Record covers encapsulate both art and functionality. They convey information through words and images, via style or typeface, they invite or confront, reveal or mislead. Some of my favourites radiate a sense of place that reaches out across time and space, tickling wonder and tugging at imagination.
“Late for the sky” with its daylight sky over a night-time street intrigues and gently unsettles. No chance reference here: the back cover credits contain the dedication “photograph by Henry Diltz, cover concept Jackson Browne if it’s all reet with Magritte”. The west-coast singer-songwriter was neither the first nor last musician to revere Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, as album covers by The Jeff Beck Group (1969) and Sphere (1982) attest.
Approaches to covering the cover that covers the record are limited only by the imaginations of artists and designers. One ploy is to employ an iconic image. The definition of ‘icon’ most relevant here is not the ecclesiastical one but “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or a culture, movement, etc.” Perhaps that is why guitars are such a recurring theme. But I have a special fondness for images that take me somewhere.
The Great Pyramid at Giza is an iconic image. And here indeed is some alchemical fusion of image and music as the floating cadences and echoing runs of Paul Horn’s flute are given extra cosmic charge by being recorded inside the ancient tomb. This is a truly exotic location, one most of us could only fantasize about experiencing.
The music seems to float in space as notes cascade in resonating waves. Bizarrely it never seems like a solitary human with only flute and breath, but rather a ghostly chorus of echoing harmonic whispers. Sometimes insubstantial images of tunic clad servants drift past the corner of my eye and I’m brought back, almost startled, to the present. How can an empty mausoleum of solid stone contain so many ghosts and so much space?
After the side ends I consider the back cover photo of the musician sitting in what is essentially a massive sarcophagus riddled with lightless caverns. Unless you have a particular hunger for an enclosed stone space where condensation tears from a million midnights bead the walls, it’s pretty creepy. I suppress a tiny shiver and decide that I would rather commune with this ancient monument from the outside.
The Wonder of the Ancient World that is the Great Pyramid has inspired mortals ever since Pharaoh’s Minister for Public Works turned the first sod about 2500 BC. You might think that after thousands of years of inspiration the allure would be worn away; yet the aura persists. As recently as the 1970s an enlightening journey eastwards was a common theme in music and in popular culture generally.
The Grateful Dead managed a side trip to Giza during their 1978 tour of Europe. What a prospect that would have been: the sky, the moon, the pyramid, being transported by the cosmic noodling of the Dead. Indeed, some folk put wish into action and managed to secure seats on a charter flight that collected serious fans from San Francisco and New York and deposited them at Cairo airport where, we are asked to believe, all hundred-plus Deadheads made it through customs unscathed.
Reports suggest that the quality of the first two concerts was variable. A few too many country-flavoured songs for some and no mention of ‘Blues for Allah’, which surprises. Thanks to the inconsistent electricity supply the sound was, well, inconsistent. Temperatures were hot to meltdown and the audience a tiny first world puddle in the vastness of the desert. Rolling Stone magazine reported that the final night was the best, perhaps inspired by a partial lunar eclipse. ‘Dark Star’ was delivered in suitably cosmic surroundings. But RS also reported that the posse of Westerners taunted the handful of affluent Egyptians in the crowd. And that the tiny audience (a few hundred) was dwarfed by the location.
Exotic? Doubtless. Uncomfortable both physically and culturally? It would seem so. Perhaps I am just as happy sitting down in my suburban lounge-room with my Grateful Dead discs and a bottle of wine. Leave the sand and flies for the more physically adventurous. Travel? Who needs it. For my trip to the ancient world I’ve got the blue pyramid poster from ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and a glass of Shiraz.
Jackson Browne “Late For The Sky” (Asylum, 1974)
Paul Horn “Inside The Great Pyramid” (Kuckuck, 1976)
Grateful Dead “Blues For Allah” (United Artists, 1975)
Pink Floyd “Dark Side Of The Moon” (EMI, 1973)
The Editors Of Rolling Stone (1995) “Garcia” Little Brown And Company, UK
“Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” (2002) 5th Edition, Oxford University Press, UK
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