Picked up this CD by the Black Keys the other week, and the rather self-conscious cover art seemed curiously familiar. That’s probably because the much fêted record sleeve design company Hipgnosis had come up with the idea some 30 years earlier. It was said to have been rejected by regular clients Pink Floyd, but XTC (remember them?) were more than happy with the crumbs from the table for their second album ‘Go’ (released October 1978).
While the Black Keys’ effort has a certain laconic charm – I particularly like the deadpan line on the back cover “These are the names of the songs on this album/These are the guys in the band” – XTC’s takes the idea much further in the copy, the voice becoming increasingly involved, and almost getting into an argument with itself.
“This writing is trying to pull you in, much like an eye-catching picture. It is designed to get you to READ IT. This is called luring the VICTIM, and you are the VICTIM. But if you had a free mind you should STOP READING NOW! Because all we are attempting to do is trying to get you to read on. Yet this is a DOUBLE BIND because if you indeed stop you’ll be doing what we tell you, and if you read on you’ll be doing what we wanted all along.”
Anticipating post-modernism, it debunks the whole notion of the record sleeve as a sales tool, the music industry, and capitalism in a deliciously tongue-in-cheek way. When you consider that the Bee Gees’ ‘Saturday Night Fever’, Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and the eponymous ‘Dire Straits’ were the big sellers back then, you realise quite how far ahead of its time Hipgnosis’ design idea was. And actually, it happens to fit perfectly with XTC’s witty, English, self-deprecating style. They were a super-talented band who never quite fulfilled their potential, mainly because of front man Andy Partridge’s paralysing stage fright.
Which brings me neatly on to Hard Fi’s ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, designed by London graphics house Intro, whose output is generally far more original. Another self-referential piece, once again this pokes fun at the consumerist machine, though this time in a more brutally Modernist typographic style. Actually, it bears a striking resemblance to Intro’s own monograph ‘Display Copy Only’, with its pared-down, black on yellow colour scheme.
What does all this tell us? That there’s nothing new under the sun. That plagiarism abounds. That some ideas are worth revisiting (with a twist). That talent borrows, genius steals. Perhaps a bit of each. Certainly appropriation is routine in the design industry, as the amusing Dopplegänger Design blog so eloquently proves. Click through for several revealing hours of spot the difference.