The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve


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.


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.


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.

I still have all the sketches for this design; looking through them earlier today I’d forgotten about many of the earlier drafts, some of which may be seen below. The basic design was fixed from the outset but the details changed as the design evolved. The title of the album also changed in the early stages, the band having realised at some point that John & Beverley Martyn and Deep Purple had already released albums entitled Stormbringer.


I’d forgotten all about these initial sketches which probably represent the earliest roughing-out of ideas. The layout changed but that eye-triangle-crescent motif was fixed from the outset.


This is a photocopy so I might have sent Dave Brock the original sketch. The sword went through several designs before settling into this shape which is based in part on James Cawthorn’s Elric illustrations.



These were the sketches I sent that Dave Brock approved, and which became the final artwork. Once again I’d forgotten that so many of the details had changed. I still tend to work this way, keeping sketches brief and vague, and working out the final look as I go along.


Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Rock shirts
The Cosmic Grill
Void City
Hawk things
The Sonic Assassins
New things for July
Barney Bubbles: artist and designer

2 thoughts on “The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve”

  1. Love your work in general, John, Think your current art superb.
    *But also think your early pieces have something to them lacking in most other artists’ work today*
    –these sketches alone are just beautiful and THAT Stormbringer (2nd sketch) for example…just perfect.

  2. Thanks. One benefit of looking at the sketches is they make the finished art seem better. A few months after that I started work on the first Lovecraft comic strip, and have some thumbnail designs of the pages in the same folder of Hawkwind sketches.

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