Video Killed The Record Cover?

published in Reversing into The Future: New Wave Graphics 1977 - 1990, Rizzoli, New York


Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star" (1980); The Human League's Dare (1980); ABC's The Lexicon Of Love (1982)

If you're in a hipster band putting your latest Drone/Noise/Vaporwave/Italo-Disco/Witch-House release on Bandcamp, you'll need something that lets people know where your image allegiances lie. You'll have to either go full arty and have some vague out-of-focus photo of nature, or do something that looks really bad, like an embarrassing '80s high school science text book with pseudo-computerized imagery and awful colour clashes. A quick Google search will help: maybe try emulating the 7" cover to Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star" (1980).

The Smiths' "This Charming Man" (1983); Culture Club's Karma Chameleon (1983); Eurythmics' Touch (1983)

The font is a simulation of LCD lettering, like on old digital clock radios. Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes are on the cover, sporting short yellow shirts with skinny green ties and grey trousers. Mulletted hair, pouting stares with hands on hips, they look like a couple of kids who work at Radio Shack but dream of being in a band like The Cars. They have been rendered in faux-scanned lines, somewhere between an extreme close up of a '70s CRT monitor or a lo-res fax scan. It's not, but it's been made to look like that. It joins a lineage of graphics pretending to be made by computer before computers were invented to make such imagery. It's a quaint historical moment, when the means by which one makes an image could be foregrounded as a strategy in and of itself. Nowadays (feigned hipster sigh) all imagery is hi-res, cine-styled, Google-searched, Instagram-prepped. So it's no wonder that so many Bandcamp covers resemble the Buggles' cover.

David Bowie's Let's Dance (1983); Billy Idol's IDOL (1983); The Cars' Candy-O (1979)

What was that cover like 40 years ago? It looked pretty awful. Compared to what Kraftwerk, Devo, Residents and M were doing with their various brands of 'meta-pop' musically and visually, Buggles were like a pop industry signing riding the avantgarde experiments of others. But Buggles were unashamedly pop. That cover signposts what was happening to record cover graphic design at the dawn of the '80s. As record companies deployed their resources for all sorts of New Wave gambits, their managerial infrastructure determined the visual marketing of their signed artists. This entailed either in-house company design, or subcontracts for design companies already soaked in advertising mentality. Punk/Post-Punk independent graphic designers who worked closely with musicians and bands (mostly by being friends, fans, punters or art school comrades) were largely out of this professional loop. This accounts for the wide range of styles adorning New Wave record covers through the early '80s. Many of them lack spark and edge; most look moulded by mainstream aesthetics dressing-up in ill-fitting concepts.

Duran Duran's Rio (1984); Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Two Tribes" (1984)

Yet as larger record companies took over much New Wave releasing (thereby determining a mass reading of what New Wave should look and sound like), Punk/Post-Punk strategies still percolated. The early '80s is a period where Rock-aligned New Wave was drowned out by the neo-Pop, hyper-produced, electronic/sampled sonics of club mixes which energized New Romanticism and Synth Pop.


Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.