John Beck and Matthew Cornford
While American LP covers of the early 1970s are built with the robustness of a Mormon outhouse, their British counterparts seem more porous, vulnerable to damp and the vicissitudes of the local climate. It is harder to find a mint copy of a British psych or prog album than an American one not only because of the huge quantities of records produced in the US but also because the British album covers were not hardy enough to survive. While cars don’t rust in southern California, copies of Scott 4 tend to succumb to the moist decrepitude of the British bedsit.
he same can be said of the cover art itself. Even the most mannered examples of late 1960s Old West Americana have a quality of light and colour in the photographs that revels in crisp and hard surfaces baked in the West Coast sun. The British version, by comparison, is invariably wet and often morose.
Marcus Keef produced some of the most evocative and influential British cover art of the early 1970s. His best-known work was for Vertigo, Neon and Nepentha, labels with a varied roster of folk and prog acts, singer-songwriters and heavy metal bands. Keef’s covers commonly eschew any image of the performer, who is often relegated to the inside of the gatefold. Instead, the front of the album is characteristically an exercise in incongruity. Mysterious deathly figures stand in otherwise empty landscapes, often dressed in capes, circus outfits and other post-hippy folk art threads. Colours are usually muted, bleached, or excessively doctored. Rocking horses, fairground carousels, scarecrows and doll’s heads suggest a world of scraps and discards, a place haunted by a past of labour and leisure that is weirdly familiar but also otherworldly. The sun rarely shines, or is setting, and the air is heavy with damp. This is England circa 1970, burnt-out, no longer swinging, no longer modern, if it ever was.
Considered in the context of British underground and popular culture of the period, Keef’s images make a lot of sense. They share with films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and The Blood of Saturn’s Claw, as well as the BBC’s Christmas adaptations of M.R. James’ ghost stories and oddities like the television program Catweazle, a fascination with pre-modern Britain that has not quite gone away. It is not, though, the ‘heritage’ past of kings and queens, monuments, fortifications and cathedrals that is evoked here. Instead, it is much more lumpen, poverty-stricken, and muddy. Peter Hall’s 1974 film Akenfield is a good index, especially in its splicing together of Edwardian and contemporary time-frames. Keef’s imagined British rural past is located in some magical time before the First World War but after the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper LP. The photographs combine and fuse references from the Pre-Raphaelites, pagan rituals, P.H. Emerson photographs, Edwardian fashion and the legend of King Arthur. This is a Britain where stripped pine and patchwork quilts are not the ‘authentic’ gestures of a Conran-inspired idyll, however much that particular vision was animated by the same influences. What Keef imagines is a psych future past that is both carnivalesque and decidedly downbeat, shaped by small and simple pleasures and overshadowed by a melancholy sense of doom. No surprise that his most iconic cover is for the first Black Sabbath album.
The rejection of modernism, professionalism, science and celebrity – there is no clean white space, Futurist typography, glossy star portraits or space ships -- distinguishes Keef’s work from that of the most celebrated sleeve designer of the time: Hipgnosis. Photography for Hipgnosis was used in the main to create distinct elements for their elaborate collages; Keef used photography to capture his grainy, mist-imbued home-counties surrealism, images which have the look of low-budget fantasy or horror film stills. At their most disturbing, as in the cover for Rod Stewart’s 1970 album An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down, which shows an old tramp chasing a child dressed in what looks like a Victorian nightgown, the effect is to call forth a grimness radically at odds with music business gloss and ‘rockist’ self-aggrandisement. Most of the records didn’t sell, but that seems hardly the point. Taken together, Keef’s record sleeves comprise a tarot pack of recession-era bleakness and possibility.