Saturday, 23 January 2010

Power, Corruption and Lies: New Order of Colour

Earlier this month the Royal Mail issued a delightful set of 10 stamps celebrating classic album design from the 1960s onward. Each stamp features a vinyl (!) disc which appears outside the die-cut of the stamp. This greatly excited a dear old friend of mine, Dieter Göhre, and I got hold of a presentation pack for him.

I was was surprised that the Beatles didn’t feature in the selection, and slightly annoyed that of all the Pink Floyd covers they didn’t choose the iconic Dark Side of the Moon from 1973, which features a prism breaking white light into Newtonian colours, but The Division Bell from 1994. 
The leaflet explains that it wasn’t chosen because it was deemed too simple in comparison to others. It might also have been (pun accidental) too dark. The Royal Mail team explained that “some albums could not be included for operational reasons, for instance, designs that were too dark”.
However, I was greatly excited to see New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies in the set. I had almost forgotten about this album, partly because I don't have it. While I respect the album as highly accomplished and influential I can’t say that I ever enjoyed listening to it. Now as in 1983 when it was released, I was much more intrigued by Peter Saville’s formidable cover design. It juxtaposes the image of a flower still life by French artist Henri Fantin-Latour ‘A Basket of Roses' painted in 1890, with a block colour system representing the band’s name and album time. This detail was used for a re-issue on CD and seems to contain additional information on the colour strip (perhaps "with bonus CD"?)

The colour system could be decoded by consulting the back of the sleeve. I haven't got a copy of the album at the moment and can therefore not say much about the system, but it seems to be based on the alphabet, perhaps producing mixed shades for whole words. Apart from the stark contrast of modern typographic elements and a romanticised painting of flowers I also remember someone explaining to me once that the connection between the two elements was the colours themselves, with the New Order colour code comprising only colours present in Fantin-Latour’s painting. I wish I could remember who told me this or where I read it. Can anyone help?

I am also trying to find verification for the story of the origin of the album’s title, which itself is a link to colour and colour theory. Wikipedia notes that “The title of the album was chosen by Bernard Sumner from a 1981 conceptual art exhibition in Cologne, Germany. On the opening night of the exhibition the artist Gerhard Richter vandalized the exterior of the Kunsthalle by spray painting the text, "Power, Corruption, and Lies".”What a wonderful coincidence that years later Richter would himself use digitally arranged block colours for his design of the stained glass window in Cologne’s medieval cathedral, another juxtaposition of old and new, this time Gothic and abstract. More about coloured glass in churches later.

I find it intriguing that when they chose colour themes for their album designs both New Order and Pink Floyd decided to not include any written information on the cover. Prince did the same in 1987 when he released his Black Album in a completely black sleeve without any reference to its title, artist or production credits. Similarly, The Beatles' so-called White Album from 1968 has no printed information on its white sleeve apart from the band's name. There is surely a thesis in the analysis of the synaesthetic relationship between colour, music and sleeve design.


  1. Do say something about the Meeting House glass, when you come to stained glass in churches. When I used to go to the lunchtime organ recitals there, I'm afraid my mind would often wander from music to glass, and colour and light. I couldn't tell you why they drew me at all, I'm afraid, though you may be able to explain.

  2. Oh yes, I am working on it, but I have tried in vain so far to find something on the Meeting House design in Sussex Library. Will ask Gavin whether he knows anything. Or perhaps Special Collections. There is also the Gedächntiskirche in Berlin (West), very similar in style to our MH, but the glass is midnight blue, no variation.

  3. Coincidence corner: as well as giving New Order their album name, Gerhard Richter gave Sonic Youth their album cover for Daydream Nation.