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The impact of John Van Hamersveld's artwork on The Rolling Stones' 'Exile on Main Street'

Explore the artwork for 'Exile On Main Street' and the part it played in the making of this classic album

by Mike Goldstein

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 that were spread over the four album sides. In fact, the record was comprised of a series of recordings done during the previous four years and, 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 over 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 VH-1’s survey, and 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 their 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 LA 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 had a profound impact on the course of album art history. And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, on center stage, here are 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 60's 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 6th 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 60's. After the meeting, Norman and I started a creative relationship built around packaging albums.

Norman had 65 projects to package over the first year, so he and I created an artistic design process for the packaging of music and band identities. We became a design team that worked hard to lead the industry by creating a professional style that was envied by all the major labels. After each release of record packages to retail, other companies began to follow our UA style.

One day Norman and I met the Rolling Stones here in Hollywood. A beautiful girlfriend I had met earlier on “the scene” in London – Chris Odell — was now Mick Jagger's personal assistant, and so in early 1972, The Rolling Stones approached Norman and I to work on the design of a songbook with photographs for Warner Brothers. At this stage, I don’t know that I will be packaging Exile On Main Street. The Stones are in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound studios, finishing the record. Our first meeting was set to be in Bel Air, where they were staying.

As I drive to the meeting, I think about the times I am a captive to Jagger's enigmatic voice on the car radio, clarifying themes of the day with his lyrics, as if they were an advertising slogan for today's lifestyle. His words strike like an axe to my forehead. The Bel Air mansion where the Stones are living is a sumptuous Mediterranean-style villa, surrounded by lush foliage, and soon I am standing on a Persian rug, looking into the eyes of Jagger. He extends his pale, soft hand – limp from a life of wealth, decadence, and privilege.

The rest are talking at the large dining table. We greet each other and sit down in a seating plan orchestrated by Jagger. I am directed to sit next to Mick, and Marshall Chess (son of Leonard Chess of Chess Records and President of Rolling Stones Records) stands on the left. Norman is taking pictures of the band, and Keith is sitting on the couch across from me. He is looking at me in his mirrored sunglasses while smoking a joint. He looks so healthy, handsome and rested.

Then, to my surprise, Robert Frank (the photographer and film-maker well known for his late 1950's book The Americans, with a foreword by Jack Kerouac) walks into the room with a small Super 8mm Canon camera. Jagger and I smile. "This is a very hip day," I say to myself. I knew Robert from a meeting in New York in 1968. He takes Jagger to downtown Los Angeles to film him on the seedy parts of Main Street later in the day. Norman and I leave after the shooting to edit his photographs.

At the request of Marshall Chess, Norman and I arrive for a second day of meetings. We walk through the living room of the villa down to the far wall into the dining room where Mick and Keith are waiting with Marshall. As Marshall starts the meeting, Norman hands another album cover by another designer to him. The cover is passed to Jagger for approval. He rejects it. Marshall then hands me a Robert Frank front photo collage across to me. The tattoo-parlor-wall cover image is from Robert's photo documentary “The Americans”. Mick, on my right, looks on for both of us to agree, so I nod. This then becomes the famous photo-composition for the Exile On Main St. album cover. As the meeting progresses, the other pieces of the package are handed to me.

During the meeting, Marshall asks me what we will do with Norman's photos, given that Frank's are the agreed ones for the cover. Marshall has Norman's images from the late night photo shoot. They are the sequences where Keith arrives at the very last minute for the shoot. Everyone had been waiting for him to show, and then he arrives with his pants hanging off his butt. With Keith's arrival, the group is now ready to go on with Norman's session ("This is a one-time shot!" someone says). Lights, smoke, and confetti is readied, it all begins and a sequence is attempted but then, by accident, Keith began to fall all over the set, creating a disaster. All else fails and our budget has now been used up.

Suddenly Keith says from across the edge of the table, "Make some postcards," showing us with his hands an accordion-folded-style collection of postcards. He then proceeds to almost lose his balance and fall over onto the rug. I say to Mick, "Let's take that as an idea and do it." He agrees and Marshall says, "Done". Marshall and Jagger hand me a stack of photos made by Frank over the weekend. I leave with the visual “ingredients” and arrive back my place at the Chapman Park Studio Building.

In my studio, I play the song 'Sympathy For The Devil' and I think about how to design, in a "Beat style", the concept of a “pop art” package. I have to make it so it will work as an image in a competitive market place. I envisage the package as a painter's fine art print. I had been using various kinds of mediums like brushed inks, crayons, markers, paint and airbrush tools with complicated layered stripping and printing tricks to gain the effects I needed, but in this case I need just the basics - drafting tape and ripped paper.

I select the pictures from the ones Frank took. After our meeting, I organize the images as per Jagger's instructions while Marshall looks on. I am able to step back as an artist and see the opportunity in front of me. Jagger is really a pop artist, too. With all the images in place, I'm satisfied with my work. Upon the label’s approval, Exile will soon hit the streets.

The last step of the approval process stopped at Ahmet Ertegun’s office at Atlantic Records. He was the label’s ultimate authority and so when this kind of art and esthetic made it past his eyes, I knew that all would be okay. In the eyes of the many in the industry, they were all shocked by the ugly, rough, tuff, beat look of the package and that it was not funny or real humorous (to anyone but a Johnny Rotten).

So, as the result of Jagger and I sitting side by side in 1972 at our meeting, my arrangement of materials that would go beyond Frank’s photo style, creating an identity that would becomes the basis of the PUNK FASHION MOVEMENT. To the spectators, critics, and others in the Establishment, I had made a package that was not glamorous. It was not a friendly image to put on display in the record stores, but it was THAT image that established the anti-establishment look of PUNK. It took years to recover from the cover’s graphic statement, with new generations of punks exploiting the graphic concept to this day - still ripping and tearing and drawing all over things with their own graffiti.

The album cover art images from the past, as part of our culture, were styled for fashion and archetype. In 1984, my friend John Lydon said to me "The Stones’ Exile package set the image of punk in 1975 - we used that graphic feel to communicate our message graphically".

In the 70's, I do feel that 12x12 album covers were an all-inclusive image of cultural style in the visual fashion of the sixties and the seventies. I was, therefore, a well-known designer of cultural images which were created as reflections of that culture. These were then watched closely by other design teams and designers who copied me their pursuit to find new images. Today more than 100,000 artists are using a "Ripping and Tearing" style and graffiti in their work.

At least Johnny was nice enough to explain what his intention was then."

Stones Billboard050608v2


About the artist, John Van Hamersveld: John (b. 1941, Baltimore, MD) is an artist and designer who’s responsible for an enormous catalog of well-known music industry and pop culture-related images. From his early works on the promo poster for the soundtrack for 1966’s ground-breaking surf-culture movie The Endless Summer and his cover work for The Beatles ("Magical Mystery Tour") and Jefferson Airplane ("Crown of Creation"), to his iconic 70’s covers for the Rolling Stones ("Exile on Main Street"), The Grateful Dead ("Skeletons from the Closet"), KISS ("Hotter than Hell"), and Steve Miller ("The Joker" and "Fly Like an Eagle"), and then on to his imagery that helped introduce the world to Punk Fashion, such as the cover for Blondie’s "Eat to the Beat" and "Autoamerica" and John Lydon’s post-Pistols solo efforts ("This Is What You Want, This is What You Get"), Van Hamersveld’s images set the path that the rest of the industry followed for style and substance.

His recent posters and graphics for the Cream Reunions in New York and London have been fan and collector favorites, and who but Van Hamersveld could have so appropriately designed Led Zeppelin’s recent "Mothership" package?

Van Hamersveld also created the famous "grinning Johnny" image in 1969, a version of which is said to have been the inspiration for John Pasche’s designs for the Rolling Stones' “Lips & Tongue” logo.


*Adapted from the JVH interview found in book by Genesis Publications, titled EXILE: The making of EXILE ON MAIN ST. by Robert Greenfield. Copies of this book are available from the publisher on their Web site.

All images featured in this story are copyright 1972 and 2008, John Van Hamersveld.