Among the beans and psychedelia are irresistible reminders of Spinal Tap
One man's tacky and embarassing album cover is another's precious artefact.
Saturday 18 May 1996
Recognise the style? If you wore your hair long, your afghan battered and your pants loon, you might. If you ever sat cross-legged on the floor late at night in somebody else's flat sniffing the incense and reading their LP sleeves, you almost certainly will.
It was 1972. Snowy ladies and lorded man were considered pretty deep stuff and, contrary to popular mythology, it wasn't even necessary to have meddled with narcotics. An hour or two listening to a band that featured a mellotron or a heavy fuzz guitar was quite sufficient to suspend critical faculties and turn the brain into a substance resembling guacamole.
Maybe it's a little unfair to single out the overblown romanticism of Irish progressive folk band Mellow Candle, from whose LP Swaddling Songs the lyric is reproduced, but it's their fault for including it on the sleeve. Even more ill-advisedly, the sleeve has potted biographies of the group members. For instance: "William A Murray. Aries. Percussion. Spent most of his childhood in the company of lum-hatted peacocks from whom he learnt the lore of rainbows and other alternative dimensions. Recently caused near havoc upon sighting 13 "saucers" flying in formation over Salisbury Plain." If Mr Murray is still around and has children, it would be nice to think they quote that back at him when he tells them to grow up and be sensible.
Sensible, of course, was not what progressive bands of the late 60s and early 70s were all about. Their intricate, rambling pieces about free love, nature, mythical beasts, magic (carpets and mushrooms), and other favourite underground themes, and their self-consciously arty sleeves, were intended as a reaction against artists like Donny Osmond or the New Seekers, who made hit singles and were therefore accused of being into a "whole heavy bread scene."
Well, irony of ironies. If you want to buy a copy of Mellow Candle's LP now it will cost you pounds 400. Leafhound's 1971 album Grower Of Mushrooms is available for around pounds 900, while you would have to be a serious breadhead to pick up a copy of Dark Round The Edges by Dark at pounds l,500. A New Seekers LP? Fifty pence at a car boot sale.
So coveted are some of these long-haired relics that 500 copies of a new video featuring the sleeves of hard-to-find hippy albums have been sold in the four weeks since its release. That's right. Just the sleeves. No performances by the groups, just 200 or so album sleeves lovingly shot by Ken Morse's rostrum camera, plus a soundtrack of rare music by Pink Floyd, Ambrose Slade and others.
The tape, Rare, Precious or Beautiful, has been assembled by PR man and former rock musician Eddie Blower, mostly from his own collection. "It's like a porno movie for record collectors," he says. "Serious buffs will be drooling at some of these sleeves. There's pounds 25,000 worth of albums on the video, stuff you just don't see anywhere these days."
Leafhound's Grower Of Mushrooms, for instance, is Decca's rarest LP. The sleeve design shows the band adrift in a sea of mushrooms, a kind of tribute to heavy rock's favourite vegetable. Not all the sleeves are as straightforward as that, however. Pete Brown, of Pete Brown's Battered Ornaments, appears on the video talking about his album Thousands On A Raft, the cover of which features a beans on toast motif. "It's civilisation," Brown explains. "The beans represent people and the toast is the world. The idea is that the toast is drifting out to sea, getting soggier and soggier, and the overpopulated beans are falling off the world, fighting to survive."
Pretentious, maybe, but not without charm, and some of the half-baked philosophies dreamt up by rock's overcooked brains did result in some undeniably striking illustrations. Album sleeve art was a genre in its own right in the era before the rise of the pop video and the CD, and some of its most accomplished practitioners are championed in the video; Keef, for instance, responsible for picturing Bowie in a dress on The Man Who Sold The World in 1971, and Claus Boling, whose cover for Hurdy Gurdy's 1972 album was a wash of blues and greens concealing the face of a grotesque.
Among the beans and psychedelia, however, are acres of beasts dripping blood, swords and sorcery, and overtly sexual images that act as an irresistible reminder of the film Spinal Tap, whose joyous dissection of every rock 'n' roll cliche seemed not only to have destroyed all this stuff but to have danced rather effectively on its grave.
"It's time this music was championed and celebrated because some of it is brilliant," Blower says. "It's almost been written out of rock history, because punk rock was such a reaction against it. There was even one guy who ritually smashed some of these LPs on stage before the show - probably a couple of grand's worth at today's prices. In those days people wouldn't be caught dead with anything like Andromeda or Vashti Bunyon in their collection."
But Eddie, as befits the man who owns Black Sabbath's old mellotron, kept the faith and now reckons to have a record collection worth pounds 90,000, each album hermetically sealed in a plastic cover. He now plans two further releases. "These videos will be the only way a lot of enthusiasts will ever be able to access this stuff. Even where it exists it was usually thrown across the floor at parties or used as an aid for the rolling of cigarettes. I suppose I am a kind of historian for the long-haired."
Or, as Yes put it on their album Tales From Topographic Oceans: "Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources chased amid fusions of wonder in moments hardly seen forgotten." You had to be there.
"Rare, Precious Or Beautiful" is available by mail order from BDP Video, 3-4 Little Portland Street, London Wl. Price pounds 16.99 including post and packing.
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