Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Andy Warhol - The Record Covers 1949-1987

About six years ago I first visited the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh’s North Side and was surprised by just how much I truly enjoyed it. I’m not quite sure why I really never had a desire to visit the museum, which opened in 1994, about seven years after Warhol died in 1987. Mostly, I was never previously a big fan of Warhol’s work – which will disappoint my artistically inclined niece, Errin, who is an ardent fan of Andy Warhol’s multi-varied and undeniable talents.

Some of it I liked, of course, but not enough to care much about it one way or the other. Not knowing much about Warhol either, I was surprised there was even enough to fill up a seven-story building devoted exclusively to one artist (I knew the location well…as it was formerly the spot where Volkwein Music was located, a great place for anybody who played musical instruments in Pittsburgh as I did growing up).

Despite all the fascinating and wonderful discoveries I made about Andy Warhol and the wide range of art and media that he was involved in at the museum, I distinctly recalled my disappointment at the lack of focus on Warhol’s album covers. Sure, they sold a few of the CDs in the gift shop (Paul Anka, Velvet Underground, Rolling Stones). But that seemed wrong to me. It’s like selling prints of paintings that aren’t even in the museum.

For someone whose life is centered around music as much as mine, I probably knew far more about Andy Warhol from his record covers (the banana, the zipper, etc.) than either his acknowledged masterworks (the Campbell’s soup can, Mao, Marilyn) or film work (even though, like most people, I knew the Paul Morrissey films credited to Andy Warhol rather than the actual films like Sleep, Empire or the brilliant Blow Job - until I studied avant-garde film later on).

One album cover in particular, Querelle, the soundtrack to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film, has always been a favorite of mine and something that I think – knowing a little more now than I did then – ranks among the very best in Warhol’s more erotically-charged work.

After discovering a Warhol-designed album for Paul Anka in 1996, Paul Maréchal, a professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, began a quest to discover all of the record covers Warhol had created or had some part in. Sharing his obsession and his collection of fifty-some records with a curator of the Andy Warhol Museum, a major exhibition, Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol’s Work, was fashioned and two ridiculously over-priced books resulted, Warhol Live and this one, Andy Warhol - The Record Covers 1949-1987.

This book of record covers, appropriately sized like the old 12 x 12 album covers of yore, is a magnificently illustrated and annotated text that focuses on the 51 album covers Warhol is known to have participated in some way (a few covers like The Smiths’ first record and Debbie Harry’s Rockbird are marginally Warhol at best).

Covering a wide range of musical styles from classical to jazz and then rock to pop, the 241-page book catalogs all of Warhol’s album work, from 1949’s A Program Of Mexican Music (Columbia) to 1987’s MTV High Priority. The text makes it clear that the ever-prescient Warhol recognized that album covers provided exceptionally wide distribution and his art could be enjoyed, appreciated – and ultimately, purchased – by more people than would ever visit some small gallery in NYC to see a small week-long show. And, as the text makes clear, no other significant artist of the Twentieth Century who ever dabbled in album cover art (Albers, Max, Haring, Basquiat, Rauschenberg, etc.) did as much in the too-little celebrated commercial enterprise known as album cover art as Warhol did.

The book goes into some rather interesting detail about the origins of album cover art and how consumers could, would and did judge a record by its cover and, in doing so, achieved the goal the (mostly major) record companies set in the first place: a record sells not for the music but because of the cover. Appreciation of the music could and sometimes did come later. Graphic design helped launch the LP into the success it was for some three decades starting in the early fifties and often contributed more to sales than radio airplay or just plain old good music. By the time the compact disc was introduced in the early eighties, album cover artwork became almost meaningless as the medium’s size was so small as to present a playing card version of the original. Now with music downloads and streaming music, artwork isn’t even a consideration anymore – which is a sad loss to music, something which seems to take away a complete dimension of the excitement and satisfaction that comes with buying music – especially given so much of the marginal garbage that comes out these days. Face it, very few record labels even bother putting much thought into good graphic design for their music these days. Surely, no one in this day and age would pay a great artist like Andy Warhol to do a cover for their record. It wouldn’t be worth anybody’s time or money now.

Still, what a pleasure it is to revisit the old days and review the diverse covers Warhol provided to the twelve-inch record medium. The book’s highlights are many and surely include Warhol’s better-known album covers, such as Kenny Burrell’s Blue Lights (Blue Note, 1958), The Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve, 1967), The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones, 1971), Paul Anka’s The Painter (UA, 1976), The Rolling Stones’ Love You Live, Diana Ross’ Silk Electric (RCA, 1982), Billy Squier’s Emotions in Motion (Capitol, 1982), Aretha Franklin’s Aretha (Arista, 1986) and the excellent cover for the post-mortem John Lennon album Menlove Ave. (Capitol, 1986).

But Warhol’s lesser-known covers are particularly entrancing, taking on a life that few would even guess had they ever stumbled upon these rarities in some obscure used-record bin.

Maréchal has done a superb job finding some very obscure covers – many for classical labels in the fifties and a few small, independent labels in the sixties (when Warhol was concentrating more on film). These lovely surprises include Arturo Toscanini’s William Tell Overture (RCA Victor, 1954), Count Basie (RCA, 1955), 4 Divertimenti (Epic, 1956), Cool Gabriels (Groove, 1956), the perfect pop art of the ultra-rare Giant Size $1.57 Each (1963) and Miguel Bose’s Made In Spain (CBS, 1983) and Milano-Madrid (CBS, 1983).

Much of the commentary provided for each album cover is sufficiently illuminating and reveals a good deal about Warhol’s thought process and methodology. Maréchal expertly shows original photos and drawings that Warhol used to craft his images and shows how (and sometimes why) he specifically chose parts of an image to illustrate (for example, the orchestra pit of Degas’s “The Orchestra at the Opera” painting for 4 Divertimenti) or exaggerate or his commendable technique for avoiding the obvious (i.e., showing cornett players from an “eighteenth-century illumination from the Vespasian Psalter in which King David is surrounded by an orchestra” for an album led by three trombonists, Trombone By Three).

Maréchal commendably takes the concept of the album cover book one step further by additionally showing all of the album’s back covers and, where applicable, the inner sleeves of gatefold records. This gives the book a true sense of having the whole work of art, not just one part of it. Additionally, Maréchal unravels several myths surrounding several of the covers, including just whose nicely packaged mid-section is seen on Sticky Fingers (no one knows and it’s probably not Joe Dallesandro) and how Warhol felt Mick Jagger’s typography ruined the cover of Love You Live. It’s especially interesting to note that Warhol’s beautiful cover for the soundtrack album of Querelle - which was reproduced in several different colors at the film director’s request for the film’s posters – is more faithful to source writer Jean Genet’s novel than to Fassbinder’s movie (the film inexplicably replaces the man’s tongue with his hand).

There are only two criticisms that could be leveled at this very welcome coffee-table tome. One is the “interactive” nature of Warhol’s two most famous album covers is completely missing here. You could peel the banana on the original LP issue of The Velvet Underground and Nico and you could pull down an actual zipper (yes!) on the original issue of Sticky Fingers. Both of these ultra-rare originals now fetch big bucks and were never repeated on their many LP and CD issues over the years. But, fortunately, Maréchal shows and describes how the originals were intended to be presented by the artist.

Finally, the $75 list price of the book is excessive in the extreme. To be sure, Catalogue Raisonné has crafted a beautifully bound hardback book on some very nice stock. But they could have gotten their bang for the buck at $50 just as easily and not only would they have sold a heck of a lot more of these things – but more people might actually know about the book – which came out a full year before I ever found about it.

Otherwise, Andy Warhol - The Record Covers 1949-1987 is a knockout and highly recommended – a grand piece to brighten any graphic-design lover’s collection and a perfectly poetic look at a neglected facet of a rather overly-celebrated – yet great – artist.

(For the record, I am glad to say that I bought this book about one mile from where Andy Warhol is buried in Pittsburgh.)


jp said...

I seem to remember seeing somewhere that Warhol created a couple of covers for Johnny Griffen releases in the mid to late fifties? Do you know anything about that? I love your blog and other related sites btw!

Douglas Payne said...

Warhol did Johnny Griffin's "The Congregation" (Blue Note, 1957), cover number 21 in the book, the one with the flowery shirt.