During a discussion about the rich visual content of the album artwork for David Bowie’s self-titled album released in 1969, I found myself thinking of the iconic artwork found on the cover of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. As it turns out, The Beatles album was released in January 1969, some eleven months before David Bowie. Though the album covers employ disparate illustrative techniques, they nonetheless find similarities in the style and context of their creation—a particularly interesting connection considering that Bowie and The Beatles lived on polar opposite ends of the rock culture spectrum.
Yellow Submarine was released on January 13,1969 in the United States, and four days later in the UK. Carrying a hearty thirteen tracks, the album was accompanied by the debut of a full-length animated film featuring cartoon caricatures of the band. Artist Peter Max was originally asked by the band to both design the album cover and animate the movie. Having recently had a child, Max declined the offer and passed it on to a German artist named Heinz Edelmann. Edelmann used Max’s sketches and ideas to create the cover we know today.
The cover features the members of the band in an illustrated version of their appearance on the earlier album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, standing atop a mountain-like landscape, surrounded by a jumbled collage of people and creatures found in the movie. The colors of almost all elements are unnatural and intensely saturated, following no scheme or palette. They add up to the harsh visual effect customary of psychedelic artwork produced in the late 1960s.
The scene surrounding the band is comprised of various characters and critters from the movie along the sides of the mountain, failing to adhere to a spacial logic.The forms are abstracted to only the necessary lines and shapes, amount to a flat, whimsical rendering of two-dimensional people and objects. The stylized, psychedelic text takes a prominent position in the design.
David Bowie’s self-titled album was released in November 1969. The front cover shows a portrait of Bowie’s head, floating and transparent in front of a geometric design appropriated from the work of Op Artist Victor Vasarely. But it is the back cover that I think serves for an intriguing comparison with Edelmann’s composition. The lush illustration was created by artist George Underwood, Bowie’s lifelong friend, from a sketch done by Bowie himself.
The image, like that on the cover of Yellow Submarine, consists of a crowded hodgepodge of characters and scenes that do not exist in a cohesive spacial environment. But Underwood’s drawing takes this notion to an extreme, with several vignettes that add up to a surrealist-inspired composition, rather than the psychedelic vibe of Edelmann’s.
In contrast to the graphic, abstracted style that forms the characters on the cover of Yellow Submarine, Underwood renders the figures and textures of the landscape in a heightened realism (though the scene rendered is completely nonsensical.) The color palette maintains an unnatural, but muted range. The ominous presence of the helmeted soldiers, posed on either side of the table, apparently ready for battle, the direct stare of the permed blonde in the bottom right corner, the emotional exchange of the two people leaving the frame on the right, and the stoic presence of the Buddha figure all do their part to build the solemn symbolism of the image. Perhaps the soldiers represent some inner struggle of Bowie’s subconscious, perhaps the rodent who sits at the head of the table stands in for some authority of the higher self. Maybe the alien creature foreshadows Bowie’s development of his other-worldly persona, and maybe the two astronauts erecting the flower alludes to man’s first walk on the moon, which took place a few months earlier that same year. Regardless the interpretation, the dense symbolism and detailed rendering gives the David Bowie cover a kind of ominous, surrealist gravity.
Different as they are, these two album covers, released just months apart, engage similar principles of non-realistic representation, drawing from the artwork of psychedelic artists like Victor Moscoco, Wes Wilson, or Rick Griffin, and the earlier surrealists, such as Dali and Max Ernst. And what do these discourses have in common? They each engage elements of spiritual or intellectual enlightenment, a topic that gained popularity in the blossoming counterculture of the 1960s. The cover of Yellow Submarine contains the words “nothing is real” emblazoned prominently below the album’s title, a nihilistic embodiment of The Beatles’ journeys with the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism. The cartoon caricatures and playful scene preview the nonsensical and sardonic attitude of the album and film. The artwork on Bowie’s album incites similar spiritual principles, though taking a decidedly more personal and profound approach. The realistic renderings and loaded composition indicate an album to be rich with serious symbolism and metaphor. But I believe it is evident that both pieces of artwork utilized the essence of the intellectual and spiritual exploration popular in rock culture in the late 1960s.