The Vapors

How an 80’s Album Cover Inspired the Creation of a Cultural Phenomenon

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By Ken Zurski

In December of 1981, the English power pop group The Vapors released Magnets, the follow-up to their successful debut album New Clear Days which featured the bouncy and ambiguous hit single, “Turning Japanese.”

I’m turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so

Although the group had explored heavy themes before on its first album, Magnets was considered even darker. For example, the title song is about the assassination of John F. Kennedy’s, with references to “the motorcade” and the Kennedy children. “Spiders” and “Can’t Talk Anymore” dealt with mental health issues and “Jimmie Jones,” the single, recounted cult leader Jim Jones and the massacre in Jonestown.

They tell me jimmies seen a sign
Says he understand everything
They tell me jimmies got a line
To the man from the ministry

Despite the bleak subject matter, however, the songs were mostly upbeat and catchy, a trademark of the group.

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The Vapors

But it didn’t light up the charts.

The album, while positively received, was a commercial flop.  The band blamed it on the lack of interest from their new record label, EMI (later changed to Liberty Records), which bought out United Artists shortly after their first release. Due in part to corporate frustration, The Vapors disbanded after Magnets failed to ignite. But today, the album has significance for its inspired cover art, a complex portrait that mirrored the album’s dark undertones.

Martin Handford was the artist.

A London-born illustrator, Handford specialized in drawing large crowds, an inspiration he claims came from playing with toy soldiers as a boy  and watching carefully choreographed crowd scenes from old movies.

Handford, who sold insurance to pay bills, was hardly an emerging or successful artist at the time he was asked to design the album cover for Magnets.  Drawing upon the theme of the title song, Handford depicted a chaotic crowd scene of an assassination, although you couldn’t tell unless you looked closely.  From a reasonable distance, the numerous figures and various colored clothing formed the shape of a human eye.

It was both clever and disturbing.

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For example, at the top right hand corner of the cover, on the roof of a building, there is a man – presumably the assassin – putting away a rifle. Some of the figures are seen running from the horrific scene unfolding in the “eye’s” iris, while others are curiously drawn to it. But while the cover was certainly an original creation, the artistic style was not.

In fact it has a name: Wimmelbilderbuch.

Wimmelbilderbuch, or “wimmelbook” for short (German for “teeming picture book”) is the term used to describe a book with full spread drawings of busy place’s like a zoo, farm or town square. The page is filled with numerous humans and animals. It’s geared toward children, but adult’s seemed to like it too, especially when an identified object is hidden, making it more like a puzzle than a colorful picture. Several artists incorporated this style, including a Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel, who dates back to the early 16thcentury, and specialized in drawing intricate landscapes and peasant scenes populated by people in various degrees of work or distress. Bruegel’s human figures are mostly depicted as frail and challenged (Fleet Foxes used a Bregel painting The Elder for its 2008 self titled debut album).

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Pieter Bruegel “The Elder”

 

Handford’s work wasn’t nearly as depressing as Bruegel’s, but they were similar. Handford purposely drew the Magnets cover with emblematic images, not exactly hidden, but tough to spot, and when found became a personal reward to the viewer – like the tiny assassin on the roof.

This was the inspiration for an idea that eventually became a cultural phenomenon.

Handford created a recurring character he would put in all his drawings: a bespectacled man with wavy brown hair who always wore a red and white striped shirt and stocking cap. His name was Wally.

The trick was trying to find Wally in the crowd.

The concept soon became a contest, then a crave. It led to several best selling books and an iconic, some might say exasperating, new enigma emerged.

“Where’s Wally?” is how they describe it around the world.

In America, it’s called  “Where’s Waldo?”

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Martin Handford