Monday, 1 August 2016

Van's Album Covers - Part 1

Here's the first of a series I'm doing on Van's album cover art and photography.  Comments are invited.

Astral Weeks (1968) - The best album of all time should have the best cover but sadly it doesn't.  Most people consider the cover art work to be rather second-rate.  It's sort of hippie-ish but not fully realised.  However, it will continue to perpetuate the myth that Van Morrison functions as some sort of hippie troubadour and that the music of Astral Weeks is the ideal soundtrack to druggy experimentalism and cliched attempts at transcendence. It's a myth that's existed since the album's release 45 years ago. 

Ryan Foley in his Throwing Pennies blog described the cover as "the hallucinatory and gauzy—yet at the same time, hackneyed—vibe it emits. The photo, as well as the absurd poem printed on the insert, was intended to compliment the album's themes of other worldliness, nostalgia, youthful passion, devotion to place, etc.

He also said that the art "feels embarrassingly unimaginative, slightly anachronistic, even off-putting (all that green and black; ick)—essentially everything that is the antithesis of Astral Weeks. When Morrison's lifted-from-an-adolescent-diary poetry isn't eliciting a giggle ("When I got back it was like a dream come true"), it has you scouring the Internet for lewd jokes ("Loved you there and then, and now like a sheep"). In the photo, a disoriented-looking Morrison stares downward, possibly at his hands or his shoes or his acoustic guitar (or a sheep). And have I mentioned the green-and-black colour scheme?"

Warner Bros. did have good intentions when it was developing the album's artwork. The photographer was Joel Brodsky wo was a notable New York photographer credited with shooting over 400 album covers. Interestingly, Brodsky photographed a number of moderately successful bluesmen—Buddy Guy, Otis Spann, John Lee Hooker, and Junior Wells, to name a few—a fact that would have certainly thrilled the blues-obsessed Morrison. His more well-known clientele included Joan Baez, Kiss, the Stooges, and the MC5. 

There is certainly worse album art in the Morrison discography. And when one considers the packaging of other iconic albums from the late '60s, Astral Weeks' faults don't appear so egregious. The release's eight tracks transcend its packaging. As avid listeners can attest, spend a bit of quality time with Astral Weeks and you eventually recognise that the hippie troubadour/experimentalist/drug motifs cited above are misguided at best, disingenuous at worst.

Tupelo Honey (1971)   -   The photos on the album were taken by Michael Maggid, a friend of Morrison's then wife Janet Planet, in the town of Fairfax. The cover photograph showed Planet, riding bareback on a horse, with Morrison walking alongside. Other photographs showed Morrison perched upon the fence of the horse's paddock, with his wife standing to his right and a black-and-white kitten on the fence to his left. This rural setting depicting a bygone era was in vogue on album covers at the time as rock artists moved from cities to rural communities. The Band, CSNY and Grateful Dead had similar themes on album covers in 1969 and 1970. Morrison later complained of the cover, "The picture was taken at a stable and I didn't live there. We just went there and took the picture and split. A lot of people seem to think that album covers are your life or something."

Saint Dominic's Preview (1972) -  The blue cover was shot in San Francisco at the Montgomery Chapel at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.  The cover shows a noticeable split on Van's inseam.

It's Too Late to Stop Now (1974)   -   It's a double live album with photos showing Van on stage on the front cover and back.  Front is blueish and figure a Van is a little small.  Back cover has Van in closeup in reddish stage lights.  Art direction is by Ed Caraeff and David Larkham.  Photography is by Ed Caraeff and the design was by David Larkham. Inside there are various live photos of Van and the band. 

Veedon Fleece (1974)   -   The album cover photograph shows Morrison sitting in the grass between two Irish Wolfhounds. The photographer, Tom Collins, took the original photograph that placed Van and the dogs adjacent to the Sutton House Hotel, a converted mansion overlooking Dublin Bay, where Morrison first stayed upon arriving in Ireland for his vacation.

This album cover’s message is simple: Van Morrison is awesome, and he doesn’t care if you disagree. What Van Morrison perfected here has been replicated many times recently in whiskey and deodorant commercials, to varying degrees of success.

He has a slightly fearful look on his face, some questioning whether the rather large Irish wolfhounds caused his discomfort. One writer has even commented that his resemblance to Nick Drake in this picture might be portentous and some cause for concern.  42 years "down the road", I think not.    

Into the Music (1979)   -   Photographer Norman Seeff's session for Van Morrison’s 1979 album, Into the Music, nearly never happened. “I met with him at his home in Northern California,” recalls Seeff, “and he took me on a crazy drive in his Porsche as we listened to the album.” But by the end of the day the quixotic artist expressed doubts about using his image on the album cover. Seeff turned to a mutual friend, who had played violin on one of Morrison’s previous records, for help. She assembled a makeshift band in a studio near Morrison’s home. “‘This is going to be fun,’ I told him,” says Seeff. “I explained he didn’t have to do anything special—just play music.” Morrison wound up performing for three hours, leading the band through much of his monumental catalogue. “It was an amazing jam session,” recalls Seeff, who brought along a small film crew. “He was in the zone. I believe it’s one of the great pieces of music captured on film.”

Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)   -   The front cover is a photo of the Grand Opera House on the cover set on a wide border of green marble.  The green marble extends to the back cover.  The front photo is by Bill Porter and the small back photo is taken from the Celtic Swing video.   

Too Long in Exile (1993)   -    Van Morrison fans can go for some backyard chicken at the site where the cover of Too Long In Exile was shot outside 246 Pearl Street between Fulton Street and John Street in NYC.  
Back on Top  (1999)  -  The song Golden Autumn Day influences the cover here.  Van's picture (taken from the back) surrounded by autumnal leaves in the background.  The photograph of Morrison on the inside of the album cover, was originally used for the front cover of Peter Handke's book My Year in the No-Man's-Bay, first published in 1994.

Down the Road (2002)  -   the cover depicts the front of a record store with a window full of LP covers by blues, R&B, jazz, and old rock & roll artists, a deliberate blueprint of the album's influences. The shop pictured was actually a real record store, Nashers Music Store in Walcot Street, Bath, UK, specially dressed for the photo-shoot. Like so many "record stores" Nasher's is closed down now.   

What's Wrong With This Picture? (2004)   -   Van's album on Blue Note.  Cover is vaguely fiftiesish in its design.  But the squares and circles on the front point to the phrase "square peg in a round hole".  Well that may be a good description of Van.

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