Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Scary Album Covers!

When I was but a wee lad, still in grade school, I would frequently sneak a small portable radio to my room at bedtime, hide it under my pillow, and quietly (but loudly as I dared) listen to local rock station Q107. I'd occasionally hear something that really freaked me out, probably the best example of which was Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" and the spooky breakdown part wherein Robert Plant goes "AH! AH! AH! AH!".

I know, I know. It seems really stupid now but it gave me the willies at the time. What the heck was going on here, I wondered. Whatever it was sounded seriously creepy, even occultish to my young ears. It was unusual to find hard rock actually scary - although arguably that part of the song isn't really 'hard rock'. Mostly what freaked me out musically then was free jazz (often used in 70s TV shows or movies to denote madness or a drug freakout) or Krzysztof Komeda's soundtrack to "Rosemary's Baby" with its horrifying horns.

If rock music only rarely scared me, rock album covers had rather an easier time of it. Many times I recall being at the Oshawa Centre mall with my parents; inevitably, I'd want to go to Sam The Record Man and have a look at the LP covers (this was the late 70s so there were some pretty crazy ones). Even in the well-lit store, I would pause and stare at Molly Hatchet's 1978 self-titled record or their '79 follow-up "Flirtin' With Disaster" and shudder inside, trying to imagine just what this band must have sounded like. Molly Hatchet must be evil, I thought - and incredibly heavy. When I finally did hear them years later, I was saddened to find out that they were in fact neither.

In hindsight, these album covers seem cool if a bit kitschy. Nowadays an envelope in my mailbox stamped "final notice" scares and haunts me; back then, it was a bloodied creep on an LP cover. Note that although only two of these are actually by the recently-deceased Frank Frazetta, they're all along the same lines as the late great master (Frazetta did the cover for Nazareth's 1977 "Expect No Mercy" record but I found Rodney Matthews' art for their 1979 follow-up "No Mean City" far more freaky and confrontational).

In 1981 Iron Maiden put out "Killers" - an album bearing a cover that was really ahead of its time as far as graphic content goes. Not only was Eddie, the band's mascot, killing some guy with a hatchet on it, but a careful viewer could spot all sorts of interesting things in the background art (not the least of which was a sex shop). Artist Derek Riggs came up with Eddie the Head and went on to do the artwork for most of Iron Maiden's album covers.

The Scorpions' 1982 classic "Blackout" was released when I was nine. By then I was a little bit more jaded and worldly-wise; I didn't find the cover actually scary as such but I do recall being shocked when I first saw it, thinking "geez, forks in the eyes! that's gotta hurt". I liked the simplicity of it, the economical brutality of Gottfried Helnwein's image (an image he repeated years later to lesser effect for Rammstein). Forkface also had a smashing cameo in the video for big hit "No One Like You".

Dio's 1983 "Holy Diver" cover also didn't particularly scare as much as disturb me - something about the empty placidity of band mascot Murray as he towered over an apparently drowning priest. Much respect to Ronnie James Dio, who also just passed away; his video for "The Last In Line" provided some nightmare fuel with its Biblical image of "the hand that writes and quickly moves away".

Battleaxes, straight razors, hatchet, forks, and chains. Of course, within a few years heavy metal album covers made these sleeves look positively benign.

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