The Eighties Weren’t All Neon Fun

A look at one of the decade’s countercurrents through album covers

J.P. Williams
5 min readJan 4, 2024
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash.

If the Eighties had a defining palette, it was neon. Kids begged their parents for high-top shoes, then stripped them of their white shoelaces to replace them with neon pink, yellow and green. The same aesthetic, bright and raucous, both toybox and urban signage, appears in album covers like Culture Club’s Colour by Numbers (1983), Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (1984) and Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985), but for every persona, a shadow, so here are some examples of a specific eye-catching style that exhibited an entirely different sensibility.

Loverboy, Wildside (1987)
Art direction: Norman Moore
Photography: Phillip Dixon

A good example of the style is Loverboy’s Wildside. (←Click there to give the album cover a look, and be sure to follow similar links throughout the article to view the art I’m discussing.) The field is divided into three horizontal bands, with an image in the center band, similar to what a vexillologist would call a triband flag. This is the basic pattern, but the exact content changes from album to album. Here, the top and bottom are white, with a black-and-white photo in the center. In the foreground is a woman riding on a motorcycle, and in the background is a panoramic landscape. The same creative team used a similar design for Heart’s Bad Animals (1987), and for photos of the musicians on the back cover.

The Damned, Phantasmagoria (1985)
Photography: Bob Carlos Clarke

My favorite representative of the style is The Damned’s Phantasmagoria. By 1985, the punk band was deep into goth rock territory, a good example being “Sanctum Sanctorum,” and the album cover summons a similarly deathly atmosphere. As with Loverboy’s Wildside, the top and bottom are white, with a central black-and-white photo. This one shows a cloaked woman standing in a snow-covered graveyard. The same photographer also shot Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns for the hi-NRG band’s 1986 release Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, which is nearly identical in style. Burns wears black against a seascape superimposed with stonework, not of a cemetery, but of the Château de Raray commune in France.¹

John Mellencamp, The Lonesome Jubilee (1987)
Photography: Skeeter Hagler
Art Direction: George Corsillo

In a variation on the style, John Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee has an enlarged central photo so it dominates, leaving only two narrow white bands at the top and bottom. The photo, black and white again, is unabashedly working class, showing Mellencamp seated next to a blue-collar laborer. Photos inside the gatefold present the members of the band in a similar light. They wear jean jackets, casual streetwear and big belt buckles. They’re balding, braided and tousled. And they’re a far cry from the haute sculpté of Duran Duran. Another example of this variation with a large central photo, but by Erika Gagnon and Guido Harari, is Corey Hart’s Fields of Fire (1986).

U2, The Joshua Tree (1987)
Photography: Anton Corbÿn
Design and Layout: Steve Averill
Artwork: The Creative Dept. Ltd.

The cover of U2’s The Joshua Tree was iconic even in its day. The narrow central band is a black-and-white photo showing the band against a panoramic shot of Zabriskie Point.² In this instance, however, the surrounding areas are black. The same creative team had also designed the band’s previous album The Unforgettable Fire (1984), where the borders were mauve and the photo was more vertically-oriented, dwarfing the band against the backdrop of Moydrum Castle and its climbing ivy.³ For another example of the black triband style, see Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982), design by Andrea Klein and photography by David Kennedy.

Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love (1987)
Art direction: Sandra Choron
Photography: Annie Leibovitz

Speaking of the Boss, his album Tunnel of Love — this post’s fifth album from 1987 — uses white top and bottom bands, but in place of a black-and-white center is a grainy color photograph by Annie Leibovitz. She’s one of the most well-known photographers ever, so chances are you’ve seen some of her work: pregnant Demi Moore, naked John Lennon, goth album cover Queen Elizabeth. I like this photo of Springsteen looking all business in black jacket and string tie, leaning back against what is maybe a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray? The back cover exhibits the same design, but the musician has removed his jacket and loosened up, if only a tad.

The Eighties were as ideological as any time. Then, as now, you were supposed to be young, urban, good-looking, fashionable and wealthy according to the specifics of prevailing trends. This post generalizes from a limited selection of records from my own collection, so exceptions are to be expected, but it’s perhaps telling that the above album covers, with their grainy, often black-and-white photos and generally sober designs, served as reminders that not everyone fits perfectly into mainstream color schemes: artists with something to say, the proletariat, free spirits, and the disaffected. These records were for the masses, and that included outsiders.

References:
[1] “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (Dead or Alive album),” Wikimedia Foundation, last edited November 20, 2023, 17:29 (UTC): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad,_Bad_and_Dangerous_to_Know_(Dead_or_Alive_album)
[2] Steven Cuevas, “30 Years on, U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ Still Draws Fans to the Edge of Death Valley,” KQED, March 23, 2017: https://www.kqed.org/news/11465627/30-years-on-u2s-the-joshua-tree-still-draws-fans-to-the-edge-of-death-valley
[3] Robert O’Byrne, “An Unforgettable Fire,” The Irish Aesthete, August 15, 2018: https://theirishaesthete.com/2018/08/15/moydrum-1/

Note: I wrote this for Medium.com. If you are reading this on another platform, it has been pirated. I quit the Medium Partner Program, so I’m not doing this for money. It is nice, however, to know someone’s reading, so please clap or comment to let me know somebody’s out there. Gladius adhuc lucet.

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J.P. Williams

I usually write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Right now, mostly lighter, shorter pieces on whatever I feel like.