Album art has always played an important role in how certain music was received. The best album covers are often as much a part of the whole work as the music itself. They are not only a marketing tool but an extension of artistic intent as well as they create a visual representation of the music i.e. it sets the stage for what the listeners would experience. Graphic designers have been creating works of art that obviously have transcended mere packaging. Every great album can be associated with an iconic identity. One of the most iconic album covers ever is U2's The Joshua Tree by graphic designer Steven Averill an album that this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
U2's long and illustrious career is characterized by enduring relationships either with the band's producers, musicians, the now former manager and with Steve Averill, the band's art director. Averill, not only gave the band its name, but he has helped forge the band's visual identity and aesthetics over the course of 35 years, starting from Boy up to Songs of Innocence after which he retired. His iconic covers set the visual tone for the ways U2 presented themselves with their records. For people who value the physical object of an album as much as the music inside the sleeve, Averill's work transformed the two pieces of glued cardboards into art objects.
30 years ago, the band released The Joshua Tree and it was U2's breakthrough into superstardom. It was a record full of great songs that were dense with political and religious subjects that were already present in the band's songwriting up to that point but in a different, deeper and more mature way. The songs were full of grace, subtlety, and beauty. And the record cover in a certain way reflected the newly found maturity and unspoken sentiments that were obvious in the music and the lyrics.
U2 are responsible for several genuinely iconic album covers but the Joshua Tree cover went to become one of the most iconic artworks in the history of popular music and the band and its entourage found the location by chance and the rest is history. The image of the tree was shot by another close associate of the band, photographer Anton Corbijn who traveled with them and Averill in December 1986 in search of the right spot for a photograph. Actually, it was Corbijn who had suggested the idea of the Joshua tree as a visual motif while venturing into the California desert. What they wanted to present was their experience of America and its contrasting sidesthe clash between the desolation of the desert landscapes symbolizing the spiritual drought of the era and the idea of a nation of progress and oppression. The image of the Joshua Tree was a symbol of hope in a world in a turmoil.
30 years later, U2 will reissue an anniversary edition of this iconic album and will perform the album in its entirety this summer, and we spoke to Averill about his illustrious career as an art director and graphic designer for the band.
All About Jazz: Before you started working as a graphic designer, you sang in a punk band called The Radiators from Space. How has each experience of being in a band and a graphic designer informed your understanding of the other, music and visual arts?
Steve Averill: In truth I was a graphic designer long before I was in The Radiators from Space. The band had evolved from a glam rock band know as Greta Garbage and The Trash Cans. That was later followed by an electronic band called SM Corporation. I had created all the design elements for these bands. In truth, I had been working in an advertising agency since I was 19 and so my first actual album was for a charity album while working there. My outlook was always influenced by music and, to a degree, by the covers, posters and associated imagery from the music arena along with a myriad of other influences.
AAJ: What impact did punk have on you regarding visual arts and aesthetics?
SA: Punk was more of a confirmation of the DIY aspect of producing graphics. I had already in the 60's designed and produced a fanzine called Freep. So when the punk era arrived, which was really an extension of the hi-energy rock that had inspired me in the late 60s and early 70s. The MC5, the Velvet Underground, The Flamin' Groovies, The Stooges, early Alice Cooper, The Social Deviants, Pink Fairies as well as the harder UK 60s R'n' B bands. They were all part of that template. For instance, a band like the Deviants initially released their debut album themselves. They also had a political dimension to their music and attitude. So in 1977, I produced the first Irish punk fanzine called Raw Power, directly inspired by Sniffin' Glue. Later I became involved with the more substantial printed publication Heat. So the primary impact was the understanding that you had the means to do this yourself without the approval and authority of others.
AAJ: Is there an intersection where art and music meet?
SA: Certainly in terms of working with the music industry there is an obvious crossover. Though I would image that music inspired a lot of designers in many other areas other than those working directly on music related projects.
I was first exposed to jazz when I discovered that one of Jimi Hendrix's influences was Wes Montgomery. I played guitar growing up and idolized Hendrix, so I knew that anyone he looked up to must be good
I was first exposed to jazz when I discovered that one of Jimi Hendrix's influences was Wes Montgomery. I played guitar growing up and idolized Hendrix, so I knew that anyone he looked up to must be good. I was 16 at the time. I went to Tower Records and purchased a CD by Wes, and I was hooked from the very first ten seconds. The sound of the song Lolita illuminated my bedroom, as I just sat back amazed at how colorful and soulful this music was--I understood it, even though at the time I didn't understand how to go about playing it. I get chills listening to Wes' solo on Lolita, and I can still listen to that song ten times in a row and never get tired of it. There is a truly timeless quality to genuinely spontaneous jazz music, and it is that quality that has inspired me to devote my life to studying and playing this music.