Out of respect for today apparently being the anniversary of that incredible photo shoot on Saunton Sands, North Devon, where Storm Thorgerson’s vision of ‘a river of beds’ was realised, today’s topic is rather obvious.
It took 30 helpers, two articulated lorries and three tractors to move 700 wrought iron beds (complete with bedding) to achieve that unforgettable cover for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason – on this day in 1987. Also necessary were two photographers, one dog handler, five dogs, two models, one microlite glider, two attempts (rain scuppered the first shoot) and just short of £50 grand.
As Storm Thorgerson explains in his book, Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd, the scene was to be set up in LA, but for lack of desired bed style.
So I got to thinking about all those album covers now embedded in the brain, some iconic (like everyone’s favourite Beatles montage), some bordering on the ridiculous (like Si Zentner & His Orchestra’s – always to include eight exclamation marks, if you please – The Swinging Eye!!!!!!!!) and wondered just how many of the very best record sleeves owe their lasting appeal to camera work and careful positioning of props, rather than computer-generated genius. Forget the pop art collage, textbook diagram, and clever assortments of script laced with doodles and squiggles; I only care to consider for now a photograph which may well have been enhanced later but was, in essence, something first seen through a lens and captured for posterity’s sake (and hopefully a handsome fee). No gadgetry or gimmickry, just a photographer and his, or her, camera of choice.
I, as I’m sure you, recall many an orderly group portrait and collection of often pretentious artistes posing for dramatic effect, as spoofed in South Park (Season 7, Episode 9) with Cartman directing a shoot for his album cover with Christian rock band, Faith + 1. (Best South Park episode ever? OK, some other time.)
For whatever reason, these came to mind first:
- Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
- Oasis, Definitely Maybe
- Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA
Then, inevitably, I thought of those deemed to be unsuitable for public viewing and sold wrapped in plain brown paper, like a drunkard’s bottle of cheap cider:
- Blind Faith, Blind Faith
- John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins
- Roxy Music, Country Life
There are those that perhaps say more about the performer and his or her reputation than the actual album’s content:
- Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP
- Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
- The Who, Who’s Next
Those with a carefully-choreographed shot of the people behind the music, as VH1 would say, who are very much aware of the camera and possibly in silly dress:
- Beatles, Beatles For Sale
- Blondie, Blondie
- George Harrison, All Things Must Pass
Or they’re being cool and most likely pretending to be unaware of the camera:
- Eric Clapton, Backless
- Neil Diamond, Home Before Dark
- The Libertines, The Libertines
Then there are those who are so obviously posing:
- Joni Mitchell, Hits
- The Streets, The Hardest Way To Make an Easy Living
- Travis, The Man Who
And perhaps the best of the bunch are those no-nonsense, all-action, hard-at-work snaps:
- Jeff Buckley, Grace
- The Clash, London Calling
- The Kooks, Inside In, Inside Out
Then you have the arty and/or downright bizarre, with models used in place of the performer for reasons sometimes best left unexplained:
- The Doors, Strange Days
- Mark Knopfler, The Ragpicker’s Dream
- U2, Boy
Those that try to say something about the music without showing the performer(s), preferring instead obscure, curious and seemingly random ‘things’:
- Blur, Parklife
- Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run
- Primal Scream, Riot City Blues
Not forgetting the beautiful, atmospheric scenes where performer, if included at all, is of secondary importance to the surrounding backdrop:
- Eagles, Long Road Out of Eden
- Echo & The Bunnymen, Heaven Up Here
- Van Morrison, The Philosopher’s Stone
What do you think: are any of these in any way more effective, memorable, or indeed suitable than something like, say, Tubular Bells or Bat Out of Hell? Analyse all you can bear, but sometimes you either like something or you don’t, and I’m keen to know which you do and which you do not.
The Resistance by Muse was voted Best Art Vinyl of 2009, with Manic Street Preachers’ (utterly horrid, sorry) Journal For Plague Lovers and Fever Ray’s self-titled album coming in second and third place respectively. None are photographs as such, but you can see the full list of 25 covers here.
Previous winners include the Fleet Foxes for their eponymous 2008 debut (part of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 piece, ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’), Man’s Needs, Woman’s Needs, Whatever by The Cribs (in 2007), Thom Yorke’s The Eraser (in 2006) and Hard Fi’s Stars of CCTV (in 2005). Of these, only one is a photograph.
If you’ve an hour to wile away, remember: there’s always Sleeveface.
If you’re fortunate enough to have two hours to play around with, you may find this album atlas, compiled by readers of Word magazine and showing where many a record sleeve photo was taken, pointlessly educational… I know I did.