"I'm so excited that in this tech age vinyl is still alive and well," album designer extraordinaire Spencer Drate told me recently. "Some things stay the same and the album cover is like the toilet plunger or something. It doesn't change and it refuses to go away!"
Drate should know. Along with his partner Judith Salavetz, he's been involved in some of the most iconic album covers in rock 'n' roll history.
"The first record I ever bought was "Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley," Drate told me. "I started my collection with The King!" The energy and excitement of that record was a harbinger of things to come for Drate.
"I started packaging records at ESP records. It was a simple job, but it was a start. And it was a cool label. ESP was really a jazz label but its motto was 'We release anything you want to hear.' It was a really cool environment to work in."
But soon ambition called. Seymour Stein of Sire Records lured Drate away by telling him, "I need a type guy." Drate set about a relationship working on one of the coolest labels of the 1970s, lending his skills to releases by Richard Hell, the Pretenders, Madness, the Dead Boys, the Ramones and Talking Heads.
"I got along great with the artists and no one ever rejected my work! John Gillespe, the art director at Sire, used to warn me, 'The Ramones are really hard to work with' or 'David Byrne and the Talking Heads are really difficult', but I got along great with all of them."
In fact, the Talking Heads "Fear of Music" album, on which Drate worked, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Album Packaging.
"In any other year we would have won," Drate recalled. "But we were up against Supertramp's 'Breakfast In America', which was a monster album and a great design."
Things moved quickly. Drate designed six iconic album covers for Joan Jett and was the first album cover designer to appear on MTV. "They called because they loved what I'd done on Billy Squire's album 'Don't Say No'. But it was crazy that album cover got so much attention because we only had 48 hours to put it together. Billy had turned down Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis's design and came to me in a real pinch. We went with a real raw, tough look. It really said something about the songs inside. In fact Tony Bongiovi (Jon's brother) used to show that cover to people and say 'Now this is a rock 'n' roll album cover!' It was a really exciting time to be doing that work."
By 1983, with his star on the rise, Drate met fellow design artist Judith Salavetz. The two teamed up and have been working together now for thirty years.
"Things really took off then," said Drate. "We did great work for Lou Reed and on the Velvet Underground box set in 1993. We did some cool art for Paul McCartney on what are now some really rare releases -- "Mantovani Plays The Beatles" and "Roger Williams Plays The Beatles"-- and we did a beautiful, multi-panel CD design for The Beach Boys for the "Summer In Paradise" album. But that was another crazy, 48 hour job! I got a call from the label and went over to see The Beach Boys at their hotel and put that together practically overnight!"
"But Judith and I have a great working relationship, so we're able to work on something like that and something as different as Lou Reed at the same time, which is what we did on that one," said Drate. "We listen to the music and we really try to understand the vibe of it. Then we create not just the visuals but also the typography off of that. That's the key for us. We look at it all as a complete package. I think that's why to this day we've never had anyone reject anything we've ever presented to them!"
The great thing about working with Judith is that we're way past ego," continued Drate. "We've been doing this together now for thirty years, so even when we disagree it's just a blip on the map. It's like working with a brother or a sister; the disagreements don't last long and it doesn't matter who comes up with the best idea. And we know we are stronger together than apart."
Along with the stellar design work that Drate and Salavetz continue to crank out they are prolific in other mediums.
"We were honored to have our work included in the 'Who Shot Rock 'n' Roll" show," Drate said about the traveling exhibition that many New Yorkers saw at the Brooklyn Museum in 2010, which features the . "It combines outstanding photos by some of the best photographers in rock with iconic album covers. It's a wonderful show."
"We also have appeared on WPAT (930 AM) on the Bob O'Brien and Teddy Smith show," Drate continued. "It's fantastic because the station has both digital and turntables, so that's really cool. We get to talk about and play music by artists we love and that we've worked with."
Finally, the pair authored "Five Hundred 45s", a graphic history of the 7-inch 45 rpm record. "It's cool because there's everything in there from pop to indie, with really cool essays and the whole package is in the size of a 45 record," said Drate. "It's been a huge success. The Times of London gave it full-page coverage. It's been just amazing to be part of."
While reflecting on his success, Drate is just as excited about the future. "Vinyl is back!" he enthused as we wrapped up. "I mean, rock was supposed to be dead in a few years. It's still here! With technology evolving so rapidly and taking over our lives I think that the resurgence of vinyl in this age just underscores that it will survive, too. And besides, musicians love it. And you know, I do too!"
This article is copyright 2013 by Jeff Slate. No part may be reprinted or referenced without permission and/or attribution. All rights reserved.