Have you ever wondered what inspired the images on your favorite album covers? With Uncovered, we discuss the stories behind the artwork with the people who made them. This week, we talk with Mike Salisbury, the artist responsible for the cover of Randy Newman’s Born Again, as well as a long list of other albums.
Often during the course of this series, I’ll approach an artist because he or she was responsible for one project (hey, Mick Haggerty did the artwork for Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk!), only to discover that the album I had in mind is not only just the tip of the iceberg (whoa, Haggerty also did Hall & Oates’ H2O!), but not even the most interesting thing on the artist’s resume (…and Supertramp’s Breakfast in America!)
I think even people who appreciate album artwork probably don’t realize how…busy some of the best graphic designers have been, especially during the ’70s and ’80s. But even having said all that, your portfolio is absolutely insane. From Michael Jackson’s glove to Levi’s 501 — and dozens of other major projects — your work has been an integral part of the pop culture fabric for decades.
So I guess the obvious question is…how do you choose your projects? And how did you come to be involved with a Randy Newman record?
I went to the University of Southern California majoring in architecture. After bumming around surfing and working at small agencies, and even freelance illustrating for agencies and magazines like Surfer (and designing surf logos — Gordon and Smith, for one), I picked jobs…i.e. the first art director of Surfer magazine, art director at the agency i most admired, creative director for UA. Or the jobs came to me — art director at Playboy, creative director at the very trendy Wells Rich Green ad agency, creative director at Foote Cone Belding, art director at Rolling Stone, art director for Frances Coppola’s City magazine, designer for his Apocalypse Now…and then so much came in as freelance, I opened my own office.
But what made it all happen was being asked to art direct West, the Sunday magazine of the Los Angeles Times. at West, I was in the time period when all of us with long hair were considered to be prodigal children and I had a free hand to not just art direct, but produce articles and take photographs.
It was at West where I gave some of the West Coast illustrators — Dave Willardson, Mick Haggerty — their first magazine work, and for some, their first exposure as artists. I also hired illustrators and photographers from New York like Bob Grossman and Push Pin and from London, Germany, everywhere.
A lot of what I produced editorially were features about our vanishing culture — particularly the post-war popular culture of California. Over two million people read West and read it first before reading the newspaper. I also mailed it all over the world.
So I got attention. And work. I took photographs for magazines like vogue and esquire and the London Sunday times, Newsweek, People, Twen of Germany, South African magazines. Mostly for people of my generation who didn’t know of anyone on the West Coast to shoot pictures. And I also contributed editorial ideas working with Tom Wolfe and others. I redesigned magazines and newspapers.
And while all this was going on, I had full-time clients such as Gotcha, the surfwear company — we helped launch that, and it become the first or second largest in that industry.
While at Surfer, I worked on Dick Dale’s first album cover, but what kicked in the album cover work for me was Russ Titelman — the producer for Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, James Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones, George Harrison, and others.
The first cover I did with him was Ry Cooder’s Into the Purple Valley, shot on a soundstage by Marty Evans. At this time I also worked on the first of over 300 motion picture marketing campaigns i helped create: Two Lane Blacktop, which featured James Taylor. I did the covers for In the Pocket and Gorilla for James and Russ, and then Randy’s Sail Away and Good Old Boys, both of which I shot, and Born Again. With Russ I also did two covers for Rickie Lee Jones and shot George Harrison’s self-titled album. I think we also both worked on John Cale’s Paris 1919.
What was the early design process like for Born Again? Did you spend a lot of time listening to the songs, or discussing concepts with Randy?
Russ, Randy, James, and I have a similar nicely sarcastic sense of humor. Randy Newman comes from a very legit musical family…The paternal side of his family includes three uncles who were noted Hollywood composers: Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman. Newman’s cousins Thomas and David, and nephew Joey, are also composers for motion pictures. And the public knows Randy’s sensibilities from his music, so it just worked when he told us his idea.
How did you arrive at the face paint cover shot?
Born Again was Randy’s idea — to paint his face like KISS, but with dollar signs. Creating for the music industry is very collaborative, so we all got it.
The set, wardrobe and props were a mutual decorative effort to support the gag, which Marty Evans shot — about 20 feet from where Steve Harvey and I did Off the Wall for Michael Jackson. Marty was a straight shooter, always executing exactly what the concept was meant to be. I do remember that to do the KISS makeup concept right, it needed to be supported by the totally non sequitur cheap suit , the cheap desk, the photos of his kids under the obviously faux antique desk lamp, and staged in a black tableaux to emphasize the face, the suit and the nerdy glasses over the surreal dollar signs. When we got ready to shoot, to make the point of the dollar signs I felt I had almost blanded it out too much — but to go any further into KISS territory lookwise would have made another stament, out of character with Randy’s subtlety.
The final effect looks so simple, but it did take work to get it reduced to a straightforward communication.
Were any other shots left on the cutting room floor?
The cover shot and the face close up for the outdoor billboard are all I recall us shooting.
When working on Born Again, did you have any sense of the label’s expectations for the album?
I only really got into the marketing aspects of an album when I was creative director for United Artists, where i did the Grammy-nominated cover for The World of Ike and Tina with illustrator Doug Johnson, as well as some ELO and Blue Note covers. There we looked at expectations and marketing concepts. Inside a company, I would conceive of marketing concepts first just based on the title, and then the concept, and then develop more after listening to the music. A lot of listening to the music wasn’t even done until we were all in the studio recording and mixing — that’s how Rickie Lee’s first cover concept came to me. It was really all about her, and that’s the cover — Rickie Lee shot by Norman Seef with her name in just simple gray Helvetica.
After a project like this is completed, to what extent do you concern yourself with reactions from the fans or the public?
Good question. I think to fans then, a cover was accepted not as an art statement, but part of the album package and the musician’s branding. Today, I get what could almost be considered fan mail about covers I worked on. There’s a book that collects the covers from those California years — it’s called Overspray.
What are your thoughts on the current state of album artwork in general?
Recently someone posted — at the Huffington Post, I believe — the 20 or so “best” album covers of the year. I didn’t know covers even existed today. To judge them separately from the music isn’t good or bad; it’s just irrelevant to me. Something done badly may have been done that way stylistically to convey the music or musicians, and maybe it’s a metaphor for those things, but out of context, it is just bad art. Born Again was produced to be pedestrian-looking except for the face — a visual metaphor for Randy’s music and his satiric style, created totally as pre-packaged non-musical entertainment. Totally opposite of his work.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a marketing campaign for a show in Macao — from Franco Dragone of Cirque du Soleil history, a water based extravaganza. I have almost finished a graphic novel I hope to animate, and a group in Canada is doing a feature on my work. And I am selling a lot of my work product at auction houses like Christie’s and through Picturebox and Screenused, as well as Heritage Auction galleries.
I am also planning a big book on total L.A. pop culture…sort of a communal project…and a musical which i have yet to to register.