At Large  May 22, 2023  Caterina Bellinetti

Beyond the Grooves: Exploring the Artistic Evolution of Record Covers

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Second hand record store in Spain (2016)

One of the joys of spending time in a record store is not knowing what to choose. For those who go in “just to have a browse,” the risk is to spend hours flipping through countless records. Yet, the quest might end when your eyes get caught by an image, a design, or a color on one of the covers. The art created for record covers is revelatory: it presents the artist, their music, and the ideas behind that particular album. Across the decades many singers and musicians collaborated with photographers, graphic designers, artists, and even bakers to create memorable covers.

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The Velvet Underground and Nico by The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967. Cover art by Andy Warhol.

The Velvet Underground and Nico by The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967. Cover art by Andy Warhol.

For one of the most famous record covers of all time, the design is incredibly simple: a yellow banana over a white background. The collaboration between Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground stemmed from the realization that they were pursuing similar artistic goals: to provoke, shock, and shake the system. After becoming their manager and artistic director, Warhol designed their album cover: a banana with the message “Peel slowly and see.” By peeling it, a pink banana was revealed underneath. Despite Warhol’s patronage, the album’s sales were poor and its contents were so controversial that radios refused to air it and magazines to advertise it.

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Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones, 1969. Cover art by Robert Brownjohn feat. Delia Smith.

Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones, 1969. Cover art by Robert Brownjohn feat. Delia Smith. 

Let It Bleed is the eighth album of the British rock band The Rolling Stones and it is considered as one of the best rock albums in history. The cover art was created by the American graphic designer, Robert Brownjohn, who had made his name through advertisement campaigns and the title sequences of two 007 movies, From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964). For the album, Brownjohn decided to create a sculpture made of a variety of circular objects: a plate, a clock face, a film reel, a pizza, a tire, and a cake. A then-unknown Delia Smith was asked to create a flashy wedding cake decorated with candied fruits and little figurines of a rock band. If the front cover of Let It Bleed is an orderly pile of unexpected objects, the back welcomes chaos: the cake has been cut and the items underneath were broken.

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Horses by Patti Smith, 1975. Cover art by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Horses by Patti Smith, 1975. Cover art by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Sometimes, to create something great, you just need a friend. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were kindred spirits. They had known each other since they were twenty-year-old artists trying to make a living in New York. “Robert liked taking pictures in natural light, and he had very little equipment then.” Recounted Smith during an interview with The Guardian, “The Horses cover came from 12 photographs that Robert took. [...]Me? I just wanted to look cool.” The photograph plays with the contrast between black and white—a distinctive feature in Mapplethorpe’s art—stark shadow lines, and a defiant, yet inviting expression from Smith. Horses was her first record and it changed the punk rock scene for years to come, just like Robert Mapplethorpe’s images would change modern photography.

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Artpop by Lady Gaga, 2013. Cover art by Jeff Koons.

Artpop by Lady Gaga, 2013. Cover art by Jeff Koons.

Lady Gaga does not shy away from big statements. She pursued Jeff Koons for the cover art for her third album after meeting him at the 2010 Met Gala. At the center of the cover sits a naked sculpture of Gaga. She holds a Koons gazing ball and behind her, there is a kaleidoscope of famous art pieces: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne. Koons explained that every element of the cover holds a particular meaning: the ball affirms and reflects your own identity as well as the world around you; Gaga as Venus represents life’s energy and the pursuit of aesthetics; Apollo, the god of music, is the transcendence experienced through art. 

There are, of course, many more examples of the bond between records and their art covers. From Keith Haring for David Bowie, Annie Leibovitz for Bruce Springsteen, to Beth Garrabanth for Taylor Swift, the impact that music has on art, and vice versa, is clear to see. 

Yet one question arises: now that the material ownership of records has dwindled in favor of digital downloads, what is the role of cover art? Do we still choose to listen to a particular album because we are drawn to it by its cover? Are we even aware of cover art? There might be no definite answer, but while you think about it, let’s go to the record store and browse.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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