nder the Covers is a fortnightly column concerning the packaging, artwork, and design that goes into albums. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.
Peter Saville’s influence on the typography of modern English rock is undeniable. This week on Under The Covers, I wanted to take a look at one piece in particular of his that is perhaps one of his least representative, but at the same time, one of his most interesting.
By 1983’s Power, Corruption, and Lies, Saville had become a fixture as the head of Factory Record’s graphic design team, designing each and every release that would come out on the label, giving it a coherent and distinctive identity.
While New Order’s debut album cover fit more into line with the futuristic end of Saville’s work, when it came time to decide on the art for the group’s follow-up, the artist chose to go back to the type of work that defined the group’s previous band, Joy Division. For that band’s two major album releases, Saville had referenced explicitly two time periods in the history of art.
The group’s Closer sleeve, for instance, was an homage to neo-classical painting, by way of photography (done by Bernard Pierre Wolffe). It’s telling how traditional the work is, illustrating exactly how far Saville was from most sleeves associated with punk and its adherents. Similarly, Power, Corruption, and Lies seems almost comically innocuous. Seriously, flowers?
And it wasn’t just that the Saville had picked flowers for the front. It’s that he hadn’t even bothered to choose them himself—the painting was one that had already been finished for more than 90 years.
Fantin-Latour, the man behind that painting, has a story that seems to parallel Saville’s, in a way. Born amid one of the greatest artistic upheavals of all time, Fantin-Latour was friends with many of the revolutionaries that were transforming painting forever. But instead of going on to transform the format in ways foreign to even the ostensible innovators, F-L only went so far as to depict his friends and colleagues in repose (pictured below).
A Studio in the Batignolles Quarter, 1870.
Emile Zola, Frederic Bazille, Edouard Manet, Renoir, and Claude Monett are all pictured.
At heart, F-L was a traditionalist that couldn’t break from the past that built him. He rarely, if ever, tried any sort of formal experiments. That’s the case in "A Basket Of Roses,” painted in 1890, which is the basis for the cover art here.
And while Saville added little (we’ll get to that in a moment), because of the artistic landscape at the time, his use of the painting as a cover held a great deal of meaning outside of itself. Far from being a traditionalist, Saville became renowned as a maverick situationist, willing to appropriate the most innocuous of images for his purposes.
The only thing that Saville added to the actual painting was a complex color code in the right hand corner that, once deciphered, would let the consumer know the particular Factory release number that they were holding in their hands. Apparently this same color wheel was used for “Blue Monday” and “Confusion,” as well.
This website has an explanation to help decode the colors:
To decode the wheel, use only the outer two rings. You could divide the outer two rings into full colour, various on green, and various on yellow. The inner segments appear to be meaningless. Start with the full colour sections, the first of which will be the green one... This is 'A'. Work your way clockwise naming each colour the next letter. There are exactly 26 segments around the disc. From 'Z' work back into the full colours, the first of which is '1'. This means that the full green segment is either 'A' or '1', and the colour for 'I' is also that for '9'.This mysterious futuristic quality juxtaposed with the distant past hardly became a Saville trademark over the years, but in one striking instance the artist struck gold, creating (or, rather, presenting) a cover sleeve for the ages.
You should be able to decode the squares now. Start with the 5 on the front of Power Corruption & Lies, and you will find (if you have the vinyl) that the first 4 squares spell 'FACT' then next square is divided into two, with the lower half being '7' and the upper half being '5'. Therefore the code is 'FACT 75' which is the Factory number for this release. The code for the CD front cover is 'FACD 75'.