ART BLANCHE: London Calling and Unknown Pleasures

Continuing on last week’s use of the word “iconic,” I thought this week I would look at two of the most well-known and influential album covers of all time.

The Clash - London Calling

There is not a single photo that better embodies the rock ‘n’ roll spirit than Pennie Smith’s shot of Paul Simonon about to smash his bass. I will argue that for forever and a day. The funny thing is that in true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, this photo is far from being technically perfect. In fact, Penny Smith herself even admitted that she had originally rejected the photo for being too out of focus. But what’s more punk rock than being imperfect, anyways?

Fortunately, graphic designer Ray Lowry, who was traveling with The Clash at the time, was working with the band on designing a cover for their new album London Calling. When he saw Pennie Smith’s photo, Lowry pushed to have it on the cover, regardless of its imperfections. Looking back on the decision much later, he admitted to having no recollection that the photo was blurry at all, claiming that he was too blind and drunk at the time to even notice it.

While at first Lowry had other ideas for the cover, the image of Paul Simonon provided him with more than just a captivating photo to use. Juxtaposed with the distinctive pink and green lettering that Lowry added along the sides and bottom of the cover, the photo of Simonon for London Calling became a direct parody of Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album where Elvis is pictured singing and playing his acoustic guitar.

In retrospect, the referential cover seems even more perfect — The Clash were helping usher in a new era of rock ‘n’ roll: punk rock. Punk built on the conventions of the past with a very in-your-face, gritty attitude. Where Elvis danced, The Clash smashed.

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

While London Calling may be the most well known rock ’n’ roll photo of all time, the cover of Unknown Pleasures certainly ranks atop the world of rock ’n’ roll graphic design. From shoes to tattoos, Unknown Pleasures has been the inspiration behind what seems like a million different designs everywhere you look. At one point in time, Disney even (very briefly) put out an Unknown Pleasures-inspired Mickey Mouse t-shirt

In a weird way, the cover to Unknown Pleasures is both simple and complex. The striking image features a series of only 60 white lines (if my counting skills are on par) on a black background. That’s it. But the mountains and valleys that those lines twist and turn into, and the way and pattern in which they do, creates this extremely captivating, albeit fairly simple and contained, design. 

So where does this iconic image actually come from? Science, of course.

Unknown Pleasures was Joy Division’s debut album and according to their designer Peter Saville, the band came to him with an idea of exactly what they wanted on the cover. They brought a clipped-out page from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy with this image on it. It was a reading of the radio signals emitted from the first ever-studied pulsar (pulsating star) CP 1919. With the pulses repeating every one and a third (ish) seconds, the diagram was a stacked-together series of 60 of those readings.

Once the image was under his supervision, Saville inverted the colors from that were in the book, and the image became the white-on-black that we’re so familiar with, and left the cover at that.

It’s simple, it’s stunning, and it’s from space — what more could you ask for?

-Dylan Singleton