Shadows and Tall Trees: The Alternate Cover for Boy

Original story by Aaron J. Sams / Don Morgan (2016-10-19)

An Interview with Sandy Porter, Artist and Photographer

In October of 1980, U2’s first album, Boy, was released in Europe. It featured an image of a shirtless young boy on the cover (six-year-old Peter Rowen, brother of Bono’s friend Guggi, who had also appeared on the sleeve of the Three EP). But when the time came to release Boy in North America in early 1981, there were concerns that the image might be misunderstood.

Island Records had the task of putting a new face on Boy for the North American market. A stylized black-and-white cover was developed using “stretched” images of the band members. This alternate cover was used on all North American releases up until the 2008, when, as part of a remastering campaign, Boy was reissued worldwide—including North America—with the original Peter Rowen photo. (In similar fashion, the alternate “stretch” image was also used for the March 1981 “I Will Follow” single release in North America, while European “I Will Follow” singles had a different photo of Rowen originating from the back of the LP).

We recently had the opportunity to speak with artist and photographer Sandy Porter who worked on the alternate Boy cover for the North American market. Sandy graduated from the Royal College of Art, London, in 1979. In addition to offering a glimpse into the creative process for the cover, he also provided us with several never-before-seen photos of the work-in-progress!

Image-1: B/W Negatives of the final album cover. Grid marks are album reference size.

Q: How did you get involved in the cover for the album Boy?

John Martyn was an important artist on the Island label, and I was commissioned in 1980 by Bruno Tilley, Island Records’ in-house designer, to create the cover for Martyn’s Grace and Danger. Unusually for the industry at that time, Bruno was both a talented designer and a creative thinker. The cover ended up being a major undertaking; it took ten days to complete the artwork. At the same time that I was working on this cover, he was trying to resolve an issue around a new young band called U2. The UK cover for their Boy album was apparently causing problems with the USA and other international distributors, and he had been asked to find a solution. There was an additional issue that there was virtually no budget available to do this. The current option he had was to use four fairly standard press release pictures of the band—an idea that did not fill him with enthusiasm.

Image-2a: Copy transparencies of the front and back cover with shadow and glass variations. (Glass was balanced on an old cassette tape recorder).

Q: So you started work on the cover for Boy with Bruno Tilley at that point?

I agreed to work on a new cover despite the very small fee and the lack of expenses to enable us to travel to the band and take some new pictures of them. Instead, Bruno traveled down to Dorset from London for the weekend so that we could spend some time working on some ideas. This also gave him the opportunity to see the results as they were being produced. The first idea was to use the pictures as the raw material for new images by distorting them and creating a more graphic, stylised piece of artwork. In those days we didn’t have computer programs, so we created effects by a more manual process. There were no rules or guides on how to do it; we just experimented through trial and error. Some interesting effects were created using a photocopier and pulling the images during the scanning. But it was very hit-and-miss. The images were also copied and distorted using a photographic enlarger and movement of the base board holding the photographic paper. In-camera movement and distortion was another option used, with long exposures and movement of prints. Then, a combination of mixing the techniques was tried. These processes started to help formulate some ideas and gave the raw material for the next stage. There was, in addition, a fair amount of black pen work to enhance areas that had not worked well when distorted.

Image-2b: Copy transparencies of the front and back cover with shadow and glass variations.

Q: Where did you get your inspiration for the cover?

I wanted to do more than just distort images and had looked to the album for inspiration. When an illustrator or photographer undertook creating record or book covers you were usually given a copy of the artist’s work so that you could use it in this way. What caught my attention was the William Golding/Lord of the Flies reference in the use of “Shadows and Tall Trees.” As Lord of the Flies was set on an island, the first area it influenced was selecting four rough and distorted images that had a feel how the sea washes and distorts marks in the sand. When the right combination for the front and back had been worked out they were the images were cut up with scalpels and spray mounted together. Then they were copied, printed, touched up, recopied and printed onto high contrast photographic paper. This process created the new images that were eventually used on the actual album cover.

I went on to create additional versions of the cover that went further down these lines. The first was again influenced by Lord of the Flies. The reference to “shadows“ was taken and recreated through the pale grey double imaging of the band. Different degrees of the shadows were tried and can be seen if you look closely at images 2, 4 and the alternate final covers (images 3 and 3A). The smaller shadowing in image 3 (close up of it in image 4) also created a three dimensional quality with the flat planes of the black and grey.

These images were then taken a stage further. A piece of broken glass was added in order to reflect the violence that was depicted in Lord of the Flies. It also created the interplay that you look for of something soft with something hard, something smooth with something rough, the sharp with the blurred, in motion and static etc… It also created plains and different dimensions. A final alternative version had a touch of red on the edge of the tip of glass. These alternative covers were my own preferred choice for the cover.

Image-2c: Copy transparencies of the front and back cover with shadow and glass variations.

Q: Any idea why they went with the simplest of the covers for the album?

Why were the covers with shadows or glass not used? I don’t have an answer but I can hazard a guess. The most likely reason would have been the cost. The simple black-and-white version could be printed very cheaply. To get the best from the alternative covers, they would need to have been printed using a high-quality, four-colour print run or spot colours. At the time, Island was an independent label, and even for the John Martyn cover the budget was small. Island probably had a limited budget available for sleeve production. Another possibility was that there had been enough controversy over the first cover that they wanted to avoid the risk that the second one could have been too edgy. Or both could have been factors in the decision.

Image-3: Alternative front cover 1.

Q: You mentioned the cover uses press photographs. So you didn’t take the images of the band members yourself? You are credited as photographer for the cover, so many have took that to mean you were responsible for the band images, and that Bruno Tilley was involved in the design process.

No, I didn’t take the band photographs that were the basis for the cover. It is understandable that people made this assumption, as this is probably the first time anyone would have been given an insight into how the cover was constructed. It would
be difficult now to work out who actually took all the original photographs, when you consider that the starting point is a set of simple greyscale head shots and the final images bear so little resemblance to where we started from. Maybe the easiest
way to think of it is that the photographs were used in a way that is similar to how a painter projects a photograph on a canvas to use as a basis for his work. So you could say that Bruno was involved in the design process, while my role was creating the photographic images that were used. For most commercial assignments there is usually an agency art director working with an artist or photographer. Sometimes art directors are very “light-touch,” and on other occasions they like to be more involved.

Image-3A: Alternative front cover 2 with red tip

Image-3B: Close up of red tip

Q: In 2008, U2 reverted to the UK cover image for the remastered editions of the Boy album worldwide (although your stretched image did appear in the liner notes/booklet of some 2008 editions, ironically making it available for the first time on pressings of Boy outside North America). Did you expect the image to go away at some point? Are you surprised it was used for as many years as it was?

Yes, I am surprised it ran for so long. In the industry, 28 years is an eternity. In addition, it is very unlikely that any of the original artwork I supplied to the record company would be found after all this time. When Island Records was bought out and absorbed, it is likely that most of the old art material would not have survived the move.

Image-4: Close up of the shadow.

Q: Have you worked on other album covers since Boy?

I worked on a few singles and album covers in the following year. A&M bought the right to reproduce a design and artwork of mine for a Police album cover. Unfortunately, the band broke up and it never ran. I worked with a great graphic designer named Steve Penny, and together we produced the covers and sleeves for Jimmy Grierson’s album A Series of Long Jumps. I did take all the photographs on that album. This was a really enjoyable creative process. Jimmy stayed with me for a week so that we were able to work closely together. Unfortunately, Jet Records went into receivership around the time they were releasing the album. But fortunately, I was paid the very significant fees they owed me three days before the label went down!

Q: What were you doing before you worked on album covers and where did your career take you after this?

Steve Penny, who worked with me on the Jimmy Grierson album, and I were going to create a design group which was going to be aimed at the record and audio/visual industries. But following on from the shock of very nearly being seriously out-of-pocket coloured my view on majoring on the record industry. We decided to focus more on working together on some major audio/visual collaborations Steve had lined up. In parallel, I continued working in other areas independently. I was actually only about a year out of university when I worked on the Boy cover. I had started out as a sculptor and then took up fine art photography/image making at college. At this time, my focus was primarily gallery shows and private sales. Some of the early pieces of work were bought for national and private museum collections. Unfortunately they didn’t pay a lot in those days. So having the chance to show work to a much bigger audience by creating record covers, and getting paid reasonably for it, seemed a more attractive option. My first commission was for British Vogue. I went on to work freelance for The Sunday Times, magazines, design groups, and advertising agencies, and ended up traveling to over 50 countries on assignment. The Sunday Times jobs were rewarding as they gave me the opportunity to meet and photograph people like Brian Eno, artists, politicians, and sports figures, as well as create photomontage images.

Image-5: Back cover variations.

Q: This week marks 36 years since the album’s international release. Looking back, or forward, do you have any further thoughts?

Thirty-six years ago, album covers perhaps had a different role to play than they do now. We bought vinyl in record shops, and the cover was an important and integral part of a fan’s experience in acquiring the album. Now, we buy in a different way and fans probably only see the cover after a purchase. But I think there is still a great opportunity for an artist to enhance their relationship with their fans by giving them an interesting cover that listeners will see whenever they select their digital album.

Looking back, my one regret was not meeting the band in person and being able to draw more on their thoughts, as well as share in the creative process that I embarked on when working on the Boy cover.

Looking forward : As U2 have always been great sponsors of charity, it might be nice to auction a limited edition signed set of prints of the alternative unreleased version for charity.

Q: Final question: You worked on U2’s very first album—have you followed their career since that time? If so, do you have a favorite song?

With any great band is there ever just one song? “I Will Follow” from Boy is probably just beaten to it by “With or Without You”. They have created many great tracks. So my choice will be no doubt be different next week.

[Ed. Note: The press photos upon which the alternate cover would be loosely based appear to be from the same photo session that can be seen on the international edition of Boy. The photographs of U2 in the remastered edition are credited to Phil Sheehy, although it does not specify which set.]

Image-6: Alternative Front Cover Images.

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