Thursday, 5 May 2011

Newsa, Views and Music Issue 98 (Top Ten): What the heck is going on in these album covers?!

An album’s packaging can be a fans’ first introduction to their new favourite artist and – back in the pre-internet days when you actually had to buy the thing to know what it looked like – packaging was crucial to an album’s success. Just think of the prism on the front of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, the band-in-park scenario of ‘Sgt Peppers’ (to be honest, the only reason that awful album’s still iconic these days) and the, err, photo of the Beach Boys feeding the pets in San Diego Zoo for ‘Pet Sounds’. But at least that last shot fits the music and album title, which is more than can be said for some of the covers we’ve selected below. So this week, in honour of the decidedly head-scratching cover for ‘The Present’, here are 10 other curios of AAA packaging that really do have to be seen to be believed....Oh and I’ve temporarily banned 10cc covers from the list because none of them are meant to make any sense, least of all my personal favourite – a sheep on a psychiatrist couch asking ‘Look, Hear, Are You Normal?’ (just beating the deep-sea diver with ‘Deceptive Bends’ into second place!)

10) Belle and Sebastian “The Boy With The Arab Strap” (1998): The title is weird enough (and thankfully, no the cover isn’t a re-creation of the title), but this album’s picture in glorious shades of green is truly weird, albeit it not in the usual B + S type way. We’re used to seeing unknown models and band friends pose as the band in a number of weird and wonderful guises (the acupuncture treatment on the cover of ‘Storytelling’ being particularly odd) – but this one breaks the rules by featuring main songwriter and vocalist Stuart Murdoch. Only, he’s mucking about on a day trip out, looking like he’s re-creating a Monkees romp in the same place The Kinks shot their ‘Village Green’ album cover. A closer inspection reveals that Stuart has just been stabbed and is play-acting pretending to be dead – with a wooden spoon! No mention of this is made on the album’s sleeve-notes, nor is it referred to in any of the song titles or lyrics, nor is it a still from any of the band’s promo videos of the time, nor is the fact reflected in the far more placid shots of the other band members on the inner cover. Hmm, I can just imagine what record company Jeepster thought of that!

9) Buffalo Springfield “Buffalo Springfield Again” (1967): Classic album, tacky cover. What comes to mind when you play the death-defying multitude of psychedelia of this most important of milestones? Probably not an aging fairy reaching out her arms to greet the band while in a wood with some butterflies (what is it with psychedelia and butterflies?!?) and a hummingbird the size of a double-decker bus taking a peck out of Stephen Stills’ head. The band themselves are the size of mount Rushmore, towering over a glacier which seems to have no bearing to the rest of the scene at all (shouldn’t it have melted? The tress around it are big and strong and clearly getting a lot of sunlight!) The one gag that is quite funny is that this collage does feature bassist Bruce Palmer reaching out to the angel uncomprehendingly with arm outstretched (and with a tree hiding the join). The roses on the border of the LP sleeve are also woefully unhip for the time (they still look pretty ghastly now) – if this is what Atlantic think makes for a psychedelic album sleeve then they are badly mistaken and need to sit in a darkened room listening to Jefferson Airplane (who, despite their ongoing war with record company RCA, were themselves pretty decently served by their album covers!)

8) Grateful Dead “From The Mars Hotel” (1974): Funnily enough I’d already planned to review this album next week, so imagine my delight when I realised I could ‘tie’ two articles together and kill two Byrds with one Stones EP (to adapt a phrase). You’d think from the title the hotel on the front would be all space-agey and modern and alien and sophisticated – certainly I did when I used to read about the album on discographies instead of seeing the cover for real. But no – it’s a shabby run down hotel that really did exist in Los Angeles somewhere (and known to the band from touring in the area) which was so run-down it was demolished the following year before it could become a site of special recording history significance. The rear cover, though is much more fitting to our list: all six of the then-current band members are drawn as assorted aliens, somehow still recognisably ‘them’ (how could Jerry Garcia ever look like anybody else?) and yet somehow very different: just dig Bill Kreutzmann’s ‘Donald Duck’ type shoes! I’m still at a loss as to why these characters should be pictured on this record however: by Dead standards it’s a very down-to-earth album (as we’ll be seeing next issue) and the only people really ‘alien’ to us across the album’s lyrics is the president running a ‘ship of fools’ (Darn, why did George W Bush have to go? That sentence would have been a gift for a ribald comment a few years ago!)   

7) The Byrds “Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde” (1968): OK, I get this much – the Byrds are changing. They were folk-rock, then psychedelic, then country and, on this new LP, a bit of everything. They’re also a similar-sounding but in DNA terms very different beast from what we had before – whereas in the past we had Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn taking turns in the spotlight, from now on this is very much a McGuinn and his McMagical McNuggets show. So much for the ‘Hyde’ aspect of the title. But what on earth does this cover (and more so the back cover) really mean? Schizophrenia? (The band are – literally – beside themselves here). And on the back The Byrds are dressed as spacemen. On horseback. Before taking off their sci-fi gear and riding off, with Stetson cowboy hats, into the distance. Which ‘Byrd’ genre is the nice one and which one is the mad scientist? And why, then, for the first time since ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, is there not one space-age sci-fi-ish anthem on the record for us to savour? I’m confused...

6) Paul McCartney and Wings “Back To The Egg” (1979): OK, I’m not a big fan of this album’s overall concept but I kind of get it – inspired by punk and new wave, this is Macca and co with a new line-up, trying to get back to where they once belonged, with a rockier and less polished set than normal. But why, then, issue said album with such a futuristic and space-agey cover? (not unlike ‘The Present’ it has to be said!) For those who haven’t see it, the band are dressed in sci-fi garb in a rocketship, looking out of the rescue hatch to the Earth that they’ve just escaped (and where, presumably, they’d have been sucked down the hole while the ship was in flight?) Surely this cover would have been more fitting for Wings’ ‘space-age’ album ‘Venus and Mars’ but here, accompanying a series of grungy and not that well thought out rockers plus a few exquisite ballads in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ mould, it just seems plain wrong and weird. A bit like some of the album tracks it has to be said – what on earth are ‘Reception’ ‘The Broadcast’ ‘Old Siam, Sir’ and the ‘Rockestra’ theme really about? Answers on an intergalactic postcard...

5) Crosby, Stills and Nash “Live It Up” (1989): Talking of space-age, what the heck was this album collage of workmen building giant cocktail sausages on the moon all about? I’ve heard that it’s meant to be some kind of attack on capitalism, imperialism, MTV (it’s very similar to their logo of the day with Neil Armstrong planting a psychedelic flag onto the moon’s surface) or simply a dig at American commerce of the day. I wouldn’t put that past CSN either – being anti-money and pro-freedom is a theme of many of their songs. But not, it has to be said, a theme of any of their songs from this album, none of which mention the moon or even space (surprisingly they don’t mention the word ‘sausages’ anywhere either). The result is a woefully tacky cover to an actually pretty nifty and under-rated album, which is all the more frustrating given that the background picture (a neat image of the Earth from the space –far more convincing than the Jefferson Starship’s ‘Earth’ cover – and thus representing a bigger picture Earthlings sometimes forget) would have fitted the contents superbly.

4) Oasis “Be Here Now” (1997): This one puzzled me hugely at the time, although everyone else seemed to lap it up. Following on from their out-of-focus pics of the band at home and out on the streets of Manchester for the first two CDs, here’s the band in world-domination rockstar mode, having driven a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool (a la Keith Moon). However, what’s the significance of all the other gubbins here – a giant clock, a giant dice, a giant calendar, a Mod motorbike, a spinning globe and a 1950s gramophone? Even the title doesn’t help – it didn’t mean a lot as a George Harrison song title and here, meaning ‘being here at the moment’, it doesn’t explain why there are so many un-1990s things in the picture (what’s wrong with using a CD player and a giant digital watch if Oasis are ‘being here ie 1997 now’?) Perhaps this weird cover does sum up this occasionally weird album well in one respect though – everything is very big big big, stretched out much further than normal so that even the smallest riffs and understated lyrics sound epic, a bit like this album’s oversized props.

3)  Cat Stevens “Mona Bone Jakon” (1970): When you’re busy releasing your big ‘comeback album’ after a period of illness and it’s meant to relaunch your new image as an adult solo star, there are a few rules you have to follow. Cat broke them all with this cover, which he drew himself, with Stevens summing up his new worldly wise outlook with a picture of...a dustbin. To be fair, it’s a very good dustbin and it does make some thematic sense (ie Cat is throwing his past away and getting rid of all the old pop star trappings that caused him harm) but of all the things I never expected to see on an LP cover I think a dustbin would be near the top. Oh and the album name doesn’t help very much either – in case you’re wondering it’s a supposedly sexy name a groupie once gave to a certain part of Cat’s anatomy when he got, umm, ‘excited’ to see her (no prizes for guessing which part!) 

2) Pink Floyd “A Momentary Lapse Of Reason” (1987): There are beds everywhere. They stretch along the seashore (!) for a good three miles and took so long for cover artists Hipognosis to put into place that they actually had to do it twice when the tide came in unexpectedly first time out. There’s a man sitting on a bed (first seen rowing a boat for the album’s tie-in single promo video) while a nurse looks on and a dog sniffs around. Now, I’m used to having to work out Pink Floyd covers and enjoy working out the puzzles therein (especially the cow on ‘Atom Heart Mother’ – which is such a great idea at sending up packaging that I’ve missed it out of the list – read news and views no 18 for an interview with the cover star!), but this one’s got me confused. I love the title by the way – in the context of the lyrics it means falling in love but can also be read as Pink Floyd getting back on track now Roger Waters is no longer in the band – but that too bears no resemblance to the album. Or the hospital beds. Or the dogs. Or the nurse. Help, my brain’s just exploded! 

1) The Moody Blues “On The Threshold Of A Dream” (1969): The Moody Blues, though, are the real mothers of them all when it comes to confusing covers. There are many many Moodies candidates for this list, from cavemen scrawling line drawings to a foetus rising out of a corpse to smoke blowing out of the ears of Albert Einstein, but third album ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’ wins the award by a whisker. There’s an ear and eyes painted onto a tree while a space alien that happens to look a lot like a vacuum cleaner looks on and a witch casts a spell over everything. I get the magical things to look at and listen to concept and the witch ties in neatly to the story of Camelot on album track ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably’ but, honestly, what’s with the vacuuming alien? Just when I’m on the threshold of comprehension....  

Right, that’s enough of that – who needs drugs when you’ve got albums covers like this lot to look at, eh? We’ll see you next week for a much more normal issue where everything is far more boring and ordinary and when, erm, The Grateful Dead will be playing at the Mars Hotel. See you then!

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