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Album Art in the Digital Age

As we all increasingly download our music rather than browsing through the shelves of our local record shop, album artwork is less important. Or is it?

There is evidence to suggest that musicians and audiences are still interested in imagery surrounding album art.

“I like a bit of controversy. It tests the nation’s intelligence.”

When photographer and director David Boni came up with the idea of hanging The Stranglers in a kids’ swing park, bass player JJ Burnel, replied “I like a bit of controversy. It tests the nation’s intelligence.” And so, the cover of brand new album ‘Giants’ was born. Currently touring the album – and, inevitably, some of their classic tracks like ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Golden Brown’ and ‘Peaches’ – the band has seen a revival in fortunes across Europe, only tainted by drummer Jet Black’s recent illness.

Ironically, the album music and cover has tested the intelligence of more than just the UK. ‘Giants’ is The Stranglers’ 17th album, almost 35 years since the release of ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, and Europe can’t get enough of it. A successful UK tour was followed by 20 dates around Europe and huge interest from the media, with festival appearances booked through the summer.

David Boni (www.davidboni.com) explains how the shocking imagery came about for the album. “I’m a huge fan of The Stranglers and thought it was time they came up with something shocking again. After all, they’ve been known for decades for being controversial. The band was really receptive to the idea which my colleague Dave Mullen and I came up with. We knew it had to be real and within the grounds of ‘reasonably’ tasteful, but a bit naughty.”

The photo-shoot took place in a closed set at Pinewood and, although Dave isn’t giving the trick away, there’s only a little Photoshop used. “This was all about having fun and being exciting. It’s one of the best pictures I’ve ever worked on. This is the first album that’s been banned from TV before the 9pm watershed and it’s been completely banned from the London underground. It looks great on CD but even better on vinyl – that 12” format really suits great imagery.”

                                                               A bit of history

Originally by pioneered by German record company Odeon in 1909 with Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’ suite, the album cover became more than just a protective sleeve. By the 1950s, imagery was important in marketing the music within and a whole culture was born, with its own industry and support acts, with photographers, artists and cartoonists all making their mark alongside bands.

The cover became an important part of the culture of music through the 1960s and 1970s, with some album covers becoming collectable in their own right, especially from bands like Pink Floyd, Queen and The Rolling Stones. The 1967 release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band broke new ground with cut-out inserts, lyrics and a gatefold sleeve even though it was a single album. So iconic has the album become that original pop artist Sir Peter Blake has recreated it, with modern imagery, to celebrate his 80th birthday this year. Criticised again for those he’s included and those he’s omitted, Blake has produced another classic, albeit outside of the album format.

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Kaiser Chiefs are releasing an album of singles in June and they approached photorealist painter Sarah Graham (www.sarahgraham.info) for the cover.

“I’ve known the band for a while,” says Sarah, whose art already graces the homes of the rich and famous around the world. “They’ve been interested in using my art for about four years and this was finally our chance to work together.”

The seaside rock imagery is typically British. Anyone who’s holidayed on the coast in the UK will have seen the sweets on sale, usually with writing or a pattern running through the middle. For the album, Kaiser Chiefs commissioned Blackpool rock maker Heather Boyce to produce unique sticks of rock that were then photographed and painted by Sarah. She says: “The idea came together really quickly in the end and the painting took just nine days. It’s such an instant visual and I love it. The band used video from the making of the rock for their single ‘On The Run’ and there’s a slide show of me painting the album cover which should be on the Kaiser Chiefs’ website soon.”

The role that packaging plays is evolving, with more bands releasing their albums on vinyl as well as CD and online downloads. Most of us like our music to be tangible – something you can hold and cherish – as well as audible and beautiful or controversial artwork should remain a part of that. There’s nothing quite like holding an album cover, with an image on one side and information on the other. For the moment, it doesn’t look as if the digital age is killing that.