If you’ve ever visited Bob Egan’s website “Popspots,” then you know what a fun and enjoyable rabbit hole that is. The website is a gallery of classic album covers and other visuals of pop and rock history and tracks down the exact locations where the photos were taken. Egan, who calls himself a “Pop culture detective,” drops album covers into larger, uncropped photos that he (presumably) has recently taken. The results are astonishing, and will pique your curiosity as you click to dive deeper and deeper into some of your favorite album covers.
In 2011, Al “Fingers” Newman met photographer Alex Bartsch, who him showed two 1970s UK reggae covers, similarly shot “in context” for the book that would become Covers: Retracing Reggae Record Sleeves In London. Newman was blown away with the concept, but also the way it represented the largely overlooked but immensely rich history of reggae music in the UK. He would soon became more involved, helping Bartsch track down more album covers to photograph and the locations around London, the people behind them, as well as eventually become editor of Covers.
Regardless of who was first in concept, Bartsch’s incredible book is in no way secondary to Popspots, which focuses on landmark rock and roll albums. Many (most?) Americans will be seeing a lot of these album covers for the first time, as reggae music would not break big in the States until much later — say early to mid 70s — with the arrival of Bob Marley and The Wailers, in a much more commercial and major label presentation. The covers here stretch back to keyboardist Jackie Mittoo’s legendary 1967 debut, fittingly titled Jackie Mittoo In London. Additionally, Bartsch adopts a creative technique that serves the LPs, their artwork and his concept well; he holds each LP out in front of the camera so that his hand is in the foreground, matching the record to the background and its’ scale and perspective. It is a charmingly old-school approach that separates it from the (also amazing) digital approach Popspots uses. Some of the covers are clearly well-worn around the edges and charmingly bent in the corners.
Historian Noel Hawks’ introduction serves as a “must read” mini-history of reggae in the UK, and expounds on the how’s and why's these covers came to be. Decidedly low budget, they would feature, when possible, the artist(s) who would often come through the UK, perhaps visiting family and friends. Equally often however, the covers might feature whomever was available on the day of the shoot, such as the record label’s secretary and maintenance man playing out gangsters, as on Harry J. All Stars Liquidator, the the album that graces the book’s cover, The early covers were more focused on well-known tourist sites (as on Jackie MIttoo In London), but the shoots would eventually move to the Northwest London Caribbean communities. (Bonus points: A map providing the location for each album shoot is included!) There, backyards and playgrounds, side streets and cars, became readily available locations and props. Family, friends and the band would become the focus.
So what about the record covers? Wonderful. Cheeky. Mod 70-s style. Hilarious. Truly snapshots in time…but a long time long past. Bartsch has managed to pull off a unique look back, but with an added current perspective. Some of the locations have, of course, changed but many have not. And it’s that “analog vinyl” feeling of the hand that pulls the concept together for me; it’s the context and Bartsch’s unique presentation that is so interesting. Each of the 50 covers offers up credits, including art direction and photographer, as well as the backstory into the location, concept, or design by producers, musicians, models, label reps, designers, and photographers, It’s all wonderful insight. It’s also the ONLY criticism I have of this wonderful book. For some reason, the graphic designer reduced the font size for longer pieces, and made it much bigger for shorter ones, and, in my opinion it takes away from the overall design. It is admittedly a small quibble.
Alex Bartsch has created a brilliant, beautiful book that should delight reggae enthusiasts and music fans, graphic designers and photographers. Utterly unique, I love this book and pick it up often and always put it down with a smile on my face.
Follow me on Twitter: stevejreviews