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The Rolling Stones, Kate Bush, The Cure: Great albums’ cover stories revealed

From hiding film in Toyah’s knickers to combining Mondrian and The Rolling Stones, designer Bill Smith tells the cover stories of great albums.
Cover stories: Bill Smith reveals the story behind his album cover designs. Images: Bill Smith Studio

The Rolling Stones, The Jam, Kate Bush, The Cure, Led Zeppelin – they’re not only among the most important musical artists of our time, they’re also some of the most visually striking. Bill Smith has designed album covers for all of them.

Bill Smith and his studio have been designing album covers since 1976. Across five decades they’ve worked with more than 200 bands and artists. They were even there at the start of the Now That’s What I Call Music juggernaut, designing the very first cover of the world-beating compilation album series.

Now Bill’s work has been collected into a suitably glossy, album-sized, 12-inch book, which also features the stories behind some of his classic album covers.

He gave us a glimpse into the creative process behind some of his most famous works…

The Jam: In The City, 1977

Art Direction / Design: Bill Smith. Photography: Martyn Goddard

The Jam - In the City

Bill Smith: “During the spring of 1977, Chris Parry A&R manager came into the studio and asked me to go and see this new band at the Greyhound pub. Having seen and listened to some of the other Punk bands of the time, it was obvious from that first encounter that these guys not only looked great in the black and white suits, but they could actually write great songs and play them. I was hooked and so began a relationship that produced five album covers and 16 singles covers plus all relevant promotional materials for all these releases.”


Toyah Willcox: Sheep Farming in Barnet, 1978

Art Direction / Design: Bill Smith. Photography: Andrew Douglas


Toyah Willcox: “I come from the generation where an album cover is considered a work of art, as much a part of the album as the music contained within the package. Shooting Sheep Farming In Barnet was as anarchic as making the music and touring during the height of the punk movement in the UK. Bill, myself and my then wonderful partner Gem Howard drove to Yorkshire and broke into the Fylingdales Early Warning Site to get an actual photo that could today be photoshopped. Because we were on MOD land we got chased off but managed to get the desired picture and I got to stash the film in my underwear!”

Bill: “Toyah was no diva. She wanted good work and was willing to make the effort, foregoing the usual entourage of vanities for a bacon butty in a motorway cafe.

“RAF Fylingdales is and was a military radar base and part of the NATO ballistic missile early warning system. It’s still there but the ‘golf balls’ seen on the album cover have been replaced by a more modern tetrahedron structure.”


The Cure: Three Imaginary Boys, 1979

Art Direction / Design: Bill Smith. Photography: Martyn Goddard

The Cure - Three Imaginary Boys

Bill: “I found Robert [Smith] a bit distant and uncommunicative, but when he did say something it was very articulate, but he gave me no real clue as to what they wanted on the cover. It seems Robert wasn’t particularly happy with the music on the album and ultimately, not very happy with the visual elements either.

“I had been looking at modern artists like Jeff Koons and pop artist Richard Hamilton, where they had used domestic appliances within their collages/installations. I also wanted to make the shot look like a page in an Ideal Home magazine circa 1965, maybe to accent the band’s suburban roots.

“Much to the band’s annoyance there was some brouhaha about the band members as domestic appliances – was Robert the fridge or the lampstand?”

Various Artists: NOW That’s What I Call Music, 1983

Art Direction / Design: Bill Smith

Now That's What I Call Music

Bill: “I was one of a small number of agencies called in to ‘pitch’ ideas for the cover. I decided that NOW was a strong ‘call to arms’. It was full of current hits that should be listened to NOW, it made sense that we should feature the artists’ photos on the cover, so fit them all inside the word.

“In the end it isn’t the world’s greatest design I don’t particularly like the font I used but I can say I was there at the beginning of the NOW history.”

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love, 1985

Kate Bush - Hounds of Love

Art Direction: Kate Bush / Bill Smith. Photography: John Carder Bush. Design: Bill Smith Studio

Bill: “Working with Kate was always a joy, she had the whole picture in her head for each project, the photos were normally ready for us to work from, we’d discuss ideas on layout and typography and then she would leave us to get on with it.

“Dealing with so many different artists over the years, I found it much easier to work with people who had a clear direction in which they were going, our job with Kate was to help her get what she wanted for each cover.”


Led Zeppelin: Remasters, 1990

Art Direction: Bill Smith. Image manipulation / design: Bill Smith Studio

Led Zeppelin - Remasters

Bill: “Now when it comes to design by committee, this one takes the biscuit! Three different band members each with their own manager and a deceased band member with his trustee all wanting a say, a major record label on both sides of the Atlantic and six design agencies all doing pitches.”


The Rolling Stones: Jump Back, 1993

Art Direction: Bill Smith. Photography / design: BSS

The Rolling Stones - Jump Back: the best of

Bill: “A mash-up of Mondrian, Gilbert and George, Glam and Rock.”


Alison Moyet: Voice, 2004

Art Direction: Bill Smith. Design: BSS. Photography: David Scheinmann

Alison Moyet - Voice

Bill: “Alison was easy to work with, very self-deprecating and honest in her views of her own work as well as ours.

“Alison was adamant that the album be titled Voice, just Voice because that was what she was all about, she was spot-on. The album included tracks such as Almost Blue, Cry me a River and Alfie – jazz standards, as well as classic Chansons. I got the feel of her singing in a jazz club, shot in black and white and with a hint of Blue Note album covers.”

Cover Stories is out on May 27 (Red Planet Publishing).