The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve

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A copy of the cover art that I attempted to colour-correct some years ago to compensate for the poor print reproduction.

This month I’m in Record Collector magazine talking in a sidebar feature about my work on the Hawkwind album The Chronicle of the Black Sword. The issue is Hawkwind-heavy, with a Nik Turner interview, a history of Flicknife Records (the label that released COTBS), and a retrospective feature on the Black Sword album which was released in December 1985. My words were slightly cut to fit the allotted space but I can run the full text here in which I describe my ambivalent feelings towards this particular cover.

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The Black Sword album for me has always been a combination of pleasure and disappointment. I was very pleased initially to hear that Hawkwind were writing a concept based on the Elric books, a series I’d enjoyed for many years. Cover discussions were a little more detailed than usual since this design was sketched out beforehand then approved by the Dave Brock and co. Prior to this I’d been creating something vague after equally vague requests; communication back then was all done via post and call box as I didn’t own a phone.

This was the first album where I was able to create an integrated front and back cover design. A friend had recently found me a copy of George Bain’s Celtic Art: Its Methods of Construction (1951), a study of the creation of Celtic knotwork, and I was keen to use this somehow. Rather than do a cover that looked like a fantasy paperback the idea was to use the knotwork style to create something that was suitably Hawkish whilst also fitting the Elric theme. The front cover has some nods back to earlier Hawkart in the winged sphere—which goes back to Barney Bubbles and his obsession with Ancient Egypt—and the eye-in-a-triangle, a symbol which first appeared on the cover of the Hawklog booklet in the In Search of Space album, and which I scattered throughout many of my Hawkwind designs.

All the lettering on the album was hand-drawn (not very well in places) using letterforms based on Bain’s examples from the books of Kells and Lindisfarne. I drew the track listing onto the artwork for the back cover, a decision that later proved to be a bad one when the band decided to change the running order of the songs, hence the large purple square that spoils the design. My lack of any direct contact with the record company made problems like this inevitable; I was trying to do graphic design at a distance without having any communication at all with the printers responsible for the sleeve. Before digital design, the creation of an album cover could be a complicated business involving photo-mechanical transfers, knockout areas, overlays, typesetters and more; if you weren’t in direct contact with the printer (or somebody who was) then you simply had to hope for the best.

This process of design-at-a-distance led to the disaster with the cover printing, the front of which has an unwarranted blue cast that dulled the impact of the sleeve and, for me, ruined the whole thing. You can see how the cover should have looked by comparing the background colours of front and back; the front was also printed in its true colours on the back page of the 1985 tour programme. It was this, and the messy appearance of the lettering on the back, that pushed me further towards ending my involvement with Hawkwind and doing something of my own over which I’d have complete control.

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The retrospective feature in the magazine includes a picture of the back cover of the tour programme (above) so those familiar with the album can see the difference in reproduction. The difference isn’t so noticeable on the copies posted here after I tried altering the tones of the cover. Over the years I’ve grown used to the blueness but the back cover remains blighted by its purple boxes.

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German gear

Ralf and Florian, 1973. Back cover photo by Barbara Niemöller.

At that time, Kling Klang Studio was far from the technological hub it would become. “The studio was a big room in an old factory building with brick walls,” recalls [Wolfgang] Flür. “There were big home-made speakers, amplifiers and so on. Florian had his side, with his flutes and one of the very first ARP Odyssey synthesizers, while Ralf’s side had Hammond and Farfisa organs and a Minimoog synthesizer.”

Andy Gill, Mojo magazine, April 1997

Last week’s Autobahn post prompted a week of revisiting Kraftwerk’s three pre-Autobahn albums, all of which remain unreissued. The photo that fills out the back cover of the third album, Ralf & Florian (1973), has appeared here twice before so if you want an example of an obsession look no further. I only have a bootleg CD of this one, a package that doesn’t do much for the photograph so I went searching for a larger copy.

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The attractions, if you have to list them, are multiple: Ralf & Florian is Kraftwerk’s most human album, and the cover photos reflect this. Trans-Europe Express originally had pictures of the group on its sleeve (now replaced by the TEE train) but they were airbrushed, idealised portraits; the showroom-dummy personas they adopt there would turn into robots on the album that followed. There’s an overt sense of camp about the Ralf & Florian cover shots that runs counter to the tenor of rock music in 1973. The charts in Britain might have been filled with glam acts but for all their flirtatious androgyny they were selling the same assertive macho sexuality as the big rock bands of the time. One of the things I enjoy about this cover photo is its refusal to follow that crowd: the neon name signs, the standard lamp from a 1950s’ living room, Florian’s semiquaver brooch; all are effete enough to give Deep Purple the vapours. (The first UK release of Ralf and Florian replaced the cover photo of the pair with a printed circuit.) The closest comparison in the same year would be the sleeve for Brian Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets with its shelves of dead flowers and junk-shop discoveries. But this wasn’t so surprising for an ex-member of Roxy Music, and the album is still very much a rock production.

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Then there’s the details: the egg-box soundproofing (Can used old mattresses to soundproof their studio); the enormous white speaker; the traffic cone that nods back to the sleeves of the first two albums and forward to the automotive theme of the next; Ralf’s white shoes (and is he wearing leather trousers?); Florian’s oscilloscope, his mysterious tone generators and that peculiar stringed instrument. This diverse range of gear somehow produced the music you’re listening to.

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Tornadoes

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A gust, a storme, a spoute, a loume gaile, an eddy wind, a flake of wind, a Turnado.

Captain John Smith from An Accidence, or the Pathway to Experience Necessary for all Young Seamen (1626).

In an age of storm chasers and increasingly spectacular photos, Lucille Handberg’s celebrated picture may seem undramatic, but for the moment this is still the most celebrated tornado photo to date. I knew the picture from an early age thanks to its appearance in a children’s encyclopedia. When Deep Purple’s Stormbringer album appeared in 1974 (below) that imperilled barn, and the shape of the twister, was immediately recognisable.

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Lucille Handberg took her famous photo on 8th July, 1927 as the tornado passed by Jasper, Minnesota. It’s a surprise to see from the account in The Milwaukee Sentinel that there’s at least one other picture. I tried searching for a larger image of the second photo but photo libraries still control its reproduction. The copy above is from an account of the tornado here.

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