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Command Records, graphic design in music

Album covers by Josef Albers and Charles E. Murphy

Enoch Light: Provocative Percussion Volume 4' Charles E. Murphy

Jaume Pujagut

When ADG-FAD invited me to collaborate with the association by writing on music-related topics, the first thing that popped into my head was to talk about album covers. These objects have accompanied me over the years and I have a very special relationship with them. Even though nowadays almost everyone listens to music on digital media, vinyl records (and their covers) have managed to survive the invasion of other mediums and the music that we –at one time or another—listen to on streaming.

I believe that at this point in time there is no need to speak of the classics (Hipgnosis, Blue Note, Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Velvet Underground’s banana, the Rolling Stones zipper and many many more); not even to remember that the concept of a record cover or sleeve was an idea that occurred to Alex Steinweiss while strolling around the streets of New York and catching sight of a theatre marquee. So without further ado, let me tell you about the work of Josef Albers and Charles E. Murphy.

Cover by Alex Steinweiss, considered to be the first one in history.

Command Records with a Saul Bass as a gift

At home I still have and listen to my vinyl collection: singles, EPs, Maxis or LPs. My living room walls are festooned with plastic sleeves containing some of my favourite covers –not necessarily for the music but rather for their graphic design; in terms of music, and despite my eternal admiration for the four Liverpool boys, I believe the best record in history is Marvin Gaye’s  What’s going on— and on the plate, a home plotter with real-size reproductions of some of the covers produced by Command Records. I don’t have them in the plastic sleeves simply because none of those records are in my collection and, even though I’d like to have them, for now, and who knows for how long, I’ll settle for my home plotter.

But let’s go back to Command Records, a company founded by the orchestra conductor Enoch Light in 1959 as a subsidiary of Grand Award Records, which was later taken over by ABC-Paramount Records.
Command Records concentrated on high-quality recordings and on experimenting with stereophonic sound, which was introduced to the world in the early nineteen-sixties.

In fact, one of its first productions, Command Stereo Check Out, devoted its entire A side to sounds with which to test the proper quality of the listener’s playback equipment, while the B side included 4 recordings from their catalogue.

Light wanted to have the best records in the market, not only in terms of listening but also of aesthetics and information; with details of the recording process, tips for correctly listening to each one of the recordings included in the vinyl, the list of participating musicians, etc.

The art directors of the record labels used to commission a photograph or an illustration for the cover, to which they applied the typography with the name of the album, the artist, etc. Light, in his quest for perfection, hired Charles E. Murphy as art director. He was a Korean War veteran who had studied at Yale with Josef Albers as his professor and whom he invited to participate in his project.

Albers designed seven covers for Command from basic elements such as lines, circles and squares; elements which, despite their rigid shape, were situated on the cover surface in such a way as to generate a feeling of movement and which on occasion (Per­suasive Percussion or Pictures at an Exhibition) recall the variations of an oscilloscope when registering changes in sound. Black and white predominate on Albers’ covers, two as negative and the other five as positive images, some of them with subtle brushstrokes in blue, violet or dark red.

Persuasive Percussion Volume 3 and Provocative Percussion Volume 3, 1961. Design: Josef Albers

Albers proposed a minimalist line of work based on abstraction, a proposal far removed from everything that had previously been done in cover design; these works recall the early exercises done in graphic design schools and which very likely he himself asked his students to do at Yale.

Taking Albers’ ideas as his starting point, Murphy continued with the art direction of Command’s covers until the late nineteen-sixties, adding colour to Albers’ basic palette, playing with the geometry and visual effects and even incorporating a powerful use of typography, perhaps influenced by the work of Reid Miles for Blue Note Records.

Enoch Light: Provocative Percussion Volume 4 and Enoch Light: Big Band Bossa Nova - The New Beat from Brazil, 1962. Design: Charles E. Murphy

The gift

To conclude this text, I would like to share an intriguing cover made by Saul Bass for a Frank Sinatra record. Saul Bass, one of the most relevant individuals in the history of graphic design, is mostly known for his work in corporate identity and for his film credits.

He also designed record covers, most of them of soundtracks for the films for which he had also designed the credits such as Joan of Arc, West Side Story, Exodus, etc. He was not particularly brilliant at covers, perhaps because he had to build on previous work done for another medium (film) and never regarded it independently.

Tone Poems of Color by Frank Sinatra. Design: Saul Bass

However, his work for the Frank Sinatra LP Tone Poems of Color could easily form part of Command’s back catalogue: a cover where, despite Sinatra’s popularity, he virtually dispenses with using his photo, relegating it to a tiny square in the top left of the cover and, playing with the record title, composing an ensemble of thick lines of almost always dark and warm colours, with typographical superpositions of text and squares separating the changes in colour.

Again the use of lines and squares, basic elements used by Albers in his work and a curious coincidence in the oeuvre of two graphic design icons.

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