Album Cover Art Series

A Conversation with Vinyl Preservationist Gary Freiberg
By Robert Benson Rock/Pop Music Historian

In this introduction to the four part series about Album Cover Art we will explore several elements of this creative and personal art form with Vinyl Record Day Founder and album frame innovator Gary Freiberg. (www.RockArtPictureShow.com & www.VinylRecordDay.org) We’ll look at historic and controversial album covers, the differences in album cover framing, explore a growing organization called Vinyl Record Day and see what’s in the future for Album Cover Art. But, first, let’s introduce Gary, Vinyl Preservationist and Businessman.

Gary Freiberg is a vinyl enthusiast, historian and preservationist. He is respected internationally as an expert in Album Cover Art; esteemed programs from the BBC to NPR have featured his insights to an American art form whose repercussions have been felt around the world. His immense interest in vinyl cover art led Freiberg to develop his innovative and patented “Record Album Frame”.

I asked Gary what exactly is the allure, what makes album cover art so appealing? His reply was the abstract feel of music. “It’s the most personable art form there is. We can appreciate the Rembrandt’s and Picasso’s as fine art but we don’t relate to their work personally, we don’t attach our emotion with fine art. Music is the primary vehicle to our memory of good times and good people, Dick Clark called it the soundtrack of our lives. At times cover art is part of that emotional connection we have with music. Anyone who has owned a record collection has spent time pouring over an album cover while listening to the music; the mental connection is a unified package of cover art and the musical experience. A universal example is the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album. Just mentioning that album conjures up a mental picture of the cover art aside from any emotion associated with the music.

The allure of Album Cover Art is it triggers our personal positive connection to music, the appeal is the incredible creativity of the art form, the visual presentation of an album cover draws the viewer’s attention because we relate to it whether we owned the album or not, Album Cover Art represents the era we alone define as important and influential to who we are today.”

Freiberg believes Album Cover Art depicts the many cultural aspects and changes society has gone through unlike any other art form. “Fashion, politics, racial views, lifestyles, we can follow our cultural evolution through Album Cover Art. The early fifties have Mom’s in cocktail dresses, Dad in a tie and the kids scrubbed and fresh. The Beatles and Stones encouraged kids to have long hair in the sixties, John Travolta sold a lot of white Disco suits, each era has its own personality and fashion that is communicated through both the music and the accompanying cover art. We see black artists omitted from their album covers, no pictures front or back. The Chantels album cover took the group of four black women off the cover when their hit “Maybe” went national and replaced them with white teenagers. Album Cover Art captured our history in its quest to be commercially successful. The art form began in an effort to sell more records and through all the creativity and versatility throughout its forty year history, never lost that as the primary objective.”

“I’m humbled, and as an avid collector, proud our Record Album Frame started one evening as a drawing on the back of a paper napkin and has now been chosen by the Smithsonian for exhibit, Home & Garden TV, sold at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as well as thousands of Internet purchasers,” explained Gary. The industry accolades are appreciated but it’s the customer comments, people we don’t know who have said so many nice things about our frame, that is particularly gratifying. Rock Art Picture Show started from my interest in Album Cover Art and I truly believe we have become a leader in the field for the same reason my wife and I had the conversation that led to the napkin drawing. It’s the look; our matted display and patented framing technique creates, and I know this sounds biased, the best display for Album Cover Art. We received our patent because of innovation, just slide your vinyl record into our acrylic frame to matte and frame your album cover instantly, no clips, no assembly and easy to change. There’s a saw tooth hanger that is attached on the back, an album cover is framed and matted for wall display in less than a minute.”

I must admit, I was impressed reading the Customer Comments on the www.RockArtPictureShow.com/comments.html web site. In this world of cyber space, Rock Art Picture Show is not, according to the comments, some faceless corporation; they seem to treat their customers in a very personable way. “I sincerely appreciate anyone coming by to check out our web site. I view customers as friends who have a common appreciation for the love of cover art and are helping to preserve the art form. My goal, sincerely, is for everyone who selects our frames to get the same enjoyment I get from displaying album covers,” said Gary.

In our next article, we will explore and learn more about VinylRecordDay.org, but in the meantime, stop by www.RockArtPictureShow.com and enjoy the show.


Album Cover Art History

Forty Years That Changed Society

In part two of our four-part discussion with Vinyl Record Day Founder and vinyl businessman Gary Freiberg (www.RockArtPictureShow.com& www.VinylRecordDay.org), we focus our attention on the history of Album Cover Art.

“Album Cover Art historically catered to recognizing some customers will purchase an album just for the cover art,” said Gary Freiberg. “Now this commercial pursuit, perhaps the most creative product packaging there has ever been, has become an American art form with significant social importance.”

Alex Steinweiss Covers circa 1950’s                                    Circa 1959 Illustrated Example

“Album Cover Art is a unique depiction of the evolution of our society,” explained Gary. “Since it was first introduced in 1939-40 it has evolved both in format and subject matter. Initially album covers were drawn illustrations; Alex Steinweiss, the creator of the art form, has a strong European poster influence. Steinweiss covers are among the few that are “signed” by the artist; his name is typically along the right side edge on the front of the album cover he designed. In the fifties technology advancements in photography replaced illustrated covers with head shots and scenes depicting “typical” life at the time, everyone was white, wore a tie or cocktail dress and had perfect children. It was Sgt. Pepper that changed it all graphically, creativity zoomed after that release and compared to what had been, the gloves came off on what was acceptable.”

Freiberg continues, “However; regardless of the graphic method, album cover art has always depicted our social values, racial attitudes, lifestyles, fashion and political views in a way that is only seen in the art form. It reflected who we were, who we were supposed to be, and at times, led who we became.”

Discussing the roots of Album Cover Art Gary Freiberg adds, “When Alex Steinweiss was hired by newly formed Columbia Records to be their art director, he was the first in the industry to create advertising material to promote a company’s musicians. His background was in poster art and was heavily influenced by French and German artists. Steinweiss had a logical idea; he suggested discerning different artists and their music by having art on the paper packaging in place of the plain brown paper packaging that was customary when individual records were first introduced. The brown wrapped records promoted the record company; there was no promotion for the artist or the music other than the hole in the wrapper’s center that allowed reading what the record was. The idea had merit since there were no record stores, records were sold in the back of appliance stores. Steinweiss argued an art cover would make the customer stop, pick up and want to look at the record. Thus a better likelihood they would buy it. One of the first attempts, a record of Beethoven ‘hits’ had an 800% increase in sales.”

“History has shown this was pure genius, not just because it revolutionized the marketing of music, but for the accidental visual recording of a society that dramatically changed in the forty year tenure of Album Cover Art.”

Continuing, Freiberg says, “Steinweiss may have been the catalyst to change the visual representation in album cover art but it was the record companies that brought the social changes into visual form. Several record companies, Specialty Records, who gave Little Richard, Larry Williams and others their break, the Jazz label Bluenote and later Motown, were particularly influential in promoting civil rights when this country was experiencing race relation changes that had been building for years.”

“Like Specialty, Bluenote was distinctive in that they did not hide their black artists on the album cover. It was common, with some exception, for record companies to hide black artists from public view,” said Gary.

Original issue prior to LP’s national release          Group replaced for LP’s national release

Same Album, Covers changed for marketing

“Were they racist or just reflecting society?” Freiberg rhetorically asked. “Having a black artist on the cover was very socially controversial at the time.” He then quickly adds, “But doing so was a reflection of what was happening in society at large and was a part of the puzzle that coalesced into legislation changing racial equality.”

Asked about the influence of the respected Bluenote label, Freiberg explains what made this company revered among record companies.

“They had a very, very unique and cohesive integration; the recording, the pressing and album cover art were all combined to present the product. There leadership was not confined to who they put on the album cover. Designer Reed Miles was the primary graphic artist, he wanted to know the mood and the intent of each one of the records that Bluenote produced. His goal was to then integrate the cover art so that it would reflect and be consistent with the mood of the music. It was a step forward that other companies emulated but perhaps not until Sgt. Pepper accomplished.”

In our next article, we will discuss the Beatles’ majestic and historic Sgt. Pepper album with Gary and why it is so popular and innovative, as well its role in the historic album covers of all time.

Copyright Robert Benson 2008. Author Robert Benson writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates http://www.collectingvinylrecords.com, where you can pick up a copy of his ebook called "The Fascinating Hobby Of Vinyl Record Collecting."


The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper Album Steals The Show

Butcher Block Album Creates Controversy

As we continue our discussion with Gary Freiberg (www.RockArtPictureShow.com & www.VinylRecordDay.org), let’s pick up where we left off and continue detailing the poll that was conducted at the Vinyl Record Day web site and specifically, the album that was voted to be the number one album cover of all time, the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album.

The album was groundbreaking because up until then album covers were pretty standard, a picture of the artist (usually a head shot) or group or a specific setting, for example, maybe a jukebox surrounded by teens. This was a very careful and easy way of doing things. But, the Beatles added new elements to album cover art, as Gary details:

“The Beatles did something with the Sgt. Pepper album that had never been done before, this was the first packaged vinyl to create a feel, it came complete with inserts and a never seen before designed album cover. And, who and why were these pictures of other famous people included on the cover, it just didn’t make sense. The Beatles also included paper cut-outs. Up until then it was logical, here’s the music, here’s the artist. It also contributed to the idea that Paul was dead because of the hand that seems to be coming out of nowhere, it is above Paul’s head; Paul is also wearing a black carnation. So there were elements about the entire album package that gave people a purpose to sit down with it. That is one of the unique features of album cover art and why people have such a bond with albums, because it is something tactile; we put it in our hands and we sat down and looked at it. The Beatles broke all ground and Sgt. Pepper is by far, in the history of album cover art, the most pivotal album cover of all time.”

Now an interesting note for record collectors is that the value of this classic album is directly influenced by whether or not the package includes the aforementioned cut-outs as well as a custom sleeve. Of course, the condition of the vinyl record itself is paramount and is the single most deciding factor when ascertaining the price for, not only this album, but for any vinyl record.

After the Sgt. Pepper album, record labels and the musicians themselves were much more liberal when creating album cover art. They started to market to specific demographics and groups. Graphics were improved and famous artists were also commissioned to add their expertise to the evolving world of album cover art. Bands started to include more lyrics, band pictures and production notes. Many controversial, provocative and famous album covers were produced. Even before Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles were at the forefront with controversial Album Cover Art. The Beatles’ album entitled “Yesterday...& Today” (also known as the infamous “butcher block” album) gained critical attention and controversy.

“The story behind this is that it portrays the Beatles wearing white butcher smocks with various severed baby doll parts. Paul is sitting with a severed head in his lap and the rest of the torso on his shoulder and they mixed this all in with bloody beef ribs,” details Gary. “The reason the Beatles did the Butcher cover was that they were unhappy with what Capitol Records did with their album “Help.” That is the cover where the Beatles’ intent was to spell out “Help” with their outstretched arms and legs contorted to form the H-E-L-P. But when the album cover was released in the states, the executives at Capitol records didn’t get it and they just randomly arranged the Beatles on the cover hence, the Beatles thought the record company “butchered” the Help cover.”

“As soon as it (the Butcher Cover) got over here, it was recalled. I spoke with a record store owner in Los Angles who recently sold a copy of the record, still in shrink wrap, stereo version, along with the original letter from Capitol Records stating that they were recalling the album and for $80,000. Now this is a very rare record because the mono version of the album out numbered the stereo version eight to one and is much more common.”

The album has been out of print for years. It was replaced by the “trunk cover”, a picture of the Fab Four around a large trunk (with Paul McCartney sitting inside the trunk). After the recall, this trunk picture was pasted over the “butcher” picture (incidentally, the pictures of both covers were taken by the same photographer, Robert Whitaker). Now, is there a way to ascertain exactly what kind of cover you have if you happen to own a copy of the Beatles’ “Yesterday...& Today” album? Yes, there is as Gary informs us:

“With the paste over there is a way to know if you have a paste over cover or not. On the right hand side, a couple of inches above the bottom and a couple of inches over (there is a lot of white filler space on this particular cover, it being very plain again was a purposeful comment from the Beatles) there is a black “V”. Ringo was wearing a black turtle-neck on the Butcher Cover, it’s very easy to see the black solid triangle that bleeds through.

As the Beatles’ broadened their cover art vision and creativeness it caused other artists to try and do the same. Some artists went beyond what the US record companies could handle, Jimi Hendrix’s LP “Electric Ladyland”, released only in Europe depicting the upper half of nude women. The album cover was censored in the states, as Gary explains:

“It’s a fold out with a continuous front and back image of topless women, some of which are holding strategically placed copies of the album. That’s (the censorship) typical of corporate American morality, same thing with the Blind Faith album, taking off the bare-chested adolescent girl and replacing her with a picture of the group. As creative of an art form it is, there’s been a history of censorship and a sense of the idea in Album Cover Art”.

“Electric Ladyland” – Euro Release           US Release

Back Side Front Cover My thanks to Gary Freiberg for his time discussing Album Cover Art over the course of several hours and interviews.

Copyright Robert Benson 2008. Author Robert Benson writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates http://www.collectingvinylrecords.com, where you can pick up a copy of his ebook called "The Fascinating Hobby Of Vinyl Record Collecting."


The Future Of Album Cover Art

As we conclude our four-part article series on Album Cover Art, let’s to peer into the future and see what lies ahead for vinyl records and Album Cover Art. Joining us again for our discussion is Vinyl Record Day Founder and vinyl businessman Gary Freiberg (www.RockArtPictureShow.com & www.VinylRecordDay.org).

“The introduction of the compact disc and of course the new required player was nothing new in the history of recording. Ever since Thomas Edison introduced records in 1877 record companies have periodically changed the format of how the recording is listened to,” Freiberg explains. “Edison’s first records were round cylinders that slipped onto a spindle, then records became flat, a disc. Now everyone had to go out and buy the new disc player, the flat record phonograph, and replace their old cylinder records with flat ones that played at the 78 rpm speed. Years went by and Columbia invented a new speed, the 33rpm. Again, consumers had to replace that old 78rpm phonograph and buy new phonographs that played the new 33rpm speed. RCA didn’t like Columbia introducing their new speed so they came out with one of their own, the 45rpm.”

“In fact, Robert Sarnoff, the president of RCA became furious when Columbia offered him the new speed; it was like Apple offering Sony their iPod technology and Sony turning it down. Sarnoff wanted his engineers to come up with something different, hence, the 45rpm, which if you start with 78 and subtract 33 you get 45 and that’s how that came to be.”

Getting back on track Freiberg continues, “The 33rpm and 45rpm were the leaders until 8 track tapes were introduced, and of course the new player to listen to them. Next were the smaller cassette tapes, and yes, a new player to play them.”

A few years later came the compact disc, and again, a new player to hear them.

Optimistically Freiberg says, “Through the digital revolution vinyl has endured because it has something no other format has, personal connection. No other format has the association we attach to vinyl and our personal history. But that doesn’t mean that when all the baby boomers are gone vinyl will disappear? There is resurgence in vinyl, the generation that grew up on CD’s are recognizing the differences between the formats, they appreciate cover art and the difference in sound. For a generation that grew up playing vinyl, CD’s were a big change, for the CD generation it’s vinyl that is a change. I’m very encouraged about the future of the vinyl record not just from a business point but as a vinyl preservationist and historian. It’s important we preserve our audio history, vinyl is the format that has more of it than any other.”

Moreover, does Album Cover Art add a new dimension to the overall listening experience? As we have learned yes it does. It is a tangible, tactile connection, one you don’t really get with a CD or a download. Yes, CD’s have art and lyrics, but in a shrunken format and certainly it is not the same experience that one would get with an elaborate album cover. There are even a number of record companies who are adding images and art work to downloaded material, but it is virtual, not tactile. And there is another vital reason to appreciate vinyl and album cover art.

“Only five percent of vinyl recordings have been transferred to commercial compact disc,” Freiberg states. “Record companies cannot afford to transfer everything onto CD; it’s not economically viable to do that. For example there’s not much demand for radio broadcasts from the forties. Record companies wouldn’t recoup their costs releasing a CD like that; much of our audio history is not commercially viable so it doesn’t get transferred.”

So who then, is responsible for preserving our audio past?

“Consumers,” Freiberg answers without hesitation. “The public are the custodian of our audio history. We are the ones responsible to make sure our record collection and album cover art is cared for so that we can pass on to future generation the voices and sound of years past. Record companies won’t do it, so it’s up to every person who has a record collection to preserve it for the future.”

How do we encourage today’s society to preserve those “old records” containing recordings that will never see the shine of a compact disc? Gary explains why he founded Vinyl Record Day in 2002:

“Vinyl Record Day.org is the only 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization dedicated to the Preservation of the Cultural Influences, Recordings and Album Cover Art of the Vinyl Record. The Internet has been the primary avenue for the public to learn of us and our objectives. To raise funds for education and awareness I created the ‘Mural of Album Cover Art.’ It’s our poster child featuring one hundred different album covers from a forty year period and includes music artists from many genres as well as the album covers of many highly respected graphic artists. The Mural of Album Cover Art is not the definitive representation of album covers or the definitive set of covers. It is a representation of the depiction the art form has of fashion, lifestyles and social values as we evolved from the forties to the nineties. There’s a Narrative Guide that annotates each one of the one hundred covers that explains their place in the history of Album Cover Art.” You can check the mural out at www.VinylRecordDay.org.

Freiberg concludes with a touch of irony, “Now the digital age has come full circle. Trying to add value to downloading music, major players like Apple’s iTunes now include cover art with the individual download. Loaded onto an iPod screen, with this latest innovation, record companies have succeeded in shrinking cover art even further than a CD jewel case. A new innovation, however; there is no substitute, no replacement for the historic Album Cover Art that accompanies the musical format that we are closest to, the vinyl record.”

So with record companies trying to add value to download by including specific art work for the individual download, until they come up with a new innovation, there will be no substitute for the old-fashioned and historic album cover art that accompanies the classic music we adore.

Copyright Robert Benson 2008. Author Robert Benson writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates http://www.collectingvinylrecords.com, where you can pick up a copy of his ebook called "The Fascinating Hobby Of Vinyl Record Collecting."