If Storm Thorgerson was the definitive album cover artist of the 1970s, then Peter Saville was that during the ’80s. In fact, many parallels can be drawn between Saville and Thorgerson’s careers. Both are known for their work mainly with one band, and, outside of the career-defining association, they both have worked with some of the most important artists of all time.
For sure, Thorgerson can be hailed as the ultimate British album cover artist, due to the sheer volume of iconic albums he brought to life via his visual noise. But one would argue that Saville comes a close second. Ultimately, both packaged culturally significant moments, and this has led to their revered status.
Born in Manchester in 1955, Saville attended Manchester Polytechnic from 1975 to 1978. Around this time, he was ingratiating himself in the city’s flourishing music scene and quickly became one of its key artistic visionaries after meeting the city’s resident svengali, Tony Wilson.
Wilson commissioned Saville to produce the first Factory poster, FAC 1, and this bright yellow piece of artwork would set the standard for all of Factory Records’ and the era’s visual work moving forward. Saville also became a partner in Factory Records alongside Wilson, Martin Hannett, Rob Gretton and Alan Erasmus.
A lot of Saville’s early style was influenced by a fellow student, Malcolm Garrett, who made his name designing artwork for Manchester punks, Buzzcocks. One of Garrett’s most iconic early works was the collage for the band’s 1977 single, ‘Orgasm Addict’. Another key influence was Herbert Spencer’s work, Pioneers of Modern Typography, from 1969.
Saville also took significant influence from the German artist, Jan Tschichold, the chief propagandist for ‘New Typography‘. In 1995 he recalled: “Malcolm had a copy of Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography. The one chapter that he hadn’t reinterpreted in his own work was the cool, disciplined ‘New Typography’ of Tschichold and its subtlety appealed to me. I found a parallel in it for the new wave that was evolving out of punk.”
Saville is also noted for his collaborations with the iconic artist Ben Kelly. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, the pair embarked on numerous artistic projects, including the award-winning sleeve for OMD’s eponymous debut in 1980. Of the elder Kelly’s influence, Saville said: “I thought I could just take things from Ben, like he was a reference book or something. He used to get really mad about it.”
He’s also been noted for his some time re-appropriation of works taken from the canon of art. Critic Alice Twemlow wrote: “In the 1980s… he would directly and irreverently ‘lift’ an image from one genre—art history for example—and recontextualise it in another. A Fantin-Latour ‘Roses’ painting in combination with a colour-coded alphabet became the seminal album cover for New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies (1983), for example.”
A brilliant artist with a fluid style, the brilliance of Saville’s work is that although he utilises different artistic influences from piece to piece, you can always tell it’s his work, a remarkable feat. Join us then, as we list Peter Saville’s ten greatest album covers.
Peter Saville’s ten greatest album covers:
Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division (1979)
Undoubtedly Saville’s most iconic piece of work, Unknown Pleasures wouldn’t be the classic it is without the brilliance that the artwork brought.
Saville told the Guardian: “This was the first and only time that the band gave me something that they’d like for a cover. I went to see Rob Gretton, who managed them, and he gave me a folder of material, which contained the wave image from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy. They gave me the title too but I didn’t hear the album. The wave pattern was so appropriate. It was from CP 1919, the first pulsar, so it’s likely that the graph emanated from Jodrell Bank, which is local to Manchester and Joy Division. And it’s both technical and sensual.”
He appended: “It’s tight, like Stephen Morris’ drumming, but it’s also fluid: lots of people think it’s a heart beat. Having the title on the front just didn’t seem necessary. I asked Rob about it and, between us, we felt it wasn’t a cool thing to do. It was the post-punk moment and we were against overblown stardom. The band didn’t want to be pop stars.”
Closer – Joy Division (1980)
Another collaboration with Joy Division and this 1980 album cover was designed by Saville in tandem with Martyn Atkins. The monochrome image is a photograph of the Appiani family tomb in Genoa’s Monumental Cemetary of Staglieno, which was taken by Bernard Pierre Wolf in 1978.
In a 2007 documentary on Joy Division, Saville commented that upon learning of frontman Ian Curtis’ suicide, he expressed concern about releasing the record with the Appiani photograph given that it depicted a funeral, stating: “we’ve got a tomb on the cover of the album!”
Power, Corruption & Lies – New Order (1983)
The cover is a reproduction of Fantin-Latour’s ‘A Basket of Roses’, which has sat as part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection in London for decades. Saville originally planned to use a Renaissance portrait of a prince to tie in with the Machiavellian connotations of the title, but could not find a suitable piece. At the gallery, Saville happened to pick up a postcard with Fantin-Latour’s painting on it, and his girlfriend jokingly asked him if he was going to use it for the cover.
He realised what a brilliant idea it was. He said that the flowers “suggested the means by which power, corruption and lies infiltrate our lives. They’re seductive.” The cover art was also created to make a contrast between the romantic image and the modular typography. At first, the owner of the painting, The National Heritage Trust, refused Factory records access to it.
The story goes that Wilson then called the gallery director to enquire about who actually owned the painting, and was eventually told that the Trust belonged to the people of Britain. Wilson then replied, “I believe the people want it.” The director responded, “If you put it like that, Mr Wilson, I’m sure we can make an exception in this case.”
‘Blue Monday’ – New Order (1983)
One of Saville’s best-known works, this dance classic by New Order became the fastest-selling 12″ of all time and was re-released in 1988 and 1995. The original, 1983’s edition was designed to resemble a 5+1⁄4 inch floppy disk. Famously, the sleeve does not display the band name or the title of the song. The only text on the sleeve “FAC SEVENTY THREE” on the spine.
The legend “FAC 73 BLUE MONDAY AND THE BEACH NEW ORDER” is represented in code by a series of coloured blocks. A key to deciphering the code was printed on the back sleeve of the album, Power, Corruption & Lies. The original sleeve was created by Saville with Brett Wickens and was die-cut with a silver inner sleeve. It cost that much to produce, that the label lost money on each copy sold, a tale like this you would simply not get in today’s climate.
The irony of the story is that nobody expected ‘Blue Monday‘ to be a success, let alone a culturally significant moment, so at the time of production, no one thought the cost was an issue.
‘True Faith’ – New Order (1987)
The most serene artwork Saville’s ever produced, one would argue that this entry is Saville’s best work. Subtle, beautiful and striking, it accounts for all the intrinsic juxtapositions of the human condition.
He explained: “This was a first work from real life. In 1986, I happened to have a trauma in my personal life and it made me very attuned to the world around me. Suddenly, I had no filters. I was parking the car one night and a leaf drifted by the window and I thought, ‘That’s so beautiful.’ It was framed by the windscreen, which is probably why I saw it as an image. So we did a leaf.”
Saville recalled the organic nature of the artwork: “I went to Windsor Great Park with photographer Trevor Key, came back with about 50 leaves and shot two or three until we found the right one. It had to be the right shape and look like it was falling. There was no digital manipulation at this point. I still have the leaf although I keep thinking that one day it will fall apart.”
Technique – New Order (1989)
Musically, Technique is one of New Order’s most dance-oriented works. Incorporating the Balaeric beat and acid house styles that were huge at the time, Saville’s hazy artwork appeals brilliantly to the ethos of the music. Partly recorded on the party island of Ibiza and influenced by frontman Bernard Sumner’s experiences at the club night Shoom, this is one of the band and Saville’s most notable works.
Saville told the Guardian in 2011: “I’d moved on from being interested in ’80s consumer products and had begun going to Pimlico Road to look at antique shops. Which was where I saw the cherub statue we used on Technique. It was a garden ornament and we rented it for the shoot. It’s a very bacchanalian image, which fitted the moment just before the last financial crash and the new drug-fuelled hedonism involved in the music scene.”
He explained: “It’s also my first ironic work: all the previous sleeves were in some way idealistic and utopian. I’d had this idea that art and design could make the world a better place. That even bus stops could be better. In some ways, it’s also quite neo-Warhol.”
Coming Up – Suede (1996)
Although Suede‘s successor to 1994’s classic Dog Man Star is a divisive one amongst fans of the band, one thing is for sure; the artwork is classic. Taking what we can only assume are cues from Garrett’s collage work on the likes of ‘Orgasm Addict’, it is a colourful, highly Britpop piece of work that evokes all the emotions tied to hedonism, in both the glorious and terrible aspects.
The album actually plays a key role in Suede’s story and contains many classic Suede tracks. The artwork was perfect for the gaudy themes of the post-Bernard Butler era, and remains one of the band’s most memorable artworks.
‘Video 5 8 6’ – New Order (1997)
A rudimentary form of electronic by New Order, it was composed by Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris. It was so impactful that it contained elements that would surface on ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Ultraviolence’. Allegedly, Tony Wilson asked the band for 20 minutes of “pap”, and it was first played in public during the opening of The Haçienda nightclub on 21 May 1982.
Saville’s cover features vivid, colourful brush strokes akin to the lights you see at night when driving through a major conurbation. He managed to bring the spirit of the song to life, and it became a visual representation of the ecstasy fuelled, hedonistic abandon that The Haçienda would come to represent.
This Is Hardcore – Pulp (1998)
The penultimate record by British indie heroes, Pulp, needed something iconic, and it got it.
The striking cover was designed by Saville alongside American painter John Currin, who is famed for his figurative paintings of the exaggerated female form. There’s something about this artwork that you can’t quite put your finger on, but it is so Pulp. Sexualised, introspective and in your face, it fit the themes of the album perfectly.
The blonde model in the photograph is Ksenia, and the images were digitally manipulated by Howard Wakefield. Advertisements for the album on the London Underground were defaced with graffiti with slogans such as ‘This Offends Women’ and ‘This is Sexist’.
Leisure Noise – Gay Dad (1999)
A cult record, from a cult band, the cover artwork for Leisure Noise is brilliant. Simple, to the point and striking. The album is so very ’90s in best and worst ways, and upon a first glance, you can tell straight away that the record was released in the decade, that is its genius.
Modern and featuring flecks of music’s technological advancements, Saville brought the sounds of the album to life with the cover for Leisure Noise. One can’t help but think it would have made one hell of a Kraftwerk album cover.