Cameron Carpenter: Listing The ABC’s Of Rock’n’Roll – A is For Album Covers

Shanghai Aug 2012Kids today will never know the joy of endlessly browsing in a record store with no set agenda. The hours that were happily wasted on Saturday afternoons at Sam The Record Man, Records On Wheels, A&A’s or The Record Peddler are immeasurable. It was time well spent.  CD shopping is just not the same and digital shopping/hunting is an aural and not visual experience. The album cover was a great size, 12” X 12” (versus the miniscule 5” X 5” of a CD).  An album cover could capture your attention, demand you to pick it up and read the back for the vital information which would or would not persuade you to shell out your six or seven dollars.

StiffThe record label could be a determining factor. There was a time that the label was a sign of quality. You were pretty well assured of what you were going to get if you purchased an early Def Jam record, the latest release from Stiff or something from Bomp! They all started out genre specific and stayed true to their roots for a time. I’m sure the same can be said for early releases on Motown, Stax and Chess before they all grew too large.  Sometimes you would see the name of a producer you liked and that would be enough. Hell, if Bob Ezrin produced the record it must be good. A combination of producer, manager and label might turn the trick. I remember buying the first Starz BompBook-minialbum because it was produced by Jack Douglas and Starz were managed by Bill Aucoin. A nice Aerosmith-Kiss combo that seemed worth the six dollar risk. With so few new bands being played on the radio, no video, no internet and only magazine stories to introduce you to new music, a strong album cover could be the tipping point to pry your paper route money out of your Thrifty jeans.

Top 10 Debut Albums I Purchased On The Strength Of Their Album Jackets

1. Patti Smith – “Horses” – 1975

PattiSmithHorsesWhat little I knew about Patti Smith I learned in the pages of Creem and Rock Scene magazines. Patti was writing reviews for Creem in the early seventies and in all honesty I never knew what she was talking about. Her points of reference certainly weren’t mine. She than started to show up as an artist in the pages of Rock Scene as Lisa Robinson brought us everything that was cool in New York. To view every page of every issue if Rock Scene take a gander at So we have name recognition at this point but have not heard a note. Once I saw the album cover I was sold.  Shot by the then unknown Robert Mapplethorpe the black and white photo perfectly captures what is on the vinyl inside. It is intense, androgynous, tough and yet somehow vulnerable. The copy is exactly where it should be in the vinyl days (top right so when you flipped through the racks you could see the artist and album names) and the font is plain and simple. The album is still my number one Desert Island Disc and a framed copy decorates our kitchen wall. Patti Smith Camera Solo, a collection of 75 pieces of her visual work, will be on display at the Art Gallery Of Ontario beginning February 9th and Patti will perform two acoustic shows at the AGO on March 7th. Ticket info is available at

2. The Ramones – “Ramones” – 1976

The-Ramones-RamonesOnce again hats off to Lisa Robinson as she was the first critic to sing the praises of The Ramones. She was right about Patti Smith so when another black & white album cover caught my eye I was ready to be converted. The cover shot was taken by Roberta Bayley and lifted from the pages of Punk Magazine after a Sire Records photo shoot failed to capture the band to the label’s satisfaction. What we were left with is the iconic punk rock pose against graffiti-strewn alley wall, dirty sneakers, torn jeans, motorcycle jackets and disenfranchised expressions. Still their best record.

3. New York Dolls – “New York Dolls” – 1973

new-york-dolls-new-york-dollsThis one just looked intense. Five grown men wearing Valley of The Dolls cast-off clothing checking their make-up on a couch. You just knew the music was going to be interesting. The cover was shot by Vogue photographer Toshi. The couch was found on the street and then covered in white satin after it was hauled in to the studio. It introduced us to the Dolls lipstick logo and featured a killer dust sleeve with a woman in a skirt peering behind her. It was the first paper sleeve I remember that had an image on it (this does not include sleeves with lyrics, photos and other info).  The back of the sleeve was in colour and you can see where it was shot on the very cool website

4. The Tubes – “The Tubes” – 1975

TubesQuite possibly one of the most brilliant album jackets ever. From the cake decoration logo to the tearing of the cardboard you just wanted to know what was inside. Loved the bracelet as well. The design was by band members Michael Cotton and Prairie Prince and the photo was taken by Ian Patrick. Inside we found “What Do You Want From Life?” and “White Punks On Dope”. Great cover, great band, really good record.

5. Joe Jackson – “Look Sharp!” – 1979

JoejacksonlooksharpHell, I still want those shoes.  Photographer Brian Griffin was walking with Joe Jackson near the Waterloo tube station in London when he noticed a spot on the sidewalk and asked Joe to stop. He snapped off a few shots and voila an album cover that would go down in history as one of the best. The album included Jackson’s first hit “Is She Really Going Out With Him”. The shoes are Densons for those who care and that is Joe wearing them. Still have my square badge of this cover which A&M gave away at his El Mocambo debut.

6. Be-Bop Deluxe – “Axe Victim” – 1974

Be-Bop Deluxe – “Axe Victim” – 1974Imagine Joe Jackson’s shoes with that guitar! This was one of those albums that didn’t sound like what I thought it would based solely on the cover.  I was expecting something much heavier and a little rawer than what I heard. It was part glam, part progressive and the guitar playing was brilliant (Bill Nelson). The painting was done by John Holmes who also did covers for Uriah Heep, Spooky Tooth and Traffic. This one cost me as it was only available on import in Canada. Still have it.

7. Ultravox! – “Ultravox!” – 1977

ultravoxThese guys looked so cool I had to own the record. This is the original, pre-Midge Ure version of the band which featured John Foxx on vocals and used the exclamation mark as part of their name. It featured production by both Eno and Steve Lillywhite.  The cover photo was snapped by Gered Mankowitz who was well known for his shots of Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones.

8. Sex Pistols – “Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols” – 1977

Sex Pistols – “Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols” – 1977Ok, I knew what this one was going to sound like as I had bought the singles “Anarchy In The U.K.” and “God Save The Queen”.  English artist and known anarchist Jamie Reed designed the first four Pistols singles (“Anarchy”, “Queen”, “Pretty Vacant” and “Holidays In The Sun”) and his cut’n’paste “ransom note” style soon became synonymous with the punk scene. The yellow U.K. cover is much more striking than the red cover released in Canada. Once again this one cost me a bundle as I had to buy the import on the day of release.

9.  Elvis Costello – “My Aim Is True” – 1977

Elvis Costello – “My Aim Is True” – 1977 B&WAnother one that we had heard bits and pieces of before it was released via import singles. Stiff Records house designer Barney Bubbles came up with the packaging which was originally released in black and white and then, on subsequent Elvis Costello – “My Aim Is True” – 1977releases would incorporate yellow or green hues. He perfectly captured the “angry young man” that was Elvis Costello and the photo, complete with Buddy Holly glasses,  that would be one of the most lasting images of Costello. If you look closely at the checkerboard you will see the words “Elvis Is King”.

10. The Modern Lovers – “The Modern Lovers” – 1976

ModernloversA simple clean logo that told you nothing about the music inside. I don’t know if it was the colour combination, the font or the band name that first intrigued me but this record jacket just oozed cool. Once again I was a little surprised by the contents but both “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso” have been iconic tunes.

Cam’s column appears every Thursday.

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I will always be a fan and a patron of The Shanghai Cowgirl, Toronto’s hippest rock’n’roll diner at 539 Queen Street West.  However, if you happen to be on Ossington and you are a fan of lobster rolls you need to check out the Rock Lobster Food Co. which is located at 110 Ossington in Toronto ( The late great Watusi recently closed the doors for the last time and, seemingly overnight The Rock Lobster Food Co. emerged. Gotta love those lobster rolls.

DBAWIS_ButtonCameron Carpenter has written for The New Music Magazine, Music Express, The Asylum, The Varsity, The Eye Opener,  The New Edition, Shades, Bomp!, Driven Magazine, FYI Music News, The Daily XY, New Canadian Music and Don’t Believe A Word I Say.

Cam Shanghai Logo Inverted

2 Responses to “Cameron Carpenter: Listing The ABC’s Of Rock’n’Roll – A is For Album Covers”

  1. Used to buy many albums based on the cover alone – gleaned info such as this engineer or that producer or guest guitarist. Axe Victim wasn’t the Bebop album cover that got me – it was the Sunburst Finish cover. Crying to the Sky.

    Every city that I made my way to – first stop, find a record shop. Second stop, find a music pawn shop. Third stop food/beer.

  2. Working retail in the seventies, I began to see a corporate formula to album covers. It got to the point that I could tell the label for an album I had never seen from twenty paces. I was seldom wrong (as opposed to now, when I almost usually am).

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