Album cover art will often tell you everything you need to know about the music inside. Whether it be a black and white portrait of a badass band in an alleyway, or a highly-stylized illustration of a future or past world, the buyer has some sense of what they’re in for. But not always. Many music fans have bought records for the cover and anyone who’s done that has also had that “What is this shit?” moment. Sometimes it tells you nothing. File this book about album cover art under the latter. It’s a damn fine collection of punk rock singles and album covers — great to look at — but nothing more. And as a former label art director, who is a massive fan of both the music, the visuals and the possible stories behind them, I found that frustrating.
Perhaps I should have seen it coming, with Malcolm McLaren writing the book’s Foreward. I’m not sure there’s a more compelling yet disenchanted, interesting but disillusioned punk critic than McLaren. “Punk is the pimply name the media invented to describe one of the most glamorous and flamboyant failures of my life” is how the former Sex Pistols architect begins. He then breaks down his fashion career and how that led to the idea of the Sex Pistols and their anti-music/anti-business stance, although several of the band members in memoirs downplay that notion. The self-aggrandizing tome eventually pleads for the reader to piss all over this book. Because, you know, punk was never about art books. It ends with McLaren declaring “…nothing could be more infuriating or make me more angry” than for “us to preserve everything he helped to create.” OK. We get it. You’re an anarchist. And a DaDa-ist. You’ve mentioned that every time you open your mouth to help sell your “product.”
So how is the book? A bit lazy. Incomplete. And filled with incredible pieces of design, as well as pieces of...umm...not design. It’s grouped every couple of pages (literally) by words: U.K., New York Scene, Glued Letters, Collages, etc. (Someone needs to tell me how “London Calling” is a Collage. If a photo with type on it is a collage, then, well...virtually every album cover ever made is one. Whatever.) However, this index ONLY appears at the front of the book, so if you’re looking for a guide while you’re in the middle of the book, you might as well just take a guess. Otherwise, it’s back to the front of the book to reference the sleeve grouping.
The groupings can be insightful, but without any context, it often looks like four of the same record covers. Variations on a theme. It might have been nice to hear from the artists, photographers or designers and hear what they were trying to say or accomplish, if anything. And that’s the whole problem with this book that ultimately just feels like a missed opportunity. Incredible images, terrible story. Correction: No story. About a great subject. Maybe you’re right, Malcolm. Maybe I should just unzip…but for a very different reason.
To quote Johnny Rotten, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
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