Just for the record: Looks do still count
A bi-weekly vinyl review
One welcome consequence of the renewed interest in vinyl is a fresh appreciation of album cover art. It’s not rocket science, but pictures have more impact when they’re, like, bigger, you know? Moreover, some of us are of an age to remember when cover art was used as, uh, real art; decor stores once sold mountable frames into which you slid hip album covers thereby turning dingy digs into some sort of swinging bachelor pad. Or at least making a bit of bedroom wall more colourful.
The pictures did get smaller and less interesting as the music migrated to digital, first with CDs and then in the download era. One example of this would be the artwork the British artist Damien Hirst designed for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 2011 release, I’m With You (Warners): a housefly on a pill capsule. A simple, striking image, sure — but one specifically designed for Spotified smartphone screens. Ditto the artwork for English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s albums, like 2014’s X (Atlantic): distinctive on the Samsung, but a bit special needs elsewhere.This is not to decry simplicity. The first really cool album covers were those of the 1950s and 1960s LPs issued by New York-based jazz label Blue Note Records under the guidance of former magazine graphic artist and designer Miles Reid. Donald Byrd’s 1962 release The Cat Walk (Blue Note) is a typical example: just a hip dude chilling with his wheels.And hats off to Blue Note, too, for giving some work to a young Andy Warhol. Check out his basic line drawings for the covers for guitarist Kenny Burrell’s Blue Lights, Volume 1 & 2 and Johnny Griffin’s The Congregation (both Blue Note, 1958). Simplicity itself, and the sort of iconic “unfussiness” that spawned countless “covers” by imitators.Things got a little more complicated in the 1960s and we reached an apotheosis of sorts with the cover artist Peter Blake put together for The Beatles’ psychedelic masterpiece Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone, 1967). A veritable who’s who of the culture at the time, here was an image that definitely didn’t work on an iPhone screen.A landmark of the Summer of Love, Sgt Pepper’s artwork was cruelly parodied by Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money (Verve, 1968) but not before it spawned several imitations, the most notable being the Rolling Stones’ December 1967 release, Their Satanic Majesties Request (Decca), which initially appeared with a 3-D lenticular band photograph on the cover. (Expensive to produce, the album has been reissued by ABKCO/London Records on green vinyl with the original 3-D cover as part of Satanic Majesties’ 50th anniversary celebrations.)Interestingly, initial South African releases of Satanic Majesties are quite rare, and trade at between R1,200 and R1,900 a copy depending on their condition. This is because Decca, who distributed the album here, saw fit to not only scrap the original cover but also rename the album The Stones Are Rolling for fear of offending ultra-conservative Christians in the apartheid ear. (Other album covers would be censored in South Africa, but more of that at a later date.)Things got a little more below the belt in the 1970s — sometimes with disastrous results. The afore-mentioned Warhol designed the cover for the Stones’ Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones Records, 1971), which featured an actual working metal zipper on the artwork and this, unfortunately, damaged and scratched hundreds of the LPs while in transit to record stores. The cover was banned in Franco’s Spain and replaced with an image of a woman’s severed hand in a can of treacle. Go figure.Other records that have undergone drastic cover redesigns. The risqué blast, at least for 1973, that was the platzing Vegas showgirl cover of Dutch band Golden Earring’s Moontan (Polydor) was elbowed aside when MCA issued the album in the US a year later. In its place was a photograph of an ear, with a large hooped golden earring. Dead sexy. As in sexy dead.It was the same with The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1968 album Electric Ladyland. In the first year of its release, it appeared in no less than five different covers. But it’s the original UK pressing (Track Records, serial number 613008/9), the “naked ladies” version, that you want. Facebook still doesn’t approve.THE ESSENTIAL LIBRARY
Astral Weeks: Van Morrison (Warner Brothers, WS 1768, 1968)In a recent interview to plug You’re Driving Me Crazy (Legacy), his new album with bandleader and Hammond B3 virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco, a typically prickly Van Morrison once again signalled his disdain for the corporates. “I don’t really think anything about the music industry,” he said, “because I’ve never been into pop music. Mose Allison [the American jazz and blues artist] said that he made it in spite of the music business. I made it in spite, and I’m still making it in spite of the music business. I have absolutely nothing to do with the music business as you know it.”
The antipathy is well-founded and goes back half a century or more, to a time when Morrison, following the 1966 break-up of his band Them, was contracted to one Bert Berns, owner of the New York-based Bang Records.
Berns had a keen ear for mainstream pop and had enjoyed some success with the early sides Neil Diamond recorded for Bang and initially it seemed he was on to another winner here; Morrison’s solo debut, Blowin’ Your Mind! (Bang) included a hit, Brown Eyed Girl, that peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1967.The problem, though, was that Morrison no longer wanted to write tunes like Brown Eyed Girl and was now exploring a more introspective and mystical musical vision with songs like Madame George, Beside You and Cypress Avenue, tracks that, a year later, would form the core of the startling and innovative Astral Weeks.
Berns was not pleased. He and Morrison fought bitterly as the singer stubbornly stood his ground. Not bending to Berns’s will was not without risk. According to Joel Selvin, author of Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues (Counterpoint), he was quite a mobbed-up businessman.
“Berns liked hanging around the wiseguys,” Selvin told the Irish Times. “These men wielded the ultimate unfair business advantage, because implicit in all their dealings was the understanding that they would kill anyone who didn’t do what they wanted. Berns came to be friends with these people, and his music business associates were both intrigued and frightened by his new pals.”
Berns suffered a fatal heart attack in December 1967. Few of his contemporaries mourned his passing. “I don’t know where he’s buried,” Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler once said, “but if I did, I would piss on his grave.”
Though Berns suffered from a congenital heart condition, his widow, Ilene, blamed Morrison for her husband’s death. She inherited her husband’s business and sought to keep Morrison tied to Bang through iniquitous publishing and performing contracts.
Morrison however was not going to bow to her wishes and suddenly found himself an outcast. He was not only kept out of studios, but also couldn’t perform in New York as most clubs refrained from booking him, fearing reprisals. He fled first to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he started from scratch once more, singing in small venues, and then to Boston, where he decided to go for a more acoustic feel, as this allowed him both more vocal improvisation and a freer, folky style.
Coupled with the “jazz feel” that he took with him into the studio once he was finally released from his Bang contract, Morrison put together a crack band and laid down the improvisational Astral Weeks in just two sessions.No one involved in the project realised they were involved in making a masterpiece, and, indeed, the record failed to chart. Today, though, Astral Weeks is regarded as a recording of breathtaking originality, a collection that sounded like a career high rather than a beginning, and is routinely highly ranked by critics in surveys of all-time best albums.
Singles tend to play second fiddle to LPs at vinyl fairs and flea markets, but there are treasures in those scruffy little piles next to the larger crates. Following the announcement by Kensington Palace that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new baby will henceforth be known as His Royal Highness Prince Louis of Cambridge, one of the most artless and enduring of all garage rock anthems has been stuck in my mind: Louie Louie.
It is probably the world’s most recorded rock song; in 2013, it was reported that there were more than 1,600 versions (and counting) of Louie Louie out there — but the most famous is the 1963 hit by The Kingsmen, out of Portland, Oregon. Their take on the song has been reissued many times, but the one collectors want is the original, released on the small Jerden label, with the serial number 712. These trade at between R1,100 to R1,500 depending on their condition.The song was written by Richard Berry in 1955 and he recorded it with his group, The Pharaohs, as a B-side for their 1957 single, Rock Rock Rock (Flip Records, 45-321). It had already been covered fairly extensively when The Kingsmen chose it as their second single but theirs became the distinctive version — possibly because they inadvertently turned what was an easy-going pop ballad into something of a riot, with whacky guitars, background chatter and nearly unintelligible lyrics.
They did Louie Louie in just one shambolic take as it was all the studio time the band could could afford. Despite playing a 90-minute version of the song at a local teen club the night before, they still screwed up its timing at one point in the recording, an error which is now so firmly associated with the song that it’s often duplicated in other artists’ arrangements.
As the song’s success grew, a rumour spread that the Kingsmen had intentionally slurred the lyrics to cover up the song’s allegedly graphic sexual content and profanity. As a result the song was banned by many US radio stations and the controversy resulted in a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry.
After a staggering 31 months, the FBI concluded they were “unable to interpret any of the wording of the record” — although Kingsmen drummer Lynn Easton did later admitted that, 54 seconds into the recording, he yelled out “Fuck!” in frustration after dropping a drumstick.
Can’t hear it myself. Must be getting deaf.