Even though it has been praised, bashed, loved, censored, condemned, and ridiculed, hard rock continues to be a vibrant music for people of all ages. Its roots and offshoots are well documented in books and documentaries, not bad for a music that was once blamed for everything from teen pregnancy to suicides. Hard rock and heavy metal is scholarly, although those in the know will tell you that the music has always been a great source of information and inspiration. In the era when vinyl was king, the record cover was what made an impact first to the potential record buyer. Maybe the song would be playing in a record store, maybe you had seen an ad for it in Hit Parader, Circus, Kerrang, or Rip, but you still had to truly seek what you wanted to find, even when hard rock and heavy metal became the most popular music around the world. Fade To Black: Hard Rock Cover Art Of The Vinyl Age (Sterling) is not only a healthy look at some of the best hard rock covers ever released, but each album features background information on its creation. If these covers were your eye candy, now you can explore its ingredients from the outside in.
Journalist Martin Popoff worked with artist/designer Ioannis to interview the designers, photographers, illustrators, and sometimes the artists themselves to discuss what went on behind each album cover, and sometimes its after effects. Also, by calling this a book about “hard rock”, it covers a broader spectrum than just “heavy metal”, so you’ll get influential garage, acid, and progressive rock, leading to the birth of heavy metal and its eventual offspring. Many of the images were major factors in the myths of heavy metal, from illustrations of vikings fighting on snowy mountain tops to bands flirting with sexuality, whether it was the use of a sexy woman or the band wearing pants that reveal a bit too much. The book begins with a look at The Rolling Stones and The Who before its path heads towards Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Blue Cheer, Iron Butterly, before eventually landing on Led Zeppelin, MC5, Free, and King Crimson. Like the music, things get more adventurous. One might not think of Grand Funk as a hard rock band but they represented Flint, Michigan with their abrasive style of rock and soul. If The Who were considered maximum rock’n'roll, the Flint trio were very much their names: grand funk. Throughout the book Popoff and Ioannis reveal some of the secrets that may lurk in these covers, including background information, costs, along with internal record company politics that was based on everything from “I don’t get it” to “we need a better cover”. Then it touches on what happened when these covers would be taken in by the public. It is revealed that the cover for Foreigner’s Head Games was actually meant to be cute and harmless (it’s nothing more than a girl trying to wipe away the dirty graffiti so that no one would see it, although everyone had interpreted it as being sexual, good and bad). Hard rock fans will discover that versions of covers released in their country were censored compared to the home country of the artist (do a search for the uncensored cover for the Scorpions’ In Trance, and that’s the nice one, not Virgin Killers). While the second half of the book is dedicated to albums that were also released in the cassette and CD eras, many fans bought the albums because they knew the covers would be killer, be it titles by Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Jane’s Addiction, or W.A.S.P. Even Badlands’ first album is here, and while the cover might seem silky-smooth today, the album was powerful then as it is now. Seattle is also represented with glimpses of Nirvana’s first (Bleach) and Soundgarden’s second (Louder Than Love, and as someone who lives in the Pacific Northwest, I found this reference to be interesting:
Perched above and below are the band name and title in the now-iconic retro font seen on countless T-shirts. Bleach appears in quotes, although no one remembers the title or refers to the record that way.
“No one”? Who are these people? Anyone in the Pacific Northwest, along with those who were keeping an eye and ear out on the Seattle music scene, always knows what Bleach is. If you read publications like The Rocket, you would often read about some of the drug problems of the city and outlying areas, and how there was a well-supported needle exchange program, or for junkies, they would regularly clean their syringes with bleach. It was a system that wasn’t exclusive to Seattle, as heroin use is not a local or regional phenomenon, but the title seemed fitting in the summer of 1989, where there was a bit of “20th anniversary of the summer of love” hype in the mainstream media. The Seattle scene was just like any other scene with great music and a supportive music community, so calling it Bleach seemed very Seattle at the time and still is. While most of the world began their Nirvana adventure with Nevermind, there is a group of us who know that black & white album with the photo flipped negative style all too well. It’s Bleach, it will always be Bleach, and we like it that way, thank you.
While vinyl continues to thrive 21 years after the book’s cut-off point, Fade To Black ends in 1991, as artists, designers, illustrators, and labels began to mske the compact disc a priority and make the 5 inch square cover the default way for everyone to experience artwork. Some albums may have been released on CD and cassette only, and if you wanted the record, you had to order it via import. Some titles were never released on vinyl at all, so those glory days would not end, but go into hibernation for awhile. These days, people look at covers as online forum avatars or social media profile pics, but there there are a few generations who would absorb these covers along with the music, creating an image of the music that may not be accurate with the lyrics and stories being told, but the imagery would burn into our consciousness as strong as the music. Some of these albums may have been difficult or impossible to find depending on one’s locale, but in 2012, one is able to click on a music merchant or do a blog search to find all of the albums here. It will bring back memories of going to the store and staring at these, thinking these images were the most sinister but it was sinister for you, or in my case, going to my uncle’s apartment, heading to the stereo first, slapping headphones on, and putting the cover on my lap and wonder why what I was seeing and hearing was so awesome. In 2012, one may have to pay collectors prices for some of these records although the true crate digger and vinyl junkie will know how to find and buy them at decent prices. Fade To Black is a way to acquaint yourself with classic hard rock albums, and maybe be reacquainted with the images and sounds that contributed to a lot of hopes, dreams, and for some, nightmares in our not-so-wasted years. It also shows the importance of album cover artwork first and foremost, when wanting to immerse yourself meant holding that 12 x 12 piece of cardboard and wishing you could get yourself into their world. In essence, album cover packaging is indeed fading to black, so while not an official goodbye, it’s acknowledgement of the creativity of everyone who made those covers special.