An Introduction

I first became interested in 4AD, a UK independent record label founded in 1980, towards the end of the '80's. I was falling in love with the music of Dead Can Dance, Clan of Xymox, Pixies, Bauhaus and The Birthday Party and was surprised when the 4AD label sampler "Lonely Is An Eyesore" came out in 1987 that all these bands were from the same label.

After visiting a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of some American's collection of art, I came to thinking of all this musical art that 4AD have released that may one day drift into obscurity unless someone shows it as art. So now I'm on a crusade, to collect the first ten years of 4AD's releases and exhibit the collection on 4AD's 50th anniversary in 2030. This is a big task which will have some interesting twists and turns along the way.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Top Ten 4AD Covers, What's Yours?

A reader got in touch with me recently and asked me to do a feature on my top 4AD cover designs (Thanks Ar Ti).

The late seventies and early eighties independent music labels became renowned for their artwork. Of course 4AD, along with Factory, became synonymous for a label identity created through their cover art. All art is so very subjective. I did a blog entry on my favourite 4AD albums, but I'm sure there were many people that scratched their heads wondering why I picked what I did. I think visual art is even more subjective and opinion seemingly more open to ridicule. Nevertheless, I know what I like and why. My opinion has been asked for so I shall give it.

It is my opinion though which tends to cause some arguments. I have always had an issue between the lines of art and function or art and business. The past couple of decades have seen very clever people in business using clever strategy to sell something as art, that basically isn't art at all. Many of us are drawn to limited numbers, a special opportunity to experience something that only the appreciative will get to experience, but marketing anything as limited doesn't make it an instant collectible. Limited edition Mars bar anyone? In a similar way, just because something is marketed as art, doesn't make it art in my opinion. Designers are the problem. That half way house where an artist uses their talent to spruce up a functional item. While I respect the talent, I think many of these examples are simply not art. If a ceramic artist creates a cup, it's still a cup, no matter how talented the artist is. Selling it as a piece of art is just marketing. A cup is not made to represent any kind of emotional state or to represent the feelings or despair of its maker, it's simply to drink out of. A car is a functional item and, while it is nice to drive a nice looking car, it's not a work of art. Instead it is an object that has had the food budget of a third world country spent on it just to get potential buyers to go weak at the knees at the sight of it rolling around the streets of an eerily deserted city road.

The music industry is where sonic art meets visual art and a greater clash between representation and pure marketing uncomfortably meet. There's a blurred line between music made purely for commerce, cleverly marketed and packaged as the "real deal" against music made by artists that primarily make music to express themselves. My opinion is that designers for labels such as Factory and 4AD, although true artists, inadvertently helped blur the lines between function and art. For me album design is just on the right side of art, like a beautiful piece of painting on the side of a cup. The cup isn't neccasirly art, but the painting is. It doesn't matter how much artistic talent a designer has, if their work is poured into a functional item, for me the item doesn't become art.

But then I am an over opinionated walrus!!!

I've always loved the visual side of collecting music. I was always in awe of Roger Dean's designs in the seventies of strange other worlds on his Yes album covers. There was nothing better than sitting listening to Budgie's Never Turn Your Back On A Friend while studying the gorgeous full colour gatefold sleeve

I always thought that the Cocteau Twins cover design for Love's Easy Tears was very similar to Pink Floyd's Meddle

Anyway, onto my top ten 4AD covers, in no particular order, let's get on with it...

1 - Birthday Party - Junkyard

You may think that I would completely bow down to 23 Envelope but thats not true. I don't care for popular opinion or trend of thought. Just because I love much of what 4AD produced, there is no rulebook that says I have to be elitist in my personal taste.

This picture was created by an artist called Ed Roth who was a custom car designer and builder who put his talents into cartoons and illustrations. His character Rat Fink (with the gun) was a sort of alternative Mickey Mouse. I think that this cartoon represents the music perfectly, tight and structured while on the verge of chaos and both simultanious implosion and explosion.

2 - Dead Can Dance - Aion poster

Not the actual cover, but the UK tour poster. I like the actual cover of the album itself which is a very small part of the Garden Of Earthy Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. The poster covers the tour around the UK for the Aion album, a tour I had a chance to witness but regrettably I didn't go to. The tour poster is probably my favourite peice of 4AD artwork and looks fantastic framed and displayed. The quality of the colour and print is remarkable and must have cost a sweet sum to have had printed. If you ever get a chance to purchase this, you won't be disappointed. Of course the album is amazing too and featured in my Top 10 4AD Albums list (in fact, a lot do, so am I biased towards the sleeve design).

3 - Dead Can Dance - Within The Realm of a Dying Sun

This cover always reminds me of Joy Division's Closer album cover in a small way. It's a step between life and death as the figure almost looks like an actual person cloaked and not an actual statue in a graveyard. The cover's photograph was taken in Paris, at the Père-Lachaise cemetery. It features the grave of the politician Raspail. Can you get more gothic than this and could the music be anymore gothic as well. Another fine example of the cover reflecting the mood of the music therein.

4 - Colourbox - Baby I love You So

I'm a sucker for reds. I know nothing about the images on this release, I just love the feel of the image. Very velvety. Let's hope that somewhere out there, there exists a poster for this. For me the font and text are irrelevant. "Sacriledge!" I hear you scream, but this is where function has to be performed for me. This would be even better without the text, yet maybe the 45 in the centre I would let stay. Don't get me wrong, the choice and style of font and the presentation of text is amazing, but it is functional in my opinion and would be better without it. But needs must as the devil grinds the marketing wheel. Still an amazing cover though

5 - Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares - Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares

Used for the background of this blog. Reminds me of a drowned former glamourous life like a memory on a sea floor of some luxury liner. I wouldn't say the music is as atmospheric as the cover suggests, perhaps one small example of where the cover doesn't always accurately reflect the music within. I love the music on this album, but Bulgarian folk music can be quite harsh and beautiful at the same time, something not really reflected here. Still as a piece of artwork stood alone, it's a magical piece of photography.

6 - Pixies - Doolittle

The original UK release of Doolittle came as such a great package. A plastic bag with the cover printed on it, a full colour 12" 16 page booklet and an inner sleeve. Also 4AD sold a set of postcards with the artwork from the booklet. This is a full art set, an amazing collection of photography reflecting the songs of the album. The graphical element added to the overall look of the artwork and fits the metronomic feel of the songs. The images fit so well with the music on the album, even if the cover is overtly obvious with it's interpretation of the song Monkey Gone To Heaven, the artworks only negative reflection.

7- Coctea Twins - Treasure

Maybe it's because V23 liked to reflect the music in their covers that I like a lot of the covers for Cocteau Twins releases. I like the music and the covers reflect the music, so it should go that I like the covers as well.

This cover for me is very gothic. Hints of the Victorian and a melancholic wedding. The use of material gives you a reminder to your senses of something that you have have touched before and felt in your fingers, material that feels soft to the skin but coarse between a finger and thumb. Eerie and beautiful, it looks almost derelict, decaying. Incredible gothic beauty

8 - Cocteau Twins - The Spangle Maker

Victiorialand would be included in my top ten except for the beige surround which ruins the cover. But The Spangle Maker is a beautiful piece of work.

The original UK release came with an embossed sleeve where the frame was slightly raised around the photograph by Gertrude Käsebier called The Crystal Gazer. Once again that Victorian feel blends with the gothic feel of the music and the blurred, distorted edges reflect the wash of effects used on the Cocteau Twins signature guitar sound. There are no fonts and text needed here. The tour poster is quite an incredible piece as well.

9- Cocteau Twins - Head over heels & Sunburst and Snowblind

Head Over Heels along with Sunburst and Snowblind is just the most brilliant photography. Nigel Grierson did some of the most unusual things to get shots like these. The high quality and sharpness in the variation of colour is just breathtaking. The photos encourage you to not only look deep into the detail and the range of colour, but to look more closely at the every day beauty around us all in the seemingly randomness of patterns in nature, things you wouldn't normally look at closely. A set of posters from these photography sessions looks incredible framed and mounted. I know as I have them in my hallway.

10 - Lush - Scar

The reason I have included the rear sleeve here is because the whole cover (even inside the outer sleeve) is a collective work of art. Once again it reflects the harsh and soft combination of the music. If this is shoegaze, those are some interesting footwear. This was released in an era when computer generated graphics were all the rage and years on look really tacky. But here Vaughan Oliver and Christopher Bigg have resisted the trend and produced something much more timeless.

All comments are welcome, remember these are just my personal choices and opinion, which I have a right to, even if you think my opinion is total tosh. Would love to hear your preferences....