Rating album cover artwork is, in some ways, more difficult that explaining why you like music. Both are wholly subjective, of course, but at least with a song you can say, “I like the guitar solo”, “the melody sticks in my head” or “I can really relate to the words”. But the image on the front of a record? I guess you either like it or you don’t. You could argue that, in these digital days where even the concept of an album carries less and less weight, cover art doesn’t even matter anymore. It’s importance has probably been shrinking – quite literally – since the arrival of the CD. But the lasting iconography of The Beatles’ album covers (along with many others, from David Bowie and Pink Floyd to Fleetwood Mac and The Smiths) shows they can really make an impact if you get them right.
For me, I guess I’m looking for a striking image (it doesn’t have to feature the artist, though I tend to like ones that do) and/or something that somehow captures the mood of the music in some way. If it doesn’t have a photo of its creator(s), then the image needs to grab my attention in its own right. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (after all, what could you possibly glean from the White Album?), but it can put some people off. How many times have you listened to a duff album and then thought: “even the cover’s crap”? Did the lousy cover help to plant negative thoughts in the first place? And how often have you been pumped to hear an album because you thought the artwork was really cool? A strong cover won’t necessarily make an album sell more, but it won’t hurt. Or at least it didn’t, in the old days.
Beatle solo album covers are a pretty mixed bag (partly, I suspect, because there have been so many of them over such a long period of time), and George’s are no exception to that. He didn’t consistently hit the heights that John did, for example, but his artwork choices were generally solid. Crucially, they were identifiably him, mixing splashes of humour with spiritual earnestness – sometimes both at the same time. For the purposes of this list, I’m not counting his experimental Wonderwall and Electronic Sounds albums, nor his live or compilation discs (which is just as well in the case of the dreadful Live in Japan and Best of Dark Horse covers, which seem to be designed to make it as difficult as possible for any potential buyers to make out that they are George Harrison records). I’m not sure he even had any say over the 1976 Best of George Harrison release, in any case. And I doubt he’d have been thrilled at the use of a Beatles-era photo to adorn 2007’s Let It Roll solo compilation, either. So what follows is just my ranking of the covers for his studio albums, from least to best.
10. Extra Texture
Some original versions of this 1975 album cut out the letters of the album title, allowing you to see a photo of George on the inner sleeve; others had an embossed design on the cardboard sleeve (‘extra texture’, get it?). They probably worked a little better than the later, ‘flat’ copies – like the one I have. But even so, considering this came out at a time when LP covers were approached as intricate and often grandiose works of art ( think Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes or Led Zepplin’s Houses of the Holy), this just comes over as drab, cheap and uninspired. At a time when George’s output was starting to take a critical battering and his sales were falling, I doubt this did much to generate public interest, and it certainly isn’t worthy of the fine music contained inside.
I believe George left notes about his ideas for the cover of this album, which came out in 2002, a year after his death. And I get the point he was trying to make, reflected in the title track, about many people having their ideas and opinions dictated to them by the mainstream media (very prescient, considering where we are today). But I think this image of a family of crash test dummies clustered around a TV set is a little clunky and heavy-handed, to say the least. Nor was the less-than-subtle message it conveyed likely to endear itself to potential buyers. The song features a mixture of contempt and hope of spiritual salvation, but the cover leans much more towards the former. It’s interesting to note that EMI soon put a slipcase around the CD, featuring a nice photo of George taken in Hawaii during the 1990s, instead.
8. Gone Troppo
This one, from 1982, is better. Colourful and playful, it’s also based on the title track and reflects George’s decision to effectively step away from the maelstrom of the rock world and go on semi-permanent vacation. Hence the sand, sea, sun and sombrero imagery, and various tropical paraphenalia. However, from a visual point of view, it’s also a bit messy and unfocused – your eye doesn’t quite know where to look. The (slightly odd) photo of George, his name and even the title of the album tend to get lost in the mix. I’m not sure the cartoonish quality of it all entirely works, either, but it does have a certain charm.
7. Dark Horse
I’m in two minds about this one, from 1974. On the one hand, the simplistic artwork and pallid colours make it look like a tatty ‘70s religious painting you might find gathering dust in a charity shop. But it is clever how the designers managed to take an old school photograph and frame it in a spiritual, vaguely-Himalyan setting. Adorning the stiff, buttoned-up 1950s teachers (or masters, as they would’ve been known) with funky 1970s logos (including the record labels of Apple and George’s own soon-to-launched Dark Horse Records) is a fun touch too. However, I’m not sure that having the youthful George (coloured in Krishna blue) above everyone else and nearest the godhead figure sends out a very likeable message to his former classmates, or the rest of the world for that matter
6. Living in the Material World
Sometimes less is more, and that is the case here. Perhaps reflecting a shift to a more pared-down sound after the heavily-layered glories of its predecessor, All Things Must Pass, or perhaps just another nod to his religious beliefs, this 1973 album featured just an eerie photograph of George’s hand, apparently holding a Hindu medallion. The image was obtained using Kirlian photography (the technique which captures something’s electrical, coronal aura), and was taken at UCLA’s parapsychology department. I must say the end result is more creepy than spiritual, looking like something you’d find in a book about weird paranormal phenomena, but – accompanied by George’s signature – it makes for striking, unusual cover art.
5. Somewhere in England
This 1981 collection famously had its original cover (showing George’s head merging with an image of the UK) rejected by his record label, Warner Brothers, along with some of its songs. It was later replaced by a photo of George in front of a painting at the Tate Gallery in London, only to be swapped out again in favour of the first choice artwork when the album was re-issued in 2004. I like both, but actually feel the Tate gallery shot which adorned the record on its first release is the better one. It’s a more memorable image (and what could be more English than a curb-side yellow line?), and is nicely supplemented on the back cover as a grinning George reveals he wasn’t lying down on the pavement at all.
4. George Harrison
The self-titled 1979 album features George as his most relaxed and laid-back, and the cover shot perfectly captures that mood. It’s a beautifully executed photograph, from the out-of-focus flora in the foreground to the mottled sunlight effect on George’s face. He looks contemplative, absorbed, like his thoughts focused are on a far horizon. The effect is spoiled slightly by his less-than-transcendental ‘70s curly perm but, nonetheless, it’s a very elegant, easy-on-the-eye cover which reflects the warmth and depth of the music within. And, perm aside, it doesn’t look dated at all.
3. All Things Must Pass
The most famous of all his albums, the austere cover photograph taken in the expansive grounds of George’s (then new) Friar Park home in Surrey has become a classic rock image, and deservedly so. Capturing him at the height of his landed gentry hippy look in 1970, he again seems to be staring slightly off-camera, with a serious, sage-like expression. But the grandeur of his surroundings and pose is nicely undercut by the Wellington boots he’s wearing and, particularly, the gently mocking garden gnomes placed around him. It didn’t occur to me for a long time that the four figures might be representing The Beatles, which many believe. Certainly, their close proximity to him, and the wide open spaces beyond, may be sending a message about his break for freedom a solo act. When the album was reissued in 2001, the cover was coloured in, and its CD sleeves and booklet pictured an imaginary encroachment of the modern concrete world which George so disliked, adding high rise flats, a motorway flyover and jumbo jet to the scene. They were good, but the chilly, monochrome beauty of the original was rightly restored on all releases since.
2. Cloud Nine
I love this cover. After a five-year, self-imposed hiatus, George returned to the music scene in 1987 with a set of sparkling, upbeat – and undeniably commercial – songs, and this photograph shows a happy, revitalised man in step with the times and in touch with his muse. He’s starting straight at the camera this time (albeit from behind shades) and smiling, a far cry from the slightly bitter, almost grumpy figure we had seen at the start of the decade. Clutching the Gretch guitar he played during his early Beatles days, it also reflected someone at ease with his illustrious past (as did his thanks to John, Paul and Ringo on the inner sleeve), but the dreamy clouds in the background also signified the search for heavenly enlightenment hadn’t gone away.
- Thirty Three & 1⁄3
I’m not exactly sure what it is about this sleek 1976 cover I like so much, but it works on every level for me. A little like Cloud Nine, it shows George in cool, confident mood following a couple of difficult years when his critical and commercial standing had slumped. I love the double exposure on the photo – it’s colourful and dynamic, portraying forward movement. There’s the oligatory religious reference (the album title actually reads as Thirty Three & 1/ॐ, the final letter a spiritual symbol in Indian religions) but it’s a light, clever artistic touch which doesn’t come off as preachy. And any remotely serious tone is nicely dispelled by his silly sunglasses. All in all, one of the very best solo Beatle album covers.