Fade To Black • Hard Rock Cover Art of The Vinyl Age
ISBN 978 1 4027 7917 9 • Sterling, 2012
A very personal look from the author at over two hundred rock album covers, an area of music not normally represented in sleeve art compendiums. And you have to say judging from a lot of the examples here, you can understand why. A number are just so resolutely awful it’s quite hard to find any reason why they should ever be accorded the status of inclusion in a book like this. To be fair, the cover blurb does acknowledge this is a look at “the good, the bad and the ugly” so clearly the author recognises the issue. I suspect because Martin enjoys the music, this has influenced his decision to include some of the covers. So we get a fairly happy shopper level cover for Hawkwind’s Warrior On The Edge Of Time in here rather than their second and third albums which did sport great designs.
I do enjoy a bit of hard rock as much as the next person, but would be the first to agree that some of the sleeves on the albums I have are very naff. I guess because of the nature of the scene, a number of the bands just had very little appreciation of art and design and went for any glitzy imagery they were presented with. Record labels probably weren’t that bothered in many cases, sensing that fans would buy the albums regardless of the packaging, so it just became a sort of ghetto inhabited by second-rate illustrators and air-brush operatives.
This view is reinforced by the earliest covers here, starting in the second half of the sixties, which are some of the best in the book. The problem seems to set in during the end of the seventies when too many new bands were given their head on covers, and things went downhill from there. In fact, the rot probably began with Patrick Woodroffe, essentially a Roger Dean clone, whose work seems to just miss the mark every time for me. Mind you, what can you do when you’re asked to depict a trio of stallion riding warriors with budgie heads (Budgie / Bandolier, 1975)? His place seems to have been taken by Rodney Matthews, who comes over as a second-rate Patrick Woodroffe, and so it goes, each feeding off an ever diminishing roster of hackneyed subject matter. Even when bands did go to a top artist in the genre like Frank Frazetta, they often screwed up with poor lettering (Molly Hatchet debut).
The book also puzzles in terms of layout, each page shows just one sleeve, but the sizes seem to vary throughout, which is visually unsettling. Reproduction quality also varies, with some sleeves losing quite a lot of colour accuracy, and others poorly retouched. Deep Purple’s Fireball is really bad; clearly shot off a badly marked original, someone has attempted to disguise the wear and tear with a black overlay which is very evident (and a cover like that which won design awards in Britain surely deserved more than 100 words?). A few sleeves do get more insight from the designers responsible and given Martin Popoff’s talent for interviewing (his regular rock biographies are often full of interesting detail) I’m surprised there wasn’t more of this, as it might have livened the book up.
There are also missed opportunities by sticking to a rigid chronological presentation. The Guns & Roses Lies album would have been good to contrast with a much older variation on the newspaper front page idea pioneered by Jethro Tull on Thick As A Brick. Equally, talking about the Alice Cooper Love It To Death sleeve, the inner cover is mentioned but not shown.
So, worth grabbing if you’re into the genre and if you’re not you will find a number of well executed covers to show you that there was good work being done, but there is a much more detailed book to be put together on this area of sleeve art at some stage.