Top 10 Gatefold Album Sleeves
This pictorial list of the Top 10 Gatefold Album Sleeves shows just what we lost when we let CDs take over for vinyl albums back in the ’80s.
Although it’s highly unlikely vinyl albums will ever recover their long-held position as the dominant music delivery format, the venerable black wax of yesteryear has enjoyed increasing year-to-year sales for nearly a decade now. And just as vinyl epitomized the classic rock era with its glorious, 12” artwork (something CDs, never mind digital formats, could never compete with), the gatefold album sleeve took the art of crafting striking, era-defining album cover design to another level, entirely. It is precisely that remarkable, increasingly resurgent artistry that we now look to commemorate with this list of the Top 10 Gatefold Album Sleeves.
The first selection in our list of the Top 10 Gatefold Album Sleeves vividly exemplifies just how much was lost in the transition from LP to CD (ironic, since this was also among the first albums reissued on CD in 1983). Upon first glance, ‘Don’t Look Back’ seems to offer a rather predictable revision of the eye-catching spaceship that had graced Boston’s landmark debut; but the panoramic alien planet scenery revealed by opening its vinyl gatefold made it just as visually arresting, if you ask us.
Yes’ greatest creative folly and/or triumph, depending on who you ask, ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ boasted four, twenty-minute odysseys on each of its vinyl sides, and therefore pretty much demanded gatefold artwork of a similarly ambitious and elaborate nature. Thankfully, the band’s longtime collaborator, Roger Dean (also known for his fantasy-fueled work for other acts like Budgie, Uriah Heep and others) was naturally up to the task and delivered a lavish fantasy world capable of illustrating the band’s wildest musical ideas into which listeners could dive.
Though Iron Maiden spearheaded the New Wave of British Heavy Metal’s somewhat punk-inspired musical slate-cleaning in the early 1980s, band leader Steve Harris had been almost as a big a fan of progressive rock (and its many gatefold LP sleeves) as metal during his formative years. So when the time came for Maiden to celebrate their incredible run of five, classic studio albums with a double live release, they asked loyal artist, Derek Riggs – creator of the world’s most famous scary mascot, Eddie the ‘ead – to give them the gatefold treatment for ‘Live After Death’ – with obviously dazzling results.
David Bowie’s final adieu to the Ziggy Stardust character (and his glam rock aesthetic, in general) was well deserving of the gatefold treatment found on ‘Diamond Dogs.' Fans were presented with an attention-grabbing, if rather disturbing, painting by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert depicting a Zig/dog hybrid, complete with genitalia that was swiftly and not surprisingly airbrushed out of view for delicate American consumers. However, this bit of censorship, in tandem with Bowie’s unmatched hipness and genre-straddling musical accomplishments has helped original vinyl copies of ‘Diamond Dogs’ trade hands for thousands of dollars in the open market.
Never one to skimp on visual glamour, Elton John requested gatefold packaging for many of his chart-topping albums of the 1970s. But the art commissioned for 1975’s 'Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy' easily tops them all. An incredibly detailed, rococo visualization of the album’s title (which itself was a semi-autobiographical retelling of John’s career alongside lyricist Bernie Taupin), the fanciful, ‘Alice in Wonderland’-inspired sleeve was created by noted science fiction book illustrator, Alan Aldridge, who eagerly packed every inch of the final painting with startling detail.
In contrast, the next selection in our list of the Top 10 Gatefold Album Sleeves is instead renowned for its stark minimalism (and no, we shan’t be including the ‘White Album’ here), yet, nevertheless, has proved just as emblematic over the years. We are of course talking about Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon,’ which was designed by Hipgnosis associate, George Hardie (based on a photograph seen by recently deceased LP art legend Storm Thorgeson) and provided a classy, visually compelling image neatly capping a string of unorthodox Floyd LP designs that had often frustrated parent label, EMI. But clearly, this was one occasion where leaving a band’s name off the cover art had no ill effect on sales.
In case you haven’t noticed, all of our choices thus far have involved contiguous artwork spread across the gatefold sleeve’s twin panels (we could expand this list by 100 if we looked beyond that), but there was no way we could exclude Hawkwind’s legendary ‘Space Ritual,’ despite this criteria. For, although it boasts regular 12" x 12" panel designs, famed British artist Barney Bubbles assembled a whopping SIX of these (from a combination of band photos and illustrations by the band’s statuesque naked dancing amazon, Miss Stacia) that listeners could then unfold from the original vinyl into a “collage” (measuring 24" x 36") that was throroughly mind-spinning.
Led Zeppelin’s fifth album finally snapped the simple number designation used for the band’s prior LPs and ratcheted up their reliably memorable cover art choices, to boot. Designed in tandem with Hipgnosis, ‘Houses of the Holy’ featured a stunning, white-washed image of naked children cavorting on the Northern Irish landmark known as the Giant's Causeway, and was inspired by the final scene of Arthur C. Clarke's novel ‘Childhood's End.’ Later nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Album Package” category, ‘Houses of the Holy’ also disturbed quite a few conservatives and, in a sinister connection with guitarist Jimmy Page’s occult interests of the time, became the subject of a bizarre radio documentary many years later.
Returning to the less-is-more philosophy, our next contender shows how the gatefold sleeve could elevate images of mere, 12-inch humans to the stature of ten-foot Gods – or at least such is the case for the Boss and the Big Man, Clarence Clemons. One of 900 stills shot by photographer Eric Meola over the course of a three-hour session, ‘Born to Run’'s winning snap (tastefully unhindered by the fine font used for Bruce’s name and the album title) has become one of the most iconic images in rock history, as evidenced by the multiple tributes and parodies produced over the years by artists as diverse as Cheap Trick and Bert and Cookie Monster. A classic through and through.
It stands to reason that the No. 1 choice in our list of the Top 10 Gatefold Album Sleeves should feature visuals you would never even see in modern-day record stores during these morally uptight times. Indeed, the demure yet tantalizing nudes reclined at leisure across the gatefold cover image of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s epic ‘Electric Ladyland’ is indeed a product of its time (1968), and reminds us that those magical days will never come ‘round again. But whether they do or don’t, its memories are obviously well entrenched in popular culture, and are bound to remain there along with immortal classic rock music, via the incomparable audio-visual medium that was the gatefold vinyl album package.