LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #8: The Rolling Stones–Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), US, 1966)

hightides2

The Stones are everywhere this primary season. Closing Donald Trump’s road show is the least of it. I woke up one day this week and somebody (I think it was MSNBC but don’t hold me to it, I’ve been going to sleep with the TV on a lot and sometimes the waking and dreaming are hard enough to keep track of without getting all technical about purely three dimensional details), was using the opening and closing tracks of Exile on Main Street for bumper music.

The next evening it was “Miss You.” Maybe on C-Span or Fox. Again, I lost track.

Tomorrow, who knows?

But does anybody still want to take a look at the set of problems facing us and the choice of candidates who will lead us boldly into the future and still argue Satan’s not, as one of the minor prophets had it, laughing with delight?

The cover of the first hits package released by the Laughing One’s favorite band, the first and last to stake their claim so entirely on being that before anything else that they were that (say from roughly 1965 to 1972) or nothing (say, ever since), was a kind of perfect statement all on its own.

It said most of what there was to say without any reference at all to the great full page photos that came with the original vinyl package or the stripped down assault of the actual music:

“We may have been born clodhoppers but we’ve now made every deal that needs to be made and we’re here to burn down your cornfield and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Tom Wolfe’s famous epigram (“The Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Stones want to burn down your town.” yaddah, yaddah, yaddah) didn’t cover the half of it. The Stones were more like agents from the future we’re now living in than the James boys fresh off their break from Captain Quantrill. Not undercover mind you–what could possibly be more obvious than that picture up there–just messengers.

That’s what I always liked about them, once I started working my way backward through rock and roll history from the late seventies and turned this one up on one of my first trips to the panhandle’s only record Co-op (say 1979 or 80).

They were were so refreshingly up-front. Hey, it’s 1966 and things seem a little nervy. But it’s about to get way-y-y-y-y worse. Soon you’ll be stumbling around in the dark and become so lost that most of you will live to see P.T. Barnum rise from the grave and storm the gates. And you can bet he’ll use us for exit music!

As a collection covering a period that had its share of musical rough patches, High Tide is just about perfect. It contextualizes both the half-successful “As Tears Go By” (which was a big hit despite Mick Jagger’s bound-to-be-awkward attempt at faking sentimentality), and their version of “Not Fade Away,” where Jagger sounds even clumsier chasing Buddy Holly than he did chasing Howlin’ Wolf on High Tide‘s UK-version cover of “Little Red Rooster”–by the sixties, it was much odder to sound like you’d never seen a Cadilllac than like you’d never seen a rooster.

Context is everything, too. Those two neither-here-nor-there tracks are the only side trips on an otherwise perfect collection and they don’t really take you so far from the rubber-burning highway they were running down at full speed that they amount to anything more than bathroom breaks.

Here, better than anywhere else, you can understand why Nik Cohn thought it would be perfect for the Stones to die-before-thirty in a plane crash.

That they spent the next six years mounting ever higher is still shocking.

And it’s even more shocking that the mounting was all in the music.

Purely image-wise, they never beat that photo.

Come on, how could they?

They stuck Brian Jones up front, like nobody could possibly imagine he belonged anywhere else.

They stood on rocks.

At low tide.

They stared down every other bunch of punks who ever posed for an album cover and  made it clear that all the others would be both inevitably compared to them…and found wanting.

Whatever deal you think you made with the Laughing One, they seemed to say, you can walk away from it. We can’t. Because we’ve cancelled all the bets. Ours and yours.

Brian Jones was dead within three years. The rest were pod people within five years after that. We live in the world left behind.

Kinda’ sucks for us.

But, boy, while it lasted….

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #7: The Impressions–The Vintage Years, 1976)

vintageimpressions2

Modernity brings us a lot of nice things and preserves a lot of other nice things.

It doesn’t preserve everything…or get everything just right all the time.

That picture above is the best I could find on the net of the classic compilation released on vinyl in 1976 by Sire Records (who did similar comps on a number of other acts around that time).

Most record junkies and list makers have their “go to” album. Call it the greatest, the best, your favorite, your “desert island” disc, the “one you’d save if the house caught on fire.” Whatever.

This one’s mine and neither it nor any close equivalent has been released on CD.

Like I say, lots of nice things are preserved. But not everything.

I’m not crying. If I really want to, I can collect up all the music on this record from various digital sources, load them on my computer and put them on a disc myself with the running order preserved. Not quite the same, of course, but at least the purely musical part of the experience can be recreated at home.

The only thing that would be lost is the psychic experience. The connection to my own past and the role this or any record with it’s own history plays in it.

Hardly the biggest deal in the world in and of itself. But I wonder if the small things (and I’d hardly call this the smallest), aren’t representative of something larger.

The Vintage Years isn’t on CD. No big deal

The record store where I bought it moved. No big deal.

The record store where I bought it moved from a hole in the wall next to a bowling alley (circa 1981) to bigger hole in the wall halfway across town (next to a hole in the wall book store, circa 1985) then moved to a giant warehouse down the street (the book store moved to a still bigger hole in the wall halfway across town in the other direction, circa some time in the 1990’s). No big deal.

The record store went out of business five or six years back. No big deal.

The book store went out of business last year. No big deal.

They haven’t been replaced. And they won’t be.

No big deal.

We still got the internet. Better deals anyway. Amazon, E-Bay, Gemm.com.

Time moves on. Heck, if you read about something now, say the way I read about The Vintage Years in 1980 (in Dave Marsh and John Swenson’s original Rolling Stone Record Guide, the one with the red cover as it happens), you don’t have to spend three or four (or ten or twenty) years looking for a playable, affordable copy. You can just look it up. If somebody in the world doesn’t have it this week, somebody in the world will probably have it next week.

In any case, it’s not really likely you’ll have to wait three or four years.

Or flip through piles of used record bins.

Or wonder if what you’ll hear when you finally do track it down will really be worth  the wait.

If it will hit you like this when you do whatever the modern equivalent of dropping the needle is:

And then take you on a journey from this:

to this…

to this…

to this…

to this…

Because, of course, now you can just go on YouTube, or come to somebody’s clever little website. If you’re really interested you can probably pull up every single song and sample it for free.

Take the mystery out of the thing.

Believe me, this is not entirely a bad thing. It’s probably not even mostly a bad thing.

But it’s not entirely a good thing either.

Because there’s no way you can surf the net and re-create what it’s like to walk out of grocery store and see somebody has opened a little hole in the wall record shop in the Winn Dixie strip mall, in a space about as big as your efficiency apartment, and walk in there and realize the guy is not only selling stuff you’ve only heard about but selling it for three, four, five bucks apiece.

And you can’t therefore know what it’s like to have one of the very first things you find in that store be The Impressions: The Vintage Years, an album which, when you get it home and slide it on your cheap-o turntable, will discover crosses fifteen years and five distinct phases of three brilliant careers (not just the doo-wop and soul years of the Impressions, but the two major phases of Jerry Butler’s solo career and the beginning of Curtis Mayfield’s) so seamlessly they constitute a mind-blowing journey from the street corner where Mayfield,  Butler, and their mates, figuratively if not literally, conceived both “Your Precious Love” and a way out of the lives History had assigned for them in the late fifties, to a doomed junkie running scared in the seventies as Mayfield, now alone, literally if not figuratively, sings “Freddie’s on the corner now, you want to be a junkie wow, remember Freddie’s dead,” and first circumscribes, then transports, the pain and fear from a life that might have easily been his if he hadn’t once upon a time happened to find his own genius on that same street corner or one so much like it the difference hardly matters.

In the New Gilded Age that came after (soon accompanied by the New Jim Crow, the New Puritanism, the New Dada, et al…no truly bad idea ever dies), all this music is far more readily available, the world over. There are better and fuller compilations of any one of those five “phases” I mentioned. I’ve got them. I listen to them. I even wrote about one of them at length. And, to tell the truth, my very favorite Impressions’ record isn’t even on this particular album:

But there’s no single shared experience that’s quite the same as this vinyl comp that’s unlikely to ever be reproduced for the modern age…Nothing, for my money, quite as satisfying, quite as simultaneously uplifting and gut-wrenching as The Impressions: The Vintage Years.

I’m mostly glad I don’t have to spend years tracking things down. Really I am.

But there are some experiences I wouldn’t trade.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #6: The Jackson 5–Anthology, 1976)

Jackson5Anthology

Now we know better of course. Don’t make teenagers into sex objects. That’s why Britney and Justin and Miley are so well-adjusted.

Back then, we didn’t know. And who could have guessed? I mean, Michael’s probably thirteen in this photo and surely that’s old enough for beefcake poses (however…innocuous)!

No way that could go wrong.

I never exactly felt sorry for Michael Jackson. He almost certainly inflicted too much pain on too many innocents for that. But I do try to once in a while imagine what it was like to be at the center of a storm of madness–not as a young adult (which is hard enough) but as an eleven year old.

I was in a junior high gym in 1972 when a group called the McCrarys (who later had a nice run on the R&B charts) spent parts of their show pumping up a genuine superstar they had run into at the airport in Orlando and had talked into appearing as their special guest. When the off-and-on hour-long build-up finally reached its climax, they opened a curtain and shouted “ladies and gentlemen…Put your hands together….for our fellow superstar….DONNIE OSMOND!”

By the time Donnie emerged–in the guise of a six-four black guy with a twelve-inch afro who, I must say, did a fine version of “Puppy Love”–a few of the white girls had fainted.

Later on, all the black girls laughed…and admitted that if it had been Michael Jackson’s name being called they would have fainted, too.

Donnie Osmond, of course, is sane (as I imagine is the six-four member of the McCrarys). You can survive it.

But Donnie wasn’t the meal ticket of a large, dirt-poor family that wasn’t going anywhere without him. Heck, he wasn’t even the lead singer in his brothers’ group (just the one who got a solo career out of it). And he wasn’t abused–wasn’t given a psychological wound he was bound to visit on the world.

Michael Jackson almost certainly was. I don’t say it excuses him–plenty survive worse without taking it out on others in turn.

But it always gives me pause. And it always gives a plaintive edge to even his most joyous early music.

On the album above, the first I owned by any incarnation of the Jacksons, I learned that a lot of that early music was far more plaintive than I had been led to believe from the distance of my white-bread existence.

It left a mark. I bled a lot of needles through all three LPs in the set.

And honestly, back then, that cover never bothered me. Looked innocent enough.

Now, of course, I wonder. Just where does the line get crossed when you’re dealing with a future pedophile (allegedly, of course)….and just how innocuous is it really to push the youngsters onto one another?

Well…at least we have the present to reassure us nothing like that will ever happen again!

Here’s to what might have been.

 

 

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #5: Chirpin’, 1977)

PERSUASIONS

 

Once upon a time–way back in the eighties–record collecting was, shall we way, not like today.

Back then, especially if you lived in the hinterlands, there was no guarantee you would be able track down music you heard or read about…and no guarantee you would be able to afford it if, by chance, you found it.

When I went to Atlanta on a free-lance ad assignment in the late summer/early fall of 1986, I wasn’t actually looking for records–or even thinking there was any chance I would run into any by accident.

However, since I was with my dad (Braves’ tickets were part of the gig as I remember) we did end up going to an indoor flea market and, sure enough, there was a record bin. Pretty nice one as I remember. Good selection, cheap prices. Me, of course, with no money to speak of. The ad gig paid after the fact.

But I did have about twenty bucks to spend and it happened that I ran across two albums which I had been looking for since 1980 (six long years, oh the agony!) and, being confined to the Florida Panhandle, never even sniffed.

One of those LPs was Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis, which was (if memory serves) about eight bucks. Another was the Persuasions’ Chirpin’ which (if memory again serves) was either $2.99 or $3.99.

I bought them.

In life parlance this is what is known as “a good day.” A good day, the way learning to swim or going four-for-four is a good day. Only this is the sort of good day you can carry with you as something more than a functional skill or a memory. It’s the kind of good day that is going to enhance the rest of your life.

This particular good day, however, ended up doing something more than that.

It warped time.

You see, when I got home (after a five hour drive that same day…a Sunday) to my apartment, my dad decided to go on along…back to my parents’ house…where my mother was waiting.

Not too long after he left, long before he would have arrived at home, I played Dusty In Memphis and it was even greater than everything I had heard about it. And then I played Chirpin’ and–impossibly–it, too, was even greater than everything I had heard about it.

All of that would have made it a special day–maybe even a day that hung in memory.

But it hung longer–forever in fact–because something in the entire weight of the experience (along with a lot of other experiences, most of which can no longer be accesed by mere memory) laid down on me. In the ecstasy of listening, for the first time, to two of the greatest albums ever made, I realized that my mother–who had been sick my entire life–wasn’t going to live much longer.

It turned out that “not much longer” was eight or nine months and, of course, I never told her (or anyone else) of my premonition. No need. Death comes around soon enough. No call to poke it in the ribs.

But the really strange thing, was that, at the same time I was listening to Chirpin’ (on the back of Dusty In Memphis, which I’m convinced was an essential part of the chain that was starting to loop around me and is probably drawn tight around some part of me even yet), I also saw beyond all that.

I saw myself being healed.

I emphasize that I “saw” it–that state of coming to grips with a terrible event that had not yet happened–because, while I was feeling all that, I couldn’t keep myself from staring at the album cover pictured above. It wasn’t just part and parcel with the entire experience, it was the experience–a journey in and of itself. Without what that cover implies–about doo wop, about rock and roll, about singers and artists, about being alone and together in this world at the very same time–I don’t think I would have experienced any of what finally made that “good day” the very best and very worst of my record collecting life.

Which is to say, that, without the finest album cover ever made being constantly in front of my eyes, I would have still loved Chirpin’…but nothing on it would have warped time.

Not even this:

 

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #4: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, 1966)

MAMASANDPAPAS

“Barry (McGuire) had said that he had some friends coming through San Francisco, could I take a listen to ‘em. I had a habit of when I listened to a new group I tried not to look at the group, so not to be influenced in any way by the way they looked, but hear them as I would hear them on a record. And so they went through the four or five songs and I opened my eyes, looked up at ‘em, and that’s how I got the title of the first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, after hearing how fantastic it was and then to see what they looked like. I mean they were just back from the Caribbean, and they were scruffy as could be and Michelle was as beautiful as could be and Cass was as big as she could be and John was as tall as he could be…”

Producer/Label Owner Lou Adler (Source–California Dreamin’: The Songs Of The Mamas & The Papas DVD (2005))

I have no idea how it came across in 1966. From this distance it’s the cynosure of cool (and, yes, I kind of have a feeling it was then, too).

Weird, but I never noticed the apostrophes before. I was probably too busy worrying about the toilet (which was covered up when the album started to sell).

Or maybe Michelle’s boots.

Or what was in them.

Perfect in any case, because it was such a transcendent blend of Show Biz and Counter Culture–kind of like the music that was waiting inside.

 

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #3: Boots, 1966)

 

BOOTS1

(Conversation from inside the late, lamented Circles of Sound in Fort Walton Beach just after New Year’s 1997. There’s no way to prove it, of course, but if there were, I’d be willing to bet there’s no more than a word or two altered.)

Me (Pointing at record store wall): Is that for sale?

Owner: You know it doesn’t have a record in it?

Me: Well, I’ve got a decent copy of the record, but I need a clean cover…Would you consider selling it?

Owner (Takes it down from wall and looks it over. Then, looking at me like there’s one born every minute): Okay. Three bucks.

Me: (Very careful not to look like there’s one born every minute) Good deal.

The cover wasn’t pristine, just a lot better than the one I had. And while I always thought it was a steal at three bucks (I’d have thought the same at twenty), I’m really satisfied now, when this–not as clean as mine–is about the best copy I could find on the internet.

Since it was going on my wall some day (2006 I think was when I got around to it, hung it right above the Doors’ first…I’m nothing if not patient), I knew it was a score I had to make.

Social significance?

None, baby.

None whatsoever!

 

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #2: The World is a Ghetto, 1972)

War_The_World_Is_a_Ghetto

The World is a Ghetto was released in November, 1972 and became the best-selling album of 1973.

Remarkable achievement?

Yeah, and then some.

The only previous times a black artist had Billboard’s #1 album of the year were in 1956 and 1968. ’56 was Harry Belafonte and Calypso. ’68 was Are You Experienced?, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which was actually two-thirds white. Great as Jimi Hendrix was, the ofay component certainly didn’t hurt sales any more than Harry Belafonte’s purely mainstream image had done in the fifties.

In brief, black acts who identified strictly working class and hardcore representatives of the Street did not have #1 albums in Billboard’s Top 200, let alone the best-selling LP of a given year.

War was technically multi-racial. They had a Danish harmonica player and their Latin vibe was evidently sufficiently authentic to make them something like honorary citizens of Southern California’s Hispanic immigrant community.

But their music and their politics (that is, the politics of their music) were reflected in the title of their best-selling album and were a long way from the zones occupied by the music of Harry Belafonte, Jimi Hendrix, or any black (or white) artist who had the bestselling LP of any other year in the twentieth century (several rappers have taken the honors since 2000 as the world finally caught up to what War was saying all along..which was, basically, “watch out!”).

Of course, many–maybe all–of the last century’s bestselling album acts had working class followings. Hard to sell millions to the suburbs alone (even for Carly Simon or Elton John, the more or less typical examples who preceded and followed The World is a Ghetto at the top of the charts).

But there is a difference between having blue collar fans and making blue collar music. Big difference in the head and an even bigger one in the gut.

It isn’t only White America that appreciates the distinction. There’s no way to prove these things absolutely, but it is probably safe to assume that Black America loved Roberta Flack and Diana Ross–the only other black artists who scored #1 albums between the beginning of 1972 and the end of 1974–as much or more than War and probably did so irrespective of class distinctions or tax brackets.

Still, it is remarkable to think that War could nail the ethos of the coming reactionary age–when middle-class erosion would become not merely a reality but (so much more significantly) an accepted one, so thoroughly and resoundingly the default position of the entire political economy that everybody knows all talk of revival (whatever the source) is nothing more than can-kicking and no one can any longer conceive of a future where it will ever be anything else–so completely to the wall in 1973, let alone that they could storm the charts with it.

And more remarkable still is that everything–the entire serio-comic zeitgeist, up to and including the almost-too-perfectly divine absurdity of reaching #1 on Billboard with an LP anchored to a thirteen-minute instrumental that would have been right at home on one of Miles Davis’ jazz-fusion experiments from the same era and kicked off by a hit single that was either a complete goof on a children’s television hero or a Borges-level essay on the entire modern history of the political economy (race and class included) of the American Southwest, take your pick–is right there on the cover with its knowing cross between what you can’t really see in Rear Window and what’s available in the background of Superfly.

The ground, in other words, where most of War’s music–and most of American life–takes place.

Something to think about the next time the KISS Army starts complaining about how long it took to get their boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (where, for what it’s worth, I think they belong) while War, who made half a dozen albums of similar quality and import to this one, waits…and waits…and waits.

 

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #1: The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968)

[NOTE: I have an attachment to album covers in part because, for me, they were a big way into the music. Since I had often not actually heard most (or sometimes any) of the music inside, when I started chasing the music of the fifties and sixties in the seventies and eighties, I studied LP covers for clues.

But, more importantly, I also “felt” them. I formed ideas about what I was going to hear and there were times when it actually took me years to really hear the music if the LP cover hadn’t done a good enough job of prepping me for the experience.

I suspect there are some fine albums I haven’t managed to appreciate yet for this very reason–though, of course I can’t say which ones. Yet.

Later, much later, I took to framing them and hanging them around my house, collecting books dedicated to them and so forth, but even these things only go so far. In the heart of the rock and roll era, LP covers were a world unto themselves. So I’m gonna start sharing some of my favorites, some with extensive commentary, some with just a caption–whatever strikes me as appropriate.]

NOTORIOUSBYRD

To really appreciate this one, you have to keep in mind what surrounded it on the racks at the time of its release in January of 1968. Not that I was cognizant at the time–I was told to cross to the other side of the mall when I passed the record store because, invariably, even in the mall, people who were clearly dope-smoking hippies hung about the place. But I’m familiar enough, in retrospect, to imagine the impact.

Granted, the impact was mostly on the future. Notorious did not sell particularly well and was the first Byrds’ LP to fail to produce a Top 40 single.

This is from the age of Sgt. Pepper and Their Satanic Majesties’ Request and Forever Changes, though, and it’s a telling peek at what was just around the corner. Yes, there were plain-song equivalents around, too, in the aftermath of the Summer of Love, but few were so prescient. You can look at this now and feel (not “hear” because once you got to the vinyl, The Notorious Byrd Brothers was its own thing and not much like anything else that had ever happened or ever would, out there even by the Byrds’ other-worldly standards) the coming of CCR, Southern Rock, California Rock, Country Rock, Outlaw Country, Alt-Country and even some elements of Grunge.

Some version of Cowboy Hippie, then, or at very least Cowboy Long-Hair.

And when Peter Fonda said he modeled his character in Easy Rider after Roger McGuinn (pictured in the middle here–Dennis Hopper was channeling David Crosby, who left the band part-way through the recording of Notorious and, thus, wasn’t included in the LP cover shoot), I always felt like it was this Roger McGuinn he specifically meant.

This was the last Byrds’ album released by the original band. Michael Clarke (pictured at the right) would depart before their next LP, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (which had a more immediately visceral cover and, with Gram Parsons on board, actually did sound at least sort of like “the future.” though it still sounded like a lot of other things, too). Chris Hillman (left), split not long after that.

But while they lasted–and however many copies of any given record they sold–you could always tell what was coming down the pike by what the Byrds got up to.

Even if it was just messing around in a horse barn with camera shutters clicking.