Sgt. Pepper in Bat Yam: A History of Israeli Album Covers

More than mere wrappings, they reflect their cultural milieu.

Matti Caspi’s doorbell. The ashtray of Shalom Hanoch’s “Waiting for the Messiah.” The monkey on Mashina’s debut album. The blurred train on Yehuda Poliker’s “Ashes and Dust.” The covers of Israeli albums were always an inseparable part their identity.

Like the music, they were always a few steps behind the rest of the world, imitating the trends abroad, and almost never artistically brave or trying to shatter conventions. Still, like the musicians, the album designers, photographers and illustrators who created the covers sometimes impressed with their creativeness, and their work reflected their cultural context no less than the music itself.

An exhibition running until January 27 at the University of Haifa features “The Israeli LP a history of design.” Curated by Tamar Almog, the exhibition presents 160 album covers, all belonging to Eran Dinar, a collector and author of the blog “revolving” (Ze Mistovev) that deals with the early days of Israeli pop.

In the first decades of the records, until the middle of the 20th century, album covers didn’t exist at least not in the form we’re accustomed to. “It’s hard to believe, but throughout most of the history of phonograph records they didn’t have covers,” says Dinar.

The records were sold in a standard cardboard cover. “Records were considered transient products and the manufacturers saw no need for specific covers,” Dinar explains. “All that changed with the birth of the Long Play album, and only then did manufacturers begin investing in a unique cover for each LP.”

This became standard only in the mid-1950s. “In the first decade until the middle and end of the 1960s, the design was simple and functional,” Dinar continues. “A portrait of the artist in black and white, sometimes with a naive illustration, with the album’s credits and song names up front. Usually the names of the designers weren’t mentioned, and in many cases there actually was no designer. Some of these covers have some nostalgic appeal, but as a rule, they were mostly amateurish works.”

The first seeds of change could be seen in the album covers of the military entertainment troupes in the mid-1960s. “One can see changes in the typography and especially the photography,” Dinar says. “For the first time photo sessions were held specifically for the album cover.”

The cover photo of the “from the Nahal with love” album was taken by Mula Eshet, one of the leading stage and fashion photographers in Israel at the time, who used photo techniques borrowed from the theater. “As far as album covers, there can be no doubt that the military bands led the way,” Dinar says. “The High Windows,” (HaHalonot HaGvohim), a trio that included Arik Einstein, Josie Katz and Shmulik Kraus, represents the birth of Israeli pop, and according to Dinar “its album cover is as revolutionary as its music.” The cover was designed by Kruvi Hovev, one of the unsung heroes of Israeli album covers, who also designed the logo of HaGashash HaHiver, Israel’s most successful comedy trio at the time.

The photo, taken by Alona Einstein, includes “many layers of meanings,” says Dinar. “Arik Einstein is the star, Kraus and Katz were almost anonymous back then, but nonetheless, Kraus is dominant in the photo. It seems that he’s explaining something to Einstein, maybe ‘I’ll teach you how it’s really done.’ And Josie stares at Alona, who was Einstein’s wife. This photograph perfectly captured the dynamics between them, and is one of the first examples of a cover that can really be identified with the music.”

Album cover designs, as the music itself, changed radically at the end of the 1960s with the foreign influences that were felt after the 1967 Six-Day War.

“Avner Katz was one of the most important designers responsible for the change,” Dinar says. “He put into use influences of pop art, a veritable Andy Warhol. He combined photos and illustrations, and double-exposed photos. The cover of ‘Yours, Shula Chen’ invokes pop, sex and the spirit of the freedom of the 1960s, a completely different concept from albums that were released only a few years earlier.

Imitating international trends

“I’m not alone in considering David Tartakover as the most important album cover designer in Israel,” says Dinar. “He was the one who defined the medium in the 1970s.”

Tartakover returned to Israel in 1968 after studying design in London, and in 1969 designed two important yet contradictory album covers. The first was the cover of Hashlosharim, designed in the spirit of the times: happy, sixties, sweet, somewhat psychedelic. The second was Arik Einstein’s Puzi. “This is a revolutionary album cover,” says Dinar. “While everyone was experimenting with flowing colors and endless details, Tartakover designed a black slate with a small photo. The message, I believe, was ‘up until now we had one thing, from now on we’re doing something else.’”

Just as in the music, album covers in Israel tried to imitate international trends. Dinar says that, for example, the 1970 cover of Uzi and the Styles’ album Friends was reminiscent of “Sgt. Pepper, only in Bat Yam.”

In contrast, the cover of “Queen of a Bathtub” (Malkat Ha’ambatia) was no less subversive than Hanoch Levin’s play. Tartakover chose to use one of the numerous hate columns written by theater critics (“Damaging the morale of a people fighting for their existence is worse than planting a bomb in a supermarket,” as Reuven Yanai wrote in Maariv).

“Using such a text on the album cover is a very sophisticated use of the medium,” Dinar says. “Tartakover told me that he believes it was the most important cover he designed since it deals, he claims, with real life.”

Still, the cover of “Queen of a Bathtub” was a one-off. In general, Israeli album covers were not subversive or particularly daring, and did not deal with glam or the blurring of sexual identities.

“We’re not very good at that,” says Dinar, holding the cover of “Now,” Tzvika Pik’s 1982 album. “Does this count?” he asks. Well, sort of. “This is from the period he stopped thinking he was David Bowie and began to believe he was somewhat more like Gary Glitter and tried to make New Wave music,” Dinar says. “It was a complete failure.”

Most Israelis are familiar with the cover of T-Slam’s Loud Radio with the nude blonde, but the cover of 24 Hours, fellow rock band Benzin’s debut album, is a better reflection and in better taste of the times. “In the beginning of the 1980s the concept of marketing and branding caught on, especially after producer Roni Braun entered the industry,” Dinar says. “The covers of Benzin and T-Slam represented the image the record companies wanted to be identified with the groups. It was the period when logos made their entry. T-Slam’s is shinier while Benzin’s is more rough, not perfect, similar to a sort of rubber stamp.”

Mizrahi music of the 1970s and 1980s took no interest in album cover designs. The market was mostly dominated by cassette tapes, and their tiny dimensions dictated a simple, functional design. “It, too, was a vibrant, real pop market based on weekly hits, lacking any sense of self-importance or artistic pretension,” Dinar says.

The compact disc made its entry toward the end of the 1980s, and soon enough replaced LP’s. This move also changed the character of covers. “The images again became simple, the photographs biographical and the artist’s name filled the cover,” Dinar says.

Now the disc is dead as well. Does that mean that covers are no longer relevant? “Of course the classic album cover, which is a visual image that represents the music, is on its way out,” Dinar says, “but that doesn’t mean that visualization is less important or nonexistent. Take, for example, Gangnam Style. This has so many visual elements: his image, his dance, his caricature. I see it as a sort of cover. Without this cover, Gangnam style wouldn’t have succeeded as it did. It cannot exist without the visual element. The digital ear did not make the cover extinct it only upgraded it.”

Daniel Bar-On