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Mouthing Off: Anita Kunz imagines a Talking Heads album cover that never was.

Fall Sleeves

A new show at SJSU recalls the days when album covers were an art form

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WITH FULL support from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, graphic designer Craig Butler and music archivist Michael Ochs launched a quirky but mind-blowing project: "The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were." They convinced 100 long-established designers to create hypothetical album covers for their favorite recording artists. The show originally debuted at the Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and now a portion of it runs in the Natalie and James Thompson Gallery at San Jose State University.

With the rise of CDs and the ubiquity of iPods, LP covers are almost a forgotten art form. Before music videos came about, record covers constituted the only visual connection one had with the music, and many people really did judge a record by its cover sometimes. Folks identified with an album through a singular image. And with the resurgence of Space Age Bachelor Pad tunes and the "Incredibly Strange Music" phenomenon, many folks are rifling through thrift-store bins to purchase old LPs just for the covers.

So the record cover as canvas triumphantly returns, and the artists participating in the show run the gamut. Josh Agle (Shag) contributed his trademark swinger's lifestyle illustration for a Sinatra cover. John Dismukes supplied a staggering 4-by-r4-foot mural of a gothic-tech Ozzy Osbourne cover. Spend a few minutes looking at this one—it's a doozy.

Neal Ashby provided an alternative version of Led Zeppelin II, a plain white album with a lemon on the front—a la Warhol's famous Velvet Underground cover. On Ashby's Zeppelin cover are the words "Squeeze softly and see," with an arrow pointing toward the lemon, referencing "The Lemon Song."

Each cover also has a story behind it. Abbie Baron Morganstein delivered a photo of two turtles doing the wild thing. She intended it to be a Metallica cover, but Ochs suggested it should be a Turtles album instead. It's called, Happy Together: The Best of the Turtles.

On a more controversial note, legendary Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein collaborated with Marilyn Manson to produce a cover with Manson next to a little girl holding a shotgun. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut also painted a Phish cover, and Sebastian Kruger drew a caricature of Pete Townshend. Other artists involved include John Van Hamersveld, Art Snyder, Tim Gabor, Dean Chamberlain and Ralph Steadman.

"Record covers are fine art," said Butler, who originally designed Frank Zappa's 200 Motels album and created a Tom Petty cover for the show. "Artists love doing covers. The freedom there is just enormous."

What's more, all of the artists produced their work for free. Butler and Ochs didn't make a dime either. It was purely for the love of the project. "Working with so many different artists on a project like this is a delightful, memorable experience," Butler said. "It opened the door for so many other things."

One of those other things might be a discussion on the future of CDs and the potential demise of cover art in general. Butler and Ochs conversed about the subject when they came to SJSU for the show's opening. They argued that since many younger folks are downloading music and organizing their own compilations anyway, why not make the artwork and the packaging downloadable as well? Cult author Chuck Palahniuk already has fans designing their own book covers for his novels, so why not do the same for the musicians?

"Basically I've been talking to Apple iTunes," Ochs explained. "I suggested that instead of scrolling through a long list of Jimi Hendrix selections, it would be nice to have a visual component, and on top of that, generic J-cards. So you can make your own CD covers. You could expand it by making liner notes available and other things like that. If you're doing a Best of Jimi Hendrix, you could have 50 images to choose from."

So don't think CDs are dead yet. A wide-open area lies untapped here.


The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were runs through Sept. 24 at the Natalie and James Thompson Gallery at San Jose State University.

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From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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