Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Beatles' album covers, from worst to best

As I did with album names, I've now done with album covers. And like last time, my focus is only on the core catalog (British releases plus Magical Mystery Tour.) The "Butcher Cover" is nowhere to be found here.
. . .
13) Yellow Submarine – Like the name of the album, it's dated psychedelia. The sundry colors and shapes are all too much. Minor kudos for the "NOTHING IS REAL" detail, which appears right below the title on the UK release.
12) Magical Mystery Tour – Silly psychedelia once again, though I admire its unabashed oddity. I'm also a sucker for "Paul is dead" clues (as ridiculous as they are), in this case Macca's costume. As John revealed on "Glass Onion," Paul was the walrus – an animal that apparently represented death in various ancient cultures.
11) The Beatles – Is it conceptual art hokum or inspired simplicity? Is it too clever by half or a sly way of implying that no visual representation could do justice to "The White Album," a kaleidoscopic, everything-under-the-sun grab-bag? I oscillate between both views, with neither holding a stronger claim than the other.
10) Let It Be – The cover's conventional design reflects the back-to-basics approach of the Let It Be project. Those head shots tell a story. The Beatles were all shy of 30, but their faces (well, except George's) indicate the toll of the previous decade. Another option was available: an updated version of the Please Please Me cover, which was originally designated for the aborted "Get Back" album and later used on the "Blue" greatest hits.
9) Help! - Conceived by photographer Robert Freeman, the cryptic style of the flag semaphore cover may hint at the Fabs' changing orientation to the world. On some level, they were starting to withdraw into their own. They were no doubt evolving musically.
8) Please Please Me - Taken at EMI's London headquarters in Manchester Square, Angus McBean's memorable shot shows The Beatles youthful and carefree - a disposition that wouldn't and couldn't last. So much was to come.
7) A Hard Day's Night - The Beatles' spirited goofiness shines through in this spread of photo booth-style head shots. Also conveyed is the bang-bang pace of their professional existence, which - at that time, anyway - seemed to feed their impish personalities.
6) Revolver - A combination of drawings and collage created by The Beatles' friend Klaus Voorman, the imaginatively weird cover illustration is, alas, too busy for its own good. Rubber Soul communicates the same message of redefined identity in a more pleasingly simplified form. Still, the surrealistic mess of heads is unique and eye-catching.
5) Beatles for Sale - The second of four covers done by Robert Freeman, this plainspoken shot taken at Hyde Park captures The Beatles in a glum, world-weary, exhausted place - the price of being the biggest band in the world. Not for nothing, their mop-tops are unkempt and overgrown.
4) Rubber Soul - Between the distinctive lettering, the absence of The Beatles' name and, of course, the famous "stretched" effect (which came about by accident), Freeman's final cover unmistakably signaled that the boyish Fabs were long gone. My favorite detail: John's supercilious, barely-there smirk.
3) With The Beatles - Once again, Robert Freeman. This heavily shadowed B&W image is a marvel of austere beauty. It stands in stark contrast to the inviting warmth of Please Please Me and serves as a pre-echo of Beatles for Sale sternness (despite the band's state of mind being far more upbeat at this earlier stage).
2) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Designed by Peter Blake, it remains to this day the most iconic album cover in pop music history. Colorful, crowded and cryptic, the festive funeral scene doubles as a bold act of self-mythologizing. Surrounded by a host of showbiz notables and literary luminaries, The Beatles were positioning themselves as the bridge between entertainment and art. Bonus: it was the wellspring of "Paul is dead" rumor-mongering.
1) Abbey Road – The most poignant and symbolic of the 13 covers, the zebra crossing shot shows the band's valedictory march. They were walking away from life as The Beatles. When they reached the other side, one can imagine them all heading in separate directions. It's a moving picture of the end. (I won't taint this entry with more trifling "Paul is dead" talk. There's already been too much.)

No comments: