A personal history of record sleeves
by Maria Raposo
London-based Doug Hart started out as a musician before setting up record label, Hydrogen Dukebox. After releasing innovative and diverse music from the early Nineties onwards, he moved into management, working alongside the likes of Siouxsie Sioux. He takes Kids Of Dada through the stories behind his expansive record collection:
KOD: Hey Doug, could you tell us about your collection?
Doug Hart: I’ve always bought records and usually it’s led by artwork. There’s 7” stuff, that’s mainly ‘78-‘79 punk and I like things in black and white sleeves. I’m just a bit of a nutter for buying records really; if it’s got a really great sleeve, I’ll buy it.
KOD: Could pick out a couple of covers that grab you?
Doug Hart: I suppose Joy Division’s 'Unknown Pleasures' is iconic. I bought it when it came out and I remember vividly thinking that the record sleeve had nothing to do with the music. For me, all that stuff Peter Saville did had two different journeys – the musical journey and the artwork journey. And that’s what made it interesting. New Order’s artwork isn’t designed to fit the music. It’s not like buying an album by the Corrs, where the sleeve is made to sell the music.
KOD: So how do the visuals and the audio relate?
Doug Hart: Record sleeves are important, but the two have to be harmonious. It’s a piece of art at the end of the day. Of course, then you’ve got pop music, which is a different set of rules entirely, where in some cases the artwork is probably more important than the record within it. But every now and then pop music does have brilliance. A classic example of that is Frankie Goes to Hollywood. If you look at 'Welcome to the Pleasuredome', the sleeve is amazing, the music is amazing: it’s got a concept.
KOD: Are album covers a visual expression of the music or do they suggest a narrative or mythology?
Doug Hart: If you look at Led Zeppelin, their record sleeves were almost purposefully designed to be mysterious, as were lots of sleeves from that era. In the early Seventies, you’ve got all these prog rock albums where the sleeve and the music is one big concept, taken to an extreme by bands like Genesis - before the stupid drummer became the singer. 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' is a classic conceptual album. And of course, 'The Wall'. But the start of it was 'S.F.Sorrow' by The Pretty Things, they were the first rock band to release a conceptual album.
KOD: You mentioned your preference for black and white sleeves. What’s the appeal?
Doug Hart: With black and white sleeves, there’s something really beautiful about them. Some are beautiful photographs, some are hard graphics – the Black Angel’s first album is just a black and white sleeve but you never think of it that way because it’s a really over the top pattern and its textural and embossed. I think that’s what interesting about the black and white thing – it never gets boring!
I like a whole mish-mash of black and white sleeves. I’ve got all the Crass records. You just think anyone of those bands now would be arrested. If people put that on Facebook, like “Let’s try and blow up the government or some mass corporation” they’d get done under the Terror Act. That’s taking the black and white cut up photo montage stuff to an extreme, which was really a follow on from punk flyers.
KOD: How has the digital age affected music and our listening habits?
Doug Hart: It’s a double-edged sword. Music has lost worth because it’s so accessible. There’s more fighting for that pound in your pocket nowadays: your average seventeen year old probably has a £25 a month phone bill – living generally is more expensive. Whereas we were brought up to invest in music, these days you can get music for free. Why would you go into a record shop and buy it, when you can get it off a mate?
KOD: But even though music may be less valuable, it does have the potential for a much wider audience.
Doug Hart: That’s the whole point. There are pros and cons. The number of people buying CDs has drastically reduced whilst people downloading music had massively gone up. Vinyl sales are definitely going up because people want to buy an artefact. We’ve almost gone back to that Seventies lifestyle: “let’s buy the record”.
KOD: Might this niche market for vinyl lead to a resurgent interest in album art?
Doug Hart: I think it already has. There’s no doubt about it. I’ve really noticed it over recent years. The 7” concept is coming back. You’ve got people like Jack White’s label, doing vinyl only. They’ve got really good concepts with all their artwork. It’s brought the art form back again, which is a very positive thing. It’s already happening.
All photography by Josha Aidan Eiffel.