Thursday 22 March 2018

Royal stamp of approval

You know that something has passed into ancient history when the Royal Mail in the UK starts issuing commemorative stamps around it.

How else do you interpret the news that a series of 10 of rock's most iconic album covers have been chosen to appear alongside the British monarch's head on UK postage stamps?

As a barometer of cultural mummification, being stuck on the top right-hand corner of a nation's letters and parcels seems hard to beat. Stamps have always acted as a sort of miniature museum of a country; now, joining storied war generals and countryside wildlife, come rock stars once thought delinquent and dangerous, such as Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.

Or am I being too harsh? Should we instead applaud the Establishment's efforts to celebrate a fast-dying art form? Where better to preserve its memory in a post-album cover world than . . . the post?

Rock writers of a certain age have long lamented how the rise of the internet downloading culture has had disastrous consequences for the future of vinyl. But their beef usually concerns the loss of the richness of sound quality caused by the compression of mp3s.

However, the aesthetic cost of the album sleeves becoming an endangered species is also to be counted. There was something wonderfully tactile about buying a vinyl album: you felt you had brought home something substantial -- and if it happened to have a gatefold sleeve, even better. Usually, they smelt really appealing, too.

The 12-inch format gave the artists scope to produce striking images and designs that would echo down the decades. One thinks of the Beatles' sleeves -- from Peter Blake's psychedelic collage of world-famous celebrities on the front of Sgt Pepper to the zebra crossing on Abbey Road to the total whiteout of, well, The White Album -- each cover added to the band's legend and mystique.

The first major body blow came with the rise of compact discs in the mid-1980s -- the shrunken plastic format meant a serious downsizing of the artwork. But a great sleeve still resonated with the public -- for instance, the muzzled greyhounds on the cover of Blur's Parklife album is one of the sleeves chosen by the Royal Mail.

But with music increasingly being something that travels from the web to your PC to your iPhone, the importance of cover artwork has been downgraded.

To counter such looming obsolescence, some bands (Radiohead, for example), have started to make album art available online -- to be printed out and inserted in the case of the CDR. But with so many people wedded to their iPhones, is this anything more than a token gesture?

So what about the sleeves that did make the cut of the Royal Mail's Top 10? The first thing that struck me was how none of the aforementioned Beatles albums were included -- am I the only one who thinks it strange that the Fab Four should be excluded? Particularly given that only UK bands were eligible for the project.

Curiously, the only album sleeve representing rock's golden age of the 1960s is the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed -- which features a cake baked by a then unknown Delia Smith.

Take that, Nigella.

The 1970s fare much better, with Led Zeppelin's IV, featuring a painting of an old man carrying sticks nailed to a decrepit old house as its central image (and no mention at all of the band or the album title).

Indeed, it was Led Zep guitarist Jimmy Page who launched the series in the legendary Rough Trade record shop in London's Notting Hill last week. "Almost 40 years after the album came out, nobody knows the old man who featured on the cover, nor the artist who painted him," said Page. "That sort of sums up what we wanted to achieve with the album cover, which has remained both anonymous and enigmatic at the same time."

David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) was also chosen. The photo on the front was taken in Heddon Street in London's West End. However, if I had to choose one Bowie album cover for the project, I would have opted for Aladdin Sane, with those eye-catching stripes painted across the singer's face.

The choice of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells will also have its admirers. This album sold millions and more than anything else helped establish Richard Branson's Virgin empire. The bent chrome piping on the front is both an arresting image in its own right and a pointer to the innovative music within its grooves.

The fourth 1970s entry is The Clash's seminal London Calling cover, which features Pennie Smith's unforgettable photo of Paul Simenon smashing his bass on stage. The fact that it was then mocked up to mimic Elvis's debut album was a stroke of genius.

The 1980s also has only a single entry -- New Order's superb 1983 album Power, Corruption And Lies. Just like Zeppelin's IV, this contains neither the name of the band nor the album.

Oddly, The Queen Is Dead didn't make the grade!

The 1990s is spoilt with three album covers: the smiley face that symbolised rave on Primal Scream's Screamadelica; Blur's Parklife and Pink Floyd's Division Bell, which features two gigantic metal heads in a field in, apparently, Cambridgeshire. And why not?

Finally, the sole album sleeve of the Noughties is Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head from 2002. Its portrait of a head sliced in half used medical imaging technology.

It will be interesting to see if these 10 albums enjoy a surge in sales as a result of their inclusion on these stamps.

Ultimately, it's only philately -- but I like it.

Irish Independent

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