This is perhaps my favorite record cover of all time.
The hierarchy of information begins with the title: 20 Jazz Funk Greats. Pretty self-explanatory, and in a far-out heavily chiseled and drop-shadowed Wide Latin that looks like mid-sixties party time.
Then we move on to the images of the musicians. Four well-adjusted-looking young people, standing in a field of flowers, somewhere at the coast. Swinging-London minidress, white blazer, open collar and high-waisted bell-bottoms, sensible sweater and tan chinos, turtleneck and pageboy haircut… we know these guys. Fashionable but not outlandish. With-it. Groovy. And they’re looking right at the camera and smiling, so you know they’re sincere, and that they like you.
The next piece of information is the name of the band, “Throbbing Gristle.” That one doesn’t fit so well, but since it’s the most boring piece of visual information (small, basic sans-serif that almost screams “legal boilerplate”) on the cover, our eyes quickly move to an effervescent “bring you” in breathy brush script, which gets us right back into a bygone era.
And then “Stereo,” in a curvy custom-looking italic where the ends of the “S” almost look like headphones.
It’s all laid out on a very classic, very symmetrical grid, most of the important business taking place above the upper third line, the people spaced regularly from left to right, staggered back to front to avoid monotony.
And all of these elements are tied up in an overall visual package that is pitch-perfect sixties.
From the layout (full frame photo, font-salad text above the subjects’ heads) to the image quality of the picture (high contrast, limited over-saturated palette, weird skin tones), every inch of it makes it look like the cousin of these:
A bargain-bin find (“Honey? You ever heard of this band, ‘Throbbing Gristle’?”) that could be earnest folk, or might be mellow moods, but is sure to soothe your ears in one way or another.
What it doesn’t look like is what it is, which is one of the most abrasive and alienating chunks of music ever committed to tape:
It’s not from the sixties. It’s not jazz. It’s not funk. There aren’t even twenty songs on it.
The cover works on the viewer/listener in two ways. First, ostensibly to entice an unsuspecting consumer into buying it, taking it home and getting a nasty shock.
But also (and, I would argue, more powerfully) it serves to contextualize the music as not only a strident but an intimate assault on mainstream culture. The design observes the straight world so creepily closely that it amplifies the inversion into something like a vendetta. “We know you,” they seem to say. “We are you.” Or maybe “we have been you.”
And at the same time it’s a beacon to listeners who themselves feel alienated from the culture it portrays – I would say “teenagers,” but it still resonates with me, even long after I first heard it and long after I cut my hair and got a job. It’s for when you’re stuck in a meeting, or on the subway, or listening to pompous political cant, surrounded by advertising and frustration and noise. It’s noise too, of course. But an invigorating kind of noise.