Category Archives: Pop Goes Our Culture

Five Favorite Album Covers

I love album covers. It’s the thing I miss the most about vinyl. I know vinyl is back, but most of the time the cover is designed for the CD, digital image AND the vinyl album. Not much room for nuance when the design is made for a .375 inch square avatar instead  of a square foot canvas.

The following are five of my favorite covers, I’m not saying they are the best, just five art/designs that hold special to me. I also admit what sound came from their sleeves made an impression on the choices.

5. Sailin’ Shoes – Little Feat  This was not only my initial introduction to the band but to their cover artist, Neon Park. He went on to make many more Feat covers and became a much in-demand  illustrator. Sailin’ Shoes remains my favorite Feat album and my favorite Park cover. I mean an anthropomorphized slice of cake on a swing, half a blue boy and a voyeuristic  snail, come on!


4. Led Zeppelin  This album burst out of the speakers like a rock blues hurricane, and the album art captures that explosion. All of Zeppelin’s covers were fantastic but its first, and starkest design, is the best. Note: the band and friends thought this album would fail like a lead ballon, thus the band name and the art: crash of the Hindenburg.


3. School’s Out – Alice Cooper  A perfect album cover for me at the time. Released in the Summer of 1972, I had just graduated high school and the single and the album became athemic. The cover was also interactive. It was a desk. Using great photography, oragami and wicked attention to detail, this design stood as art or at least a good high school shop project. Note: the original release album sleeve was a pair of girl’s panties soon replaced by a regular paper sleeve. Alice knew his audience, huh?

album-schools-out-front-cover-09-06-11 schoolsout

2. The Band – The Band   Designed by the great Bob Cato, using an Elliot Landy photograph, this simple cover speaks volumes of what waits inside. Their first album, Music From Big Pink (and a contender for this list) did not show the members of the group on either the front or the back; you had to open it up to see the group. Here they confront you head-on, staring at you from another time. This was the time of paisley and psychedelic design and fonts. Not this band, there were dressed as workers, laborers, as if they stepped out of 1940’s  America. Hell, they could’ve been mistaken for hobos then. The album was sepia toned as if taken from our grandparents’ scrapbook. And the music reflected it all, and magnificently. A masterpiece.



1. Revolver – The Beatles  Now you know I could’ve put lots of Fab covers here, as a matter of fact all five spots could be Fab covers: With The Beatles, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles (White Album), Abbey Road. But Revolver is my favorite. Designed and drawn by their friend and fellow musician Klaus Voorman, the cover captured the band as they were moving from Fabdom to somewhere else. It captures this space in time and the music within perfectly. As a professional graphic designer I think it is beautifully rendered and remains timeless. It also won the Grammy for Best Album Cover Design, that’s one they got right.



OK, one more, not really a favorite but this design for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats freaked me out in 1969 and still does today. Some cats have nightmares about bogeymen and monsters, I have nightmares of Hot Rats.


I’d love to know some of your favorite covers and why.



I’m a belatedly a friend of The Friends of Eddie Coyle


I came to this party late. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a crime novel written by George V. Higgins and published in 1970. I didn’t read it then. It was on a tertiary reading list in my college American Literature class, I didn’t read it then. Two of my favorite crime authors, Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane count it as a masterpiece and a major influence on their work, I still didn’t read it. Not until until I heard chef/author/TV personality Anthony Bourdain say that he has been obsessed with this book for years did I finally give in to its power.

The power of this short, tight, taunt, tough novel is the narrative movement. It is moved by dialogue. I would guess that 85% of the book is pure dialogue. Beautifully written words unique to a tough Boston and unique to each individual character. I cannot remember any novel where the flow of the story and the places it goes are all captained by speaking.

The story is a standard crime drama, cops and robbers blurred by the lines they cross, heists, murder and betrayal. But it’s not the story that matters, what matters is how it is told.

If you are interested in the art of writing, if you are enthralled by words and how they create voice, if you are thrilled to read a master at work, I cannot recommend The Friends of Eddie Coyle high enough. I know that I will visit them many more times, they are that important.

Warren Zevon – Five Songs You Should Hear


Warren Zevon burst from the wellspring of 1970’s Southern California songwriters, artists such as Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Don Henly, Glenn Frey and others. But Zevon was a tad different; he was bitterer, funnier, darker, scarier and tenderer. He was an oxymoron of a writer, and we are better for it.  He died at the age of 56 in 2003 but he left behind a treasure of work – you just have to find it.

Now you can easily uncover his ubiquitous “Werewolves of London” (a financial blessing but a creative curse because some people only remember him for this, so much so they think him a novelty writer) and the songs covered by other artists such as Linda Ronstadt . Her covers of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, “Mohammed’s Radio”, “Carmelita”, and “Hasten Down the Wind” are staples in her catalog.

But he was so much more, so much that I want you to hear some of his best but overlooked work and hopefully dig deeper into his work.

Desperados Under The Eaves

From his masterpiece album simply titled Warren Zevon, it is a cautionary tale of California life and its quest for success.

Accidentally Like A Martyr

A heartbreaking love song of days sliding by and love lost from his album Excitable Boy. One of his best.

Jeannie Needs A Shooter

From the album Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School and co-written with Bruce Springsteen, this song of love, lust and betrayal is a self contained Peckinpah Western. Brilliant.

Splendid Isolation

From Transverse City, well this lyric says it all:

Michael Jackson in Disneyland
Don’t have to share it with nobody else
Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
And lead me through the World of Self

Keep Me In Your Heart

The last song on his last album, The Wind, was recorded as he battled terminal lung cancer. It is the last song of a short life and a fitting stone for his monument of work.

Note: Amazon has Zevon’s first five albums packaged in a box set for an amazingly low price, click here. I have no clue to how long this will be available but man it’s fantastic.


Overlooked, initially underwhelming and woefully underplayed classics.


Before Jive Talking and Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were a great pop band. Consisting of three brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb. They were responsible for hits like To Love Somebody, I Gotta Get A Message To You, Massachusetts, Words and many others. After the release of their 1969 double velvet encased album Odessa, Robin left the group to pursue a solo career. Odessa remains their crowning pop achievement, but it is the next release, Cucumber Castle, minus Robin, that we touch on here. From the album cover, with the two remaining Gibbs dressed as Knights, plumes intact, to the music’s over the top production, everything about Cucumber Castle is in excess.

Through my many years of listening to music, this is without a doubt the most overproduced, lush, bloated, garish, dense, beautiful mess I’ve ever heard and I love it. Don’t Forget To Remember Me, Bury Me Down By A River and I Lay Down And Die seem as if they were written in an English manor with a baroque quartet during the 17th Century then updated with a bit of pop sensibility pepper. The album is a masterpiece of production that holds up to any of today’s rock, pop or classical release engineering. It is stunningly beautiful. The only clunker on the album is the song My Thing, I’ve never understood its inclusion as it breaks up the thick sonic cycle before and after it.

Cucumber Castle was not a hit album release and didn’t birth the usual Bee Gees top singles. It was and is overshadowed by its predecessor Odessa, the follow up album 2 Years On, featuring the return of Robin and the smash hit Lonely Days, the subsequent Top 40 hits and finally the mega success of the Saturday Night Fever era and their mirror ball future. Buried in that hubris of great pop and decadent disco are the bold shining nuggets and crystals of Cucumber Castle. It is a place worth visiting.

Note: I have no idea why the CD of Cucumber Castle is so high on amazon, so here is a link to the mp3 version and a iTunes download.


When your first two albums are true musical masterpieces the third has the potential to add to your legacy, disappoint and question the preceding work or take a back seat to it. In the case of The Band’s Stage Fright the majority view lies with the latter, mine the former, very few the middle. A tiny number of artists create their seminal works with their debut and sophomore release, but with Music From Big Pink and The Band (aka The Brown Album), The Band did just that. Seasoned musical veterans of years on the road with Ronnie Hawkins, a tour as Bob Dylan’s backing band and months of wood shedding songs together gave birth to these two incredible albums. Hailed as heroes of the new country rock genre with a cover feature in Time Magazine, lauded by critics worldwide, the pressure on their third release was enormous.

The critics were not kind to Stage Fright, but every critique was based on what came before, and what came before was different. There was less cornfield and more rock in the grooves of Stage Fright. Less sharecropper observations and more street views. Less in-the-moment songs and more remembrance. It was also a work by a successful band instead of struggling musicians in search of not only a career but a steady paycheck. They had stopped living and working together,  they now had families and separate lives and paths. Looking back on Stage Fright, time has lessened the critical web surrounding it. It was unfair to expect The Band to stay the course and not explore their rock and rhythm and blues alleys. And really, how can any album containing songs as rich and remarkable as Stage Fright, W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, The Shape I’m In, Daniel And The Sacred Heart and The Rumor be considered anything other than triumphant.

Though musically estranged from its older siblings, I believe Stage Fright stands with them as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, consecutive first three albums by any musical artists.

The Zombies, an overlooked masterpiece risen from the dead.


Released in America in February 1969, two years after it was recorded, The Zombies’ second album Odessey and Oracle (O&O) fell flat and never made a dent in the charts. At its release the band was not together, they had broken up due to stagnant sales and some inner band acrimony. The closet thing to The Zombies at that time was the newly formed band from their ashes, Argent. That band would soon have the hit Hold Your Head Up on their hands.

The shame of all of this is that O&O is one of the best examples of British pop/psychedelic ever recorded. Solidly in between Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s early work, it stands the test of time. To fathom the little faith their record company had in their work all you have to know this tidbit. The graphic designer/illustrator mis-spelled Odyssey, but the brass decided not to change it after it was discovered, before being printed,  due to the cost, which was minimal.

If it wasn’t for some smart American DJ’s discovering the year old single Time Of The Season, and it becoming a hit, the album would never have seen American shores. The songs are stunning and, just like Pepper, recored in Abbey Road Studios and engineered by Geoff Emerick. Graced with a great vocalist in Colin Blunstone and players such as Rod Argent and Chris White, the work soars with harmonies, guitars, keyboards and the go-to instrument of the day, the Mellotron.

O&O starts off with this track, Care Of Cell 44, and only gets better.

I admit, I was a very late comer to this work. I discovered it about 7 years ago. I feel bad for all the times I could have heard this gorgeous piece of work from a greatly under-appreciated band.

O&O is now considered one of the great 60’s albums and is ranked in most Best Albums Lists. Rolling Stone has it at #100 in its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and New Musical Express  placed it at #32 on their “100 Greatest British Albums Ever!” list.

If you have never heard it, I highly recommend you listen, also recommended is the Live 40th Anniversary Concert. It and The Zombies sound amazing.



Top Cat was the top night cartoon for me.


Today with The Simpsons, Family Man and loads of cable cartoon fare, it’s normal to have cartoons on during prime time. But when I was a kid, OK when I was a young kid, prime time cartoons were very rare. As a matter of fact, I can only remember three, all by the Hanna-Barbera studio. (Note here: H-B studios ruled the mornings and after school hours with Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Auggie Doggie and Doggie Daddy, Pixie and Dixie and Jinx and a host of others. I grew to love Warner Brothers’ Toons but I was a H-B loyalist) Oh yea, the three nighttime toons were The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Top Cat.

It is not as well known as its two evening cohorts but it is by far my favorite. In 1961 and 1962, Wednesday nights at 8:30 on Channel 7, ABC, you could find me glued to our old black and white Zenith singing along with the theme song.

Top Cat and his gang, Fancy-Fancy, Spook, Benny the Ball, Brain, and Choo Choo, lived in Hoagy’s Alley in Manhattan. They were always trying a new scheme to raise some money, find a new place to live and even get a meal. These schemes were not always on the up and up and usually crossed paths with Officer Dibble. Dibble was their main foil but you knew deep inside they all cared about each other. He even took the boys in during a real cold spell and cartoon hilarity ensued.

I think the reasons I love Top Cat so much was that it was so different at that time. It took place in a real American city, using New York’s backdrop as a character. It was totally urban, something foreign to a country boy. The characters had an edge to them, they were not all warm and fuzzy, they had an Our Gang/Bowery Boys grit to them. Every character had a distinct tone that was consistent from episode one to thirty. And it was funny without playing down to  kids.  It did not rely solely on visual slapstick, even today it holds up.

So, if you love the old cartoons or you spend a lot of time watching TV with your young children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, and you find today’s cartoon insipid, stupid, boring and crass, I recommend you put a little T.C. on the menu. I bet you even watch it while they’re asleep.

You can find a number of episodes on YouTube and the full DVD collection is available here.  After all he is the leader of the gang.


CSNY 1974, a review


They were the biggest band in the world at the time, unfortunately they were not together. Promoters and AR cats convinced the members of CSNY that a new paradigm of concerts could be written on their back; 30 shows at BIG American arenas and stadiums as well as one gig at Wembley Stadium in London. The concert sometimes ran as long as four hours what with material from the group’s canon and their solo careers, all successful let me add.

Apparently acrimony and old grudges were never put away doing the tour and it was full of rockstar indulgences and crazy behavior from the first night. It came to be known as the Doom Tour, not fondly remembered by the band. It did not heal the group’s fissures but only widened them. But recently, after going back to the audio recordings, the band heard some amazing stuff and realized what this release proves: In 1974 CSNY was a muscular, moody, mercurial and mesmerizing ensemble capable of music magic.

Containing three CD’s with 40 songs picked from the tour and mixed by Graham Nash, with a DVD of concert footage mainly from a show at the now gone Capital Centre in Landover, MD, CSN 1974 is jam packed. It also comes with a beautifully designed 188 page booklet. (Note: I was in attendance at one of the Cap Centre shows and was amazed at how loud they were, it was not their albums, they were a savage rock band).

If you are a big CSNY fan I would purchase this box, if you are a hits only cat then the single CD with some Nash handpicked cuts will suffice. So far I’ve only seen it available on iTunes.

What you will hear are some great performances, here are some of the my personal highlights, you will have your own I’m sure.

Disc 1

Wooden Ships, a steroid dozed version big and beautiful

Helpless is a hard song to screw up, they don’t. They also add a pathos and longing to it.

Johnny’s Garden is a treat played by this group.

Black Queen is a Stills’s blues rock rave-up that channels Hendrix.

Disc 2 The Acoustic Set

The Lee Shore is just beautiful here. Throughout the sets everyone is in great voice.

Our House has never been sung better live by Graham, if so I’ve not heard it.

Blackbird, yep The Beatles tune done here in stunning four part harmony.

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes is a hard song on any stage, it’s an amazing version on such a big stage here.

Disc 3

Pre-Road Downs may be the best cut here, a rollicking version that at the time betrays the gloom and doom of the tour, you can hear the fun on stage.

Chicago and Ohio close out the discs, and they both work. It’s important to fully realize the times, here was the biggest act on the planet putting their political foot down hard on the throats of American politics. Risks and consequences be damed. How many of the big names today would dare do that?

CSNY 1974 is a moment captured, a moment when four of the best and most successful musical artists of their or any generation go on the road and changed the game with voices high.

Too much monkey business..

aftermonkey I love me some good monkey and ape entertainment. My favorite movie of all time is 1933’s King Kong; to this day it still fills me with wonder. Another favorite is 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, made by the same cats that made Kong. I’m not too thrilled with the modern day remakes, the powerful magic was squeezed out by technological wizardry.

But I’m also leery of monkeys, today Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes flick opens and I enjoy the old and new cinema chapters of this franchise. But it also makes me think, uh oh.

I was with a good friend of mine years ago when we heard a rumor of a farm that had monkeys that rode pigs and sheep. Well, we had to see. So we took a small road trip, snuck around some field and fences and gazed upon a sight that I will never forget. Monkeys riding pigs and sheep, and riding the hell out of them around the pens. We had no smartphones then and of course forgot a camera, but we saw it.

That’s when I knew, OK they may take over, what’s next, driving cars?

Well, almost. Here’s link to a video of Monkey Rodeo. Monkeys dressed as cowboys and riding dogs. What’s next, they start controlling “man’s best friend”? God forbid some hapless Monkey Rodeo owner decides to teach one to be a trick or sharp shooter.

Then there’s this video of a new craze in Japan, monkeys as restaurant waiters. Brilliant, give them access to our food!

So, I know there is much to fear in this world, but the next time the Monkey Rodeo comes to your town, or the employee filling up your water glass at the Ritz has fur and a tail, be afraid, be very afraid.

Greatest Hits are just part of the story and the music….


In the new paradigm of the music buying machine, we have lost the concept of “album buying”. Singles are downloaded or watched on the computer screen, but before the digital age held sway, it was called the Greatest Hits album.  I’m not a Greatest Hits cat, to me they are a collection of an author’s best chapters from his or her novels. Albums are, well were, a document of a certain time in an artist’s creative journey. I cannot imagine downloading one song from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper or The Stones’ Exile On Main Street, they are only pieces of the work, without context or companionship. The albums stand in testament to the work and artistry created.

That said, Greatest Hits are very popular and remain a vital piece of the artist, publisher and record company’s life blood. So let’s take a look at some of the top selling Greatest Hits collections; in looking at them I’ll give you an alternative path to absorb the root of that artist’s work.

1. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits. This is the one of biggest selling albums of all time and the number 1 Greatest Hits album. I’m sure you have it. To see where this band evolved from and to hear a great record, I recommend you listen to their second album, Desperado,  released in 1973. The work is steeped in Country Western music and cowboy imagery. The_Eagles_-_DesperadoThe songs are strong and are connected through a time and space. Here, surrounded by its family and a cycle of stories, the song Desperado is a poignant and moving elegy to a man and a time past. This is gritty and honest music by my favorite incarnation of the band. I don’t believe they ever hit this consistent height again, but they soar here.

2. Creedence Clearwater Revival Chronicle. If ever a band can be summed up by their singles and hits, it is surely CCR. The path not taken here is their fourth album released in 1969, Willie and the Poor Boys.  Unknown John Fogerty was on a roll here, from Down on the Corner to his political firebrand, Fortunate Son (still true and effective today). Every song is a winner. It Came Out Of The Sky explodes off the record, while covers of American classics Cotton Fields and Midnight Special add an authenticity to the work showing where the party started. This album is what the Americana genre uses as its blueprint, they just don’t know it.

3. Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits. If all you want to hear is Purple Haze or Foxy Lady this one is for you. Hendrix was a nuclear explosion and his albums contained detonators, ignitions and fireworks that need to be heard, not only in context but chronologically. His growth as a singer, songwriter and player on his albums was and is beautiful to hear. I’m going to go with his debut Are You Experienced as the one to explore.  2054522This was revolutionary stuff in 1967 crossing all borders of music; it was so fresh, raw, magical and expressive but soaked in classic blues. Hendrix took rock/blues guitar by the throat and shook the hell out of it until it surrendered to him. This is the starting point of the new language the instrument spoke.

4. The Essential Bob Dylan. Yep, it has Blowin’ In The Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone, Knocking On Heaven’s Door and many more, as a matter of fact, they keep releasing it with new additions. Picking a path for you here is a thorny task, Bob is a chameleon and his albums roll and move with his interests, moods and whimsey. I believe he is THE greatest songwriter and is America’s true Poet Laureate, to pick one of his works is futile, but I acquiesce.  Unknown-11975’s Blood On The Tracks is Dylan focused and tight, it is work of great power and astonishing insight into this enigmatic man; it’s a close view he would not share again. I’ll put it this way when Tangled Up In Blue is not the best song on an album you are flying in rare air.

So, wagons ho! Go exploring, and be sure and post your travels.

Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes and the State of Our Country (Music)


In May 1973 Waylon Jennings released his masterpiece album Honky Tonk Heroes (HTH) on RCA. The record company was reluctant to release it, but they had just renegotiated Waylon’s contract giving him full control of his recording so as not to lose him to Atlantic Records. They were worried this collection of Billy Jo Shaver songs were too raw, too honest, too off the Nashville map for success. They were leery of the players, for the first time the recording was done by Waylon’s touring band and not hired Nashville guns. What they released was the initial wave of a musical storm named “Outlaw”.

HTH set the benchmark and the blueprint for what was to follow, a turn away from the Nashville factory and to personal vision and artistic truth, not only to the songs but to the arrangements. This sound brought many aspects of rock and roll into the fold, one most notable was the rhythm section. Waylon, being the bass player in Buddy Holly and the Crickets, loved the thump of the bottom end locked into a perfect duet with the percussion. The ignition of HTH influenced many artists and songwriters: such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams Jr., Townes Van Zandt, Tanya Tucker, Jessi Colter, Sammi Smith, and Emmylou Harris.

The coming years would see this sub-genre explode with Waylon and Willie throwing most of the dynamite. HTH remains a powerful reminder of how great Country Music can be. I listen to the “new country” and it seems so safe and generic. I tell friends it’s mainly “bad Eagles music” or Jimmy Buffet with a cowboy hat, excuse me I mean a backward baseball hat. I know there are exceptions, but it seems to me we need a Waylon Jennings and a Honky Tonk Heroes to wash away lots of plastic on Country’s beach.

Honky Tonk Heroes is one of those seminal works that everyone should own, or at least hear once.