Back before recordings were hand-size 5-inch compact discs -- or the even smaller cassettes -- visual artists and designers rose to the occasion of a musician's important new album by completing an equally striking piece of art for the cover.
The 12- by 12-inch size of the vinyl LP afforded a designer a splendid canvas, and the artist's most creative work was welcomed by musicians stretching their creativity on the grooves within.
More than mere marketing, the album cover was ambitiously designed to convey, wordlessly, a sense of the music inside. And when the image worked, it was cherished by rock fans nearly as much as the music.
Classic rock from the '60s and '70s still plays incessantly on FM radio. And best-selling albums of the '60s continue to be strong sellers today on non-vinyl formats where the sound quality is better than ever.
The artwork of these classic albums has not fared so well. It was merely shrunk to fit tinier CD and cassette packages, on which their detail was lost, their lettering illegible, their foot-square sense of majesty gone with the good old days.
Now, 18 of the classic covers from bygone days are included in a series of lithographic prints called "The Record Art Collection." Fans can enjoy crisp, museum-quality prints that are larger than the original covers of albums so beloved that most copies are now well-worn and dogeared.
Dominated by works created from the late '60s to the '70s, the collection includes the covers for Cream's "Disraeli Gears," the Who's "Tommy," Santana's "Abraxas," Bob Dylan's "Self Portrait," the Doors' "Full Circle," Yes' "Relayer," and the Eagles' "Hotel California." But it also includes one early work, Elvis Presley's "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." The most recent is U2's "The Joshua Tree."
"In retrospect, there seems to have been a moment when art and rock not only complemented each other but emerged into an entity," says Jimmy Page, a one-time art student who later gained his greatest fame as guitarist for Led Zeppelin, whose first album cover is the best seller in the series.
It was Page who pointed out the famous Hindenberg photograph that became the basis of Led Zeppelin's first album in 1969, according to designer George Hardie. Their comments are included in a 64-page book that accompanies the prints sold in the series.
Tony Wright, the designer who organized the collection, says of the '60s that "Rock came of age at that point.
"It was a period where the music became art too," he says in an interview from his New York studio. "The music jumped to a different level."
And so did art. Wright, attending the fashionable Chelsea Art School in England, was determined to show his pop art like work anywhere -- "other than art galleries, which seemed to be dead. Shops and things seemed to be much more exciting than art galleries."
A series of prints in a clothing shop caught the eye of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who wanted to use the image that was repeated in the series as an album cover. Steady work followed. Before he knew it, Wright was churning out album covers, the first of which was Traffic's unusually shaped "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," which is part of the print collection.
Wright, who also has designed covers for the B-52's, Marianne Faithfull, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, took 18 months to track down the work he wanted.
Martin Sharp, who designed the "Disraeli Gears" album, was in Australia working on a documentary about Tiny Tim. Mati Klarwein, who painted the surrealistic cover of Santana's 1970 "Abraxas" that is in the collection (as well as the equally memorable cover to Miles Davis' 1970 "Bitches Brew," which is not) was living on the island of Majorca.
"Mike McInnerney, who did the 'Tommy' sleeve, was really tough to find, although he lived about two blocks from the Island Records building in London," Wright says. "He's a tutor in Switzerland and travels back and forth."
Wright couldn't obtain all the work he wanted for the collection.
"Aoxomoxoa," a classic psychedelic Grateful Dead sleeve by Rick Griffin, was difficult to get even before Griffin died in a motorcycle accident in August, Wright says. "And I would have had a Rolling Stones sleeve by Andy Warhol, but the Warhol estate was completely tied up. You couldn't touch it."
All designers contacted still had their original art -- as if they expected that someday it would be included in such a show, Wright says. But some pieces took some looking.
The prints, which cost $195 unframed and $265 framed (with $30 for shipping and handling), are selling well, although they have been available only through a toll-free number, (800) 888-0047.
So far, Wright says, buyers are "pure rock 'n' roll fans," as shown by the fact that the Led Zeppelin cover -- the least artistic of the bunch -- is the best seller. Still, Bob Dylan's painting for the cover of "Self Portrait" also is doing well, although the album was one of his biggest commercial and critical flops.
Album cover art suffers now, Wright says -- and not just because of the tiny size of the format.
"The visual marketing tool now is the video, not the album sleeve," Wright says. "Even if there wasn't cassette and CD now, I think we'd be in exactly the same position we are, where we're looking for images right off the video screen to use on the album sleeve."
And just as there may never be another golden age of album cover art, there won't be, other than the Beatles collection, another record art collection.
"If you did another one you might do a jazz collection," he says.
"Or," he adds with a laugh, "maybe in 40 years' time, you'd do a heavy metal collection."