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 Barry E. Jackson, the artist responsible for the cover of ZZ Top’s smash hit Afterburner, as well as a long list of other albums.
How did you get involved with ZZ Top? You had already done a number of albums for a fairly wide variety of artists. Was this a label job, or did the band seek you out specifically?
I had done a Neil Young’s Trans cover and Ronnie Dio’s Last in Line cover, both for Warner Bros., and the company decided to hire three different artists to do ideas for ZZ’s Afterburner. The band liked my interpretation the best so I became their artist, not just for Afterburner, but for the ZZ Top Six Pack and Recycler, as well. It was one of the biggest breaks of my career.
What was the inspiration for the image on the cover? Was the album title set in stone from the beginning of your time on the project?
The manager of the band, Bill Ham, told the record company he wanted their red hot rod, which had been featured on Eliminator, orbiting the globe. He wanted to convey the idea that ZZ Top was now an internationally known rock band. I think the drummer of the band, Frank Beard, came up with the name Afterburner, which is the hottest part of the exhaust flame on a rocket. I talked Bill into letting me do a larger and more elaborate version of the album cover than I had done for my first interpretation, and he agreed. I did an illustration nearly six feet long and three feet high for them.
How much time did you spend listening to the album while working on the art?
I had not heard one song from the album at the time I did the art. I think they were still mixing. I remember the album, the art, and the ad campaign all came together at the same time for a Christmas release.
Can you describe your process for the Afterburner cover? How had you altered or refined your approach between this project and, say, your work for Dio?
I used very much the same technique for Afterburner that I used for Last in Line. I made a number of independent drawings until I built up a sufficient inventory, something like ten or twelve drawings, then I placed them down on a large piece of illustration board and moved them around looking for an exciting composition. If I didn’t see any thing good, I drew some more. Eventually, I pasted the drawing down on the illustration board and put a layer of matte medium over the pasted down drawings. At this point, I both painted and airbrushed over the drawings. I used the airbrush in a broad general way for large areas and used a paintbrush, a Windsor Newton series 7, for the details. This technique served me well until the digital age arrived.
The Afterburner artwork isn’t just an album cover, it’s a panoramic painting. How long did it take you to complete it?
Most everything I painted back then took a week to do. Because I chose to do Afterburner three feet by six feet, it took two weeks. The manager was so happy with it he flew me to Houston to present it to the band personally. It went over great. I was a hero. They continued to use me for the next five years. I had a lot of contact with the band. Billy Gibbons even came over for dinner once. However, with Dio, I only spoke over the phone a few times. He was very respectful and articulate, but I never got to know him.
You’ve worked in film for a long time, but it seems like that’s your primary focus now. Would you consider that accurate, and if so, what prompted the shift?
Yes, film is my primary focus. I am now a production designer for digitally animated films. See my site at www.barryejackson.com. I still do an album cover once in a while, but the digital age has changed things. With the advent of iTunes and Napster-like sites, album covers are not as important as they once were. A new album cover for a big band was once a celebrated event. Your album cover art was printed and reproduced in numerous mediums and spread far and wide. In a lot of ways it carried the image of the band to the public and was very important. You could make pretty decent money. But with the digital age, videos carry more of the band’s message, reproducing recorded music is easier, manipulating photographs is easier, new people run the record companies, record companies are struggling to survive, and fashions change. Who needs it? Film, volatile as it is, is a growing and more promising career path for an artist.
What are you working on now?
I just finished production designing a film called Firebreather for Cartoon Network, their first all-digital animated feature. It’s the story of a teenage boy who becomes dragon-like when antagonized. It will air in the late fall.
I am about to production design another digital feature but I am not at liberty at this point to spill the details. I do a lot of film development art when I am not production designing, but I can’t share the details of these projects because they always make you sign non-disclosure agreements. Film is very secretive; one studio doesn’t want the other to know what they’re doing. I am very busy, though, and consider myself lucky.