By Ralph Greco, Jr.
Like everybody else, I enjoy all the wonderful gains with our latest technologies — but I am about as likely to watch a movie on my phone as I am to download music. To this end, I have never really been taken to the supposed better sound quality of CDs (though I have no choice but to buy them these days).
I despise their small packaging over vinyl LP covers, gatefold sleeves, extensive liner notes and goodies we got in our albums of yesteryear. I miss poring over album covers for clues, watching my friends balance their pot across the surface. I believe album packaging was some of the very best populace art work of its day.
Below is my totally subjective (as usual), non-scientific Top 10 Album Covers That Changed My Life:
1 & 2) Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends, Ladies and Gentleman, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) & Yessongs (Yes) – I link these two not only for the incredible album packaging and the fact that these live collections are from two of my most favorite bands, but because I came to know these albums (all six discs) in tandem during one of the best summers of my teenage years. Balancing each triple-album package, one in each arm, I peddled by Schwinn 10-speed to my friend’s house for a nightly listening party on her back porch — no mean feat peddling like that. Unfolding the origami-like sides of Roger Dean’s artwork (featuring four distinct panels titled “Escape” “Arrival” “Awakening” and “Pathways”) for Yessongs, then gazing down at Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends, Ladies and Gentleman… and that dark picture on the back cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer on stage during their Someone Get Me A Ladder while attempting to extricate each record from the flimsy individual disc retainers marked E, L and P — this added consideration and patience to music that demanded both.
3) One More From The Road (Lynyrd Skynyrd) – Like a lot of people, I became aware of Lynyrd Skynyrd from this famous live recording made in the summer of 1976 at the “fabulous” Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. The mess of photos in the gatefold sleeve and Cameron Crowe’s liner notes make this the full sumptuous package — not to mention that iconic photo on the front cover. The Skynyrd tragedy would follow all too soon, but every time I look at this album (and yes I still have all my vinyl), I am teleported to a happy time indeed.
4) Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd) – It’s not easy picking a favorite Pink Floyd album art. For one thing, the band and graphics designer Storm Thorgerson (of Hipgnosis) were meticulous in presenting the most arresting images. The Dark Side of the Moon, Atom Heart Mother, the starkness of Animals — Pink Floyd albums, in general, feature some of the most amazing cover art in existence . For me though, Wish You Were Here stands out with its images of what Thorgerson called “unfulfilled presence.”
After noting that the controversial album cover for Roxy Music’s Country Life was covered in green cellophane, Thorgerson presented Wish You Were Here in black (sometimes blue) shrink wrap so the album’s art appeared “absent.” George Hardie designed a handshake sticker for the opaque sleeve. The front cover, back and inside record sleeve (plus postcards) reflect the various vacantness of the music business, as well as relationships in general, with little clues and hints left for rabid Floyd fans to interpret to their heart’s content. The naked lady in the floating bag is my favorite. For me, no other album sleeve has ever so much epitomized the music within.
5) Songs From The Wood (Jethro Tull) – Supposedly beginning a trio of successive folk rock albums from Jethro Tull, their tenth studio release Songs From The Wood presents one of the most intriguing (and simple) of all Tull’s covers. Ian Anderson and company released some rather cool album art, from pop-up sleeves to album packaging that included a newspaper, but it is the image of Anderson, hands placed together, a fire in front of him, a pheasant recently killed to his right, deep in a forest, that stays with me to this day.
6) Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen) – Taken from 900 pictures shot over a three-hour session, the front and back cover of Born To Run has now become an iconic rock image of Bruce Springsteen and saxophonist “Big Man” Clarence Clemons. This is the first album I ever heard from the Boss and I loved the lyrical poetry-printed inside the cover. Even more, I was hip to the fact that this dude was from New Jersey, like me, and he ignored the homo-erotic overtones, misplaced though they were, of the album’s cover. At the time, the typeface was innovative as well — and often copied.
7) Country Life (Roxy Music) – My fascination with Roxy Music’s Country Life stems more from what I heard about this album than what I saw, having never actually owned it until later in life when pictures of scantily-clad models didn’t excite me (well, not as much as they did when I was a teen). Years ago many record companies, Atlantic and A&M being a couple of them, would print album cover collages on the front and back of a record’s sleeve. So that if you were puling out the latest by an A&M artist, you’d see the covers of others on the record’s sleeve prompting you to maybe go out and buy one or more. Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald in their undies and with strategically placed hands, stared at me from the sleeve of some album I have long since forgotten, assuring me that one day I’d snatch that album up for real — and maybe see a woman as undressed in person! Like that infamous Blind Faith album that became a rarity quite quickly, Country Life got a lot of people talking, though not many of my friends actually owned it.
8) No Earthly Connection (Rick Wakeman) – Having seen wild success in Yes and with his onw solo records The Six Wives Of Henry The VIII and Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, it’s with No Earthly Connection that we were treated to a nice insert. A sheet of mirror-like one piece sheet was included in every album, and all one would have to do was roll this sheet into a tube, place it dead center on the album and the flattened picture of Wakeman would float 3D-like (or what approximated 3D at the time) reflected in the tube’s surface. Spacey and weird just like the music within.
9) Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (Elton John) – There are album covers that speak to us because of their simplicity, colorful graphics or a sexy picture. Elton John’s ninth studio album has a fantastic cover because of its excesses. John’s first album to debut at Number One on the U.S.charts, Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy is a concept album about lyricist Bernie Taupin (the Brown Dirt Cowboy) and Elton John’s (Captain Fantastic) early adventures in the music business. The booklets, artwork, even a poster, reflect all the various touchtone images to reflect the two men’s story. The original LP includes a lyrics booklet, including a song that did not make it on the LP and another booklet called “Scraps” that includes snippets of reviews, diary entries and other personal pieces. And, of course, there is the poster of the album’s cover that we all hung on our walls, hoping our folks wouldn’t look all that long or hard at those dog bones at the bottom of the picture. This album cover truly blew my mind.
10) Rocks (Aerosmith) – My most favorite Aerosmith album has a rather basic cover but as you have noticed from this list, sometimes the most basic covers are the most effective. With its raised diamonds, one could (and I did) rub one’s fingers across the glittering images and feel the heaviness of the music within.