For Beck, the worlds of music and art have always been inextricably linked.
His grandfather, Al Hansen, was a paragon of the Fluxus art movement of the ’60s and ’70s (works by the two were featured in a touring show called “Playing With Matches”), and as a teen, Beck supported his bizarro-folk leanings with a slew of jobs, including working at a museum.
Throughout his career, nowhere have those two universes collided quite like they do on the cover of Beck’s albums. For more than a decade, he’s worked hard at creating, as he puts it, “iconic, identifying images” to showcase the genre-defying tunes contained within. And more often than not, he succeeds (think the cow-skull-and-carburetor sculpture that fronts Mellow Gold or the leaping Komondor on the cover of Odelay).
So it came as a bit of a shock when news broke earlier this year that he was taking the opposite approach for his new record, The Information. With a simple sheet of graph paper and some stickers, Beck handed the design responsibilities over to his fans (see “Beck Giving Fans Sticky Fingers With Quasi-Hip-Hop Album” ). While some saw the move as a cop-out or a shrewd marketing decision, Beck prefers to think of it as the next step in his artistic progression.
“Art has always been a huge part of my upbringing, and in the past, I’ve used music as an excuse to work with [artists like] Marcel Dzama or Tim Hawkinson. But with this new record, I decided to sort of turn the controls over to the people who buy my music,” he said. “Also, I’ve always aspired to have a record cover that’s so emblematic of the music that the two are inseparable, and often I’ve had to, like, slave over cover choices. So with this album, it’s been a relief because there is no proper cover.”
But that doesn’t mean Beck is abandoning the medium altogether. Rather, with The Information, he’s looking to re-examine the definition of just what an album cover can be. And when he stopped by MTV News recently, he let us in on the albums that inspired him to think outside the, um, jewel case in the first place.
The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966)
“I love both of these covers, just love the imagery. They’re kind of, you know, psychedelic and weird but still also kind of innocent. Records need an identity, or else they all start to blur together. Some people will say that there are other, more famous Beatles covers, but these are simpler and yet still tripped-out — kind of like their music was becoming.”
France Gall’s Baby Pop (1966)
“When I was growing up, my friends and I would go to swap meets and thrift stores and buy records just for their wild covers. But then something happened. We started actually listening to those records we bought in the used bins, and we’d go, ‘Wow, there are some cool songs on [these]!’ So that’s how we sort of discovered France Gall. I think we originally bought her albums because of the way she looks on the cover. But she was actually really, really talented.”
Os Mutantes’ Os Mutantes (1968) and Mutantes (1969)
“Same thing goes for Os Mutantes. We’d go to thrift stores, and it was like digging through the vaults and discovering these lost treasures. At first we probably bought these records because of their really weird, spacey covers. But when they turned out to be great, it was like an extra bonus.”
Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (1969)
“This is a great album cover. Making one and choosing one is a complete art form, because it really can change an album for me. And here is this incredible image on this incredible double album. It’s completely fearless, a really bold and funny statement.”
The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (1971)
“It’s really this multimedia sort of presentation [designed and photographed by Andy Warhol] because of the zipper and all. It’s simple and yet really iconic. If you picked the record up and you had never heard of the Rolling Stones before, you’d immediately understand just what this record was all about.”
Toncho Pilatos’ Toncho Pilatos (1971)
“I grew up in L.A., so I have tons of weird Mexican rock from the ’70s — that’s a whole universe unto itself. Like Toncho Pilatos, these wild-looking guys. All of these album covers were full of, like, gangs of psychedelic-looking Mexican dudes and pyramids. It was their version of what was going on in England or the U.S. but with more of their culture and influences thrown in there.”
Pool-Pah’s “The Flasher” soundtrack (1973)
“I have some thrift-store records that I really love the covers for. There’s a soundtrack to this movie, ‘The Flasher’ — I got it when I was about 18 in a used bin. And I’ve never seen the film or heard any mention of it. I don’t even know if the film exists, but the soundtrack exists. And it’s an illustration of this bearded, Jesus-looking character in a trench coat, sort of shazamming through space. And on the back cover are stills from the film: He’s flashing an old lady, she’s beating him with her purse, he flashes a statue in a park.”
David Bowie’s Low (1977)
“I’m such a huge fan of all the Bowie album covers from the ’70s, but this one [an image from the 1976 film 'The Man Who Fell to Earth,' which stars Bowie] sticks out in my mind. Making a cover is torturous, because you’re sentencing the music to one image, forever and ever. And, like, you start to think, ‘Is it going to be too kitschy or too retro? Too serious or too dark?’ I don’t think David Bowie thought about any of those things, but for the music contained on the record, this cover was perfect.”