Throw Back Thursday: Lost Art of the Album Cover

I thought I would take a more expressive approach to the #TBT trend in lieu of posting old photos of myself.  So every so often I’ll post a nostalgic piece and invite you to travel with me down memory lane.

I fell in love just staring at the album
I fell in love just staring at the album

Men of a certain age have witnessed some very cool technological advancements. The personal computer, e-mail, mobile phones and smart phones, blu-ray, wireless, mobile tablets and the internet are all things that I vividly remember being awed by. It was that way too with the advent of the CD. I remember my first CD player – a five disc carousel Panasonic. And my first few CDs.  But as much as we advanced our culture with the adoption of new, disruptive technologies, I can’t help feel that, in many cases, we lost something with each step forward.  In the case of the CD (and eventually the digital download), it was the vinyl album cover. The CD insert, much like watching a block-buster movie on an iPad, could not evoke the same emotional response that I had to the album cover art.

As a young lad growing up in Baltimore, MD, I’d spend many of my weekends staying at my uncles apartments. Both were typical bachelors and had typical bachelor pads for the time. Big fluffy pillows strewn about the floor. Aromatic incense burning in holders. A few Playboy mags spread out on the floor. Strings of beads dangling from doorways. A hi-fi stereo system with turntable on a shelf against the wall. And stacks of vinyl around the system.

I loved staying with my uncles because I was guaranteed a cheese steak sub or pizza for dinner and I had full access to their music.  The Playboy mags too. But it was the music that captured my attention. I would spend hours listening to their albums and staring at the album art. I was fascinated with much of the creative strategy utilized to sell music. Obvious depictions of the artists themselves, sexy women in sultry, proactive poses, and obscure, eccentric, and elegant art all caught my attention.  I fell in love with Minnie Riperton with ice cream dripping down her fingers, overalls with nothing under and that angelic voice. Killer combination.

Marvin Gaye's album featuring the art of Ernie Barnes
Marvin Gaye’s album featuring the art of Ernie Barnes

Who wasn’t drawn into this classic Marvin Gaye cover featuring the art of iconic painter Ernie Barnes? The elegant, elongated figures perfectly captured black folk in the mood and in the groove. Eyes closed and feeling the moment. I could never get enough of this cover. I studied every inch, every character, every outfit, the scene, the signs…everything. This “Sugar Shack” painting was my introduction to the genius of former Baltimore Colts player Ernie Barnes whose art work was used to represent the art of J.J. Evans on the show “Good Times”.

Earth Wind & Fire and Egyptology
Earth Wind & Fire and Egyptology

This classic Earth Wind & Fire album cover encouraged my interest in the futuristic, space, and Egyptology. Again, I would closely examine the detail in the art work and would day dream about the future. It was a tremendously powerful subliminal message that invoked interest in both cosmology and spirituality. Yeah, I was a deep ass kid. The band used Egyptian symbolism and mysticism on several album covers and it was also evident in their music.

Ohio Players used sex to sell
Ohio Players used sex to sell

Was their ever a band that could better capture the attention of pubescent adolescent boys more than the Ohio Players? If so, you’ll have to school me. Most of their covers objectified women, effectively so, by depicting them covered in honey or chocolate, partially nude in fire-fighters uniforms, engaged in sultry poses, or tessellating  with partially nude men. One thing is for sure, the boys from Dayton, OH had sex on the brain and they certainly had my attention.

Did anyone ever listen to Bitches Brew or was it all about the cover art?
Did anyone ever listen to Bitches Brew or was it all about the cover art?

This visual journey created by surrealist painter Mati Klarwein is the reason why Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is on every “Top Album Cover” list. The music represents Miles’ foray into the experimental, esoteric jazz movement. I can tell you with all honesty that I spent far more time with the album art than I did listening to the music. That would come to me many years later. But this art work was very difficult to turn away from. A hard one to put down. The longer you held it, the more drawn in you became.

The bizarre foolishness of Parliament Funkadelic
The bizarre foolishness of Parliament Funkadelic

Lastly, I was always attracted to the bizarre foolishness of Parliament. I could not understand why grown men dressed up in such weird costumes, but I absolutely loved it. It certainly spoke to the band’s obscure, trend setting funk sound and made for good visual entertainment.

People often speak about the tactile feel of holding a book and flipping through its pages rather than using an e-reader. It’s the thing I miss most about vinyl. Holding the album cover, reading the liner notes all while listening to the music is the piece of our culture now lost to digital downloads. It was the art of the music combined with the visual art that gave birth to my love of music. I haven’t read the digital booklet that comes with digital files in years. Hell, is it even still an option? Is it even a part of the creative process today?  Do recording artists care what art is associated with their music?

We give to gain. It’s often a necessary sacrifice in the name of advancement. But somethings are harder to accept than others.  And while digital files take up zero environmental space and offer enhanced sound quality, you can’t de-seed your weed on an i-Pod the way you could on a folding album cover. Am I right?

I’d love to hear about some of your favorite album art. Do you have a favorite?  Do you miss having the visual with the audio.

Until next post….


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