Saturday 18 November 2017

Magical union of sound and vision

The creative minds behind band photos and album artwork are the music industry's unsung heroes

Collaboration: Depeche Mode photographed by Anton Corbijn
Collaboration: Depeche Mode photographed by Anton Corbijn
Spirit by Depeche Mode
John Meagher

John Meagher

Depeche Mode and Anton Corbijn first became acquainted in 1981. They were an up-and-coming new wave band from Essex and he was a Dutch photographer making a name for himself at the NME. Back then, Britain's best-known music magazine was a very big deal indeed and Corbijn's photos of Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher would have reached a lot of people.

Their paths wouldn't cross again for five years because Corbijn kept turning down the opportunity to work with them.

"I thought they were too poppy; it was not my kind of music," he once said with Dutch directness. That changed in 1986, when the band's sound had shrugged off the synth-pop and become a whole lot darker and much more interesting.

Corbijn's trademark black-and-white photography captured a very different band than the one who enjoyed life at the upper reaches of the charts. Their mood was serious, the backdrop tended to be industrial. The message was clear: don't expect to hear another 'I Just Can't Get Enough' any time soon. If you want giddy pop thrills, look elsewhere.

It wasn't to matter. A super run of albums over the following few years peaked with 1990's magnificent Violator and Gahan & Co never looked back. And Corbijn - so reluctant to work with the band early on - was with them every step of the way, helping them to carefully construct the look we think of as Depeche Mode today.

Fast-forward to 2017 and a new Depeche Mode album (reviewed below) and another collaboration with Anton Corbijn. This time he's shot a smart, stark video for lead single 'Where's the Revolution?' and it's clearly the work of someone who knows this band almost as intimately as they know themselves.

Corbijn's work is a reminder of just how much stock many musicians place in delivering just the right image, be it official promo photos, videos - which reach a far larger audience than the 'golden age' of MTV thanks to YouTube et al - album artwork, stage design, merchandise, you name it.

U2 have long valued the importance of the visible aspect of what they do (no sniggers about Bono's 1980s mullet, please). Like Depeche Mode, they have formed a very strong bond with Corbijn - which was also fashioned in the early 1980s. It was Corbijn who shot that iconic Joshua Tree photo - which we'll all be seeing an awful lot once more when the 30th anniversary tour kicks off in May - and it was he who snapped the band at their most artistically daring period in the 1990s.

My favourite of his campaigns with U2 was for the Pop album when - unusual for the photographer - U2 were captured hamming it up in blazing colour.

And it's not just Corbijn they've stayed loyal to. Dubliner Steve Averill, the former Steve Rapid of 1970s punk band The Radiators from Space, has designed the artwork for every album from Boy to Songs of Innocence. Check out U2 in the 'clients' section of Averill's company's website, ampvisual.com, for a treasure trove of design work - from album sleeves to concert programmes and visuals created for specific tours.

Designers with such a clear vision have helped greatly enhance the experience for fans. That certainly was the case with the Smiths who, in Morrissey, had a frontman who took the look of their albums and singles exceptionally seriously. And in Jo Slee, the former production manager of their Rough Trade label, he found someone who shared his obsession with 1960s British culture, kitchen-sink dramas and comparatively obscure French films.

Whether it was Gallic movie star Alain Delon on the cover of The Queen is Dead or that icon of Swinging 1960s London, Terence Stamp, on the sleeve of single 'What Difference Does It Make?', you knew you were in the presence of a more cerebral band than most before you had even heard the music.

An even more influential visual language emanated from Manchester in the 1980s. Thanks to the supreme talents of Peter Saville, Factory Records became a shorthand for exceptional design. And Saville created everything from the famous cover of New Order's 'Blue Monday' 12-inch, from headed stationary to concert flyers.

He even designed the Hacienda, the most written about nightclub of the decade, and it - like everything else that emanated from his design studio - was given its own catalogue number, prefixed by FAC, in deference to Factory Records.

An absorbing coffee table book, Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album - FAC 461 - captures the visual appeal of all the bands on the seminal label, including Joy Division, whose arresting monochrome imagery was shot by - that man again - Anton Corbijn. (The seemingly ubiquitous photographer would go on to direct the superlative Joy Division biopic Control in 2007.)

Not all of music's great imagery have been the fruit of long collaboration, though. One of the most defiant rock photos ever taken is the one of an androgynous Patti Smith on the cover of her 1975 debut Horses. It was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe, who specialised in portraits of nudes and figures from the art world.

And that sensational photograph of a cigarette-accessoried Grace Jones on the cover of her best album, Nightclubbing, was conceived and shot by Jean-Paul Goude, a French fashion photographer. Jones, one of the best-known models of her generation was, of course, no stranger to that world.

Having very deep pockets helps pay for your Anton Corbijn, Peter Saville and Jean-Paul Goude, but there's some excellent work done on a shoestring, and in Ireland, too.

Each of the 10 Choice Music Prize-nominated albums featured artwork that demonstrated that even in an age dominated by streaming, musicians want to get the visual aesthetic just right. The pick of the bunch is Lisa Hannigan's At Swim, which features a beautifully shot black-and-white image of the singer taken by the New York-based Irish photographer Rich Gilligan. "We kept it as simple and stark as we could," Hannigan says. "There's a frankness to the photograph which felt right."

Anton Corbijn would surely approve.

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