Irish album cover exhibition: Wearing their hearts on their sleeves
A new exhibition of Irish album covers celebrates a remarkable artistic legacy. Our music critic meets its vinyl-obsessed curators
On the face of it, the Sultans of Ping, Daniel O'Donnell and Pope John Paul II have little in common. And yet, they all enjoy equal billing at a new exhibition that puts vinyl album covers in the spotlight.
It's a coincidence that the exhibition at Dublin's National Print Museum opens around the time of the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that, of course, boasts one of the most-talked-about sleeves ever. But with Peter Blake's celebrated design in the conversation once more, it's an ideal time to look at album covers from Irish musicians - and a certain Polish pope who caused a stir when he toured Ireland in 1979 - and celebrate the people who designed them.
Starting in the mid-1950s and continuing to the present day, the albums featured were all designed in Ireland, and all were printed here until about 1992.
It may come as a surprise to many but there was a thriving record-cover printing industry in Dublin until well into the 1980s, when the format went into decline thanks to the newfangled promise of the compact disc.
The Green Sleeves exhibition is curated by a couple of vinyl obsessives. Design historian Dr Ciarán Swan is a lecturer at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), Dublin, and Niall McCormack, formerly a member of the band Jubilee Allstars, is a graphic designer whose portfolio includes more than 100 sleeves for the specialist reissue label Ace Records.
"We were fascinated by how much work had been designed in Dublin and printed here," Swan says, "and we wanted to capture as much of the breadth of that as we could. It was never going to be about our favourite Irish albums, but would try to show how strong the design was. And so many of these covers are of their time, too."
"We didn't just want to include conventional albums," McCormack adds, "but also comedy records, religious albums and so on - anything that would show how Irish design changed through the years."
The exhibition may not be vast, but you could easily while away an hour or two here. Some designs are clearly better than others - the country and Irish section boasts artwork that is as lamentable as the music contained within - but the curators argue that such covers are also part of the Irish vinyl story and should not be ignored.
Both Swan and McCormack are intrigued by the re-emergence of vinyl. Sales are higher now in Ireland and the UK than at any time since the early 1990s.
"For decades, albums had a visual identity," Swan says. "Those of us of a certain age would have pored over the covers of our favourite albums. That just doesn't happen in the MP3 or streaming age. The connection has been lost and, to be honest, it started to be lost when the CD first came along. Artwork no longer meant what it did.
"But now there are people - many of them who wouldn't have been born when vinyl was the format of the masses - who are discovering an appreciation not just for the artwork, but for putting an album on the turntable and listening to it from beginning to end."
The idea that today's music-lovers are missing out on the visuals is thrown into sharp relief when I look at a section of the exhibition that features recently released albums from Irish artists. They may have been printed overseas, but the design was done here, in Ireland.
Some, like Little Green Cars' latest album, Ephemera, are beautifully designed and really stand out. And yet, despite listening to the album - and liking it a lot - I had no idea what the artwork was like. In our age of plenty, where millions of songs are available to us on our phones, we rarely bother to glance at the cover which, depending on your phone-screen size, might be little bigger than a postage stamp. And, unquestionably, part of how we engage with musicians is being lost.
When there's any amount of songs to listen to at the tips of your fingers, the days of sifting through the liner notes of your best-loved albums seem to be consigned to history.
And yet, many of today's musicians place as much stock on creating strong, distinctive artwork as previous generations did.
"There's a lot of really good work being done today," McCormack says of a contemporary wall featuring such recently released albums as Friendship from the Redneck Manifesto and Le Club from Le Galaxie.
"And those who buy the vinyl editions of these albums will really see it. There's a collectable quality to it. But you don't have the sort of mass engagement you had with the artwork that you would have had three or four decades ago."
Leading designers like Steve Averill are featured, but Swan and McCormack resisted the urge to go big on his most famous client, U2. Instead, their debut album, Boy, and an early live album, Under a Blood Red Sky, are displayed. (It must have taken a lot of willpower not to include The Joshua Tree, considering it's their most emblematic album).
There is, however, a section devoted to Horslips and it will confirm the opinion of those who feel that no Irish band has been so fixated on design. Among the artefacts is an original pressing of debut album Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part, which featured a novel, octagonal-shaped cover - "that would have been expensive to do," Swan says - and a copy of their concept album, The Táin, one of my favourite Irish covers, which in stark black and white features a clenched fist. I have a CD version - the vinyl edition truly blows it out of the water.
But some of the most impressive artwork of all was not delivered for a rock band, but was commissioned by the Catholic Church in the 1960s. The man responsible was Cor Klaasen, a Dutch artist whose distinctive work adorns the covers of albums of hymns and homilies. There's a modernist feel to his work - much of it done half a century ago - and his very individualistic style positively leaps from the walls.
"I've huge regard for his work," McCormack says. "He was an atheist and yet was able to deliver daring work for a very conservative organisation."
Klaasen was prolific, too. Besides albums, he also designed the covers of numerous books, including school textbooks that would be familiar to anyone who was in secondary school in the 1970s.
"We hope an exhibition like this will make people think about why artwork and music can have such a strong relationship," Swan says. "And maybe it will encourage them to put their phones away and play those old vinyl records again."
Green Sleeves is at the National Print Museum, Beggars Bush Barracks, Dublin, until October 1
The Chieftains — The Chieftains (1963)
A stark contrast from the sleeves of the day, the impressionistic cover conveyed that the Chieftains were different.
Microdisney — We Hate You South African Bastards (1984)
The uncompromising Cork band could never be accused of sitting on the fence. The album was later renamed Love Your Enemies.
U2 - Boy (1980)
Designed by Steve Averill it featured the face of Peter Rowan, the younger brother of Bono's friend. Rowan is now a photographer.
Little Green Cars - Absolute Zero (2013)
The critically acclaimed debut boasts a specially painted cover from the stable of the Dublin-based Slater Design.