Let’s say you’re hankering for some New Order. And not the acid-house-tinged stuff from the late 1980s—you want the classics. So you order the singles compilation Substance from the iTunes store, and within no time, you’re dancing in your bedroom to “Temptation.” But instead of the gorgeous artwork for the original 1982 single, designed by Peter Saville, the legendary art director of Manchester’s Factory Records, your iPod displays the plain (though magisterial enough) album cover. Same goes for New Order’s 1983 hit “Blue Monday,” which originally came in a color-coded die-cut sleeve that Saville based on a computer disc that stored the band’s sequencer data; or “State of the Nation,” whose cover, a photograph of metal sheets soaking in chemicals, looks like the detail of a painting by an Italian master.
In an age when the obscurest songs are obsessively collected and released in digital form, there’s a downside that’s seldom remarked upon: single cover art is often replaced with an inferior, generic greatest-hits package. And, for Factory, a record label whose graphic-design legacy shares the outsize reputation of its music, that’s no small loss. Since October, the blog Forced Laugh has tried to remedy that, posting mp3s and cover artwork of 82 singles from Factory and its associated labels. (As of Tuesday, the blog inexplicably went dark. The work of lawyers or lazy bloggers?)
Factory had the odd but orderly habit of giving everything from records to flyers a catalog number. (For example, Factory 51B is New Order’s 1982 Christmas single, and 501 was the funeral of the label’s founder, Tony Wilson, who died last year.) Saville designed most of it, but there’s also great work from other artists, like the Russian-avant-garde–inspired cover of the Wake’s “Something Outside” and the red-and-blue Mondrian blocks, reductive but messy, on A Certain Ratio’s “Shack Up.” For every misfire, there are a dozen revelations, like an expressive sleeve for a 1982 single by the largely forgotten singer Kevin Hewick or a primary-color photo of Montogomery Clift (designed by Mark Farrow) for the Stockholm Monsters’ “Happy Ever After.” Now, if Steve Jobs would only listen to reason and release an iPod loaded with Joy Division instead of U2—and, hey, why not ask Saville to design it?
The cover of New Order’s 1982 single “Temptation,” designed by Peter Saville
The cover of Kevin Hewick’s single “Ophelia’s Drinking Song”
New Order’s 1983 single “Blue Monday,” famously expensive to mass produce
The Stockholm Monsters 1982 “Happy Ever After” single, designed by Mark Farrow