The Art of the LP: Talking With Johnny Morgan

All of us at Music Lit 101 are unabashed fans of album cover art, but we’re also old enough to remember when the artists who created cover art had 12 inches to work with instead of the 4.75 of a typical CD cover or the miniscule digital download images sizes that are now the norm.  When the 10″ vinyl record ruled, the 12″ sleeve packaging allowed artists an opportunity to not only interpret the music contained within, but also create pop art on a global scale.  While those days are primarily gone – the vinyl record is having a bit of a resurgence – there are still a lot of people who remember them fondly and one new book in particular that celebrates the art form in a new and invigorating way.

The Art of the LP:  Classic Covers 1955 – 1995 by Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle (2010 Sterling Publishing) is a celebration of album artistry.  Whether it’s the smoldering pin-up girl on The Cars’ “Candy-O”   or Andy Warhol’s controversial zippered pants on the Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” , album cover images have long captivated our imaginations and added to the music experience contained within their packaging.  We had an opportunity to talk with Johnny Morgan about his book and his thoughts about the future of album art work.

Music Lit 101:  In your new book The Art of the LP you have compiled 350 iconic album covers from albums released between 1955 and1995.  What inspired you to do this book?

Johnny Morgan:  the publisher offering a deal…Actually, this is the second book of album cover art I’ve been involved with (the previous one was The Greatest Album Covers of All Time), and interest in the art of LP covers seems to grow with the passing of time. There are lots of books out there on the subject, most of which give scant detail and little thought to what went into the creation of the art itself. I wanted to compile a book with real editorial substance as well as great art. Hopefully this has both.

Music Lit 101:  I noticed that in the book the album covers are organized by visual theme, so there are chapters on Rock N’ Roll, Sex, Art, Drugs, Ego, Real World, Escape, Politics and Death.  Why did you choose the approach?

JM:  It struck me that music is inspired by basic human desires, needs and subconscious drives, and that the art work created to package the music is often similarly inspired. So instead of grouping artworks chronologically or by genre, I thought it could be amusing, entertaining even, to select the art according to the above categories. Interestingly the music contained on the albums which the artwork surrounds doesn’t always fit into the same categories—but it’s important to remember that the book is about the artwork only, and not the music.

Music Lit 101:  I know you’ve written books on groups like The Clash.  How important do you think the album cover artwork was to the various groups you’ve included in this book?

JM:  I haven’t written a book on the Clash, but worked with them to create their own book. During the creation of the Art of The LP it became clear that some groups and musicians had very little input on the sleeve design for their records—UFO, for instance, who have several sleeves included, and all in the How Not To Do It category insist that they only got to see their nasty, childish, sexist sleeves when the records hit the stores. Music artists, like writers in Hollywood, were often treated with total disdain by their record companies in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. and their art work would be slapped together by the in-house art department who sometimes did amazing jobs and other times appalling ones. On the other hand the involvement of egotistical musicians can result in atrocious artwork—see Bob Dylan’s ‘Saved’ for a good example of that. There are plenty of others in the book.

Music Lit 101:  In the case of The Clash, how involved were they with their visual identity?

JM:  Completely. Bassist Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer particularly liked to be involved with how their records looked and always worked with people they knew and trusted on all aspects of their visual representation, including newsprint ads for singles and tours.

Music Lit 101:  Do you think album artwork has an effect on an album sales and the success of a group in general?

JM:  It seems to me that it can do. It’s hard to explain the enduring popularity of all those dreadful prog rock bands in the 1970s otherwise, is it? One has to assume that people bought them for the pretentious artwork on their covers (all inspired by Roger Dean’s work for Yes and others), because the ‘music’ was dire. Although a really bad album cover design never stopped people buying a really good record—see most Stevie Wonder albums, all but the first two REM albums and any Elvis Presley album released after 1960 (excepting ‘In Memphis’).

Music Lit 101:  What criteria did you use to determine if an album was iconic enough to make the book?

JM:  The process of deciding what covers made it into Art of the LP involved much argument, near fist-fights and sneaking around by the authors and editors.

Music Lit 101:  Do you think the move to CDs and now to downloadable music has diminished the value of album artwork or is it opening up new avenues for artists and groups?

JM:  It’s definitely diminished and will continue to do so, since a new generation of music consumers are buying individual tracks as virtual items and not albums. The concept of an ‘album’ came about because of the limitations of technology—an album could hold 20 minutes of music on each side (roughly) and artists worked within those constraints, sometimes making a whole out of the two halves of an album. That technology also meant that albums were 12 inches across, so the package it was housed in had to be 12 inches etc. Album sleeves were tangible objects (which proved remarkably useful, especially gate-folds, when rolling joints) that could hold a work of art which sometimes kept buyers almost as occupied (trying to work out ‘secret messages’ on the cover) as the music did. Designers today have to work on a tiny ‘canvas’ the size of an iPod window at best, and some show great invention, but really, any visual for a new record release today has to be pretty blatant, and all subtlety is being lost (along with irony) it seems to me. How does the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band look on an iPod nano?.

Music Lit 101:  Why did you choose to stop the book at 1995?

JM:  That was roughly the year that major record companies stopped pressing vinyl records and concentrated on CD production instead. It also made a nice, round 40 years for the sub-title of the book.

Music Lit 101:  What current album covers would you consider iconic?

JM:  There are no current album covers, only CD covers. Wait for ‘Art of The CD 1990—2010’ to find out…



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