When the Rolling Stones released Exile on Main Street in 1972 — a double album of songs representing the many different genres of music that shaped Stones’ music at the time — fans and critics found themselves having to spend a lot of time trying to “get it.”
It required a number of listens to gain an appreciation of what, on the surface, often seemed to be a collection of studio out-takes and Richards/Taylor/Watts jams than a freshly recorded musical offering.
Many critics of the era failed to appreciate the Stones’ explorations of R&B, soul, country and roots rock spread over the four album sides. In fact, the record was comprised of a series of recordings done during the previous four years; as such, they featured a variety of mixes (some better than others) and showed the band building on top of these influences in their own inimitable style to the point that, now, more than 35 years later, the package is considered by many to be the band’s most authentic offering.
It is always listed near the top of most of the “Best Of” and “Greatest” lists (#7 on the Rolling Stone Magazine 2003 list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” #22 on VH1’s survey, and it even impressed the younger generation enough to be ranked #11 on Pitchfork’s 2003 list of Best Albums of the 1970s).
In a similar fashion, when the buying public took its first look at the design and imagery of the sprawling record cover, most people admitted that they didn’t get it. Having just soaked in Warhol’s ultimately iconic cover with a zipper for Sticky Fingers, fans should have been ready for anything.
But, John Van Hamersveld’s designs seemed to confound them, asking them to digest a rough, anti-establishment, punk-before-there-was-punk collage of images that may have, initially, combined with the unfamiliar musical stylings to impact sales (don’t worry, as the record was supported by the now-famous 1972 American concert tour and songs such as “Happy” and “Tumbling Dice” got some significant radio play. The record went on to top the charts in the U.S. and the U.K.).
And so, when Van Hamersveld, who’d established his industry cred via his poster and package designs for Hendrix, The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour), Jefferson Airplane (Crown of Creation) and others, was approached by the Rolling Stones (who were in a studio in L.A. putting the finishing touches on this new album) to work on the graphics and packaging for a songbook project the band wanted to release, he joined in on an interesting series of events on the day of their initial meeting that had a profound impact on the course of album art history.
In the words of the artist, John Van Hamersveld (interviewed in March 2008, with additional text provided* and used with his permission)
I had been a multimedia artist and rock promoter during my Pinnacle Rock Concerts in the ’60s, and I was returning from the Kings Road Scene in London to LAX in 1971 in an effort to use my music business promotions experience to connect with Hollywood again. One day, from the new Chapman Park Studio Building on Sixth Street in Los Angeles, I left to meet with a friend who would introduce me to Norman Seeff, the art director and photographer for United Artists and Blue Note Records.
Norman was an art director and photographer of personalities and had worked as the photographer for Bob Dylan’s The Band package with Bob Cato, the famous art director for Columbia Records. I had skills that I had developed in art school, and I could apply them to this medium. I could draw, do typography, illustrations and could combine design with photography. I also had printing and publishing experience from my famous rock posters of the