If there are any lingering questions over the primacy of the LP format for imaging musical artists, it ends with the countless series of books that collect the best (and worst) of the cover artwork of a genre. Jazz, Heavy Metal, Country — almost every genre has had their day — and now reggae, as Stir It Up focuses on the Jamaican output of the art form.
Traditionally, the LP size was, and remains, a huge plus, allowing for beautiful portrait photography, high concepts, collage or a playful combination. And, while the tiny island’s music industry followed US tradition in many ways, it also expressed its own, uniquely Jamaican voice, combining politics, humor, frank sexuality (and sexism) and a socialist-leaning and revolutionary agenda.
The early Blue Beat and ska periods are my favorites, utilizing simple silkscreens, very creative uses of type, and economic production techniques, such as split fountain fills and duotones. Design jargon aside, these covers are just plain fun, perfectly communicating the simple pleasures of dancing under the hot sun to a good groove, and very reminiscent of early American R&B album covers. Bring on the Red Stripe!
The growth of rasta ideology and African repatriation pushed the artwork into a new direction. The continent of Africa, emperor Haile Selassie I and the ubiquitous Lion of Judah took center stage. These basic themes are explored in a myriad of ways, and as fairly high-concept works of art, some more successful than others.
Photographs of dreadlocked musicians and brethren, usually featuring a spliff in hand and a huge cloud of smoke, also became popular and represent the visual gateway many associate with classic reggae. Big Youth’s Natty Cultural Dread, Bob Marley’s Natty Dread, and Freddie McGregor’s Bobby Bobylon are iconic covers of this era. These, to me, were clear indications that this was definitely not your parents’ music!
Illustration and collage were huge, running the course from the earliest periods of Jamaican music, all the way through the dancehall era of the late 80s and early 90s. Many of these illustrations showcase Jamaica's famous sense of humor, bawdiness and affection for American Westerns and gangster movies. Everyone knows The Harder They Come, but check out Ranking Toyan’s stone cold classic How The West Was Won, an absolutely perfect marriage of concept, style, and illustration. It remains one of my favorite record covers ever. Tony Wright's classic illustrations for the band Third World created a brand unto itself. Others, not without charm, err on the amateurish side …and, yes, I’m talking to you, Yellowman.
However, this tiny and most musical of island’s was not immune to the explosion in popularity reggae enjoyed in the late 70s. The Stones, Eric Clapton and the UK punk rockers were early fans. And, as always, right behind an uptick in popularity comes record labels, money, and dreams of “the next big thing,” immediately followed by the softening of the militant and ganja stances (and, in many cases, the music) into something more palatable to Western ears and crossover tastes.
One can easily trace this progression in the Bob Marley catalogue alone; the more popular he became, the slicker and more professional the album covers became, culminating in “Kaya,” Marley’s most commercial album, both in image and musical and lyrical content. One only need look at the bazillion-selling compilation “Legend,” which could just as easily have been an Elton John, Rod Stewart or any other pop superstar album cover for evidence. No threatening Third World revolutionary here; by this time, the marketing plan aimed at Top 40 radio was in full effect.
Like all genres, there’s good and bad presented here, and beauty is, as always, in the eye of the beholder. Stir It Up serves as a visual timeline and graphic tour through the history of the music of Jamaica and does its job well. And if all you know about reggae album covers is the aforementioned Legend, you really need to get this book, if only to see Best Dressed Chicken in Town by Dr. Alimantado. It’s a classic: ghetto tough and anything but freshly scrubbed for easy consumption. It’s a cover you won’t soon forget.
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