Friday, 4 June 2010

News, Views and Music Issue 63 (Top Five): Art Used On Album Covers




Is music really art? Of course! Are album covers art? Erm, sometimes, at least they are when they’re painted by famous artists. And for the purposes of this top five we mean famous outside painting album covers – otherwise this list would be full of Hipgnosis album covers for Pink Floyd, 10cc and The Hollies!  After all that hard work trying to get hold of a Magritte painting for the cover, it’s perhaps not that surprising that relatively few famous paintings or works  by famous painters have ever made their way onto record covers.But we have (just about) been able to find enough to make up a top five for you:

1) Alan Hull “Phantoms” (1979): This album is even rarer than ‘Pipedream’ and suffered a similar contractual problem after another Magritte painting, ‘Le Musee De Roi’, was chosen for the cover and was thus equally unable to secure a CD re-issue until quite late in the day (2006 in this case). (You might know the album better as an album by the short-lived Alan Hull band ‘Radiator’ called ‘Isn’t It Strange’ from two years before that because, despite the billing, this album is almost completely the same – it was re-issued with the former name (and Magritte painting) to capitalise on the re-united Lindisfarne and their hit with ‘Run For Home’ in 1978). Alas this second Magritte choice isn’t quite as fitting as the first – while the spooky eyes staring out from the distance  and the dark background with face in the middle sums up the title ‘Phantoms’ well, it doesn’t really fit with the slightly harsher and more aggressive mood of the album.

2) The Who “Face Dances” (1979): My, what a good year for art on album covers! This penultimate Who album of the original run featured a quite striking cover with paintings of all four band members (with Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones replacing Keith Moon for the first time) as drawn by 16 different painters. The project was masterminded by our old friend Peter Blake – designer of the ‘Sgt Peppers’ cover and Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ – who also drew the first drawing of Kenny Jones on the bottom left-hand corner. The remaining artists are a complete mix of those who were big at the time and forgotten now, those who were unknown at the time and big now and those who are still quite obscure, although a young David Hockney (who drew the far right illustration of Roger Daltrey) is most notable. The best paintings for my part are the highly realistic one of Roger (third across) by David Inshaw, the striking silhouette of John Entwistle (far right) by Patrick Caulfield and best of all the inner-workings-of-Pete-Townshend’s-mind (third across) by ‘Colin Self Of Norwich’ as he bills himself on the sleeve. The painting theme is rounded off by the back cover where each song title is listed on a tube of paint.

3) Paul Simon “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War”, a track on the ‘Hearts and Bones’ album (1983): OK, so the album cover is terrible – one of the worst instances of slapped-together cover art in the AAA canon (a thermal shot of Paul Simon out of focus). But one album track is a suitably impressionistic and surreal take on our old friend Magritte. Paul, suffering uncharacteristic writer’s block (see review no 85 for the full story), turned to everything he could get his hands on to get him writing again – including a caption for a photograph in a book he was reading about the painter. Inspired by the very factual way the caption writer had captured a moment in time, despite Magritte’s penchant for painting surrealistic and non-linear moments, Paul came up with an intriguing (if rather boring!) song that marries several different snapshots of the painter’s imagined time with his wife. The most controversial part of the song is the list of 1950s rock and roll and doo-wop records so beloved of Paul Simon in his youth – although quite what they’re doing in a song about a painter who was in his old age by then has never been fully explained!

4) The Beach Boys “Surf’s Up” (1971): Technically this isn’t a painting by a famous artist at all, but it is at least based on a famous sculpture called ‘The End Of The Trail’ by early 20th century artist James Earle Fraser. Ironically this famous American painting of a tired and weary traveller slowly making his way home on a horse is now probably better known in Europe for being a Beach Boys album cover! The cover was well recived by the music press of the time who saw it as one of the reasons the album was a ‘return to form’ – but, like the album, it’s actually a great deal less distinguished than predecessor ‘Sunflower’, being dark and murky and hard to see in detail. Still, the idea of a tired and bedraggled band trying to get back to where they once belonged does suit the suite of songs in some way.

5) Neil Young “The Painter”, a track on the ‘Prairie Wind’ album (2005): Erm, Err, Um, Oh alright then. Neil Young, he’s famous. And he did write a song about painting. At least it’s sort of about painting – there’s a list of colours and a painter standing back to look at her work in full rather than gazing at the small detail – a neat adjective for looking back at her life and realizing that ‘if you follow every dream you might get lost’. What a shame Neil didn’t use some of those ideas to spruce up what must be one of the most boring album covers of any AAA release: a sheet blowing in the wind against a prairie backdrop. 

So, that’s that for another issue. See you next time for thrills, spills, chills and mandrills – oh no, sorry, that’s a line for our Dr Who issue someday. Err see you next time for new, views, reviews, blue suede shoes and music. See you then!


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