Taking album art to new heights
Interview by Fred Roberts, Music Editor
One might call Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz the gray eminences behind modern rock and roll culture. They are responsible for imagery so iconic, it has become embedded in our collective cultural awareness. That is the result of a long collaboration designing album art for the biggest names in the industry, twenty of which are inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. A list of all the artists/bands they’ve worked with is quite literally a Who’s Who of names in music spanning the ’70s to today.
The Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz collaboration goes well beyond album design to include the authorship of 21 critically acclaimed books on pop culture. They host the worldwide radio show “The Indie Café”, they’ve curated gallery shows, serve as judges on the The Southeastern International Film Festival. Their works are included in the permanent collections of the MoMA, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and are or have been exhibited in The Brooklyn Museum,The Cooper Hewitt Museum,The Louvre, The MoMA, The Queens Museum, and other major galleries. An exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum begins September 16th, 2016 through February 2017. Spencer also interviews for Punk Globe Magazine.
We are honored at Ragazine to present an interview with the illustrious Spencer Drate.
Ragazine: Welcome to Ragazine, Spencer. What was your first album cover and how did that come about?
Spencer Drate: My FIRST record company was ESP-DISK, the notorious indie label with THE FUGS! ESP was known for “famous first” Jazz albums. I designed “PHAROAHS FIRST”, or Pharoah Sanders’ first album, and later “EXPLOSIONS”. Bob James’ first album — both “out of the box” free form albums! ESP jazz albums were all free form unstructured experimental albums!
Lester Bangs used to call me and say “Spencer what’s happening at ESP”
The real jazz buffs know this famous label owned by the visionary Bernard Stollman!
Ragazine: What were some of your favorite album covers before you began designing yourself, and after, that inspired you?
Spencer Drate: So many great designed covers — if you see the LP 6 book series “ALBUM COVER ALBUM” by Roger Dean, Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson, or “100 BEST ALBUM COVERS” by Storm Thorgerson, you’ll know what I mean. I was the first album cover designer interviewed on MTV and VH1 and was asked the same question as in our other interviews in media.
I will list a few: “BUDDY HOLLY” (Amazing photo of Buddy),”RUMBLE” (great motorcyclist front cover photo),The early Andy Warhol drawings on album covers,”ELVIS PRESLEY” (Photo with guitar),”SGT PEPPERS’ LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND” (The Beatles), “FRANKIE” (Early Frank Sinatra album), “DARK SIDE OF THE MOON” (Pink Floyd), “MORRISON HOTEL” (The Doors), “SO” (Peter Gabriel). “PHYSICAL GRAFFITI” (Led Zeppelin), “WHAT’S GOING ON” (Cyndi Lauper), “STICKY FINGERS” (The Rolling Stones), “POWER CORRUPTION AND LIES” (New Order), “EXILE ON MAIN STREET” (The Rolling Stones), “HEAVEN KNOWS I’M MISERABLE NOW” (The Smiths), “SPEAKING IN TONGUES” (Talking Heads), “GUTS” (John Cale), “RUNNING HI AND LOW” (A-Ha), “THE JOSHUA TREE” (U2), “ACHTUNG BABY” (U2-I designed USA parts for this album for Island Records), “BETWEEN TIDES” (Roger Eno), “HAPPY MONDAYS” (Bummed), “NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS” (The Sex Pistols), “POST” (Bjork), “THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO” (The Velvet Underground), “MIND GAMES” (John Lennon), etc.
Ragazine: Which other (graphic) artists inspire you?
Spencer Drate: We have authored books on great designers in all areas — 21 pop-culture books, all visually driven. Many great designers, in music design, and in history: Stefan Sagmeister, John Berg, Vaughan Oliver, John Pashe, Brian Roettinger, Peter Saville, John Warwicker, Malcolm Garrett, Peter Corriston, Jeri Heiden, etc.
Ragazine: Which of your own album designs are your personal favorites?
Spencer Drate: Ramones “Road to Ruin” and “End of the Century”; Lou Reed “New York” and “Magic and Loss”; The Velvet Undergound “The Velvet Underground 1993 Live Tour”; Joan Jett and The Blackhearts “Album”; Marshall Crenshaw “Marshall Crenshaw”; Talking Heads “Fear of Music” (co-designed with Talking Heads, nominated for a Grammy in album packaging in 1979, and in the MoMA permanent collection); Victory “Victory”; Bon Jovi “Bon Jovi”; Billy Squier “Don’t Say No”; The Fabulous Thunderbirds “Tuff Enuff”; Dee Dee King “Standing in the Spotlight”; The Beach Boys “Summer in Paradise”; Joseph Arthur “”Let’s Just Be” (The Limited Letterpress Edition), and so on. All award-winning album designs shown in major shows, major museums and galleries, and all these albums are included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame permanent archival collection!
Ragazine: Did you have any problems with censorship? Controversial designs?
Spencer Drate: Close to a Censorship — VICTORY! My design partner and co-designer Judith Salavetz’s concept — Front Cover photo of a girl leaning back with beautiful legs open to a “V” shape with “VICTORY” letter spaced across the top of the cover with an extraordinary Helmut Newton-like photo by Geoffrey Hargrave Thomas on a black background, and CBS International almost did not print it! A rock ‘n’ roller dream cover! It went through and won major design awards — when we are interviewed in media or books this cover is always shown! This album is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame permanent collection!
Ragazine: How about your long-term collaboration with Judith Salavetz. What was the first project you worked together on?
Spencer Drate: Judith and I met in 1982 and our first album design collaboration was “Marshall Crenshaw”, his first album. It won many design awards including the “AIGA Cover Show” Award in 1983 and was voted in by Annie Leibovitz and Roger Black!
Ragazine: What was it like working with the Ramones?
Spencer Drate: The story is, the Sire Records art director John Gillespie loved my design and literally threw me into The Ramones saying I’m not promising anything. They all loved my design. and two iconic designed albums “Road to Ruin” and “End of the Century” are now in a Ramones show that is going to be displayed in The GRAMMY Museum Sept 16 2016-August 2017! I had a great rapport with all Ramones! These albums are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame permanent collection!
Ragazine: Favorite Ramones song?
Spencer Drate: “My Brain is Upside Down”
Ragazine: What was your first record collected?
Spencer Drate: THE KING! Elvis Presley “HOUND DOG b/w DON’T BE CRUEL” 45 record.
Ragazine: Do you have any special memories about working with Lou Reed?
Spencer Drate: These two iconic albums “New York” and “Magic and Loss” were a collaborative design mainly between Spencer, Judith and Sylvia Reed, and Lou was behind the scenes. We never had anything corrected in our design! Actions speak louder than words! Both covers are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame permanent collection.
The Album Covers
Ragazine: How did the idea for the cover of Lou Reed’s “New York” album come about?
Spencer Drate: The album cover concept is based on an old famous photo in Paris photo of “men in an alley” and Lou conceived this idea and then Waring Abbott shot separate shots of Lou composed together by myself for the cover and geared to the original photo with my type treatment. All went smooth and another great cover which is now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame permanent collection, included with our other iconic covers!
Ragazine: How do you usually work with the bands? Do they tell you to surprise them? Or do they already have some general idea of what the cover should be like? Do you listen to the music to get an idea of how to represent it?
Spencer Drate: First you listen to the music and the feel of the album — album concepts we mostly conceived, but some we collaborated on, like with Joan Jett and her managers, or Lou Reed with Sylvia Reed. Bands like to work with us because of our history of well conceived, designed covers and designing for the iconic music greats! One of our strong points is great typography, which many designers do NOT have. Great typography separates the men from the boys in iconic design!
Ragazine: Of all your books or other books about pop-culture, what would you recommend as a good starting point for someone interested in learning about your work?
Spencer Drate: We have designed beyond music so our books can vary for reference points. “FIVE HUNDRED 45s” a great reference book for 45 sleeve design history in the music design area, and some of our 45 sleeves are included; “ROCK ART” is a profile book about great album design packagers and we are included; “SWAG-Rock Posters of the ’90s”, a book profiling great rock poster designers and we are included. Our work is included in many other design books by other authors like “100 BEST ALBUM COVERS” (“Fear of Music” album cover) and we are profiled in “RADICAL GRAPHICS”, to name a couple.
Ragazine: Thank you very much for the interview!
About the interviewer:
Music Editor Fred Roberts is a native of Cincinnati living in Germany since 1987. Fred enjoys subverting the arbitrary commercial process in which great works often go unrecognized. He has a dual B.S. in Computer Science and Psychology from Northern Kentucky University (1984) and a Masters in Psychology from Bielefeld Universität (1999). You can read more about him in About Us.