My favourite album cover

Kraftwerk Autobahn

I wrote the following in response to the question ‘what is your favourite album cover and why?’, asked on The Designer’s Review of Books blog.

There are so many ways to relate to album covers – from dog-eared flat surfaces used for rolling joints to pristine heavyweight vinyl encased in protective sheaths. And what’s meant by an album cover nowadays anyway? Is it a collection of 78s or one of those wonderful Led Zep fantasies like Physical Graffiti and In Through The Out Door. Might it be one of the huge number of wonderfully imaginative CD cases that bands and designers have come up with for the last decade or two? In the not too distant future, will it even be an iPhone app?

One of my favourite covers is the first CD I wrote about on Hard Format, the website I set up with a friend more than 18 months ago. It’s The K&D Sessions by Kruder and Dorfmeister. I bought it for £1 in a sale at my local library. It’s not the greatest design or the greatest music, but what I love is that it’s passed through so many hands and given so much pleasure to so many people. The evidence is there for anyone to see: it’s recorded in the frayed edges, torn surfaces and library date stamps. That wear and tear symbolises the brilliance of popular music: everyone can own an artwork that is both mass-produced and an original. However Kruder and Dorfmeister aren’t my final choice.

I’m tempted to choose one of Susan Archie’s jawdroppingly wonderful designs for Revenant. I’m torn between Charley Patton’s Screamin’ and Hollerin’ The Blues and Albert Ayler’s Ghost Box. Both evoke their subjects with extensive notes, photographs and ephemera – handbills, cards, handwritten notes. I’ll confess something: when I caught sight of the dogwood flower in the Ghost Box, it literally brought tears to my eyes. I’d also love to choose Richard Skelton‘s hand-crafted designs or múm’s gorgeous Summer Make Good book or Faust’s Clear in its transparent record sleeve, but in my heart of hearts I know my favourite design.

It’s the cover of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, the one with the white motorway symbol on a bright blue background. It’s an absolutely iconic design. I first saw it at the tender age of 8, in 1974, when my dad brought it home. A lifelong classical music stalwart, Autobahn was his one concession to popular music and it had a profound effect on me. I listened to the 22 minute title track over and over again on headphones, loving the synthesized sound of the cars whooshing from one ear to the other, right through the middle of my head. The bridge that crosses the two white lines always seemed to symbolise my headphones listening in to the roar of traffic martialled into a modern-day symphony by Kraftwerk. I wish I had a photograph of the album itself. What makes my dad’s copy unique – like the Kruder and Dorfmeister CD I talked about before – are the two pieces of brown sticky tape affixed to the lower corners. I recently asked why they were there and Dad reminded me that he’d had to repair the sleeve after numerous borrowings in my teenage years. Over the years, me and my dad have had quite a difficult relationship, but Autobahn always seemed like something shared. That cover is the nearest thing to a family heirloom I’ve got.

Autobahn is fascinating because of its translation of the concept of travel into musical form. This transmission from one medium to another was not a new one, but the extent to which it reduced the distance between musical composition and referent was and remains striking. Its central motif isn’t a melody, but the sound of cars approaching and moving away from the listener. The cover perfectly encapsulates this by appropriating the motorway symbol and placing it so that it fills the cover from top to bottom. There is no end to the journey in graphic terms, it’s implied that the road continues outside the frame of the cover. Similarly the music ends with one more passing car rather than the sound, say, of an engine being turned off (Autobahn’s railway counterpart, Trans-Europe Express, ends with the sound of train brakes squealing). Typographically, the design is fascinating as well. The letters R, W, R, A, U, A and H in the title are escaping from their settings, literally tracing new roads, setting off for multiple destinations. At the same time they’re dancing – the W, U and H waving and punching the air and the Rs and As stretching their toes out. The letter forms presage the tremendous influence the group would have on dance music and on the musical world as a whole. Similarly, the icon-focused design was the approach the group would take in its latterday releases, except that they folded the four members into each one.

Autobahn represents an utterly brilliant synergy between music, concept and visual design. One last thing: there’s no designer credit on the Autobahn sleeve which at the same as being a bit criminal also seems fittingly utilitarian.


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