Why does the devil have all the good tunes?
Published in: ‘Prints of Darkness’ (Edinburgh Printmakers, 2010); Pallant House Magazine (Issue no.27, 2012); Scottish Society for Art History (no.36, 2011); Printmaking Today (Vol.19, no.2, 2010); & labels (University of Dundee, 2010)
The record cover has for decades been an artform in its own right, embodying a discrete genre of visual art with a bewildering range of sub-genres and micro-histories. As a mass-produced commodity, the LP record has a unique relationship with its packaging. Compared to the packaging design of other commodities, the images on record covers are unusually free from constraints imposed by their contents. Often they have no tangible connection with the music on the record. Book covers are an obvious comparison, yet they are largely restricted to attempts at a visual interpretation of some aspect of the text, and it is impossible to look at a book’s cover whilst reading the text. Have you ever bought a book purely for its cover?
The objectification and commodification of sound in the form of the record reterritorialised music for the first time beyond the event or performance. This resulted in an unforeseen democratisation and domestication of music. It was now possible to listen to your chosen music alone, with the use of headphones further increasing the listener’s seclusion. This was a radical transformation in the way music was consumed.
The experience of looking at images whilst listening to music is very different from reading whilst listening to music. When reading, it is impossible to listen to music beyond a certain level of attentiveness - it becomes impossible to read, unless you’re reading the words to the song. Alongside its obvious function as a protective covering for the record, the record cover provides something for the listener to look at whilst listening. The artwork is often scrutinised for a lot longer than most art is viewed in museums or art galleries. Lengthier double albums are housed in spacious gatefold sleeves, doubling the available picture space.
The survival of the record as a musical commodity is due in part to its strong visual presence as an object or artefact. The visual aspect of other, newer formats has shrunk beyond the diminished field of the CD to the intangibilities of downloadable digital formats. Records are now usually pressed as high quality limited editions, reflecting their limited market and also their collectability. This reduced market for vinyl has encouraged greater creativity in cover design. The recent growth of handmade covers using traditional printmaking methods such as screenprinting, lithography, or etching, produced as numbered, signed editions, is the result of this market change. Significantly, it also emphasises the role visual art plays in the creation of records. As musical styles and genres continue to diversify, their visual identities become more distinctive. References to earlier record cover art or styles are common, drawing on well-established traditions of record cover design. Some releases feature only one playable side, the other displaying a pattern or image etched into the actual vinyl. The vinyl may be multicoloured, glittery, marbled, splattered, or they may be released in picture-disc form. They might be presented in a gimmicky box, or in some kind of unusual material. These modifications increase the ‘aura’ of a particular record. Older first-pressings or rare editions can have the aura of a religious relic or magical object, as can a worn, scratched, torn-sleeved martyr of a record. Record wrecker.
The Golden Age of the record cover began in the late sixties when music was proliferating itself in new and diverse forms. In its heyday, the power of the record and its cover was greater than the sum of its parts. As the psychedelic generation were taking drugs to make music to take drugs to, their wide-open eyes and ears demanded more from records and their covers than earlier generations had. A rediscovery of shamanic technologies of spirit fused with pioneering musical technologies sonically cleansed the doors of perception, in Blake’s words ‘displaying the infinite which was hid’. A record could be a sonic map to guide you through the challenging terrain of your trip, providing ‘set and setting’ in Leary’s terms. The rediscovery of psychedelics resulted in a new ‘spirituality’ based on gnosis, direct contact with ‘the divine’ and a radical re-appraisal of the relationship between mind and matter. Preoccupied with consciousness and apocalypse, psychedelia begat a new type of music whose epic scope burst the seams of the three-minute pop-song and even the LP, sprawling its aching body across double or triple vinyl albums. Unearthly, hypnotic sonic forms mirrored the bewildering Lovecraftian nonlinearities of the psychedelic experience, shrouded in a mesmer of dreamscapes and otherworlds.
As the music increasingly betrayed an irreverent, anti-rationalist attitude, record covers incorporated Dadaist imagery fused with macabre deathcult weirdness. By the time psychedelia had morphed into prog-rock, record covers had defined their own aesthetic sub-genre rooted in a re-appropriation of the romantic sublime viewed through the distorting windows of symbolism, art nouveau, surrealism, and psychedelia. More ‘healthily regressive’ than ‘progressive’, a knowing outsider naïveté pervades the genre, flourishing unhindered outside the heavily guarded walls of ‘the art world’.
Record cover art of this period attempted to visualise the same complex multidimensional field as the music, feeding on a unique combination of sources; a collision of ancient mythologies with space-age science-fictions; of eastern mysticism with gothic horror. The expanded canvas of the gatefold sleeve made space for vaster panoramas, providing the covergazer with everything he needed for a good night in.
This was music for a new religion, with the record player as domestic shrine. The private nocturnal consumption of these records assumed a devotional, even sacramental aspect. Psychedelia’s links with shamanism are well documented. The shaman invariably uses sounds and symbolic images to help him navigate his ecstatic flight through the otherworld. All religions have their symbols, altars, shrines, icons, and mandalas, combining still images with music to facilitate the devotee’s passage from the worldly light of the image to the unworldly light of divine vision. Featuring the same symbiotic conjunction of music and image, the record was a portable idol, the worship of which afforded illicit glimpses of otherworlds and forbidden gods. Prog-gnosis.
The establishment was suspicious of any religious activity not sanctioned by the state, habitually abandoning it to the devil’s darkness beyond the city walls.
This particular notion of ‘darkness’ represents the negation of holiness and truth in conventional religion; the shadowed flip-side of spiritual illumination: ‘men loved the darkness, for their deeds were evil’.
In the reversed polarities of the counterculture, this darkness assumed a positive role, fervent with neither-neither energies. The young black magicians of these new sonic temples were mere conduits for higher currents, unwitting instruments of darkness, sorceror’s apprentices with psychic fuses blown by mega-voltage dark god action.
The older generation feared the power of this atavistic resurgence. Bewildered parents and outraged churchmen’s hysterical reactions in the press and in cautionary books ironically increased the devilish seduction of these records. In a leap of faith far greater than the musicians were prepared to take, they accepted that these unsanctioned deities were for real. Hidden satanic messages lurked in certain records’ shadowed spiral valleys, waiting to ensnare the listener’s soul. In true black magick style, backwards messages on records tempted the listener to spin the record in an anti-clockwise direction: moving widdershins to hear the devil speak. These whirling sonic tornadoes were portals to hell, suicide-inducing vortices of unholy din. Hysterical warnings and accusations only served to magnify the dark aura that the records gathered around themselves, enhancing the eldritch witchery of these black spinning wheels. However, with the odd exception, the occult references in the music were more likely to have come from watching Hammer Horror films and reading back issues of Weird Tales than from any serious attempts to invoke the Prince of Darkness.
The ‘dark psychedelic’ imagery of the early ‘seventies united such apparently disparate contemporaries as Black Sabbath and Miles Davis. Compare, for instance, the cover of Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath with that of Miles Davis’ Live Evil. It’s hippy goddess imagery, but more Kali than Sophia. Miles Davis was popularly known as The Prince of Darkness, as was Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy appears to take this moniker seriously, as he demonstrated in an episode of The Osbourne’s, where he is informed that one of his forthcoming stage shows would feature bubbles instead of the usual smoke, bursting his bubble:
‘Bubbles? F***ing bubbles?!!!... I’m fucking Ozzy Osbourne, the Prince of fucking Darkness! Evil... evil... What’s fucking evil about a load of fucking bubbles?'
The pseudodemonia spread through the popular musical world like black wild fire, infecting pretty much every genre. A darkwave of dark folk inhabiting a dark house of black metal in dark ambient fields. ‘Dark’ has become a tagword for a particular well-mapped sound that thrives on dissonance, abrasion and minor-key desolation. This kind of music invokes a peculiar thrill in the listener, a kind of beauty that is a negation of the conventionally beautiful, illumination through darkness. To the romantics of two centuries ago, such disharmonic paradoxes characterised the new aesthetic of the sublime. Negations such as darkness, obscurity and solitude produced a new kind of aesthetic kick. In this sense, ‘dark’ music today thrives on the sublime in the same way that horror films or mountaineering do, producing a kind of exhilerated terror.
The consumption of the record and its cover as a totality embodies a unique interplay between sound and image. If we consider that pictures are not time-based, whereas music is, we might ask how space-bound record cover imagery affects our time-bound listening experience?
At best, the relationship is a symbiotic one of mutual enhancement, opening eyes and ears beyond sense. The record sleeve is the still light of eternity and the record’s music is the dynamic darkness of time. A cover without its record or a record without its cover is a lover without its beloved.