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Architecture & design

Does it rock?

— December 2014

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Cover of 'Elvis Presley', Presley's first album, released in 1956

In the days of the LP record, the album cover was often a work of art – so how does a new book celebrating it measure up?

Rock Covers by Robbie Busch, Jonathan Kirby et al., edited by Julius Wiedermann

Great balls of fire, not.  Two years down the line from Taschen's Jazz cover production, they create this, just in time for Christmas, and on first sight, with its Dark Side of the Moon cover design, Rock Covers looks set to appeal to rock lovers of all ages… but caveat emptor. The book is quite a hybrid: on one hand an attractive and unusual package, very strong in some areas, with some classic and memorable designs and cover art, strongly reproduced. On the other, some of its offerings are surprisingly nondescript, with some abominations, and to those with a penchant for Top 100 lists, the usual excuses are made for absentee reproductions.

The age of musical differences is not yet past. More to the point, just as Rock Covers is as multifarious in its visual presence as its Jazz predecessor, it does not begin to share its other excellent characteristics. Structurally, given its 12 x 12 inch format, at 550 pages the book approximates to around 15 albums’ worth of vinyl. This makes its binding a serious cause for concern, and in practice it is inherently and unacceptably weak. The pages are bound well enough, but held onto the boards only by the glued end papers. The bound pages of my review copy completely separated from the boards and spine after three careful inspections, without any mistreatment or encouragement. Whatever the strength of one’s interests, £45 is a lot of money to pay for a parsimonious confection.

Rock Covers’ layout is straightforward, but odd.After George Hardy’s Dark Side of the Moon  cover, and despite the presence of this and other expected and anticipated classics, each selected cover is reproduced in alphabetical order, following a series of interviews with record company heavyweights. Readers are offered trilingual transcripts of rather indifferent interviews with Henry Diltz (a ‘great’ by any other name), with Vaughan Oliver (almost ditto) and with other contributors, each one printed in English, French and German. The English texts are often stilted, and this rather odd experience is extended into very short commentaries on the individual sleeve designs. Most texts uniformly lack the authoritative detail necessary to comprehend or track the evolution of the designs, and are too often uncomfortable in the reading. Worse, many reproductions are inexplicably and totally unaccompanied by any information, of any kind, and readers will surely find this frustrating. 

So: such alphabetical orderliness does not truly work. Books about cover art naturally encourage the act of page-turning and discovery, and are often highly rewarding, but whilst it is easy enough to understand why Taschen have adopted this approach, given the mass audience most likely to respond to the presentation of so much classic design within two covers, music aficionados and graphic designers alike may well discover serious shortcomings here. This is an exercise in frustration, for to be presented with cover art for – at random – Black Flag, The Eagles (only California), Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Minor Threat (who?), The Police, Sonic Youth (in all their glory), U2 and XTC (only Drums and Wires and with no commentary whatsoever), is merely indicative of the rather arbitrary and confusing presentations that prospective punters are likely to face.

Visually this is at times splendid fare, but analytically, and from an explanatory standpoint, the book lacks symmetry – especially when it falls apart. The price simply doesn’t match the overall product. Don’t – or at any rate, not at this price.

Rock Covers  by Robbie Busch, Jonathan Kirby et al. edited by Julius Wiedermann is published by Taschen, 2014. 552pp., fully illustrated in mono and colour, £44.99 (hbk). ISBN 9783836545259


Julian Freeman
Sussex Coast College, Hastings
Art historian

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