Famous Paintings

Legendary album covers: When comics met vinyl

World Cancer Day
Written by Noah Roy

Music lovers know what it is like to walk into a record store and be lured by an album cover. It may be particularly beautiful, striking or even disturbing — an eye-catcher that makes people buy that particular album, which they might otherwise have passed over.

It’s a known fact that album covers can be true works of art, at least since Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson designed covers for bands including Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin at Hipgnosis, their legendary photo design studio. Since 1968, the British designers have created about 350 record covers, which contributed to the respective records’ cult status.

The 1960s cultural revolution was evident in album cover designs. Linking the world of comics and the world of (rock) music was really only a matter of time — in 1965, the Californian city of San Francisco was not only a place many musicians and hippies longed for, but also home to well-known underground artists. Robert Crump, for instance, designed the cover for Cheap Thrills by Janis Joplin’s band Big Brother & the Holding Company.

Crump allegedly had just one day to complete the cover in 1967, writes Eckart Sackmann in the catalog for the exhibition “VINYL! The Comic Covers” at Ludwiggalerie in the German city of Oberhausen. Originally, Crump’s art work was supposed to be the back cover, with an illustration for each song title. “The illustrator is said to have later regretted settling for a flat fee of $600. After all, he was contractually allowed to touch Joplin’s bosom,” Sackmann writes.

Comics were the perfect medium for rebelling against the establishment and campaigning for more sexual freedom in the late 1960s. But artists also used illustrations to protest against politics and the Vietnam War, and to fight for civil rights. “It was a loud time, an open time, a time of upheaval,” Sackmann says — in the arts and in music.

Perfect symbiosis

The symbiosis between comics and music continued into the 1970s and 1980s. Famous and underground bands alike turned to comic artists to design their covers. The Danish band Gasolin’ were fans of Tintin creator Herge — and commissioned the Belgian artist for their 1971 album Gasolin’.

Frank Zappa had Italian illustrator Tanino Libertore design the cover of 1983’s The Man from Utopia. It refers to the more or less disastrous Zappa tour in Italy the year before, where the band faced everything from issues with the mafia to technical problems. The cover is a wry reference to their concert near Milan, where Zappa and his band were attacked by swarms of mosquitos that almost kept the band from continuing with the concert.

In the 1990s, vinyl records were lost in favor of CDs. The smaller covers offered less space for large-format comic art, but some musicians continued to use art. In the early 1990s, Motörhead had this legendary cover designed for their best-of album.

Nowadays, most people stream music, and don’t immediately envision a particular cover when they hear songs, says Sackmann, arguing that it used to be different. “Imagine Sgt. Pepper’s (famous Beatles album, editor’s note), and you see the album cover,” he says.

The exhibition in Oberhausen, which runs from January 16 to May 8, and the catalog, draw attention to a topic that hasn’t been fully explored yet. “There is a little bit of literature in France, but there is almost none in Germany,” says Sackmann, who collects records as well as comics. For “VINYL! The Comic Covers,” he collected 200 impressive comic album covers.

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Noah Roy

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