by Art Chantry:
most of us out there in trashcultureville are very familiar with the legend of the “cheap thrills” record cover. how the band asked robert crumb (their buddy) to draw the cover art. the record company used what crumb drew for the BACK cover on the FRONT (never using his original front cover) and then KEEPING the artwork for 30 years and then trying to sell it at auction for millions? how crumb was ripped off and thwarted and treated like crap and stabbed in the back (accordingly, by some “evil bitch”)? it’s a great yarn, but totally fulla shit.
basiclly, this is all about PERSPECTIVE. from crumb’s whiny point of view, he was conspired against and lied to and cheated. so, when has crumb ever said anything different about anything EVER? take his story with a grain of salt (a big one.) basically, his voice is the voice of the disenfranchised and powerless little guy against the big bad evil monster record company (a story as old as recorded music – and generally a true one). the other truth is, crumb was freelancer who was hired by a major label record company as a favor to the hot new band they really wanted to boost into stardom and make real money for their shareholders.
as an art director in the 1960′s, i would probably have treated crumb pretty much the same way (maybe with a little more sensitivity. after all, i was also a freelancer and understood the situation from that point of view, as well). crumb was touchy sensitive whiner ‘arteeest’ hippie weirdo. the band was crazy people drug-addled rebels. everybody thought they were tougher than nails (like all kids do). if i were the art director at the label and crumb came in with his b&w drawings like he did, i would have made exactly the same decision as this art director did.
this image i show you is the ORIGINAL cover design that crumb submitted. the cover that was used that is so famous today is what he submitted for the BACK (it’s basically a track listing of songs and credits.) the art director took one look at this drawing of ONLY janis, and realized it was a novice freelancer trying to draw “a portrait of the artist” to satisfy a straight business client. it’s really second rate. i even think it sucks.
on top of that, “big brother & the holding company” is a BAND, not a singer. the whole unit was a collective and lived communally and insisted on equality. if you ever listen to those early records and performances, janis only sang on about half of the numbers. the ‘evil’ major record companies back then always had their eye on another solo performer. they UNDERSTOOD singers (and old school hangover) and saw a great singer in janis. they actually wanted to get her AWAY from the band and set her up with session musicians and make some real music that would sell. it’s an old ploy by labels. it’s one of the things that breaks up most bands – the efforts by the label to separate the singer (the star) away from her friends (the band). big brother knew this was going on and fought back. i think the band itself was the one who rejected the ‘solo’ janis cover drawing, not the ‘evil’ label. they would have seen it as exactly the wrong cover to use for many many reasons.
frankly, i would have done the same thing. crumb’s drawing was completely wrong. no matter WHERE he got the idea to draw ONLY janis (i imagine either janis or the art director/label reps instructed him to do so), but it was a sneaky gamble that backfired to the point where the BACK was used. now we see the resulting ‘cheap thrills’ cover as one of the greatest in record cover history. but, it was a reject backup design decision made by the art director and the band. i imagine it was a BIG argument and the band was worried how they’d look rejecting their buddy’s artwork. so the label took on the role of ‘bad cop’ (which they are born to do).
i can’t tell you how many times i had to make agonizing decisions about this sort of thing when i worked as an art director. (like at the rocket). i remember one time i hired a guy (a kid, really) who was doing some amazing portraits of sports stars for tshirts locally. he wanted to do something for the rocket, and his work was so great that i gave him a try-out on the image for the lead record review page (a typical gig for a test). it happened to be about a yoko ono solo release. he got very excited – because he was a big beatles fan (first sign of trouble.)
he came back in with his finished drawing and it was an absolutely pitch-perfect gorgeous drawing/portrait of yoko’s face. few people have the knack of doing really great portraiture. i think it’s something you are born with rather than learn. i know absolutley GREAT illustrators who just can’t capture likenesses at all. but, this kid had magic.
the problem was that above yoko’s
d, floating in space like a dream sequence were images of john lennon and the beatles and john lennon’s death – all drawn in a completely different contrasting cartoony style that the kid just didn’t have clue how to actually execute. basically, the bottom half was genius, the top half was embarrassing rubbish. a really bad beginner mistake.
i suggested chopping off the top of the image and just going with the face of yoko (like i asked him to do in the first place). he flipped out and went into a rant about his vision and perfection and truth and the artists’ muse and how the purity and essence of the artist must never be violated, etc. etc. act. – all that horseshit. i tried to convince him otherwise, but he resisted even listening. so, i left it hanging saying, “i’ll figure soemthing out.”
as the issue came to deadline, i was running short of time and made the rash and quick decision to go ahead and just chop off the top half of the image and run it that way. it looked GREAT! everybody LOVED it. like i said, the guy had real talent in portraiture and this was gorgeous. i just figured he see the light when saw how it turned out.
two days later, the kid bursts into the rocket screaming bloody murder. i quickly hustle him into my office and try to calm him down, but he’s screaming and crying (CRYING!!! REAL TEARS!!! LOTS OF TEARS!!!) about how he’s ruined as an artist now and that i murdered him and he’ll never draw again after what i did, etc. etc. i did my best to remedy the situation, but he stormed off crying like a baby. i never saw him or heard of him again. basically, i destroyed this kid by cutting off the bad part of an otherwise brilliant career. i guess that made me the evil corprorate monster that day. oh well.
but, damn that was a great layout. that page STILL looks brilliant. that kid was so good. too bad he was such a twit.
ps – if you want to talk about the whole ‘rip-off’ of crumb by the record company by not returning his originals (and then trying to sell them and getting sued by crumb)…
AC:Also, that sperm phallus thing would have been fine (if i were that AD). the grateful dead already had their rick griffin penned cover fro “aoxomoxoa” out on the shelves by the time this thing was released. ever look at that real close?…
…hippies didn’t go in for contracts (aka – the man). neither did punks or most subculture folks. “not their bag.” it was about trust. eventually, after years and years of being broke, they wised up (like bowie an the dead and the stones and even the beatles). it took hiring guys like allan klein to get money for them – and they got got robbed yet again in the process. by the way, seems to me that big brother had one of the biggest sharks in the business negotiating for them. no wonder crumb lost out. but, then so did every other visual artist in history. the last thing on the minds of these people was the poor little idiot cover wrist. never mind how important a great cover is. they all took it and ran with it. crumb didn’t have a chance….
…like i said earlier, i think the sex thing is a red herring tossed it here to have an excuse. i think the real reason is that it is wrong headed and not very good. but, you can’t SAY that, because it’s robert crumb….
…to be honest, i always saw all those little “spermies” as drops of sweat. it didn’t occur to me that they were supposed to be sexual images. and i just it saw a ‘microphone’, too. you dirty minds out there always ruin EVERYTHING!!!!…