None of the records I’ve purchased without knowing the band who recorded them I’ve completely bought off the cuff. There was always some advice given by a friend, some blurry fact learned while reading a magazine that had stuck in my mind or some hint coming from the name of the band, the title of the album or its cover.
No, this isn’t a grandpa’s story about how I miss those times in which you peeled your fingers off by checking vinyl after vinyl in record shops. It’s more of a non-official inventory of some aesthetic anomalies that took me to buying a record by an artist I DIDN’T know just because on the cover I saw another artist I DID know.
About fIREHOSE I knew it was the band born from the ashes of Minutemen after the tragic death of D. Boon. So somewhat a blind confidence on Mike Watt and George Hurley’s musical survival instinct guided my way towards the till with If’n under my arm. Besides, the album included a track called For the Singer of R.E.M. that made me curious. Although the main reason for choosing this record and not another one by fIREHOSE was the image of the band on the cover: a photograph on a wall of… Hüsker Dü.
What? Who had the idea of putting another band on the cover? Why? Was it a trick for distracted buyers? A fraud? A more or less voluntary mistake? A printing error like the one that put Eddie & The Hot Rods on the back cover of The Damned’s debut album? An act of self-sabotage? A strange anonymity vow? A private joke? A bet between both bands that the San Pedro ones lost? A proof of extreme friendship? Hüsker Dü had toured with Minutemen, they were label ex-colleagues (at SST, before the ones from Minneapolis signed for Warner), their ambitions to creatively expand the scope of hardcore had run parallel and had fed each other, and Watt always mentioned them among his favourite bands alongside Sonic Youth or the Meat Puppets. But from that to giving them the protagonism of their album… According to Watt, it was just a picture that was hanging from the wall. That’s all.
Be it as it may, this image on a wall that ended up on the cover out of admiration, as a joke or to do something different fulfilled its purpose. I bought the album following a kind of petty syllogism: if these guys love Hüsker Dü so much that they prefer having them on the cover of their own album, I’m sure I’m going to like them because HD is one of my favourite bands.
This 2+2=4 doesn’t need to be exact, of course. I guess this impression comes from the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles’ aesthetic-referential altar which already included other musicians (Bob Dylan, Stockhausen, Dion DiMucci, Bobby Breen or themselves) as a homage and/or confession of their predecessors.
But making one’s influences explicit doesn’t always work like an “if you liked that, you’ll also like …”. There are obvious cases, of course: The Brian Jonestown Massacre steal a Brian Jones close-up for their Mini Album Thingy Wingy because their devotion is made clear with the name of the band. But in other occasions, things are not so clear: I’m sure Morrissey must like Elvis Presley and that’s why he appears on the cover of Shoplifters of the World Unite and Los Planetas listen to Chet Baker and as a consequence he’s on the cover of single David y Claudia (an example of Javier Aramburu’s design exquisiteness). But I doubt that in any of the two cases such artists are the ones who have influenced their career the most. I’d say it’s more an aesthetic fetish thing for a concrete image of such artists.
Inasmuch as the cover can serve the purpose of defining and expanding the imaginary of the artist that agrees to have his name on the record but refuses to appear on the cover, sometimes these correspondences are not well transferred from transmitter to receiver, for instance: I’d love Marc Almond fans who have in their shelves Marc and The Mambas’ Torment and Toreros to own some Lola Flores albums as well, because she’s the monster with faralaes and distorted eyes appearing on the cover. But I’m afraid they won’t.
Any homage, when it is paid with a certain degree of playfulness, might end up reeking of parody too (of poisoned homage, let’s say). That’s why the fact of having another band on the cover can sometimes seem an act of perversion. Sgt. Pepper’s itself generated full of ill-intentions replicas such as The Mothers of Invention’s We Are Only in It for the Money (with Jimi Hendrix hidden in a corner) or The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, which encrypted Beatles images between psychedelic colours.
And since we’re talking about the fab four, what is this innocent mischief compared with the one of Meet The Residents? There you have both an aesthetic as well as an ethical positioning. The will of re-writing pop through ill-intentioned palimpsest is already made clear on the cover. Like when Poison Idea chose to point their gun at Tiny Tim’s nose on the cover of Feel the Darkness: a “kill all hippies” libel synthesizing all the chapters of the punk repertoire that refer to destruction and provocation in just one image.
I imagine that Sonic Youth would have loved making a similar cover for The Whitey Album from their Ciccone Youth project (a collaboration with, precisely, Mike Watt from Minutemen-fIREHOSE). The image surrounding this supposedly against Madonna noisy diatribe wasn’t an explicit close-up of the diva, but a cropped detail of the lips and cheek of Louise Ciccone to avoid any mess with Warner’s lawyers (although it seems that Madonna gave her OK to it no problem because she remembered the band with affection from her New York nights before she became a star).
But there’s another worth opening sub-folder in this archive of covers with fake stars: that of people who were granted a cover photo before anybody knew they were musicians as well. It is known, for example, that the famous photograph of Slint’s Spiderland was taken by Will Oldham when his career hadn’t taken off yet. What isn’t so easy to endorse is the myth that assures us that Will Oldham is also the guy inside the helmet sitting at the wheel of the vehicle that appears on Tweez. Since one never knows with this Louisville people, we’ll take the legend into account, just in case.
In other instances, the research effort is a lot more simple: the two twins looking at each other as though there were only one girl in front of the mirror in Belle & Sebastian’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant are credited as Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir; that is to say, like the female 50% of Icelandic band múm. Although when the album appeared they were already well known, the image included dates from the time they still played with dolls.
Up to what point did appearing on the B&S album help múm’s visibility? Or is it merely a detail for anecdote lovers? Are Icelandic people thankful to the Scots as should Leigh Lezark be towards DJ collective The Misshapes with The Sounds for having her on the cover of Dying to Say This to You? (The amount of fans of the Swedes that wanted to know who that enigmatic gaze belonged to!). In any case, it’s an image that might enable anybody wanting to pull the thread to go from band to band discovering a net of connections and communicating vessels without having to pay attention to automatic recommendations by Amazon or Spotify.