Impressions: 9 album covers lodged in my imagination

My pal Rick Harris got a turntable for Christmas and told me what a lovely time he was having going through his album collection.

We talked about album art (Steely Dan’s Aja, Rick Harris!), and I thought it would be fun to think back at covers that were favourites and stuck in my head over the years.

When you’re a teenager (and, I suppose, when we’re older), album art becomes emblematic of personal taste. It’s more than representative of the music contained within, it’s something appreciated in its own right, mixed with the music.

Album art was hugely, hugely impactful on me as a kid. My  sources of listening opportunity was based on Detroit’s WRIF and WLLZ radio stations and the tastes of a select group of friends, so prog, heavy metal and FM-friendly rock were the order of the day and the album covers.

I think album art gradually became less important to me in the 1980s and thereafter, because CDs are so much smaller and there’s less tactile presence than with the cardboard album jackets, so the albums that stick out are from when I was in my teens and early university.

Because I no longer have a vinyl collection (yes, Roger Nault, no more requests to haul multiple boxes of albums up three flights of stairs), the album covers depicted here are lodged in my imagination (as opposed to sitting in stolen milk crates, which was the chosen method of presenting albums at the time). The album covers stand on their own as art, linked but not necessarily representing music that I love, or even loved at the time I bought the albums.

Anyway, here are 9 albums whose art made an impression on me.

album montage 2

Only one cover is contemporary. Can you tell which one it is, just by looking?

Relayer, by Yes (1979)
(Atlantic/Rhino Records)

I loved this cover more than the album (thought it got its fair share of listens). The art is by Roger Dean, who has this beautiful, highly stylized look that is featured on most of the Yes albums. I had an oversize Roger Dean poster in my bedroom as a teen/early university, and loved Dean’s art.

This album cover is almost monochromatic, yet so incredibly evocative. I love the simplicity of the lines that arch, and would have been drawn to the King Arthur/Lord of the Rings elements. Sadly, we just missed the Roger Dean art exhibit in Sussex, England, marking the 45th anniversary of Relayer. I think the cover still holds up beautifully.

Heaven and Hell, by Black Sabbath (1980)

(Warner Bros/Rhino Records)

I gave this album a spin this weekend, and my first thought was: I listened to this?! And, at the same time, music by Genesis?

Actually, I’m not sure it got a lot of plays, but I certainly enjoyed the album art. I confess to loving the cover so much that I purchased a black t-shirt with iron-on transfer of the cover, at the t-shirt store beside a video arcade at Lambton Mall in Sarnia, Ont.

The cover is by artist Lynne Curlee, who, at school, specialized in nineteenth century architecture and Italian quattrocento painting, and much of his art features iconic U.S. architecture (and, ironically, he does children’s book covers). Curlee also did the art for Blue Öyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune.

The album cover was originally a painting based on a 1928 photograph of women dressed as angels having a smoke backstage between acts at a College Christmas pageant. Part of a series and licensed rather than commissioned for the cover, Curlee’s original 4′ x 6′ acrylic on canvas painting took 3 weeks to complete, using standard brushes, and was then photographed and cropped for the album art, losing a portion of the right angel’s wing. I love the simple, stylized features of the angels, and the irony of the angels hanging out for a smoke. Again, a beautiful cover.

The Colour of Anything, by James Blake (2016)
(Universal Music)

Gosh, I love this picture. This cover pushed me to take a course in watercolour painting a couple of years ago.

The painting featured on the cover is by Quentin Blake (no relation to James), who was 83 when he made the painting. Like Curlee, Blake is best known for illustrations related to children’s books, particularly books by Roald Dahl.  Blake (elder) was sought out by the album’s art director, who was a fan.

Don’t you just love the colour wash, the sky, the angles of the inked-in trees and even the lettering of the title and artist? It hearkens back to the illustrations of Ernest Shepard and forward to my appreciation of landscape and stormy weather. Sooo great.

Out of the Blue, by Electric Light Orchestra (1977)
(Sony BMG)

My grandmother gave me money to buy this album when she visited from England, and I never properly thanked her for it. I remember sitting in the car trying to explain to her why it was such a big deal, but not thanking her for giving me the opportunity to purchase it.

The spaceship is the band’s logo and was featured in the cover of the previous album, A New World Record. The art is by Shusei Nagaoka, who did art for numerous album covers (Journey and Earth Wind and Fire come to mind), and who also designed the 1970 Osaka Expo. For those who look closely, the number on the side of the docking craft is the album’s original catalogue number.

I love the jellybean colours and, as a massive consumer of science fiction at the time, I would have appreciated the sci-fi feel. Just looking at the cover makes me feel warm and happy. For what it’s worth, I still listen to the album, too (it’s on the 101 list).

Even in the Quietest Moments, by Supertramp (1977)
(Universal Music)

Another album on my 101 list (not their best but probably my favourite), and one of two album covers here that’s a photograph.

The grand piano was gutted and lifted to the hill of a ski resort near Caribou Ranch studios, left and then photographed after a fresh snowfall. The sheet music is titled Fools Overture (the third and last song on side two), but the music is, err, The Star-Spangled Banner.

I love the simplicity, the out-of-place piano and the colour (that crisp snow! That blue sky!). It’s a great counterpoint to the James Blake cover.

Book of Dreams, by The Steve Miller Band (1977)
(Universal Music)

This awesome album cover was created by Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse, with art direction by Roy Kohara. Kelly and Mouse were ’60s psychedelic art icons who did the Grateful Dead skull and roses logo. Mouse, who did a lot of the lettering, also did airbrushing for custom cars and, I discovered, lived in Toronto’s Yorkville, where he ran the Waterbed Gallery (which sold waterbeds and featured his art on the walls). The two also did the cover for The Grand Illusion, by Styx, which almost made this list (as did Pieces of Eight, also by Styx, with art by Hipgnosis, but I digress).

I love the colour, the airbrushed smoothness and simple beauty of this album cover. So good.

The Dreaming, by Kate Bush (1982)
(Nobel and Bright Ltd)

Ah, Kate. What an album. Blew me out of the water. Still does. The album is replete with references to Australian aborigines, the Vietnam war, crime films and Houdini, to whom the cover refers.

On the cover, Kate plays Harry Houdini’s wife, Bess, who holds in her open mouth a small gold key  The photo was apparently taken by Kate’s brother, John. I loved the stylized, sepia, look of the album, plus, well, Kate.

Night Vision, by Bruce Cockburn (1973)
(eOne Music)

Note: This spot was originally the cover of Moving Pictures by Rush. I’d been thinking about the album since news about the death of the band’s drummer, Neil Peart. Last night Linda and I had been talking about the significance of Bruce Cockburn’s album Night Vision, and Rick’s inclusion of it in his post cemented the realization that the Cockburn album was more a part of my life than Rush’s. Having said that:

I have such a clear memory of wanting to introduce this album to my mum. Possibly after a less-than-enthusiastic response to my Black Sabbath t-shirt, I wanted to share with her this album, that I was considerably more attached to than Heaven and Hell.

I remember being in our living room on Erroll Road in Sarnia. The stereo was in the living room, opposite the couch (chair at left, near the dining area. I remember sitting on the carpet in front of the record player’s platter, which was the type that had an arm and spindle so you could place several albums on it, and they would drop, one upon the other as each album finished. I don’t remember my mum’s response to the album (she was always a bit more Willie Nelson than Bruce Cockburn). I remember the cover resting against the record player’s cabinet.

The cover actually extended round to the back of the album. so you could see the entire painting, by Alex Coleville.

(eOne Music)

The painting was even more evocative when the album was opened full, so you could see the oncoming train. It’s a clever mix of the natural running headlong into the machine.  I confess to being more of a Pratt man — both Christopher and Mary’s paintings bring joy to my heart, albeit in different ways) than Coleville. Alex’s paintings, however, have followed me around for much of my life (I had the joy of seeing this painting on display at the Hamilton Art Gallery not far from where my parents moved twenty-odd years ago and his 1965 painting To Prince Edward Island is a favourite and one of the jewels of the National Art Gallery in Ottawa).

And Bruce, well, I saw more Bruce Cockburn concerts during younger adult life than any other artist (more recently supplanted by Patrick Watson and Whitehorse). I loved the guitar work, the album’s quiet introspection, the slightly rollicking Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long and, one of my favourites, When the Sun Goes Nova. This album was the Cockburn gateway that led me, at that time, to Humans (didn’t really get the appeal of the cover but Tokyo, well, wow) and Inner City Front (at the time I felt like I was pushing musical boundaries).

But mostly, I just loved this album cover.

Brain Salad Surgery, by Emerson Lake and Palmer (1973)

Crazy, huh? Above is just the front cover of the album, which opened up from the middle, revealing this woman with her eyes closed:


Sort of like Blake’s meeting, ELP’s record company manager introduced Emerson to H.R. Giger while the band was performing on their 1973 tour of Europe. According to my friend, Wikipedia, Giger had created a triptych that appealed to Emerson so much that Giger then painted two new pieces roughly the size of an album cover (the one used as the cover bearing Giger’s “ELP” logo).

Art director Fabio Nicoli constructed the album so it opens from the centre, with a circular portion that opens with the right side of the front cover. Opening the cover displays the inner sleeve, which shows the face of a woman (Giger’s partner, Swiss actress Li Tobler). Look above and you’ll see a scar intended to represent a frontal lobotomy (get it? Brain salad surgery?).

There was apparently more packaging inside, including a huge poster of the band, but I honestly don’t remember that. Apparently the original art by Giger was stolen or lost in 2005, after an exhibition.

In my little circle, Giger was a big deal in the late 70s. The movie Alien had just come out, with Giger’s set design getting a lot of attention. Giger’s art also featured predominantly on the walls of a close friend’s basement bedroom.

I love the greys, the airbrushed feel, the organic/mechanic synergy. It would have appealed to my teenage tastes to a T.

There are other albums, such as Point of Know Return by Kansas (a work mate had the album cover on a belt buckle, which, at the time, I thought was incredibly cool) or Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin, which, like Brain Salad Surgery, had a complicated set of interior artwork and whose New York brownstone building cover fascinated me and foreshadowed an appreciation for urban living and, in particular, architecture that I would explore in future years. I think there’s a reason particular works of art stand out in memory, and their psychological impact lingers in our lives, sometimes evident and sometimes beneath the surface.

More on that, later.


2 thoughts on “Impressions: 9 album covers lodged in my imagination

  1. Don’t know why of these, but I loved reading your impressions and seeing the artwork. If you like the Relayer one, you ought to go see the canyons in Utah and Arizona. Glad you wrote something to enhance The Color of Anything for me. A real critic at work, you are! My fave by far is the angels. Thanks for the lesson. Love, Glo >

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