On the Sanctity of the Album Cover

Once upon a time, album covers had the right to earn the title ‘artwork’. Records by acts like The Beatles, PInk Floyd and Michael Jackson attained iconic status not only for their musical content, but for the instantly recognisable image that adorned the front cover. The image that would be viewed every time a record was pulled out of its sleeve; the image that would adorn posters on bedroom walls; in many cases the image that would go on to be replicated, parodied, and become a staple icon for countless items of memorabilia for decades to come. Sadly, it appears that this custom has become a thing of the past. Allow me to explain.

Cast your eyes over the top 40 albums in your local music store today – as I did this morning in HMV. Not only are there a distinct lack of recognisable covers on the albums, but much to my horror, quite a few have multiple covers. The new Rihanna album sits as a two-piece; original and deluxe edition, with two covers that have such drastically different moods they were obviously taken from different shoots. The difference between the two albums? About 3 songs. In fact, considering you can also have non-explicit versions of both, effectively there are 4 versions. All were released on the same day, last week. This is an album which has thus far had just one single. This is either obscenely pretentious, or a ridiculous marketing ploy (a pointless one, I might add, if anyone at Def Jam thinks teenage girls are going to try and collect them). Either way, the album is lost on the shelves; it seems unsure of itself, let alone what anyone else will make of it.

But the ridiculousness does not stop there. A crime much worse has been committed, and I am sad to say it has been committed by not one, not two, but three of today’s pop acts. JLS, One Direction and The Saturdays have released multiple covers for their albums, with one for each of their respective members. So you can have Jukebox with Aston on the front. Or Up All Night with Harry on the front. And joy – On The Radar with Molly on the front. Ever wondered what a pop music travesty looks like? Behold – like a grotesque musical pic n mix, here it is folks.

I have nothing against re-releases, or repackaging if an album deserves such glorification. For example, even before her untimely death this year, a deluxe version of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black was released with an additional disc boasting session outtakes and various cover versions which she performed during the album’s promotion – ‘Valerie’, most notably. Considering this is the best selling album of the 2000s, this was an entirely justified release, with material which could be of genuine interest to people who already have the album, and to those who are buying it for the first time. Everyone’s a winner. As for the cover; did she fuck with the artwork and have new photos taken? She did not. The cover is pure black with nothing but the album title in the white font that was used on the original edition; instantly recognisable as some form of special edition of her album, and yet the original cover remains intact and unrivalled in people’s minds. Well done.

I suppose it’s the ‘take your pick’ element of this that riles me most. An artist is revealed as weak when they give their audience options. Their incapacity to create a unified piece of work for all and say ‘take it or leave it’, seriously diminishes their credibility. In fact, one might say many of the acts who are indulging in this commercialism (some of whom are likely having no say in any of this whatsoever) are not artists at all. They are as much instruments of marketing as are the posters, t-shirts and dolls that bear their faces and names.

But let me not neglect my overall point. Album covers should be treated with the highest integrity. A cover should encapsulate the entire mood of the record as much as the title itself. Artists should aspire to create covers worthy of the iconic stature that have made them a form of art in themselves. In the face of dwindling album sales and the era of iTunes, I beg you, keep the tradition of the great album cover sacred. That is all.

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Jack Whitehall @ Hammersmith Apollo

As his role in the new comedy show ‘Fresh Meat’ continues to secure Jack Whitehall as a household name, on November 8th I attended one of the final performances of his ‘Let’s Not Speak Of This Again’ tour. For most people in the audience, there appeared to be a general curiosity about what Whitehall would be like when he wasn’t on television, and where better to demonstrate that than in the mecca of comedy venues – the HMV Hammersmith Apollo.

For contemporary Britain, Whitehall offers a refreshing comedic type – he’s neither the traditional camp talk show host, nor the middle aged, made-for-panel-show, lamenting house husband. He’s young, he’s marketable, and something of an expert on popular culture – regularly tearing apart celebrities and mocking C-list wannabes from reality TV shows. He’s not, however, just one of the lads. He’s on fairly good terms with his feminine side (see how effortlessly Google suggests the word ‘gay’ as you search his name), although he is a confident heterosexual; and of course, he is undeniably posh.

In fact, being posh is Whitehall’s primary source of self-mocking – it is most likely the explanation behind the stoic statement which gives the tour its name. Of course there are his general inadequacies in the pursuit of growing up, but such anecdotes tend to be so full of references to his privileged background that it’s difficult to escape it as an overarching theme. When he tells us his school (Marlborough if you’re interested) was “so Caucasian, it made Midsomer Murders look like The Wire”, he manages to mock his own origins suitably whilst keeping the audience on his side, still managing to make a down-to-earth impression on people like Dom – the evening’s typical lad with a beer in the front row who is repeatedly picked as a port-of-call when Whitehall questions his own masculinity.

At 23, Whitehall is still quite young, and the many stories of his youth are coloured by the presence of his mother and father in the audience, at what is effectively his hometown gig. As is the case with most comedians, his parents are highly caricatured – presented as the creators of the attention-seeking yet self-loathing performer we see before us. He tells of how his mother held up his stained underwear to demonstrate why Kate married William instead of him (not that that was ever a real possibility), and how his father confiscated his roller blades to prevent him from looking like “a sissy” at the ripe old age of 11 (before realising it was something of a lost cause). As hindsight begins to kick in though, he is fearful that they may have been right all along. That being said, the fact that he can mime trying to quietly hump a girl at his parents’ house while they watch from just a few rows away, gives as much credit to his relationship with them as it does to him as an entertainer.

The show twists and winds through tales of failed relationships with girls and successful relationships with chain restaurants; his love of retro mobile phones and his hatred of American customer service; and his imagined relationship with ‘old school pal’ Robert Pattinson. Finally, he appears dressed in the bright yellow chicken costume he was wearing as he drunkenly tried to prove his maturity to a disgruntled girlfriend. He is currently single.

Jack Whitehall’s ‘Let’s Not Speak Of This Again’ tour is sold out, but will have a DVD release on 26 November. Next year he will star in his own prime time Channel 4 show called ‘Hit The Road Jack’.