By Vanessa Daou
Music is the only invisible art, it exists only when we hear it. And because of its intrinsically ephemeral nature, music is the art closest to thought; because we cannot hold it or grasp it or put it in our pockets, the only way we can make music ‘real’ is by bringing it into our tangible, physical, visible world.
Today a new generation of vinyl lovers are in part drawn to a time when not only sound, but meaning and ‘materiality’ mattered; when to hold an album, to touch it, was to connect with it directly, feel it more completely. In good times and bad, in times of peace and war, we came to know our favorite musicians as much through the music they made as the album covers that made them famous. Mixed with the residue of our lives, the album cover served as the artifact of one’s experience of the music.
An icon is, by definition a “likeness, image, or portrait.” When we refer to an artist an “Icon”, what is built into that description is the achievement of supra-symbol, of meta-self: the artist’s Holy Grail. This can only be represented in a photograph, as it is the closest we can get to pure reflection of body, soul, spirit and embodiment of one’s ‘selfhood’. Additionally, a photograph, unlike a painting or sculpture, can be reproduced. Its portability makes it the perfect vehicle for transference and message-making.
A photograph achieves iconography when universal principles within its frame align, as if by some impossible, improbable magic: there is an irrefutability about it; Elvis, frozen forever on his debut album, is every young man who has ever dreamed or has ever found ecstatic release; Hendrix, bathed in a reddish-gold fiery light, emanates a devilish desire which we have all, at some point, embraced; Coltrane, bathed in that forever kind of blue which has washed over each of us at one time or another in our lives; Debbie Harry, stone still, with her limpid stare, defining a brazen new feminine cool.
Photography is as much about ‘capturing’ a fleeting moment as it is about stopping time; it is a duality that resides within each frame of every photograph ever taken. This juxtaposition creates an inner tension, inner forces that cannot be pulled apart. Every photograph is, fundamentally, a time-capsule; the instant any photograph is taken, it is evidence, ‘proof’ of the subject’s existence, of time’s inexorable march, and our desire to stop and ‘fix’ it. While music is temporal and moves through time, Photography is the art that comes closest to stillness. Once the music stops playing, photographs are what we have left.
— Vanessa Daou, July, 2015
I asked a few friends to choose an album cover which they consider ‘Iconic’, and write a few words about why……
Grace Jones — Island Life, 1985
This image has always fascinated me and when I found out the back story behind it, I was even more intrigued. Grace Jones has always had eclectic and artistic album covers, but this one from her 1985 release “Island Life” featured her in an Arabesque pose, a ballet move that few can maneuver. And while it’s believable that Jones could pull this pose off, the real story was that the image was actually an illusion – a montage of images and body parts taken from several pictures of her by Jean Paul Goude, and fused together. It was photo shopping before it was invented. Either way, it’s a slick photo that captures Grace Jones’ whole sexed out artistic aesthetic which added an even deeper dimension to her music sensibilities.
Grace Jones — Nightclubbing, 1981
This 1981 critically acclaimed classic was La Jones’ 5th album and is equally one of her most beloved and commercially successful. The second album of her Compass Point Studio recorded Trilogy with producers Alex Sadkin and Island Records owner Chris Blackwell, featured a stellar song selection from such disparate tune-smiths as Marianne Faithfull, David Bowie, Flash and The Pan, Sting, Iggy Pop, Bill Withers, Barry Reynolds and Astor Piazzolla. All befitting of and providing a stellar showcase for Jones’ sultry lilt and inimitable vocal stylings.
Wrapped cozily amidst the tropical haze of one of the sharpest studio bands ever assembled anchored by the dynamic Jamaican rhythm section of Sly & Robbie, “Nightclubbing” remains a unique and noteworthy amalgam of reggae, pop, new wave, cabaret and soul. If that wasn’t enough, the benchmark sonics were accompanied by what would become iconic, gender bending Jean Paul Goude cover art! This visionary release had the nerve to arrive shrink-wrapped sporting a steel-eyed, blue/black Jones working a tight military flat top and crisp Armani jacket. Feeling like a woman, looking like a man, indeed. “Nightclubbing” was a stellar 5-star rebel yell from the infamous chanteuse.
The Rolling Stones — Some Girls, 1978
I love the appropriation by album designer Peter Corriston, who used a “found” advertising sheet from Valmor, a Chicago based African American hair, perfume and body cream company whose story is as crazy and interesting as this cover.
The cover for Some Girls had die cut holes revealing garish faces, not just of the band (in drag) but celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Racquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett, and others. The cover mocked celebrity with kitsch and, unfortunately, within days of its release, The Stones were sued. Most of the stars portrayed were none too happy about the unflattering way their image was represented. This first album was recalled, and most of them destroyed.
Subsequent similar covers were released over the next two years with revised covers. It didn’t seem to matter. Some Girls was the #5 top selling album of all time by the band.
Kate Bush — The Dreaming, 1982
The Dreaming spins tales inspired by the plight of aborigines in Australia (“The Dreaming”), bank robbers (“There Goes a Tenner”), existential angst (“Sat in Your Lap”) and the demonic, screaming finale of Stephen King’s The Shining (“Get Out of My House”). The album cover, photographed by Kate’s brother, John Carder Bush, features another one of the stories told on the album, in this case “Houdini.” Kate is cast as Harry Houdini’s wife, Bess, about to surreptitiously pass a small key via kiss to her magician husband so he can free himself from his bonds. The gleaming gold key and Kate’s eye make stand in high contrast to the sepiahue of the rest of the photograph. Her sideeyed gaze – at once secretive, sensual and fearful – hauntingly captured the mood of this boundarybreaking album. Sphere will publish Kate, a book of photographs by John Carder Bush taken during The Dreaming and Hounds of Love era, this autumn.
Find out more at www.katebook.co.uk.
Julie London — Julie London is her name, 1955
David Bowie — Low, 1977
The Julie London cover was the first record cover I encountered as a child, that I felt was intensely seductive, beyond alluring. Her voice perfectly complemented the sultry impliednude cover. The album cover for “Low” by David Bowie strikes me as a masterpiece; an unforgettable, timeless image, both extraordinary and iconic: a fashion image, and simultaneously a glamorous alternative portrait.
PJ Harvey — 4Track Demos, 1993
I had listened to PJ Harvey Rid of Me while in the passenger seat of my friend Stephanie’s car. Her sound, sentiment, and sexuality were nothing like I heard before. In December of 1993, I bought 4Track Demos. I was able to spend more time with the album, listening to 8 demos from Rid of Me and 6 songs I had never heard.
Harvey ushered in a new style of music for me but also a new esthetic. I studied the 4Track Demos’ cover artwork. I had never seen anything like it. Shot by Maria Mochnacz, it has Harvey in blowout yellowed lighting wearing sunglasses, bright lipstick, a black lace bra and underwear, with a camera and its phallic lens at her crotch. She has visible underarm hair. This was only the second album cover I had seen to reveal such a thing.
This was a sharp contrast to Patti Smith’s Easter where her gaze is lowered, demure, unconfrontational. In 4Track Demos Harvey smirks at the camera, confrontational, her hip pushed to the side and a hand behind her head. The background furniture is generic and the red light on the telephone clearly signifies it to be a hotel room. I couldn’t fully create a narrative for such an image, but staring at it, I felt something. It is an image that could illicit humor or a hardon. The image gave a face and body to the intimate, raw vocals.
This was released after Harvey’s breakout album. The back cover has Harvey mummified in clear cellophane. I later read Mochnacz’s words, “I suggested Polly is like a product, so we wrapped her up like one.” At the time, I thought she was packaged like meat, a piece of meat, a prime slab. I saw it as playfully making fun of those who objective her and sexuality she sang of.
Elvis Costello — This Year’s Model, 1978
I was an angry 15 year old. He was an angry Punk. He looks annoyed on the cover, and my parents told me years later, that I never once smiled when I was 15. Also, I’m a Dealer of Vernacular Photography, and methinks that the camera in the photo may be a little bit of foreshadowing of my future career….
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS:
CHRIS CAMPBELL: Writer, Music Historian, Host of The Progressive Underground w/ Chris Campbell, serves up a creative and ethereal mix of electronica, b-sides and rare grooves every Sunday night from 8 p.m. - 11 p.m. on WDET 101.9FM.
BILL COLEMAN: Throughout his impressive 20year career in the music industry, the dynamic and multifaceted DJ, producer, remixer, music supervisor and recording artist has become renowned for his eclectic taste, acute ear and diverse musical expertise. In the worlds of music and film, Coleman is an influential tastemaker at the forefront of emerging trends and talent in the pop, r&b, rock, alternative, dance and electronic music landscape, as well as, in cutting edge independent film and documentaries. — Peace Bisquit
JOHN FOSTER: Independent curator, writer, scholar, artist, collector, and columnist for Design Observer. John is known around the world as one of the premier collectors of vernacular and self-taught art. His collection of anonymous, found snapshots has toured the country for over ten years and has been reviewed and featured in Harper’s Magazine, Newsweek, Phaidon, SF Gate, The Village Voice and many others. In 2005, Art & Antiques magazine named Foster one of the “Top 100 Collectors” in the United States. John is a founder and past president of ENVISION Folk Art of Missouri, where he also served as editor of the Journal that he produced for ten years. John serves on the Board of Trustees for SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments) which is based in Aptos, California. Additionally, John is a member of the Advisory Board of The Folk Art Society of America. — Accidental Mysteries
COLLIN KELLEY: Poet, Novelist, and Editor. Collin Kelley is the author of the The Venus Trilogy of novels – Conquering Venus, Remain In Light and the forthcoming Leaving Paris – published by Sibling Rivalry Press. Remain In Light was the runner up for the 2013 Georgia Author of the Year Award in Fiction and a 2012 finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction. His poetry collections include Better To Travel (2003, iUniverse), Slow To Burn (2006, MetroMania Press), After the Poison (2008, Finishing Line Press) and Render (2013, Sibling Rivalry Press), chosen by the American Library Association for its 2014 Over the Rainbow Book List. Kelley is also the author of the short story collection, Kiss Shot (2012, Amazon Kindle Exclusive). A recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year Award, Deep South Festival of Writers Award and Goodreads Poetry Award, Kelley’s poetry, reviews, essays and interviews have appeared in magazines, journals and anthologies around the world. — Modern Confessional
GEORGE PITTS: An award winning Photographer, Photography Director, Painter, and Essayist and a renowned Educator, George Pitts’ work spans the fine art, commercial, and fashion worlds. Pitts has been a Parsons faculty member since 1998. In addition to teaching at Parsons, Pitts has held a number of prominent positions, including director of photography at Vibe magazine, where he received three National Magazine Award nominations for Best Photography. Of his work at Vibe VIBE he says, “It was an important job because it brought unprecedented visibility to my contributions as a photo editor. We endeavored to bring sophisticated and authentic visual approaches to the documentation of African American culture that would also have broad appeal for all Americans and readers throughout the world.” — The New School, Parsons, Director of Photographic Practices
STEVEN REIGNS: Steven Reigns is West Hollywood’s First City Poet. He has also been honored in the past for his workshops with a few grants awarded by Poets & Writers Magazine. Reigns has been teaching poetry workshops since 2001 and has also led many writing workshops for people with HIV. After years of teaching poetry and community service in the literary arts, Reigns is eager to begin his two year term as Weho’s City Poet. Terry Wolverton, founder of Writers at Work and one of the most active Angeleno poets of the last four decades, says, “Steven is a great person to be the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. He’s not only concentrated on his own poetry, but has provided insightful instruction in the community and, in doing so, has changed people’s lives.” Read more
STACY WALDMAN: Stacy Waldman is a collector and dealer of vintage and contemporary photos, vernacular snapshots to daguerreotypes, and ephemera. You can find her wares on ebay and Facebook @ House of Mirth. She also sets up at several different shows throughout the year.
VANESSA DAOU is known internationally for her signature breathy vocal style. TIME Magazine writes: “Vanessa Daou’s Jazz and Pop make an exhilarating mix. Daou’s mesmerizing, Billie Holiday-like vocals, strike an exquisite balance between pop and jazz by weaving together the strengths of both styles.” On each of her albums, she has explored her musical influences & mixed them into her own unique hybrid brew of Jazz, Blues, Rock, Folk & Electronica. She has released 7 albums, both as a major label and independent artist – including ZIPLESS, her definitive 1994 breakthrough debut and collaboration with lauded writer and poet ERICA JONG. DAOU has toured with JAZZMATAZZ/GURU, ZIGGY MARLEY, JAMIROQUAI and Parisian pop icon ETIENNE DAHO, and has been featured in TIME, The New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure, Billboard, URB, WIRE, ELLE France, La Liberation, Vogue Homme, Le Monde, The Toronto Star, Il Globo, Pop Matters, SLANT, NERVE, The New York Post, Page Six, and many others.