It's downloads now. Sure, sometimes CDs, but mostly it's iTunes, or Amazon, or streaming via YouTube or Spotify. All that lovely music, often just a click away. What's not to like? Good question. But with change can also come unexpected consequences, and the change that I am thinking about here is to do with artwork: the cover. First it was the CD: tiny, so the artwork had to be tiny, and was rarely inspected in any case by the listener. Now, the over may appear on a screen while the music is playing, but is rarely looked at. And why should anyone? It's just a smudge, a vague blob that might appear somewhere but with no real value or interest.
But, of course, it wasn't always like that: vinyl LPs had two (or more) sheets of 12 square inches of card to protect them, and, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, designers were allowed immense freedoms to capture the attention of a potential record buyer. Amongst those designers, Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, the company he co-founded, stood out from the rest. Thorgerson died last week, and his passing was worthy of BBC TV evening news, and for a moment his most famous creation, the cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon blazoned out from screens across the country.
Of Norwegian parents but born near London, Thorgerson found himself at school with some of the founding members of Pink Floyd, and his interest in art and design soon led him to become a designer of their albums. From there, he and his company became involved in an extraordinary number of designs for a wide range of records, including ones by Yes, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, 10CC, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath and The Scorpions. They were usually marked by a determination to produce images that were a mixture of reality and the absurd, catching the eye but also drawing attention to the content too.
As he said, "I like photography because it is a reality medium, unlike drawing which is unreal. I like to mess with reality...to bend reality. Some of my works beg the question of is it real or not?" Which is oddly different from his most famous creation, which is a prism refracting light. True, it doesn't quite refract light like that in reality, but it doesn't really fit his description. But there are others that certainly do, some of them playing on our perceptions, such as a 10CC cover where the cover itself is being pulled into the photograph of the band on the cover.
The best? Not that, nor the Floyd cover, but the series of covers for one of the least well known Led Zeppelin albums, In Through the Out Door. It was sold in a brown paper bag, and inside the cover had black and white photos of a man drinking in a New Orleans bar (lovingly and expensively recreated in great detail in the studio in London). Sounds very ordinary, but in fact the album turned out be be printed in a series of six, and in each case the scene was taken from a different perspective in the bar. Furthermore, the black and white cover would change into colour if it was wetted (which, not surprisingly, is not something you would normally experiment with if you have just bought the album!) but there was no reference to this on the cover at all. Bonkers! I've only seen the sleeve online, but how great that the business could allow in those days such madness!
So what's the perfect Storm? Grudgingly, I suppose, that Pink Floyd cover. It reminds us oldies of how wonderful it used to be to sit listening to LPs and, at the same time, devour the outside and sometimes the inside of amazing, entrancing, baffling, and sometimes just plain weird LP covers.