The Beatles is called ‘the White Album’, of course, because of its cover, which is completely devoid of imagery save for the group’s name blind-embossed on its face slightly off-center and askew, and a few discreet bits of type printed in barely visible light gray on the spine and front and back panels. In the shimmering muteness of its glossy blank surface, The Beatles announces the end of the psychedelic era, the obsolescence of floridity and pretension typified ironically enough by the band’s previous opus, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like a Trojan horse virus, the seeming ineffability of The Beatles’ exterior masks the flowers of evil contained in songs that would dissolve the saccharine melodies of the Summer of Love and provide the helter-skelter soundtrack for the Manson murders and Watergate paranoia to come.
But The Beatles’ cover is more than a milestone in the Beatles’ evolution and ultimate demise (in many cultures, white is the color of death and mourning) or an icon of 1960s counterculture gone sour; it’s a sophisticated work of art in its own right. Designed by British artist Richard Hamilton (who is credited with coining the term Pop Art and is this year’s winner of the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Prize for painting), The Beatles’ cover is an important piece of art history, not to mention graphic design and in particular of the album art genre, which along with Andy Warhol’s concept for The Velvet Underground and Nico (AKA ‘the Banana Album’) constitutes an early example of the mash-up of high and low culture we now know as the postmodern.
For the first half of the 20th century, records were packaged in plain paper sleeves that if anything identified only the manufacturer, not the artists whose performances were captured on their black-lacquer grooves. Alex Steinweiss of the Columbia Records promotional department invented cover art in the early 1940s, at a time when audio recordings were produced under wartime materials restrictions. But according to design historian Steven Heller, the corporate suits quickly saw the value of cover art as sales of those recordings outpaced product sent to market unadorned.
Thus cover art became a way of branding record companies and their artists. After World War II, Blue Note Records established hip-cat cred with bold sans-serif lettering, noir black-and-white photography, and Bauhaus-inspired designs. Highbrow art was often used on classical music recordings to evoke an appropriate visual ambience for the aural soundscapes within. Jackson Pollock’s painting White Light, reproduced on Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, drew a parallel between Abstract Expressionism and the post-bop avant-garde. Gatefolds, die-cuts, foil-embossing, and other embellishments added a “deluxe” patina to essentially democratic merchandise.
The stark white cover of The Beatles repudiates the promotional mandate of traditional album art and yet it’s totally about the commodity form—the sequential number printed on the lower right of the original issue kept track of the copies sold. (The one I got from my godmother for Christmas in 1968, its first disk stolen during a kegger in the 1970s at Michigan State, bears the serial number 0797940; the one I currently play is numbered 1340907, both relatively low numbers given the millions of units moved in the last 40 years.) Early on, “smart Beatle” John Lennon created controversy by observing that the group was better known than Jesus. Arriving at the dawn of the age of globalization, the Beatles’ White Album decreed that the group was bigger than even the market. In retrospect, it was a more audacious and compelling claim.