Art on your sleeve

Music - John Harris charts the changing fashions of modern album design

Towards the end of the 1970s, my dad marked my tenth birthday by buying me a very glamorous coffee-table book entitled The Illustrated History of the Rock Album Cover. It came shrink-wrapped, so he wasn't to know about some of the racier sleeve images that lay within: Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland (scores of naked models), Roxy Music's Country Life (two vampish amazons, one of whom may have been feigning masturbation) and the Ohio Players' Climax (a pair of naked lovers caught at the blissful moment when one plunges a knife into the other's back). It is probably an indication of my liberal upbringing that my parents expressed little more than benign amusement and let me carry on passing the book among my awe-stricken friends.

In addition to all the flesh, I recall being no less fascinated by the cod-surrealist designs that once defined album art's cutting edge. As psychedelia turned into the nightmare known as progressive rock, record sleeves had begun to take on the kind of clumsy pretensions that oozed from the music: the results included the DalI-meets-sci-fi imagery that adorned Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973), and the dystopic take on Victoriana used by Genesis for the cringingly titled Nursery Cryme (1971). To a ten-year-old, they were beguiling in the extreme; any intelligent adult would have surely detected the same cultural disease that gave rise to Star Trek conventions and Dungeons & Dragons.

Such, as it turned out, was the motivation for the back-to-basics graphic revolution wrought by punk. The Illustrated History of the Rock Album Cover ended with an epilogue entitled "What's Going On?", a heading that now seems like a hippie cri de coeur, loudly bemoaning the punks' rejection of overblown fantasy in favour of stark typography and/or - of all things! - simple pictures of the musicians. The debut albums by British punk's two trailblazers say it all: Jamie Reid's design for Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols made glorious use of shocking pink and minted the cut-and-paste, ransom note-style lettering that still signifies the punk idea; on the cover of The Clash, Kate Simon's bleached-out photograph of Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer had the same blunt force as the band's aesthetic manifesto - "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977".

The punks' stylistic volte-face took album art straight back to its roots, a fact instantly proved by The Clash's pastiche of Elvis Presley's 1956 debut album for 1979's London Calling. Fortuitously, it also paved the way for the invention of the CD - for once an album's dimensions had been scaled down by something close to 80 per cent, anything other than the most basic ideas were rendered impractical.

To take two particularly salient examples, compare the covers of Elton John's 1975 LP, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and his 2001 album, Songs From the West Coast. By way of serving instant notice of Elt's arty credentials, both used artists who rather symbolised their time; but whereas Alan Aldridge's endlessly detailed design for Captain Fantastic suggested Hieronymus Bosch with an airbrush, Sam Taylor-Wood's photographic still life for Songs From . . . could only use the broadest of strokes. The upshot? The former is gaudily phantasmagoric, whereas the latter seems merely functional.

Nick de Ville's Album: style and image in sleeve design is essentially a crisper, more dispassionate update of the story told by the aforementioned Illustrated History, put together by a Goldsmiths professor whose early artistic endeavours took in work on Roxy Music's record sleeves (including the aforementioned Country Life). As its pages roll on, simple salesmanship edges ever closer to the sleeve designer's art: most notably, given the omnipotence of record company marketeers, the all-too-brief period in which rock bands could ostentatiously decline to have their sleeves cluttered with type - cf The Beatles' Abbey Road, or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon - is long gone.

So, too, it seems, are the days when using the simplest graphic elements could convey an iconoclastic kind of freshness. These days, sleeve designers have two options: either surrender to music's increasing reliance on irony and back-reference and design sleeves that nod to other designers; or try that little bit harder.

For an example of the first approach, nothing beats Oasis's 1997 album, Be Here Now, whose overbaked cover photo found Beatles obsessives thick-headedly trying to conjure up the days when weed-addled fans would scour their record sleeves for encrypted messages. The more visionary angle, meanwhile, was embodied by the artwork for Blur's recent album Think Tank, designed by the elusive London graffiti artist known as Bansky. Both the title and image - an embracing couple clad in Victorian diving helmets, which somehow approximate to gas masks - combine to deli-ver an unsettling commentary on contemporary politics; the simplicity of the design only intensifies its impact.

One other key difference between sleeve design then and now is proved by the surprisingly chaste content of de Ville's selections. Any parent looking to buy their child a music-based Christmas gift can rest relatively easy: compared with the fleshy excesses of yore, there's barely an inch of skin to be seen.

John Harris is the author of The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English rock (Fourth Estate)

Album: style and image in sleeve design by Nick de Ville is published by Mitchell Beazley (£35)