Tom Phillips album covers

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Words and Music (1975) by Tom Phillips.

Two related posts is coincidence, three is a series. Earlier posts from the past couple of weeks looked at album covers created by designers better known for their work in other areas. Tom Phillips is a British artist, writer and composer who I continue to insist is one of our greatest living artists, a figure of singular intelligence, invention and versatility whose lack of grandstanding has never raised his profile to, say, the Hockney level. Phillips’ involvement with the music world, both as composer/librettist, and his oft-cited position as Brian Eno’s art teacher in the 1960s, have led to the creation of a handful of record and CD covers from the mid-70s on. Before we get onto those I’ll note that Phillips has a piece in the latest edition of Eye magazine where he reviews a book of postcards from the Wiener Werkstätte. I happen to have a review in the same issue looking at a republished Kenneth Anger study.

Words and Music above has a January 1975 release date although the cover clearly states “LXXIV” in Phillips’ customary stencil lettering. The pressing was limited to 500 copies and doesn’t seem to have been reissued since which means that copies for sale command excessive prices. Side A comprises recordings of Phillips’ compositions while on the flip the artist/author reads extracts from A Humument, the treated book/experimental novel which is not only his most celebrated work but a project whose influence permeates all of the Phillips oeuvre, including the sleeve art.

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Starless and Bible Black (1974) by King Crimson.

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A year before Words and Music, Phillips created the cover art for this King Crimson album, and he’s also credited with the design. The fractured stencil lettering on the gatefold interior resembles similar effects in some of Phillips’ paintings while on the back cover there’s a tiny extract from A Humument bearing the enigmatic phrase “this night wounds time”. I’ve wondered for years how this cover came about: Robert Fripp often selects the art for King Crimson’s covers so was Phillips his choice as artist/designer? Or was it a result of the Fripp and Eno connection? If anyone knows the answer, please leave a comment.

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Roger Dean: artist and designer

Kieran at Sci-Fi-O-Rama was in touch recently asking me to contribute a paragraph about a favourite Roger Dean picture for this feature about the artist. The following splurge of polemic was the result, something I’d been intending to write for a while. Since so many words would have overwhelmed the other contributions it’s being presented here while Kieran’s post has a variety of shorter appreciations and further examples of Dean’s art and design.

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Pathways (1973). A slightly reworked version of the original painting.

“Science fiction is unfortunate in having a most unsatisfactory framework of existence—it’s considered literary kitsch. I believe it should be the mainstream of literature because all the books that have become important down the generations of civilisation have been books about ideas. Superficially, science fiction would seem to offer the most scope for idea content, but the promise is unfulfilled. Good ideas and good writing rarely coincide. All too often the medium is used for entertainment alone and its potential beyond this should be obvious to everyone. I don’t just mean in the sense of fantasy technology. The potential for anticipating human evolution is there and perhaps the means to bring it about and definitely the means to bring about a social evolution.”

Roger Dean, interviewed in Visions of the Future (1976).

If popularity is often a curse as well as a blessing, it’s been Roger Dean‘s curse to see his work dismissed along with many other products of a decade—the 1970s—with more than its share of cultural heroes and villains. Music journalists in Britain have for years given the impression that the arrival of the Sex Pistols in 1976 swept away all that preceded them, in particular bands such as Yes whose album covers had helped raise the visibility of Dean’s art to an international level. This is not only a lazy assumption, it’s also wrong. When Yes released Going For the One in 1977 it was their first studio album in three years, yet despite the punk explosion it went to no. 1 in the UK album charts, while a rare single release from the band made the UK top ten. Yes were playing sell-out tours in Europe and the US in 1977 and 78, as were Pink Floyd whose The Wall was massively popular worldwide in 1979. Punk didn’t sweep prog away, what happened with its advent was that progressive rock and everything associated with it—Roger Dean’s art included—became critically disreputable almost overnight, such that no music journalist would dare say anything good about it. That disrepute has persisted for thirty years despite a lasting and indelible influence. This is an old argument but some facts often need restating anew. *

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Views (1975).

I was 13 in September 1975 when Roger Dean’s first collection of his illustration and design work, Views, was published. At that time, I hadn’t heard any of the music to which his paintings and drawings were attached, and I didn’t even see a copy of the book until February 1976 when I happened to be in London on a school trip and found a big pile of what I guess was the second edition in Foyle’s book shop. This appeared at exactly the right moment. I wasn’t listening to the music but I was reading a lot of science fiction, and was starting to notice and imitate the work of various paperback artists. I recognised many of the pictures in Views from the covers displayed in the window of our local record shop, Cobweb, whose shopping-bag logo was a cowled magician figure à la Dean or Rodney Matthews. It’s difficult to say what struck me about Dean’s work at the time since you rarely articulate your preferences at that age. I think I liked the consistency of vision and the invention which blended the organic and mechanical, the architecture which looked at once ancient and futuristic, and the flat landscapes which put lone pine trees into rocky terrain familiar from Japanese and Chinese prints. For a teenager his style was also relatively easy to imitate if you forgot about basic things such as imagination and finesse, and I spent a year producing a lot of badly-drawn reptiles posed against lurid watercolour skies.

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New things for April III

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The results of the Figment album art competition have now been posted and you can see my choice of the winner on the left here. You can see the rest of the winners and read my comments on the Figment site. The winning design reminded me of the famous cover for the first King Crimson album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), a painting by Barry Godber. Both have an arresting quality which make you wonder what it is that’s being witnessed beyond the picture frame.

King Crimson’s debut is one of the key moments when British music abandoned the silliness of psychedelia and got down to the serious business of becoming progressive rock. For some people this means it’s also the moment when rock music Went Wrong but I’ve no time for such Spartan sophistries; Robert Fripp rules. Digressions aside, I’ve not finished with the present psychedelic obsession (no, you don’t escape that easily), and the other piece of news today comes with an alert from Valis whose radio show of psychedelic music, Trip Inside This House, runs for two hours every Tuesday morning on KBHX, St Louis, from 5am to 7am. There’s archived shows on a blog of the same name and that site currently features an interview with Matt Piucci, ex of the fantastic Rain Parade, for my money the best of the Paisley Underground bands of the 1980s. If you haven’t yet heard their finest moment, No Easy Way Down, then your life is quite simply a hollow sham.

20 Sites n Years by Tom Phillips

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Tom Phillips has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists and he’d certainly be my candidate for one of the world’s greatest living artists even though the world at large stubbornly refuses to agree with this opinion. Phillips’ problem (if we have to look for problems) would seem to be an excess of talent in an art world that doesn’t actually like people to be too talented at all (unless they’re dead geniuses like Picasso) and a lack of the vaunting ego that propels others into the spotlight.

Phillips is predominantly a painter but a restlessly experimental one. On my journey through the London galleries in May I visited the National Portrait Gallery, a rather dull place mostly filled with pictures of the rich and famous by the rich and famous. There were two Tom Phillips works on display in different rooms, inadvertently showing his artistic range: one, a fairly standard (if very finely detailed) portrait of Iris Murdoch, the other a computer screen showing a portrait of Susan Adele Greenfield which manifested as an endlessly-changing series of 169 processed drawings and video stills. One work was static and traditional, the other fluid, contemporary and completely unlike anything else in the building.

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Exposure by Robert Fripp

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Robert Fripp’s 1979 album, Exposure (DGM0601), was intended to form part of a trilogy together with Peter Gabriel’s second solo album and Sacred Songs, by Daryll Hall. Fripp produced all three albums and also plays on all three. As things turned out, the scheme was too much for “dinosaur” (Fripp’s term) record company executives, they regarded Hall’s album as uncommercial then buried its release.

Exposure is (for me) the most successful of the three. Although it mixes styles and vocalists (Daryll Hall, Peter Hammill, Terry Roche and Peter Gabriel singing his own ‘Here Comes the Flood’), it manages to maintain a consistent atmosphere very much influenced by Fripp’s life in New York and his connections with the NYC New Wave of the time (he played on ‘Fade Away and Radiate’ by Blondie). It also forms the bridge between the King Crimson of old and what would become the Eighties’ Crimson. Fripp’s experimental side is to the fore here, with the first showcasing of his “Frippertronics” in a musical setting and many taped conversations being mixed into the music.

The new CD set released this week manages to reinvent the album to some degree, presenting the original album on one disc then a whole disc of different vocal mixes on the other, some of which use different singers, such as Daryll Hall singing on tracks that featured Peter Hammill originally. The sound is also considerably enhanced, making the heavier pieces sound especially ferocious. An album that’s nearly thirty years old suddenly sounds fresh again.

More details after the jump.

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