans, but Blake and Haworth asked the band for a list of anyone, dead or alive, they would like to appear in this crowd. They then created a photomontage of 87 images ranging from a velvet snake to Dylan Thomas. This medium has its own deep associations with political dissent (as first used by Dadaists to protest the first world war) and the surrealist movement that later adopted it.

However, it must not be forgotten that although album covers can be artistic, they are also commercial objects primarily to be marketed. We can see how this impacted the final artwork as Lennon initially wanted Jesus, Gandhi and Hitler to appear on the cover. However, all were removed from the final edit for being too controversial – Jesus’s image was never even commissioned because of the controversy around Lennon’s infamous statement that ‘The Beatles were bigger than Jesus’.

In this sense we also see The Beatles struggling to represent themselves visually. Not only do we see Lennon’s past-actions influencing what can and cannot be included in this piece, but we see The Beatles themselves twice. They appear both centre stage adorned in their contemporary Sgt. Pepper uniforms as well as next to the wax-models of themselves from their earlier, iconic, mop-top image.

This album cover not only explores the boundaries of how album artwork can become visual art in its own right but it also interrogates the very idea of visual representation. The Beatles are asking whether they are the fresh-faced, mop-top boys on the left, the elaborately dressed Sgt. Pepper band, or even whether they belong with that iconic group of figures. The answer I believe is none of these, they can only be truly represented by the album itself, by the music that prompted the image in the first place.

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