Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bob Dylan's Album Covers, 1962-1979

Of course Bob Dylan is iconic. You can't even count the number of different ways the word 'iconic' is used in association with Bob Dylan. One you don't hear that often is his album covers, though: but a quick look at his covers does indeed indicate that they're quite iconic as well.

Looking at them, particularly that run in 1960s covers featuring his image, you realise he looks cool on the cover of each one not because he had a great sense of what was cool but merely because however he happened to look at a given time immediately became cool thereafter. These images, many offhand, some deliberately so, became focal points for new senses of visual style. He lost it with time, of course, and a lotof his covers become pretty generic as the years pass. Still, some stick out. I'm doing this in two parts: this covers the début all the way up to the last album before Dylan found Jesus.

It's amazing just how young and 'green' Dylan seems here. This is like a little schoolboy posing with a guitar. Aw, how adorable.

Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo arm in arm walking down a wintry New York street. This is someone who couldn't be bothered at all posing for a cover and went with a paparazzi shot instead... Still, for some reason it's resonant, and it's the first cover to have a sense of mystery about it. The best Dylan covers always have a sense of mystery to them.

This is a poster that hangs on dorm walls. Dylan has trasformed himself into a stark, intense poet of the working man here, and this beautiful black-and-white does the job brilliantly. Not his best album, but one if his best covers.

From the short crop on the cover of The Times They Are a-Changin' onward, you can watch Dylan's hair grow out with each album. This is his last acoustic album, but already he's thrown out the folk lyrics and replaced them with something more surreal. The cover doesn't suggest that, though, being a very clean and neatly-designed but kind of boring cover.

I think this is the one cover where Team Dylan tries the hardest to say, 'this man is cool'. It's all very deliberate: the cat, the fallout shelter sign, the popular culture detritus and signposts (albums, magazines), the 'mysterious smoking woman', the vaseline on the lens... To be honest, I think they try too hard here, but if nothing else it underlines the point that one shouldn't expect to hear 'Blowin' in the Wind' here.

Bob looks dangerously cool with his frilly blouse, motorcycle T-shirt, roachclip and blank expression. But why have some random dude's legs stuck in there?

Bob is so cool here cameras can't hold their focus around him. This is actually a gatefold, and you can open it up to get the full length of his suede coat. His hair is a work of art here, but still - would it have killed them to choose a picture that wasn't blurry?

I wasn't going to include compilations, but this picture, with the light shining through his hair like a nimbus, is too pretty not to include.

This is what the mtorcycle crash did to Dylan: transformed him into a bearded mountain man who hangs out with Indian musicians and farmers in a bare winter forest. And a grin!

Speaking of a grin, by now the transformation is complete. Here is a cowboy plain and simple. Posing with a hat and a guitar seems like a deliberate look backward at the début. But the Boy Scout has been replaced by someone who's done a lot of living. In just a few scant years.

And there it is - a self-portrait. I guess. The painting is by Mr Dylan himself, but I don't see the resemblance. Ballsy, anyway, like the album it illustrates.

New Morning is the apology for Self-Portrait, and cover-wise it seems like it's making up for that painting as well. It's quite attractive, a good portrait of the man looking serious and, while still hairy, less rural. Yet it's the third album in a row not to have any text on its cover. Was he making it tough for fans on purpose? (The answer is, of course, yes.)

It's less impressive than Vol. I, but still I love how this cover is of a piece with the first one, live in performance in front of a blue background - but he's older and wiser here. Years later he'd do Vol. III, and give it a completely differently-designed cover. For no good reason.

This is a soundtrack, and then as now, soundtrack covers are usually designed to 'synergise' with the movie they promote. Just text... big, big text. It looks like a western, so that's good.

Columbia's 'revenge' album for Dylan's defection to Asylum, Dylan is justly condemned down the years. But it has a pretty cool cover, stripey Dylan on silver.

Another work of art by Dylan the artiste. Better than Self-Portrait, but that's not really saying much, is it?

Clearly lighters-aloft existed back in the 1970s too. This is Dylan's first live album - they come fast and furious henceforth - and it has a lovely cover of an audience listening to some ballad. 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door', maybe?

Dylan's 'comeback' album. The cover is also a notable one, dylan looking purple-and-organge and very very grainy indeed. I think I remember hearing that Sara Dylan took this picture, but I may be remembering wrongly. In any case, clearly what sells is albums with photos of Dylan on the front, eh?

They didn't really know how archival releases worked back in 1975. This picture is famous, with Dylan and the Band in the basement of a YMCA all dressed up as characters from the songs. Nice, but the picture is from 1975 and the contents are from 1967. And that doesn't make much sense, does it?

What a fashionplate. Remember when I said before that every look Dylan had on his album covers instantly became the new 'cool'? I lied.

Yet another live album, though this pretty black-and-white-and-mascara cover doesn't really show that. It's nice, though.

The Beatles weren't the only people to have their album cover photo taken outside the studio where the album was being recorded. But Dylan seems to be avoiding the cops, not striding across Abbey Road in a forever-famous pose.

Yet another live cover. This time you can tell - it's a snap taken live on stage, as Dylan drills through concrete with that penetrating gaze. But what... he couldn't have shaved?


  1. Great overview, but not always inspired covers. Great music, though!
    I was looking for the back cover of New Morning.

  2. @De Zwijger: The back cover of New Morning (and every other Dylan-album) is on

  3. Dylan deliberately chose the blurry shot for Blonde on Blonde.

  4. Might be worth pointing out that the reason for the Lighters Aloft cover of 'Before the Flood' was because it was the first tour on which the phenomenon occured.

  5. What a great blog. May I add you my links? Really enjoyed your overview of Bob's covers. Will now go and enjoy the rest.

  6. Re: Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan said he just chose the photo for the cover because he liked it. Don't look too much into it, or the legs in the background.

  7. Congratulations! I am happy for you. I'd like to know, if you're willing to share--what was the approach, or idea, or explanation/terminology, or exercise that gave you the "a-ha" moment in order to make this breakthrough? What was it that helped you make sense of what you perhaps didn't make sense of before?
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