The Greatest Album Sleeves That Never Were
The "world's most celebrated artists" have had a stab at doing some album sleeves. Alan Connor ponders why the results are such a disappointment.
16 November 2003
Why do art schools keep failing their students again and again? Graduates of catering colleges don't come out thinking they'd be good architects, so why do so many "artists" think they've been given a stamp as a special person who'll probably be good at, you know, Visual Things in general?
If you want to see some great Pooterism, look at artists' efforts to design wallpaper, make hats, direct films or draw graffiti. Miranda in The Collector is young, but some of these people are all grown-up and think they can probably turn their hands to media they have no experience in.
Sure, da Vinci would doubtless have made an amazing hat or drawn a kick-ass graphic novel, but
- he was a genius
- and he'd probably have taken the time to learn the form of each before picking up his spraycan.
Which is more than can be said for the "world's most celebrated artists" who've designed The Greatest Album Sleeves That Never Were, currently on display at theartrocks.com.
For example, what do you think Radiohead would make of a sleeve with irksome type, pointless effects, and a feel that reminds everyone that you used to be an also-ran indie band?
A sleeve is part advert, part introduction to the artist's world, and, ideally, an image which grabs you immediately, then rewards repeated inspection. Having a copy of Photoshop and being "creative" doesn't make you a designer.
Let's return to typography for a moment. My hunch would be that neither Judson Huss nor Sebastian Kruger has read Stop stealing sheep and find out how type works, let alone A Type Primer.
Of course, it's fun to come in and muck about making CD covers when you don't know what you're doing. Which is why half the world is doing it, burning CD-Rs for their mates and printing out a fun jacket. Do we call themselves artists? Nope. Do we expect to produce a wonderful design like Jayme Odgers'
which manages to convey period allure without doing a straight pastiche of Reid Miles's Blue Note covers? Of course not. Thinking of we "amateurs", have a look at some of the Bjork fan-art that she links to or elsewhere and then compare them to this effort, by Tom Cocotos:
Oh, dear me no. You get points for chutzpah for trying to reimagine an artist with their own very strong visual sense, like Bjork or Tom Waits
--or you would, if we were handing out points for chutzpah. Apologies. Granted, Tom Waits has worn jeans, like in his '70s costume, and gone for the scratchy lettering look, like on Bone machine. but so far as I recall - I don't have all the LPs to hand - he's never incorporated the Athena aesthetic. This may be for a reason.
This is not to knock the idea of playing with the image we already have of an artist. Two of the better sleeves do this, by going quite some distance from what you might expect
(Ah, fun. That's what I was missing.) In fact, you're probably better going for as much clear blue water as you can between your design and the normal ones. I don't think the good people at Hipgnosis are going to have be to talked off the ledge after seeing this:
This brings us to the idea of Experimenting With The Form. Album sleeve art is, at best, a vibrant and self-aware form. It helps to know your field before doing games with it.
That one makes you think, hunh? It makes you think of The Who's Live at Leeds, and of Arista's AOR Sampler and of a CD by one of those John Hiatts or Dwight Yoakams from a couple of years back, or of the last Stereophonics single.
Highlighting the conceptual ones may be misleading, though. Have a browse yourself. The majority fall into at least one of three categories:
(a) There are those which look like the kind of knock-off posters you get, either sold rolled-up outside of gigs for a quid, or as "limited edition prints" in the back of Mojo for considerably more.
(b) There are those which are halfway there and might get points from an encouraging sixth-form teacher.
(Macauley, you get a B because it doesn't look like Debbie Harry.)
(c) And there are caricatures. Lots and lots of caricatures. This art form has a place, and it's bothering tourists in the cafes with views of Notre Dame.
(And Guy, an N because it's the wrong shape.)
Do go, though: you'll see the odd treat. My personal favourite is probably Gary Burden's design for The Doors.
Gary Burden is an album designer.
A puzzler: Why are the Zappa sleeves easily the worst?