Article: Album Art/Progressive Rock of the 1970s

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Article

Progressive Rock, maybe more than than any other musical genre – maybe even more than its immediate forebear, Psychedelic Pop – is an intensely visual form of music. The prog rock masterworks, without exception, are tone-poems that evoke vividly surreal vistas and dream-worlds of poetic imagery. The record album artwork of the early 1970s – the gilded age of prog – laboured hard to capture those dreams in paint, airbrush and ink.

Most leading prog bands used various album artists for their covers over time. However there are a few notable exceptions where one illustrator so perfectly visualised the music that the symbiosis of musician and artist enlarged both the music and the art. Probably the most perfect example of this is Roger Dean and Yes.

From the 1971 Yes LP Fragile, Dean’s art has adorned their music off and on right up until 2011’s Fly From Here, but the most memorable series was from Fragile through to 1974’s Relayer. His fantasy landscapes were entirely naturalistic and plausible; they were alien yet still somehow of this world. Even the dwellings, bridges, aircraft depicted were made of entirely natural forms, morphing features from rocks, trees, birds and insects. His lettering too, such as the Yes logo, came from this same naturomorphic place. Dean always saw himself as a “landscape artist” and his paintings made a perfect fit with the music of Yes, mirroring its rustic and folk aspects as well as its widescreen majesty.

Peter Gabriel’s Genesis also formed a brief relationship with the surrealist artist, Paul Whitehead, who designed covers for 1970’s Trespass, 1971’s Nursery Cryme and 1972’s Foxtrot. Despite their rather amateurish handling, they suit the music held in these three records perfectly: British, whimsical and nightmarishly theatrical.

Pink Floyd have also been inextricably linked to Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell’s Hipgnosis design group, definitely the busiest album artists of the 70’s – look up their CV! Although remembered historically for their cover of Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – perhaps the least inspired of their cover designs – Hipgnosis’s concepts for 1975’s Wish You Were Here and 1977’s Animals perfectly reflect the dichotomy of Roger Water’s rage and cynicism versus Dave Gilmour’s cool spaciness. Hipgnosis covers can be overly decorative and tastelessly intricate, but despite this – or maybe even because of it – their work is the archetype of 1970s rock album covers.

Few other bands formed long-term links with graphic artists of the day – however, there are many other examples of a particular artist’s cover artwork resonating beautifully with the recordings within. King Crimson’s 1969 debut In The Court of the Crimson King features two paintings (outer gatefold sleeve and inner gatefold) by computer programmer Barry Godber. These iconic images were the only paintings Godber ever did in his short lifetime – he died the following year.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery from 1973 – the first on their own label, Manticore – featured a complex diecut/inner sleeve combination created by Swiss fantasy artist H.R. Giger, in his ‘monochromatic biomechanical’ style. It features a graphic double take on the face of a beautiful woman alternating with a skull. A phallus originally painted beneath her chin was removed at the record company’s insistence. Once again, Giger’s art perfectly matches the music of ELP – their mix of classical themes with violence and sexual cross currents (they were one of the very few prog band who even acknowledged women as sexual beings – albeit with strongly sado-masochistic overtones).

The legacy of The Prog Age seemed to filter through to Progressive Rock’s natural successor, Heavy Metal (in its more technical and florid forms) with covers depicting mythic, surrealistic and operatic scenes. But of course, with CDs replacing vinyl gatefolds, the palette shrank and so did the graphic vision. Today, many bands releasing vinyl formats of their music put great care and passion into their album art – The Sword, Radiohead and the Mars Volta (whose first two albums contained artwork designed by Hipgnosis’s Storm Thorgerson to complete the circle) – as they can see how deeply it enriches the artefact.


Published June 2011 on


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