Picture This: The Best Illustrated Music Books

Vivid and evocative, the best illustrated music books bring history back to life both for those who missed it and those who wish to relive it.

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Photo: Compassionate Eye Foundation / David Oxberry / Getty Images

Even if it is a cliché, the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is hard to discredit. Regardless of any book’s literary content, it’s been scientifically proven that the human brain processes images up to 60,000 times faster than text, and that around 90 per cent of information transmitted to the brain is visual.

Most analysts would probably argue that this is why modern-day social media sites saturated with video and photographic content enjoy far greater engagement, but there are aesthetic issues to be addressed here too – not least where music-related artefacts are concerned. How many people can honestly say they’ve never forked out for an album or a book simply on the strength of the cover design or an eye-catching photo section?

Artists and photographers have played crucial roles as music and popular culture has evolved over the past century. Illustrators such as Norman Rockwell (famous for his depictions of everyday US life in The Saturday Evening Post) and The Cat In The Hat creator Dr Seuss became household names in pre and post-World War II America, while in 1937, Pittsburgh-born Jackie Ormes became the first African-American woman to produce a syndicated comic strip.

Ormes’ creation, Torchy Brown, was a humorous depiction of a Mississippi teen who finds fame performing at New York’s world famous Cotton Club, and this same revolutionary era is quirkily recalled in Robert Nippoldt’s Jazz: New York In The Roaring Twenties: an elegantly designed coffee-table-style book produced by European art-book publisher Taschen, and which includes striking ink sketches and anecdotal portraits of enduring icons such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Arguably the most resonant depictions of musicians from the 20s and 30s, however, came from the pen of cartoonist Robert Crumb, renowned for creating the late 60s’ first successful underground comic, Zap Comix, and his much-loved counter-cultural characters, including Fritz The Cat and Mr Natural. The hardback edition of R. Crumb’s Heroes Of Blues, Jazz & Country collects the three sets of superb, crosshatched pen-and-ink drawings that Crumb (himself a skilled musician with a love of early 20th-century US folk culture) originally released individually as trading cards during the 80s.

Successful 21st-century titles such as Reinhardt Kleist’s Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness and Pablo Parisi’s Coltrane (an ambitious illustrated portrayal of the complex life of jazz colossus John Coltrane) prove that graphic novels have remained relevant and can still achieve mainstream acceptance, but since the birth of modern-day rock’n’roll in the 50s, photography has largely been the popular medium of choice.

Edited and annotated by respected American academic and authority on photography Gail Buckland, Who Shot Rock’n’Roll revisits some of the most iconic images from the 50s and 60s, including Alfred Wertheimer’s intimate shots of Sun Studios-era Elvis Presley and Don Hunstein’s informal shot of Bob Dylan and girlfriend Suze Rotolo, which was immortalised on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Another epochal shot of Dylan adorned the sleeve of his celebrated The Times They Are A-Changin’ LP. The man responsible for it was Barry Feinstein, latterly a much-sought photographer in Hollywood, who was personally invited by the artist to shoot Dylan on both his controversial 1966 European tour, and again in 1974. The cream of the images culled from these two memorable treks dominates the compelling Real Moments, which features a foreword by close Dylan associate Bobby Neuwirth.

Also heavily in-demand behind the lens from the late 60s on was Cambridge-educated Syd Barrett acolyte Mick Rock, who once described the glam era as simply “make-up, mirrors and androgyny”. His astonishing Glam! An Eyewitness Account, however, houses a series of timeless images of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Queen and Iggy Pop, and it remains one of the most celebrated portfolios known to rock.

A trailblazing book blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality, Rock Dreams first appeared in 1974 and went on to sell over a million copies. It was the collective brainchild of photorealist Belgian artist Guy Peellaert (who later provided the controversial artwork for Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and The Rolling StonesIt’s Only Rock’n’Roll albums) and British author/music journalist Nik Cohn. Together they created a surreal, hallucinatory world where legendary rock, pop and soul stars were often depicted in the settings of their signature songs: The Drifters, for instance, appearing under the boardwalk and Otis Redding literally sitting on the dock of the bay.

Equally surreal, anarchic and immensely gifted, the late Colin Fulcher (aka Barney Bubbles) could boast an illustrious CV which included design work for Sir Terence Conran, underground magazines Oz and Friends, and critically acclaimed LP sleeves such as Elvis Costello & The AttractionsArmed Forces. Fulcher tragically died by his own hand in 1983, yet Reasons To Be Cheerful: The Life & Work Of Barney Bubbles – edited and annotated by ex-Music Week contributing editor Paul Gorman – remains a must-have for anyone even vaguely curious about graphic design, the UK art scene of the 60s and 70s and the creation of record sleeves in general.

Retrospective pictorial collections celebrating vinyl of all genres have flooded the post-millennial marketplace, but there are items of quality doing the rounds. One of the more reliable outlets operating in this area remains London’s Soul Jazz imprint, who have released some truly eye-popping tomes such as Punk 45 and Disco: An Encyclopaedic Guide To The Cover Art Of Disco Records. Printed in large-format, deluxe hardback editions, both of these titles round up around 2,000 sleeve designs each, alongside histories, biographies and contemporary interviews with the surviving movers and shakers from each individual genre, and they provide a seemingly infinite fix for the most discerning of vinyl junkies.

With this in mind, it’s fitting that we should finish up with another highly personalised illustrated book about obsessive record collecting. Superficially, Michael (brother of singer/songwriter Phil) Ochs’ 1,000 Record Covers is only once removed from the Soul Jazz books, in that it presents a selection of the best rock album covers from the 60s to 90s – but what a staggeringly diverse selection it covers.

The Los Angeles Times previously dubbed Ochs to be “America’s preeminent rock’n’roll archivist”, and they weren’t wrong. He spent his formative years buying music new on release before blagging thousands of free records during jobs with various record labels. In 1,000 Record Covers he presents just a small selection which includes rarities, deletions and well-worn copies of favourite 7” singles. For every hit LP he selects, there are half a dozen obscure cult items that the reader will be dying to source for themselves. Indeed, such is the infectiousness of Ochs’ enthusiasm that his 1,000 Record Covers ends up feeling like a gift that simply won’t stop giving.

They Also Served

A further selection of classic illustrated music books:

50 Years Of Rock’n’Roll Photography (Gered Mankowitz)
Opening his studio in 1963, photographer Gered Mankowitz was at the very heart of Swinging 60s London and he ended up taking some of the most timeless rock’n’roll-related images of the next half-century. Many of them are annotated here, not least stellar images of The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Kate Bush and Oasis.

American Roots Music (Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren & Jim Brown)
A stunning book with many unseen images of early country music: the blues, folk, Cajun and more. It’s like a journey back through time.

Bob Marley & The Golden Age Of Reggae (Kim Gottlieb-Walker)
Performance shots, portraits and candid, off-duty images of late reggae superstar Bob Marley, plus commentary from reggae experts including Cameron Crowe and Roger Steffens.

Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album (Matthew Robertson)
Perhaps the definitive overview of the seminal Manchester-based indie label, including its iconic, Peter Saville-designed sleeves, posters and ephemera. Foreword by late label supremo Anthony H Wilson and, in true Factory style, even given its own catalogue number – FAC 461.

Hipgnosis Portraits (Aubrey Powell)
Long famed for their album cover art, it’s sometimes forgotten that the legendary Hipgnosis company’s portrait photography was as groundbreaking as their design work. This amazing book illustrates the point on every page.

Motown: The Sound Of Young America (Adam White & Barney Ales)
Eye-witness accounts and stunning rarely seen photos combine to make this both an in-depth study of Motown’s impact on the world, and a gorgeous book that keeps on giving.

Rock Seen (Bob Gruen)
Once John Lennon’s personal photographer, Bob Gruen always seemed to be where the action was, covering monumental US tours by The Clash, the Stones and The Who, to getting ringside during the height of the CBGB punk scene. Many of his most enduring images feature here, and the foreword is by Debbie Harry.

The Rolling Stones 50 (The Rolling Stones)
Released to coincide with the Stones’ half-century, this coffee-table tome is a glorious celebration of five decades’ worth of rock’n’roll mayhem. If the Stones haven’t done it, it’s not worth doing.

Verve: The Sound Of America (Richard Havers)
Tells the story of the iconic jazz label, but goes back much further, deep into jazz history, and includes the fabulous album art of the Clef, Norgran and Verve imprints, along with ephemera and stunning images… over 800 in all.

Discover the best music books you’ve never read.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. stanley

    March 26, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    How can I get Duke and Coltrane’s books

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