In this confusing world we all use labels, indeed it could be said that language is based on doing so, but it is also common for certain people, with highfalutin rhetoric, to denounce their use. Then they create their own. That’s true for far more important matters than favourite record sleeves, so I feel no embarrassment in that I use the term post-punk even though it is a label which is vague, difficult to define and sometimes contradictory. It is however, a term now in common usage for the music which followed the punk explosion of 1976/1977 (but then, even if you hadn’t been aware of it before, you would have no doubt guessed it from the term itself; unless you took it to be songs about some stroppy mail man). It can mean all sorts of music – free jazz, pop, electronica, funk, shambolic rock, you name it. It can also include bands who were originally once known as punk or new wave or even predated punk. But hey, that’s labels for you.
My first album sleeve is from the fantastic Raincoats and their second album, Odyshape. As the founding members attended the Hornsey School of Art, it is perhaps not a total surprise that the 1981 LP’s cover is based on a painting (Peasant Woman by Kazimir Malevich). For me, it is an album which musically and visually explains post-punk. The album is a fantastic set of songs which somehow just manage to avoid collapsing half-way through each one; post-punk having continued the ethos that music could be thrilling without having to be played by musical geniuses. Often this is called the DIY music – although, isn’t most music performed by the musicians themselves?
On buying it, the cover seemed bright and wonderful to me, and for some reason radical, and I could ascribe all sorts of meanings to it. Having dutifully read my NME, I knew The Raincoats were political and were feminists, so it must be political! I had never heard of Malevich, or his peasant paintings. I thought it was eye-popping and vowed to find out who this Malevich was. Pre-internet, I visited the local library and looked him up. The world of the Russian revolutionary art popped up. That is post-punk: musicians with the freedom to explore music, politics, ideas and art. And making it fun. And different.
Either side of the painting is the band’s name and the album title in a font which is strong and colourful but avoids being macho or domineering. Can you read too much into the lettering to say that is how I see the band? Probably.
More art school types. Talking Heads could justifiably claim to be pre-punk (formed in 1975) but we’ve done the thing about labels. This 1979 album (their third) had a black embossed cover which was lovely to run your hand over (you just don’t get that with digital music – the feel of an album). Designed by the keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison it, apparently, is meant to resemble diamond plate flooring. The type you might get on the factory floor to avoid slipping. The typeface appears like a neon light shining out from the darkness of the cover. The sleeve has an industrial feel about it, which is not matched by the funky vibe within. But they’re art school, so don’t expect the obvious.
Visuals were almost as important as the music, perhaps because of the number of ex-art school students involved or perhaps the space post-punk gave artists encouraged creativity. The emphasis was on the art rather than the profit margin. Unlike the Talking Heads’ cover, this from Wire’s debut album, Pink Flag, does somehow sum up the music inside: clear lines and a simple purity which is oddly intriguing. The photograph is actually of a flagless flag pole in the middle of a parade ground, which Wire saw whilst touring. They the added the pink, so undermining any military connations. (Maybe it is post-pole music? Sorry, as you’ll read below, I’ve been listening to too much ABC). It is simple but effective.
Raised eyebrows might accompany Elvis Costello’s inclusion in post-punk, having been touring in pub rock bands since 1975. The cover of Imperial Bedroom (1982) is a painting by Barney Bubbles, a graphic artist who, unlike Malevich, I had heard of at the time of purchase, because he had designed the NME. He also used his craft for covers for the likes of The Damned, Hawkwind and Ian Dury. It is a pastiche of the Pablo Picasso painting, Three Musicians. On its release there was some chat both in the music press and with my more posy friends as to what it might mean. Was it an allegory on sex, music or the western capitalism’s flirtation with fascism? The letters on the creatures on the upper right spell out PABLO SI which might be a clue – perhaps it is just fun. But still, it made for some great pretentious late-night drunken rambles.
The inner sleeve had the lyrics running across it and the label in one block of unpunctuated words. A good friend of mine criticises Costello for being exactly just that.
Words were also used as design for ABC’s album released in the same year, the Lexicon of Love. Indeed, unusually, they were even on the front of the cover. But then as the title says, this is about words and language. Not that singer Martin Fry could ever be accused of being a dry linguist professor. Although it is quite possible that he has a doctorate in puns because each song tends to include at least five. Like Costello, words are important to Fry, but with him they are used in a more playful way. Fry has said that he wanted his music to be shiny and almost cinematic in feel. This is reflected by the design of the cover with Fry as some noir detective holding a swooning woman. But the image is one of theatre; you can clearly see the stage curtains and on the back cover shows the band as stage hands; ready for the leading man to finish his performance. This is the singer playing a part. Profundity and puns, what’s not to like?
For many bands, covers merely showing the musicians smiling, or even looking cool, whilst staring out at the record buyer was seen as boring. Many of the second generation punk bands might want to sneer in their leather jackets but post-punk wanted something far more interesting. Unlike today’s releases, or indeed contemporaries from other genres, album sleeves featuring the band or artist were not the norm. When they were, they often would be playing a role, like ABC or Heaven 17 on Penthouse and Pavement (posing as international businesmen). Others such as Pil’s debut or Human League’s Dare had them deeply stylised. Echo and the Bunnymen were one of the bands who did appear on their covers. But even with them, they were not looking at the consumer. They were always looking ahead, to a point on the horizon, in some stunning (and moody – it had to be moody) landscape. On their second album, Heaven up Here, they are on a wet beach in south Wales (photo by Brian Griffen). All dark, moody (told you), brooding and cool. The Bunnymen didn’t do sunshine or summer – it made wearing their trademark dark raincoats uncomfortable. Silhouettes and shadows were far more edgy. In one go, they could keep post-punk cred whilst also using the long-standing marketing fact that a band’s photo sells units.
Whilst it was undeniably male dominated, women had been an important part of punk (X-Ray Spex, Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees for example, who by the way, are not included here because like The Clash, The Jam and Pistols, I consider them to be punk… those labels again) and with post-punk that increased. The Au Pairs were led by Lesley Wood, who possessed one of the great rock voices. This was a time when many bands were not afraid to be political and Playing with a Different Sex, the Au Pairs’ 1981 debut, contains a fantastic set of songs on topics as diverse as Northern Ireland and domestic violence. With Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, politics had been very much a part of late seventies music. With the recession deepening, Margaret Thatcher privatising everything in sight and with millions suffering, people were angry and a number of musicians felt singing only about love and romance was not entirely appropriate. But PWADS is never worthy-but-dull. There is humour, warmth and great hooks, which makes this an object lesson into how to be angry but accessible.
The cover neatly encapsulates the themes with a photograph of Chinese female militia on manoeuvres in Mongolia, taken by the great photographer Eve Arnold in the late seventies. Arnold was a photojournalist whose work included iconic images of a range of subjects including Malcolm X and Marilyn Monroe.
Here’s another great photo from a 1981 debut. This one is of a monkey taking on a wild cat. Rip, Rig and Panic were named after a Roland Kirk’s album, and were a free jazz/post-punk/funk/choose your label band, who included former members of the Pop Group and Neneh Cherry. Their wild and frenetic music confronts and exhilarates and like the monkey, screams and bites with its hackles up. It is also full of humour (probably not reflected by the monkey though). And the album title is God. Look at it and then the photo, and make your own mind up as to what that means.
Politics and art were expressed in all sorts of ways in both punk and post-punk with movements such as the situationists and constructivists being used or cited by a number of bands. The former was evident in this 1979 Gang of Four album. The front cover has three stills from a 1960’s cowboy film (a series based on the character Winnetou) which have been seen as a fore-runner of the Spaghetti Westerns and were popular in East Germany because they were seen as being anti-capitalist. Around the stills is written: “The Indian smiles, he thinks that the cowboy is his friend. The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled.”
Not that everything was political on planet post-punk. Yazoo’s 1982 debut (why are so many of these debuts?), Upstairs at Eric’s, has two manniquens sitting at the table with their upper torsos actually on the table and their lower halves set back on the chairs. Taken in photographer Joe Lyons’ studio, it shows by simply positioning different objects and a clever use of light an arresting image can be made which basically just looks good.
It is the final choice of my post-punk favourite album sleeves but looking at them I realise that as great as they are, there could have easily been a totally different ten (even with the issues of defining what is and is not, post-punk) and so have included some of them below. I also note that whilst they were chosen purely for their album design, they also happen to be albums which I also enjoy musically.
There’s a whole new blog out there of great albums with awful covers and awful albums with great covers.
Ones which could have been included in the above list
- Everything but the Girl: Love Not Money
- Human League: Dare
- Joy Division: Closer
- Pop Group: Y
- The Raincoats: The Raincoats
- The Passage: Pindrop
- Public Image Ltd: First Issue
- The Cure: Three Imaginary Boys
- Girls at our Best: Pleasure
- Depeche Mode: A Broken Frame