Posted by: distributorcap | December 3, 2008

Ode to a Disappearing Art Form……

Back in August 2008, British album cover designer Peter Saville, declared the album cover “dead”. Mr. Saville stated

that cover art is dead not just because of technology, but because the youth culture in which albums once operated has changed: “We have a social disaster on our hands,” he said. “The things that pop music was there to do for us have all been done… there’s nothing to rail against now. “When I was 15, in the North-west of England…. the record cover to me was like a picture window to another world. Seeing an Andy Warhol illustration on a Velvet Underground album was a revelation…. It was the art of your generation… true pop art.”

Well I am not so sure we have a social disaster on our hands (of course if you count 8 years of Bush you definitely have one, but that is another point altogether), but whether it is because of technology, sociology, taste, expedience, or lack of attention span – the age of the album and its cover may not be dead , but it sure is on life support.

Brief History of the Album art

Thomas Edison developed the first “phonograph” in 1877. A cylinder with grooves on the outside was used to record and playback the music. In 1887, Emile Berliner patented the “gramophone” – and the first flat disk appeared. They were sold to the public in 1892. Originally 5″ in diameter, the disks did not hold a recording of any considerable length. In 1903, the 12″ disk was introduced by the Victor Talking Machine Corp. This disk held about 3 1/2 minutes of music – christening 3:30 as the standard length for a pop song. Disks became more and more popular due to their cheaper price and aggressive marketing. The public was demanding double sided flat disks, and the fate of Edison’s cylinders as the media for recorded music was sealed.

The flat disks were stored in a piece of paper held in blank cardboard holders. The first “album” of several recordings appeared in 1909, produced by a German company called Odeon. It was Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. But there since there was no overwhelming demand for albums, the practice of issuing music in album form was not taken up by other record companies for many years. In 1917, HMV released Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado as a album. Some say this is the first “real” album for recorded music – but a casing or cover was still not part of the product. With no standard size or speed for flat disks, the demand for albums remained low.

In 1925 the speed of the flat disk was standardized at 78 rpm. However that standard was not really a standard, as the US speed was actually 78.26 rpm, while the rest of the world used 77.92 (the discrepancy is due to the difference in synchronous engine speeds – don’t ask – just like we have NTSC video in the US and PAL/SECAM video in Europe – to make life more difficult). Both 10″ and 12″ 78 rpm disks became the standard, often sold a plain disk without a cover. Empty bound cardboard holders with a plain cover were sold separately as a “record album.” These empty albums were made in both 10″ and 12″ sizes. The covers of these bound books were wider and taller than the records inside, allowing the record album to be placed on a shelf upright, like a book, suspending the fragile records above the shelf and protecting them.

Starting in the 1930s, record companies began issuing collections of 78 rpm records by one performer or of one type of music in specially assembled albums. These albums could include either a collection of popular songs on several 78 rpm records, related either by performer or style of music. In 1938, Columbia Records hired Alex Steinwess as art director. Steinweiss, seeing that the plain covers could have major artistic (as well as sales) value, began developing the concept of using those plain album cover as means to market the musician. By the early 1940s, record albums for all major companies were using colorful art and hiring illustrators and photographers for both the 10″ and 12″ 78 rpms.

After World War II, two new formats were introduced – the 33 1/3 LP by Columbia and the 45 rpm by RCA Victor. The primary advantage to the LP was the fact it could hold up to 52 minutes of music on two sides, while the 78 could only hold a couple of minutes. The first 10″ LP was The Voice of Frank Sinatra, while the first 12″ LP was Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor. The 45-rpm disc established a significant vehicle for shorter duration discs – typically containing one song on each side. The 78 plummeted in popularity and in 1954, Columbia issued its last album in the 78 format – Frank Sinatra’s Young At Heart. The 78 continued to be used overseas and was manufactured until the early 1970s.

The first LPs to sell millions of copies were Broadway and movie soundtracks. West Side Story remained on the Billboard sales charts for over 8 years.

The 12″ LP became the dominant format of the music industry and would remain that way until 1983. Even the introduction of cassettes in the 1970’s did not knock the LP out. Because music on an LP was played in the same order – the sequence of songs became critical in an album’s success. This led to the creation of “concept albums.”

The album cover became part of the music and the experience. Famous artists like Andy Warhol and Al Hirschfeld created covers for rock bands. Photographers like Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon and David LaChapelle took pictures for covers. Artists borrowed from other artists – as Derek and the Dominoes used Schomberg’s La Fille au Bouquet for the cover of Layla. David Bowie, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix were all known to put out controversial covers.

In 1982, the CD was introduced to the US. It held 80 minutes of music, was lighter, smaller and sleeker. The first album released on CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street in October 1982. Literally within months, LPs were relegated to the back of record stores – pariahs in the world of music. Many, many albums from the 1950s through 70s began to be re-issued in CD format. By 1990 the LP was part of the dustbin of history, as no albums were issued in LP format for commercial release after that.

In the 1990s – technology began to move culture faster than ever. In 1994 the digital format MP3 was developed and it was only a matter of time before the CD would also be relegated to the back of the store and to the pariah status. But in this case, the record store was also being relegated to the dustbin of history.

The flat disk/78 lasted 56 years. The LP lasted 42 years. The CD’s heydey was over by 2001 – 19 years after introduction. In October 2001 Apple began marketing the iPod, two years later came the iTunes Store. CD sales plummeted. Single song sales on iTunes (and illegal file sharing) became the norm.

With the death of the LP, album artwork took a big hit, being reduced from large and eyecatching works of art, to small CD cases. The album packaging went from being a treasured piece of art, to being a small and manufactured giveaway. Now, with iTunes and the iPod, the album cover itself has been reduced to a 2″ square on a screen. It is disposable, hardly noticeable and almost irrelevant. I think today’s kids are really missing out on something that was revolutionary, incisive and culturally changing.

So to this vanishing art form – some of my favorite album covers (in no particular order, and there are so many more…)

Big Brother and the Holding Company

Dixie Chicks

The Go-Go’s

Led Zeppelin

Miles Davis


Pink Floyd

Rage Against the Machine

The Rolling Stones

The Ramones

The Who

Velvet Underground


The Allman Brothers


  1. dcAp,i didn’t even realize that i missed album covers, but as i read what you wrote and then saw the album covers, i started missing them! it’s not only the covers, but i miss the ceremony of flipping through albums, selecting one, placing it on the turntable, and then placing the needle on the record.i remember putting on a album and sitting with the album cover on my lap so i could look at the person who was singing while i was listening to the music. pushing a button doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.

  2. I love these music posts. They are a real trip down memory lane.I wonder if Sarah Palen knows that “Africa” is a song by Toto too.

  3. Absolutely beautiful album cover art.It’s the only thing I miss about those huge albums.

  4. I remember my parents had a few really old records that were heavy and almost like glass- if you dropped them, they would shatter. As a kid it was a treat to go to the local store & buy a 45– the song you really wanted on one side & maybe a song you never heard of on the other. But albums were a double delight to get the music AND 2 or four large surfaces filled with art. It started out with traditional art– I remember a Norman Rockwell piece on a Christmas album, but as rock & roll & folk music evolved, they pushed the psychedelic limits of art & creativity. Often they would include the lyrics as well.I love the various artists, who did Grateful Dead covers beautiful mandalas like Anthem of the Sun, and Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band, Iron Butterfly, the Doors-Full Circle, Santana had lots of great artwork too.CD covers are just not the same experience…. and I remember lamenting that out loud– that I would miss the wonderful art, when the change to CD's became inevitable.

  5. I not only miss album covers, I miss the cool extras inside the album–the booklets, and extra art, stuff like that.Nice trip down memory lane.

  6. The first cover you posted with Janis Joplin is just about my time favorite all time record. God, the times that album brings back. It was one of the few albums that I had to get anew when cds came out.I have a couple of real oldies I found in a thrift store. One is a double 45 deal and the picture shows a blond looking dreamily upward. The title is, “Jackie Gleason presents Music to Make you misty. It was put out by Capitol records. From what I can tell it came out in the early 50s. I have no way of playing the records but they appear to be in perfect shape.

  7. I miss the art, but I also miss the liner notes and the lyric sheets inside, with teeny-tiny text, often in a white face that ran across the inside art. It’s the only way I ever knew what Stephen Tyler was saying. I think what we are missing most is what has been described by another commentator – that experience of getting a new album, tearing off the plastic, putting it on the machine and sitting, for almost a full hour, listening and looking at the art and reading every word on the jacket. Good times. Great memory, Dcap.

  8. This is why I doubt I’ll ever get into the downloading. Aesthetically speaking, vinyl is the way to go, but unwieldy. So, CDs are a decent substitute. I need the artwork, the liner notes, all the goodies inside, the total experience. Which is kind of what Dawn just said. The more the merrier!

  9. Holy crap, you listed some albums that have modern, i.e. non golden oldies, music on them. You never cease to amaze me. 🙂

  10. He is amazing.I love your wealth of knowledge, D-Cap.

  11. The art design on the The Go-Go’s “Vacation” album was awesome.

  12. Hey DC …One of the things I like most about your blog is that I learn so much! Thanks!Jacob

  13. I remember sitting on the floor at a friend’s house around 1984, stoned, with his stereo blasting out of his tower speakers (complete with 12″ woofer in each). We were looking at the CD cover and saying how it was going to ruin cool album covers. Of course we didn’t state it as eloquently as you did, I think it had a lot of “Dude” this and “brah” that.Another fading tradition? Liner notes!

  14. great info about a lost art! I have some of those-the Big Bro and Holding Co, the Led Zep, and the Pink Floyd one. I might have some others-to tell you the truth they are out in storage somewhere. yikes!My sister has the very valuable Beatles Yesterday and Today album-(the butcher/baby one)

  15. Great post, DCap!I like the ones you pictured in your post. I love the Roger Dean covers on the Yes albums… Another favorite is the “Eat a Peach” album cover, but the version I like best of that one may no longer exist; it’s the one my college dorm roommate had, the album on which I spewed used Sangria from an upper bunk bed.Sorry.On my wall in the room where I store all my CDs, LPs and stereo stuff I have a framed album cover of XTC’s “Drums and Wires”. It may not necessarily be my favorite, but it’s one of my favorites. I agree with Dawn and Randal, the liner notes and pictures really make for a more complete experience. “Ablums” really are the greatest!

  16. With the exception of Yes, I dig every one of these LP covers, too ;-> No worries, all will rebound online in some form or another. They still sell record players (with computer hookups) at Urban Outfitters, and elsewhere. (But I've yet fo find 8-tracks new anymore anywhere)

  17. I miss album art, though I do recognize that the greed of the recording industry is what did in both the album and the companies—i.e. mp3s and file sharing.

  18. Always loved that Zeppelin cover and the Go-Go’s Vacation (as well as their 1st LP, Beauty and the Beat) as well.Nice post, DCap. Sad that music has changed so much. Do kids still go over to each other’s houses to “listen to records” or CDs or mp3s or whatever? Do kids (besides Splotch and Beth Coffee) still make mixtapes for friends? Those experiences are burned in my brain, and they made me resist the CD kick for a lot of years. I kept my LPs until our big move up here to PA from TX; LPs were too heavy! Still, it’s hard for me to conceive dumping CDs for mp3s. Maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy.

  19. It is so funny…I just finished working on Roberts Album project and I did not realize that I missed COVERS..and actual Albums So much…I really do…and then I stumbled here….and wow…I am overwhelmed with memories- how we used to decorate with them, putting them on the walls, and even used as coasters..and how we used to spend hours reading and looking at them…..even painting from them….how they were a part of the WHOLE experience….thank you for doing this….it was heavenly….really was…( although I confess I really feel old now…oye)

  20. So much of it will go by the wayside I suspect. There is no such thing as a “record” any more, no “album” either. I believe CD’s will go as well, as people decide to buy by the song. I agree, the albums were beautiful in and of themselves. Technology goes so fast these days that nothing lasts for long. And I suspect it will simply get faster and faster. Nostalgia should be big, except that we rue the days of 3 years ago now instead of 30 years! LOL.

  21. This is what we get for selling our souls for digital music. Am I the only one who can hear how crappy the MP3 format sounds?Many CD’s sound inferior to the original LP.There’s far more depth and warmth to even a scratchy old LP. I burn my LP’s to CD, but that’s far as I care to venture into digital music.Now, where’s that cassette of the July 13th 1984 Grateful Dead Greek Theatre Show?

  22. DISTRIBUTOR CAP- NY:Great choices. I also likefor cover art:RRUCE SPRINGSTEEN "Greetings From Asbury Park"KINKY FRIEDMAN "Lasso From El Paso"IGGY POP & JAMES WILLIAMSON "Kill City"THE CLASH "Give 'em Enough Rope"THE REPLACEMENTS "Pleased To Meet Me"THE DEAD "Workingman's Dead & Mars Hotel"THE POGUES "Rum, Sodomy & The Lash"THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS "Lincoln"TOM WAITS "Nighthawks At The Diner"

  23. My favorite album titles:WARREN ZEVON: “Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School”BILLY BRAGG: “Talking With The Taxman About Poetry”A TRIBE CALLED QUEST “The Low End Theory”SONIC YOUTH “Bull In The Heather”X “Under The Big Black Sun”KINKY FRIEDMAN “Sold American”THE RAMONES: “Rocket To Russia”X-RAY SPEX: “Germ Free Adoloescents”JONATHAN RICHMAN “I Got Drunk At The Lesbian Bar”

  24. another great album title I forgot:ICE CUBE "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted"But you have there the most remarkable rock album ever made. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO.They had only learned to PLAY THEIR INSTRUMENTS two weeks before recording. Lou Reed will never be mistaken for Frank Sinatra. Yet, the entire album is excellent.

  25. That’s one of the things I like best about VU… Mo Tucker has to be one of rock and roll’s most primitive drummers, but she was perfect for their music. I get the same kick out of early New Order, as they were another band that wasn’t particularly proficient on their instruments but were still able to get a musical message across as they grew into things. The Church is a guitar band which was fairly rudimentary at first and later evolved into what they did best, using guitars to create atmospheres.

  26. post.

  27. Big Brother – Gilbert Shelton, artist. He of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers fame, to me second only to Robert Crumb as my most influential underground cartoonists. The Freak Brother’s Freewheelin’ Franklin used to say, “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.”. Of course, due to Prez. Dope and the lineup that precedeed him, no money is a potential outcome. Albums are much better than mp3s for cleaning seeds from pakalolo, or so I have heard. Some want to reaminate Zombie Reagan for President. I nominate Zombie Zappa, whose album covers were just some of his incredible contributions. Happy Zappadan, everyone.

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  29. Here there's nothing to be done.

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