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Monday, June 28, 2010

‘The Art of the LP’

Morgan, Wardle package ‘Classic Album Covers’ from 1955 to 1995

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Pop culture often celebrates what is no longer available in the 21st century. Take albums. Recording a body of songs as a unified work of art seems like an idea that has gone and cannot be brought back. With the advent of the CD and, later, music files without physical boundaries, we have lost the idiom of album art that helped elevate the LP into fine art status. Therefore, The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers, 1955-1995 (Sterling) is a gorgeous cemetery.

Authors Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle divide album sleeves into 10 categories: Rock & Roll, Sex, Art, Identity, Drugs, Ego, Real World, Escape, Politics, Death. The Art category seems to belie the overall notion of the album as art, but the introduction promises a thematic arrangement according to the imagery “and not necessarily the music on the records… Indeed, sometimes the art department would design a sleeve without hearing the album. That said, most successful album cover designs work because of the involvement of the musicians.”

Although beautifully designed, replete with a plastic case that serves as its own sleeve, The Art of the LP seems randomly organized. Yet, it is the best collection of album artwork among several recent publications that do little more than aimlessly represent covers from classic ’60s and ’70s albums. At least some thought went into the structure of The Art of the LP.

Albums did not exist until the 1940s, and even then they were collections of 78-R.P.M. singles collected into a bookcase affair. The artwork was incidental and for marketing alone. The 78s usually came in brown paper sleeves of no remarkable value and were easily transferred into commercially available book-like cases that allowed the end-user to organize a record library without having stacks of fragile records go unorganized and unprotected. With the advent of the 33 1/3 R.P.M. came the need for a permanent sleeve with graphics that signify that this record stands alone as an artifact. Even then, album artwork came into its own only when packaging music with a significant and consistent voice. The sleeve enhanced the experience of listening.

Where The Art of the LP falls down totally is when it represents artists with albums of little importance to their career. For example, Gene Vincent is present from a 1983 album cover of an oldies reissue, not a ’50s breakthrough. There is no excuse for this, and many other choices were made with no aesthetic logic involved at all. Choosing a later album cover with absolutely no historical value whatsoever here, and with others, too, including Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, is not only maddening but also indicates that the authors have disconnected the music from the album artwork. Some of their choices are not only culturally misleading, but pedagogically inferior as well.

And so, we have a cemetery with some of the wrong headstones. As enjoyable as this book is, the text lacks scholarship, integrity and a historian’s sensibility. But it has a great sleeve.