I had an email from Gerald Stables recently regarding some Jonathan Kelly master tapes he was looking for. Coincidentally a while back I’d picked up a Jonathan Kelly album for the wonderful sleeve and Gerald put me in touch with the illustrator, Ian Beck. The album in question was Wait Til They Change The Backdrop, the cover sporting a fine contemporary / retro illustration of children on a theatre stage, with a genial stagehand pulling up the backdrop to half reveal a new scene behind. It was Beck’s first album cover and came after numerous commissions for commercial work, some of which were adverts for clients in the music industry.
The sleeve commission came via designer John Kosh. He, Beck and Richard Rockwood (another illustrator and designer) shared a studio space in 1972 at 6 Garrick Street, Covent Garden (now a restaurant), an area then under threat of demolition and development where cheap space could still be had. Kosh had been creative director at Apple and designed the Abbey Road sleeve amongst many others, and he was working on the Jonathan Kelly cover. Ian met up with Jonathan – an Irish folk / rock singer – at a flat in Maida Vale to discuss what he wanted (the flat was owned by Jonathan’s manager Colin Petersen, ex-child star and sometime drummer with the Bee Gees, and his wife Joanne who had been PA to Brian Epstein. “(Jonathan) described what he had in mind for the cover and I went away and made some roughs which were finally approved after a certain amount of fuss from the manager,” Ian recalls. Colin had decided he wanted a big oil painting instead, he didn’t get it.
For reference Ian took some Polaroids of the niece of his girlfriend, and these became the three girls in blue dresses on the cover. The final work is a mixture of water-colours, pencil crayon and pastel which adds the texture. Kosh used illustration across the whole of the front cover with a deep border and some vaguely art deco style hand painted lettering for the artist name. Released by RCA, the rest of the gatefold is surprisingly sparse. The back for example is totally devoid of text and titles, just a deco style border on a cream background. Inside there is just one large black and white photograph of all the many guest musicians and some text.
Ian then had a call from Rocket Records, and was invited along to their office in Soho. None other than Elton John had seen the Kelly album and purchased it because he liked the sleeve (now who would do that?). Elton’s own covers to date had generally been of a high standard; mostly good quality photographs but some illustrations. At Rocket, David de Costa explained that the artwork for the new Elton John album was ready, but they didn’t like the art portrait on the front. Bizarrely they offered to buy the rights to the Jonathan Kelly illustration to use instead! Having explained this wasn’t possible, Ian persuaded them to let him do a new piece. “I was invited to listen to the master tapes of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. So I spent a happy couple of hours listening to those then unknown songs, Candle In The Wind, Bennie And The Jets, and so on, I was given some typed lyrics and I went away to work on some ideas.”
Ian got his friend and fashion illustrator Leslie McKinley Howell (then known as Leslie Chapman) to pose as Elton for some Polaroid reference pictures to draw from. “He was wearing an antique American baseball jacket fresh from a thrift store in New York, and was tall hence the long legged look that Elton has on the cover. I delivered some rough ideas and everybody seemed to like the one of Elton walking through / off the wall / poster, so that was the one I worked up as a cover painting.” Ian did three pieces in total – the front, back and middle – as the cover was intended to be a double gatefold (it was a 2LP set). The interior spread had the lyrics and illustrations for this had already been done by others. As Ian explained, 1973 had seen a revival of interest in art deco imagery, especially American design and the old Hollywood look. “Casablanca was re-released at this time and I tried to base what I was doing on a kind of Los Angeles dream factory, the shadow of a palm tree, the bonnet of a 1930’s car, etc.” There was also a link back to the Kelly cover, the detail of an industrial cityscape in the top corner, very like the larger one on the Kelly sleeve.
Ian had also been asked to place specific objects in the cover illustrations to please ‘Elsie’. “These included a Teddy Bear, and a piano, ‘Elsie loves pianos’, they said. At first I thought Elsie was perhaps a beloved tea lady at the offices of DJM or Rocket Records, and they were including these things to amuse her. Finally I realised that they were talking about Elton!” The work was done on Colyer and Southey CS2 Illustration board, painted again in watercolour, pastel, and coloured crayon pencils. “They were propped up in a line on the floor of Penny Valentine’s office at Rocket Records. ‘I’m having that one’, she said, pointing to the panel with the car bonnet.” Back then it was rare for illustrators to retain the rights to their work or get the originals back, and Ian has no idea what happened to the pieces. In all he estimates that the cover was done in about ten days from the first meeting to delivery.
Beck did no more album covers, and moved into illustrating childrens books, a field his work seemed ideal for. After a time he began writing as well as illustrating a series of childrens books, and has gone on to write children’s novels as well, one of which is about to be filmed. There is a link to his site below.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road meantime, Elton’s eighth album, went on to become perhaps his most famous thanks to the strength of the songs. Elton became a global star and you could argue never really recaptured the quality of this early material. Cover wise his later LPs varied as well, particularly the photographic ones which weren’t a patch on the earlier images. He did continue to use illustrators, most notably Alan Aldridge for Captain Fantastic a couple of years later (unlike Beck, Aldridge seems to have kept his work and is offering signed prints of this cover through his website).
As for Jonathan Kelly, he did two more albums but his disenchantment with the music industry led to an increasing involvement with drink and drugs and he decided to retire from the music business. However he managed to clean himself up and after a brief return to the stage after being tracked down by Gerald, a long time admirer (who became his manager), and a short UK tour as a thank you to his fans he returned to his retirement in rural Wales. He and Gerald are working on trying to reissue some more early material at the moment.
My thanks to both Ian and Gerald for their help.
Generally I stick to chatting about covers I have here, so in researching this sleeve even though I’m not a massive EJ fan I decided I ought to pick up a copy of Yellow Brick Road. It does turn up a lot on the second hand market today, a testament to the numbers sold (and the fact that the material is going out of fashion), so I didn’t anticipate much trouble. Wrong!
First stop was Record Collector, Sheffield’s premier indie store. They had a copy but it was the yellow vinyl version which is rarer and pricier. I’d probably have stumped up but at some time a price sticker had been ripped off the front and left a tear, which I hate.
We then thought to try some of the junk and antique shops. The first, a largely ex-catalogue furniture store (manned by a Lemmy lookalike you wouldn’t want to mess with and a pair of his mobile phone obsessed offspring) had three boxes of vinyl on their counter. A Gerry Rafferty album at £20 didn’t bode well, especially as I’d just seen it in a charity shop across the road for 50p in better condition. They did have the Elton album, but for some reason the front had been folded in two by a previous owner. Pass.
Into the antique centre where two dealers had copies; the first looked promising but when I came to check disc two it wasn’t there (and they still wanted top dollar for it). The second was a mash up – English pressed discs in a Dutch sleeve. As the printing was a bit pale on the cover and it looked like a later pressing I passed on that as well.
In the end I turned up a nice clean copy in Otley, at a great little record shop called The Music Box. The small market town boats film-dvd transfer facilities recommended by the Yorkshire Film Archives so I had to visit for work, and was pleased to find The Music Box still going. He had two copies in stock to choose from, and did me this and one of the 50s Philips Classical dutch sleeves I collect for £8 the pair. And still left us time for a late lunch in Betty’s at nearby Ilkley, where I stumbled on the set of 60s Fontana Jazz reissues in the Oxfam next door. Amazing sleeves which I’ll cover anon.