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It’s 1968 and the beginning of the end for the Beatles. The recording of their new album A Doll’s House is plagued by personal grievances, mounting money troubles and the pressure to create a worthy follow-up to their superlative Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There are arguments in the studio. Things become so unbearable that Ringo temporarily quits the group. Despite these difficulties, they complete the record. Though the deep-rooted divisions between the band would forever shape its identity.
The most hyped record of the 1960s, and possibly of all time, Beatle-crazed fans flooded record shops around the world on November 22nd to pick up the new release. Strangely, the album didn’t have a name. The working title, A Doll’s House, had been dropped in favour of… nothing. Stranger still, the album cover was barely a cover at all.
The visual extravagance of Sgt. Pepper’s had been replaced with nothing but a plain white sleeve and the words, “The Beatles”, slanting off-centre. Confusion was understandable, but when those fans finally got home to play the so-called White Album on their record players, they realised that the plain white sleeve conveyed more about the music inside than conventional artwork ever could.
On vinyl, the disunity between the Fab Four was painfully obvious. They sounded less a real band and more a collective of solo artists. The result? A brilliant, but frequently bizarre, listening experience.
For example, at the end of Side B, John Lennon sings ‘Julia’, a bittersweet ballad for his deceased mother. Two tracks back, Paul McCartney yells about having sex in the middle of the road. Chuck Berry-esque rock’n’roll, avant-garde soundscapes, proto-heavy metal bangers – the album pulled in every conceivable direction, never settling on a central theme or message. What cover could accurately express such a sprawling, genre-hopping, fantastic, idiosyncratic mess?
In that sense, the plain sleeve was a stroke of genius. Removing the album art ensures listeners have no preconceptions as to the album’s content. The white sleeve was a clean slate, a blank canvas at which the Beatles could throw as many ideas, styles, and influences as they wanted. This was a carte blanche, meaning they didn’t have to follow any rules or answer to anyone, not even each other.
Am I reading too much into a white sleeve? Maybe, but that philosophy would go some ways to explaining the countless others who have embraced the concept of the “anti-cover”.
Just a year later, the debut record from Genesis arrived. From Genesis to Revelation featured a black sleeve with nothing but the title and the name of the record label. Black soon became a popular choice for the anti-cover, probably because The Beatles had used the other end of the colour spectrum so famously.
Other noteworthy black album covers include The Eagles’ The Long Run, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Metallica’s The Black Album. The latter was a more direct imitator of The White Album, the lack of title and cover art also born from conflict within the band.
This black sleeve trend grew so ubiquitous that it was even parodied in mockumentary classic This is Spinal Tap. The original album art is considered offensive and replaced with an entirely black cover. The band are outraged, at least until they start bullshitting about how meaningful the colour black really is:
“Well I think it looks like death.”
(Note: I’m aware that I’m flying dangerously close to doing the same thing here so don’t bother pointing that out!)
The new millennium saw the anti-cover idea taken even further, possibly to its logical conclusion. After songs from their upcoming third album leaked online, System of a Down decided to intentionally make the album look like a bootleg upon release. The aptly-titled Steal This Album! had no sleeve at all, only a jewel case and a disc that scrawled with black marker.
Kanye West pulled a similar stunt with 2013’s Yeezus, with only a red sticker telling you that this was one of the most anticipated albums of the year and not a CD of mp3s ripped from the internet. The philosophy of a blank album is that it doesn’t grant assumptions to the listener. West, as always, expressed this eloquently:
“We ain’t got no NBA campaign, nothing like that. Shit, we ain’t even got no cover. We just made some real music.”
Brothers by The Black Keys showcased a more meta school of thinking. Here, the cover dispassionately states the name of the band and album. Meanwhile, Hard-Fi’s 2007 album Once Upon a Time in the West bears a yellow background with the bold pronouncement of “NO COVER ART”. This was the brainchild of legendary album artist Peter Saville. Saville said he wanted to create “the White Album of digital culture”.
Fifty years later, the legacy of the first album anti-cover still lives.