Tomita album covers

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Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974); art direction; Joseph J. Stelmach; artwork: David B. Hecht.

The Japanese composer Isao Tomita died last week so I’ve been listening to some of his early recordings, and thinking—as usual—about their cover designs. Tomita was by far the best of the many electronic musicians in the 1970s who took advantage of the huge success of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach (1968) to create their own versions of classical music with Moog and other synthesisers. If this makes Tomita sound like an opportunist (and his 1972 collection of electronic pop covers was titled Switched On Hit & Rock), he quickly developed his own approach to electronic composition which ranged from quirky humour to his own brand of cosmic pictorialism. The latter was very different from the equally cosmic meanderings of Tangerine Dream which seldom strayed too far from the rock world. Tomita had a genius for taking very familiar pieces of classical music which he fashioned into synthesizer soundtracks for imaginary science-fiction films. (He also produced actual scores for a number of Japanese films but few, if any, of these were released outside Japan.) This approach is shown to great effect on The Bermuda Triangle (1979), an album that in the UK was subtitled “A Musical Fantasy Of Science Fiction”, and which filters Prokofiev and Sibelius through a library of paranormal paperbacks, with references to UFOs, undersea pyramids, Agharta, the Hollow Earth and the Tunguska Event.

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Pictures At An Exhibition (1975); artwork: bas-relief by Gene Szafran. The first appearance of the logo that became a fixture of Tomita’s albums. No designer is credited but I’d guess it was the work of Joseph J. Stelmach. The logo typeface is Sinaloa.

As for the covers, Tomita’s recordings may have been classical music but RCA targeted the albums at a rock audience so there’s no sign of the venerable composers heads that appear continually on the sleeves of orchestral recordings. The examples here are almost all the Western releases which—surprisingly—tended to have better covers than the Japanese originals. This is also a partial selection, favouring Tomita’s own releases (no soundtracks), and mostly the early albums. The later albums aren’t as impressive, and many of them were only released in Japan.

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Firebird (1975). No design or art credit. I’d not noticed before that the logo evolves by degrees, here gaining some extensions.

Lastly, I’ll dedicate this post to my old friend Nik Green who died in March. Nik was a session musician of some note, and the first person I knew who owned a synthesizer (an ARP Odyssey); he was also a great Tomita enthusiast who shared Tomita’s sense of humour, and relished the quirkier moments on many of these albums. I can’t listen to the opening of the Mars section of Tomita’s The Planets without remembering Nik shouting “Moog horns!” when a synthetic fanfare interrupts the sounds of a spacecraft lift-off.

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Single sleeves

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A septet of 7-inch single sleeves from Eastern Bloc Songs, a small but well-selected repository of sleeve art from the record labels of the Eastern Bloc. I’d looked at the album art before but had missed the singles, some of which feature more impressive designs than their 12-inch counterparts. Of special interest are designs that show how the psychedelic styles of the decadent West were transmuted for a Communist audience. The Nautilus sleeve above dates from 1969, and uses the lettering adapted by Wes Wilson from a much earlier design by Alfred Roller. Elsewhere the generic sleeves from venerable Czech label Supraphon stand out for their modish graphics. (Via Record Envelope and Things Magazine.)

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Collagescapes

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Oliver Wasow‘s artwork for It’s All Around You (2004), an album by US group Tortoise, contains some fine examples of disjunctive (Surrealist, if you must) collage landscapes. This is a sub-genre of collage that I’ve always enjoyed, especially when it’s carefully done, and I was wondering recently whether Wasow had done anything similar for other groups. Discogs has a few more examples, one of which looks like something from the masters of the photo-collage cover, Hipgnosis.

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But searching was curtailed when I remembered a much earlier example of the disjunctive collagescape on the cover of Sort Of (1972) by Slapp Happy. I’d forgotten all about this superb piece by avant-garde filmmaker David Larcher which really needs to be seen on a 12-inch sleeve; this is one of those collages where the combination of careful composition, equalised light and shade, and concealed edges makes the picture seem at first glance like an ordinary photograph. Whether Larcher has produced more work of this quality, I can’t say. Another of his collages can be found at The Quietus where Cyclobe enthuse about his films. For more elaborate collagescapes you have to look elsewhere, to one of the prime exponents of the technique, Tsunehisa Kimura.

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The album covers archive

Orphic Egg album covers

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This is one record label I’d not come across before. According to this page Orphic Egg “was a subsidiary label for London Records which was formed in 1972 and lasted about a year. The label was formed to try to capture classical music for the counterculture youth of the time (often called “heads”). Liner notes were written by hip rock critics respected by the youth.” According to Discogs the first release, The Baroque Head, was 1971. The covers below follow in chronological order through to 1973. With the exception of the Edgard Varèse album all the releases are compilations of older recordings grouped by composer or theme.

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Discogs doesn’t give credits for all the cover art but the series was the work of several different illustrators with George McGinnis being responsible for the design. Jason Roberts’ cover for the Mussorgsky album is a suitably wild piece of late psychedelia for a collection that includes Night On Bald Mountain. There’s a nod there to the Chernobog from Disney’s Fantasia, while the Scriabin cover is an overt swipe from an original piece by Jean Delville. The Mussorgsky album is also notable for the bizarre and unique conjunction of music conducted by Herbert Von Karajan and liner notes by Lester Bangs. I have to wonder what the haughty maestro of the Berlin Philharmonic would have made of the sleeve if he ever saw it.

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Digging the Rubble

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1: The Psychedelic Snarl.

A few words in praise of Rubble, the 20-disc collection of (mostly) British psychedelic singles released by the Bam Caruso label from 1984 to 1991. A reader of Rob Chapman’s Psychedelia and Other Colours would find the Rubble series an indispensable companion to the second half of the book which explores the unique styles of British psych. Ideally you’d read the book while having these and other compilations close at hand, something I didn’t manage so I’ve been going through the discs myself this week, listening out for some of the many singles that Chapman discusses. The Rubble title is a nod to Lenny Kaye’s 1972 collection Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968, the first reappraisal of the garage/psych era whose success spawned Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969, a not-so-good attempt to do the same for the UK, and Children of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the Second Psychedelic Era, 1976-1995. The original Nuggets was followed by the long-running Pebbles series which sprawls over 28 discs collecting obscure garage singles.

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2: Pop-Sike Pipe Dreams.

What I like about the Rubble series, apart from its covering a favourite zone of musical history, is the way that each volume is titled in a suitable manner beyond a mere number: the title of volume 8, All The Colours Of Darkness could have been used by Coil during their LSD period. Then there’s the sleeve designs by the great Phil Smee, one of the founders of Bam Caruso, the collector of many of the featured singles, and a first-rate artisan of psychedelic graphics: there’s a Louis Wain cat on volume 2, and more of those letterforms by Roman Cieslewicz on volume 10. Smee deserves a post of his own but covering such a lengthy career would be a daunting task: Discogs lists 784 separate releases, and that’s only his design work. The design on the first run of Rubble albums was credited to “Harvey S. Williams”, a Smee pseudonym playing on the name of Elektra Records art director William S. Harvey. Harvey S. Williams was also the designer of the short-lived and rather wonderful Bam Caruso magazine, Strange Things Are Happening, issues of which are advertised in the inner sleeves of the early Rubble albums. (The magazine borrowed its title from a 1968 single by Rings and Things which is featured on Rubble 4.)

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3: Nightmares In Wonderland.

The Rubble series has been reissued on CD many times, and is currently available as The Rubble Collection, a glossy cube containing all 20 discs in card sleeves together with two booklets that reprint Phil Smee’s original sleeve notes and band photos. The Rubble albums sound a little rough today when many of the songs which were taken directly from old singles have been resurrected and can be heard elsewhere in better quality. Subsequent compilations have also cherry-picked many of the better selections but this is still the ideal place to start if you want to immerse yourself in the toyshop/kitchen sink surrealism that is British psychedelia.

• See also: Richard Norris reminiscing about working at Bam Caruso, and choosing 20 favourite British psych records.

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4: The 49 Minute Technicolour Dream.

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