VINYLS: The democratization of art

By Cristina Álvarez Cañas. November 27, 2012

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words… And a thousand songs? Probably. Because many of the music hymns from the last century reached our eyes before our ears. The visual history of the 20th century would not be told as we know it without the thousand vinyl covers that have created in the collective memory the feeling of belonging to the same age and values of democracy and freedom, those which have been in display in our small share of the planet since the end of the Second World War.

In those days –1945– the countries were celebrating the return of their marines. Some of them had been responsible for building musical bridges between America and Europe during the war years, taking to the Old Continent the new releases from the New Continent. And, since 1939, those albums had a face.

One of those recruited marines, Alex Steinweiss, revolutionized everything. When he was appointed in 1939, at only 23 years old, Columbia Records’ art director, the sober and monochromatic record sleeves he found seemed to him like “tombstones”. Like burying someone alive. When modern music (modern jazz, rhythm & blues and later on rock ’n’ roll) was gaining more and more devotees, those covers were a true waste. And he proved he was right. With the first ever graphic cover in history, Smash Song Hits by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and performed by the Imperial Orchestra, he managed to increase the sales of the record label he worked for by 800 percent.

After such a success, Steinweiss started a dazzling career that would take him to explore until his death, in 2011, the infinite possibilities of cover art, taking French posters (Jean Carlu or Cassandre), European vanguards and Bauhaus as inspiration. And like him, many other graphic designers who saw in this new industry the opportunity to show all kinds of people their work and talents. Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Antonio Tàpies and Roger Dean, among others, were behind this democratization of art. So credits the illustrator Pablo Sycet, who signs the prologue to the book Vinilos, recently released by the Spanish publisher Lunwerg. A large format book for collectors, with articles by Richard Goudard, journalist Christophe Guedin and graphic designer Grégory Bricout, which brings together some of the most charismatic covers of popular music.

With the size of a 33-rpm LP cover, it shows more than 250 pieces that cover many techniques such as illustration, photography and graphic design. Customized covers but also comic, terror, fantasy, science fiction, futuristic, psychedelic, naturalist, expressionist… everything would do to make up for what the music cannot express. Artists as diverse as David Bowie, Miles Davis, New Order, The Who, Pixies, Blondie, Elvis, Queen, Iggy Pop, Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Marilyn Manson or The Velvet Underground compete for the best cover. Although that award is, for nostalgic and sentimental reasons, extremely subjective. Many would probably miss their favourite covers, but, as the authors warn us, they have not been excluded for lack of merits but for copyright issues. This edition’s bonus track is the interviews with some of the artists –largely overshadowed by the musicians– who made these designs possible: Peter Saville, Mick Rock, the Hipgnosis collective, Philippe Huart, Pearl Cholley... And most of them seem to share the same idea: the CD ruined everything. 

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