Obsessive completist collector geeks….
Art Chantry (Art@artchantry.com):
While collecting records over the years,I began to become fascinated by a certain weird ‘category’ of record collecting. There are so many odd little nooks and crannies of record collecting that you never really run out of whole new worlds to discover, usually populated by obsessive completist collector geeks. I once met a guy who only collected record covers with pictures of Mary Tyler Moore on them. You’d be really surprised how many there are.
One category I began to take notice of was the record covers with artwork by the recording artist on the cover. It’s always a bit of a surprise when you find out that the recording artist is also a rather fine visual artist as well. However, maybe when you think about it a little, it’s not such a stretch. Many visual artists decide to become recording artist as well. Creativity knows no bounds. did you know that the famous pen line outline profile portrait of Alfred Hitchcock (the one he ‘steps into’ during the intro to his old TV show) was actually his own self-portrait drawing?
The image posted here is a Redd Foxx comedy record on the dooto records label. Most folks know about Redd Foxx from his late life stint in television comedy as “Fred Sanford” from the popular 1970′s sitcom “Sanford & Sons”. but, Foxx’s career started decades before as a stand up comedian famous for his “off color” racial humor and otherwise “dirty” routines (all extremely tame by our standards today. still funny, but tame.)
He released literally dozens of “party” records (code for ‘adult and naughty’) staring in the early 1950′s. They were extremely popular and sold very well in the “colored” charts of the day. His routines and perspectives were extremely resonant with the black experience in America and he became a culture hero from the very start. Listening to his old records today is like listening to an early social critic taking on the whole of American institutional prejudice with a twinkle in the eye. Still inspiring.
I used to pick up his records and give them a listen and then pass them on to others. I never kept them. The records were always in very rough condition from repeated listenings at parties, sort of like James Brown records. It’s extremely hard to find certain artists’ records in playable condition just because they were loved to death by their previous owners. Redd Foxx records generally fall into that category.
This little 45 rpm gatefold cover shows Foxx in his standard stage “costume” (he dressed very nattily, like a “sport”). The lettering and the design is primitive, but actually has a good eye for design. All
Foxx’s early records have images like this on them, often the records would even use the same images but printed with different color schemes to denote different recordings. I always thought they were eccentric and sorta crummy, but cool.
If you look in the lower right hand corner, you’ll see a art credit. He did these things himself. Imagine that! “Red Foxx, design pioneer.” That’s a title you’d never expect to see!
Other interesting performers who began to do their own covers are names like Xavier Cugat (a great line cartoonist and caricaturist), Frank Sinatra (clowns on black velvet, usually signed ‘artinas’ – ‘sinatra’ backwards) and Don van Vliet (aka ‘captian beefheart’) who left music for a late-life career as a painter with one-man shows in palaces like the ‘Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art’. Beefheart began to use his paintings on some of last records like ‘doc at the radar station”, “shiny beast: bat chain puller”, and “ice cream for crow.”
Then there is a long list of noted pop musical talents who also began to use their own work on their record covers. Names like Ron Wood (faces, rolling stones) and Joni Mitchell. Bryan Ferry had a very intimate artistic involvement in all those Roxy Music covers.
When the DIY punk rock tidal wave came along, it swept away a lot of the precious pretension of “performer/artists” like I listed above and replaced them with the DIY credo – “any level of talent or skill is acceptable. just so long as you do-it-yourself”. In it’s a place there seemed to no longer be many “painter/illustrators”, but instead there were a whole new breed of DIY designers that came with the total package presentation those punks began churning out.
The DIY cover designs are amazing to see. For about a twenty year period some of the most profoundly interesting and often disturbing images of the last century were coming out of the punk rock world. Just about every imaginable approach and idea was attempted. Every single band out there had at least one band member who made a side living as a “graphic designer”. It got obnoxious.
As graphic design became a ubiquitous ‘craft’ form, it surpassed the ‘bohemian painter/poet’ as the cliche artistic profession. For example, back in the 1950&60′s, when you saw a guy walking down the street with a beret, dark shades, black clothes and carrying a portfolio under his arm, you knew he was an artist/painter. There was no question. Since the late 1970′s, when you see such a figure walking down the street, you automatically assume they are a graphic designer/illustrator (a paradigm shift.)
Out of this mosh came a flood of incredibly talented DIY musician/designers, most of them working in fringe genres and determinedly hovering below the mainstream radar (where it was coolest).
The Cramps creative married duo of (the late) Lux Interior and (poison) Ivy Rorschach began to design and record their own records, virtually becoming a cottage industry. Their covers were explorations of their aesthetic turf, the absurd fetsih of Amercian trash culture. their “psychobilly” style literally launched a thousand ships and imitators and inspired dozens of distinct genres of subculture interest groups.
Bad movies, demented novelty rockabilly music, garage psych, Bettie Page nudies, rubber fetishes, frankenstein driving hotrods, shitty television, bikini girls with machineguns, punk rock. All of these things would have likely never been what they became without their initial efforts pointing the way for the rest of us. They are truly “a band that started it all.” Their psuedo-trashy shocking cover designs were created by Lux and Ivy playing in their basement with various trash culture fetishes and cameras. Their covers are unique and speak loudly for themselves. They are among the finest and trashiest images ever committed to a record cover.
One of the more interesting underground rivalries (seemingly, anyway) was the psuedo battle that seemed to erupt between the Butthole Surfers and Big Black. It may not have been real, but the ‘battle for the grossest cover design’ between Gibby Hayes and Steve Albini (both expatriates of the professional advertising world) left us waiting with baited breathe for the next release by either band.
Gibby’s cover designs for the Butthole Surfers were some of the most shocking and horrifying images I’ve ever seen. On the surface, the images seemed relatively tame (pictures of little children, scribbles, various regions of the human body, clowns) until seen in the context of the subject matter. Then they became almost terrifying in their dread and disturbance. Records like “creamed corn from the socket of davis”, “rembrandt pussyhorse”, and “locust abortion technician” all use the juxtaposition of the banal and the horrifying to truly psychotic effect. Amazing work.
“psychic… powerless… another man’s sac” one of the earliest butthole surfer records sported a bunch of demented childish scribbles knocked out (or ‘reversed out’ – ‘inverted’ to you computer children) of a photo in bright dayglo colors. It showed clowns(?) and beasts (?) and the title lettering. The ‘found’ photo in the background shows a human head seemingly partially melted (the eyes were scribbled over sometime in the distant past). It’s a photo of a victim of the nagasaki nuclear bombing during WW2. The back cover simply shows a grossly out of focus image of a death angel , taken from some cemetery somewhere. The whole shebang is so disturbing that it makes you want to cry – and you really don’t know why.
Meanwhile, Big Black, whose covers were designed by Steve Albini (as were all the later covers by his later bands like rapeman and shellac) took on a different, more violent affront. The relatively tame anime inspired cover images he concocted for “lungs”, “hammer party” and “atomizer” quickly evolved into the incredibly angry imagery for the grand guignol “headache.”
The record came in a heavy black plastic zippered body bag (actually made by the company that made real body bags). Upon opening the bag, you’d slide out the LP to reveal a full life crisp color size photo of a head shot of a suicide victim laying on autopsy table, the top of his head completely blown off at the brow line (and the most surprised look in his crisp clear eyes.) It was enough to make you feel faint. This record took the cake home in the battle of gross-out. Where does one go from here?
Soon big black released perhaps their final opus “songs about fucking”. To follow up, albini simply stepped back into the relative innocence of the anime cartoon. to the American eye, raised on ‘speed racer’ and ‘gigantor’ in the 1970′s, anime looks like childish comic cartoons from japan – big eyes, little girls heros, silly monkey monsters.
But the traditions of comic books in Japan (like much of japanese culture) contains layers and layers of cultural and social mores and values that are virtually unknown and unknowable to the Western consciousness. Anime is dark and sexual and violent and misogynist. In a country where you can buy kiddie porn out of vending machines, the anime comics are written as fantasies for adult men. They go places no American comic book ever has.
So, when Albini returned to anime for inspiration for the new Big Black release, he actually managed to one-up his previous unsurpassable effort. “songs about fucking” simply ran the title across the top (magenta against puce. icky) and ran a black and white anime image of a young woman seemingly in the throws of passion across the bottom. The viewer’s mind does the rest. Simple and powerful and disturbing. It was brilliant work.