Sunday, 12 March 2017

The cover art of the art cover

There’s a series of paintings by Magritte which I love: L’empire de Lumières (Empire of Light).   I love them because they’re impossible.

The sky tells you it’s daytime, but everything else shows it’s night.  At first it looks like some kind of twilight scene, but the sky is full of light and the light should go somewhere - it doesn't.  Instead the trees and ground are in darkness, the buildings illuminated only by a streetlamp.  Magritte’s art is full of the unexpected, of little visual tricks and playful combinations that don’t go together naturally.   I had no idea that I’d ever be saying the same thing about Jackson Browne.

But here it is – the cover art to Jackson’s album ‘Late For The Sky’.

Thanks to it being featured at  Rol’s very fine blog My Top Ten,  it was the first time I've taken notice of the sleeve which I must’ve flicked past in record shop racks many times before now.  But the picture is brilliantly inspired by the Magritte series, this time a photographic sky of vivid daytime blue with bright white clouds which could only be lit by strong sunshine so, like the painting,  everything else should be too - but no.  Clever, innit?  I still prefer Magritte, though. 

Anyway it got me thinking… about art and album covers and how there are others that also take their influence from well-known paintings.  One of them sprang to mind straight away.

Bow Wow Wow: 
See Jungle!  See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah.  City All Over! Go Ape Crazy!

It's still controversial because we're aware that Annabella Lwin was only 15 at the time of the photo shoot.   When asked in later years if she realised how 'shocking' the image was she replied that she didn't and that the difficult part for her was really just the act of sitting there naked in the middle of nowhere on a cold early morning with her clothed male band mates. The original Manet painting had also been thought of as offensive (though for different reasons) and was rejected by the official art exhibition (the Salon) in France at the time of its creation in the 1860s.  It wasn't the nudity itself that was the problem (hardly unusual in art!) but something about the context. 

Edouard Manet:
Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe 1863

However this wasn't the first time a painting of nude women in the outdoors with clothed men had been exhibited in France so it seems a bit hypocritical.  Manet was influenced by this one on display in the Louvre, painted over 300 years earlier.

It's not known whether this is by Giorgione or Titian
Fiestra Campestre,  1510

At Bow Wow Wow's peak anyone buying their records was already familiar with seeing photos of Annabella without many clothes on, and I don't remember this cover seeming as outrageous in 1981 as it probably would be now, although it still ruffled feathers - just as Malcolm McLaren intended it to.  The publicity worked - the album quickly made it to No. 1 in the charts - but a less happy outcome of that cover was a rift it caused between Annabella and her mum.

But I know I readily accepted it - as art, I suppose - at the time of its release, when I was just 17 myself.  I might have done the same as Annabella at 15 and I doubt I'd have ever thought of it as anything dark, especially with band mates - more just embarrassing, but also rebellious.  Perhaps the fact that it was an obvious pastiche of a painting made all the difference?  Also I can't help thinking about how the photo shoot must have felt in real terms, all waiting around for the right light and getting the technical details in order whilst hoping your, erm, goose pimples don't show, a bit like life modelling with a broken fan heater.

I've been looking at other album covers inspired by famous paintings too so I've some lined up for future posts (oh, another series!)  As in the thoroughly enjoyable one over at Charity Chic Music where we get to weigh up a wide selection of cover versions with their originals (the outcome for Bob Dylan was victorious but we've yet find how it’s all going to pan out for Bruce Springsteen) I found myself wanting to rate which one I preferred.  Most of the time it's the original painting but I'd have to give my points to Bow Wow Wow for this one - the lushness of the setting and Annabella's typically defiant expression take me right back to this great song (which I can't embed because Blogger won't let me - censorship all over again? - so here's a youtube link)

Bow Wow Wow: Chihuahua

And here's that fantastic clip of Annabella sticking it to the extremely condescending BA Robertson.

"All froth and flounce..."?  What a dickhead.


  1. I used to dream about Annabella being my girlfriend/wife.

    1. I have a sneaky feeling you were not the only one...

  2. Yeah for Annabella - I loved Bow Bow Bow back in the day but like you didn't really think too much about her age as I wasn't that much older, and as a student was also enjoying being a bit rebellious (I'm so not rebellious now) wearing loads of unusual Annabella style clothing.

    Like what you've done with the album cover from Rol's post - Like you I must have seen the JB cover a lot over the years but it never clicked that the sky was light, bright and daytime-y but everything else was twilight.

    My favourite time of the day is twilight and I have been studying it all quite scientifically what with astronomical, civil and nautical dusk - Takes about 78 minutes from when the sun goes down to get dark and my favourite time of the day in summer is when you can sit outside and enjoy the warmer air by candlelight. Best time at a big outdoor concert as well - that blue hour or l'heure bleue as the French call it.

    1. Good to know you liked them too and agree, we didn't really think too much about her age because there wasn't that much difference.

      Twilight is lovely.. sitting here typing this and seeing the subdued light and shade through the window is not all that different from the pictures really, just not the extreme of them. Intrigued about these scientific dusk variations - and the 78 minutes (it seems much quicker!) Yes, the closing in of the day in Summer, when it's a comfortably warm and mellow and the swifts are out and the nectar is strong - my favourite too. Especially when accompanied by a big cool glass of Pinot Grigio...

  3. Great stuff C. I happened to know the backstory of these particular pieces of sleeve art, but I do hope you continue the series as I'm sure that there are a great many more examples that I'm blissfully unaware of.(Slightly at a tangent, but do you know this site? It's been going for several years and specialises in tracking down the original locations of iconic pop related photos, including many used on album sleeves. Even if you don't like the artist concerned, the sheer amount of research involved is phenomenal. )

    1. Thanks TS, what a great idea for a site and really interesting to see.
      I've started compiling some examples for this theme so will definitely post them - finding it interesting doing some research myself and it combines two of my favourite subjects after all!

  4. Those two sleeves certainly have an alluring mystery which makes me curious to listen to the albums. I hope you continue with this series!
    I'm familiar with Bow Wow Wow. Three of their songs were used for the film Marie Antoinette. It's actually one of my all-time favorite soundtracks.
    Iconic album artwork has been dying a slow death, which is sad. Blame it on the internet providing free music and musicians with limited budgets.
    My favorite recent sleeve was Kate Tempest's album Let Them Eat Chaos, another Marie Antoinette reference! I wonder if Kate was inspired by a painting? I have no idea.

    1. Great that the sleeves alone have made you want to hear the albums - they've served their purpose. Have been looking at some fairly recent CDs a friend was getting rid of recently and the artwork has to be the most uninspired (and uninspiring) ever. Maybe I'm more aware of it because the album art I grew up with, being in 12" format, was a hugely important part of the whole product... less so now for the reasons you state.
      That Kate Tempest sleeve art is great - no particular painting springs to mind just yet but may have to some more research!

  5. Excellent stuff, I'm really happy you ran with this idea.

    Yes, the Bow Wow Wow cover wins out over the original for me too, I prefer the use of colour in that.

    More, please!

    1. Ah thanks Rol - and thanks to your post!

      So Bow Wow Wow 2, Manet 0

      More to come!

  6. The Jackson Browne album one of my favourites but I never got it until now.

    1. It's not my cuppa tea musically but still love that cover Old Pa.

  7. Its a yes from me too- the post, the idea and the BWW cover.


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