We've all found different ways to cope and stay creative this year. For Ben O'Brien, famously Ben the Illustrator, he's started Cover Versions, an ongoing project that merges his love of music, art and minimalism.
Taking some of his favourite albums from the Beastie Boys, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Madonna, and De La Soul, he redesigns their 12" covers into graphic interpretations, ones that break down every element into the simplest of forms. It's a pleasure just trying to guess which covers belong to which musician or band, as Ben shares his latest creations on Instagram and a dedicated shop.
But Cover Versions had humble beginnings, starting with just one design. "It's been one of the silver linings for 2020 for me, and has given me the chance to connect with so many music lovers and even some bands that I never thought I'd be talking to," Ben tells Creative Boom. "It started early in lockdown, one morning I was taking a walk, listening to Massive Attack's first album Blue Lines. I have always loved this album and the cover. I actually have the barcode from this album tattooed on me! And I had the idea to create a super graphic version of the cover, just a quick creative exercise to post on socials, and folks liked it."
Fast-forward a month or so later, and Tim Burgess – singer-songwriter and frontman from The Charlatans – asked Ben if he'd like to create some illustrations for 'Tim's Twitter Listening Parties'. "He wanted some illustrated scenes that represented the listening parties and showed a diversity of people all connected through music and the internet," explains Ben. "I created these scenes and decided to drop in some album covers in the same way I'd done the Massive Attack cover.
And people loved those scenes on timstwitterlisteningparty.com but the featured cover versions were hugely popular. "At first, I just took the ones I already had from the scenes and started posting each individually, usually using them to promote the Listening Parties, and that's when they really started to take off," says Ben.
In fact, people started suggesting new albums for Ben to recreate, which sparked lots of fun conversations on social media about music. "There were so many connections, it was a relief from everything else that was going on," Ben continues. "People were also asking for prints, constantly, so in the end, I decided to bite the bullet and set up a print store."
That print store is Cover-versions.com where each print is 12" in size (of course), signed, numbered and limited to 100 prints. "I also package them up as you would a real record, a process that I love doing every time," says Ben.
Why the name Cover Versions? "They're my cover of the original in the same way a band or singer would cover another musician's song," he adds. And what of the style? "It's simplistic, minimised, a little playful, sometimes abstract, but it has to always retain the composition so that it's always recognisable."
With so many incredible albums already covered, does Ben have a favourite? "It's probably the Chemical Brothers 'Exit Planet Dust'. It just has an air of nostalgia about it that I am really pleased with."
The big sellers are actually different though, with Primal Scream and The Specials proving the most popular. This week, Ben is adding one final set of new 12" prints for the year, with two of Tim Burgess' solo albums and four albums by The Charlatans. "It's very exciting to be able to sell prints for the singer that was so fundamental in Cover Versions," adds Ben. The new series will launch this Friday with a 10% contribution from each sale going to the Music Venue Trust.
Can we expect more artworks in 2021? "I'll keep on building up the Cover Versions store, new prints and maybe some new products. I've also had a few messages from bands, labels and management so hopefully, we'll be seeing more next year."