Sunday, 17 February 2019

Log #125 - An Early Roger Dean Retrospective

Eddy Bamyasi

Roger Dean is most famous for his artwork on the Yes album covers. With covers like Close To The Edge, Relayer and Topographical Oceans Dean depicted fantastic landscapes most beloved by teenage record collectors and bedsit dwellers, inhabited by monsters, dragons, wizards and flying machines. Slightly less well known than his Yes covers Dean also created fantasy worlds for Uriah Heep, Budgie, Greenslade and Osibisa, as well as designing the record label logos for Harvest and Virgin records.

However before his association with Yes (and then Asia) and the best known of "his second string" bands above Dean was commissioned in the early 70s to work for many other bands (he has been responsible for nearly 200 album covers to date) who largely disappeared into obscurity, their album covers outlasting their actual music.

Interestingly the covers have rarely been directly related to the music (although an association with a particular body of work builds up where Dean has worked consistently with one band, Yes being the most obvious example). Even then though Dean admits that he rarely hears the music before doing the cover:

I cannot say the music is ever a direct inspiration for my work. 

I thought it would be interesting to pick up some of these obscure early "Dean" albums and actually hear the music. This week's blog is therefore dedicated to the early artwork of Roger Dean from a time when the gatefold sleeve was as important as the music within!

1. Gun / Gun
2. Snafu / Snafu
3. Badger / One Live Badger
4. Nucleus / Elastic Rock
5. Paladin / Charge!
6. Lighthouse / One Fine Morning

Gun / Gun

The Gun debut album released in 1968 is interesting as it was the first music project Roger Dean worked on. Dean had trained as a furniture designer and while working on a job at Ronnie Scott's London jazz club he met Jimmy Parsons, the manager of Gun who had just had a hit single with Race With The Devil. Leafing through Dean's sketchpad Parsons asked him if he could reproduce a drawing that would become the above image for the LP. Dean lavished a huge amount of time and a variety of media upon this, his first album cover commission, and subsequently became disappointed when the richness of the original painting could not easily be reproduced commercially.

Gun were a 3-piece British rock band formed by brothers Paul and Adrian Gurvitz, and Louie Farrell on drums. The album is straight ahead late 60s heavy rock - think of a band like Steppenwolf or Mountain - characterised by relentless distorted guitar and perhaps oddly, and unexpectedly, backing strings (think of Love). The production is very much of its era.

One more album followed the debut before Gun disbanded and the brothers Gurvitz went on to form the Baker Gurvitz Army with Ginger Baker.

Snafu / Snafu

The Snafu debut album was recorded in 1973 at Branson's Manor Studios at the same time as Mike Oldfield was there producing his landmark Tubular Bells.

The album is mostly funk rock and R & B displaying elements of Free, The Band, and Lynyrd Skynyrd (the chords in Country Nest sound just like Freebird), but most of all Little Feat with plentiful electric piano. Although they do sound very American and have a sound not too dissimilar to bands they supported on tour, The Doobie Brothers and The Eagles, they were actually a British band from the North of England.

After a couple of gutsy rock numbers the album takes a sudden turn at track 3 Monday Morning with a fiddle hoedown - Snafu would go more country in two later albums before disbanding in 1975. But lead singer Bobby Harrison (ex of Procol Harum), ever a fan of Little Feat, recreates a Lowell George growl on Dixie Queen especially.

The artwork is one of Dean's few paintings in oils which he described as "worse than painting in mud".

Badger / One Live Badger

Despite its relative simplicity Dean's drawing for the Badger album became one of his most popular. Initial sketches were dismissed for being too innocent; Dean wanted the badgers to look wiser and fiercer.

Badger were a short lived British prog band formed by a couple of musicians who had very briefly been involved with Jon Anderson and Yes. In fact their debut album, the live One Badger Live was taken from a support slot the band did with Yes in 1973 and was produced by Anderson. They went on to produce one studio album in 1974 but split the same year.

One Badger Live is your typical accomplished prog of the era with a blues rock edge. Fans must have been lapping this stuff up in those days. Imagine attending a Yes concert and being treated (if that's the right word) to a support set of very similar prog. In fact I do remember going to many gigs a bit later than that, from the 80s onwards, where they'd always be a support band who would play for an hour, often in the exact same style as the main act (typically hard rock in those days and in my case).

Key touch points for Badger are actually Traffic - the singing sounds just like Steve Winwood - there are also Camel like keyboards and King Crimson like mellotron. The keyboards of Tony Kaye (one of the founding members of Yes before leaving to form Badger in 1971) are very much to the fore throughout these 6 tracks with Hammond organ stabs and extended instrumental solos interspersed with accomplished lead guitar from vocalist Brian Parrish.

Nucleus / Elastic Rock

For a time at the start of his career Dean created artwork for some jazz albums, including graphic design works.  These works included covers for John Dummer, Graham Collier, Keith Tippett, and jazz fusion instrumentalists Nucleus.

Formed in 1969 by respected jazz trumpeter Ian Carr Nucleus continued in various forms until the late 80s releasing a dozen albums. Elastic Rock (1970) was their debut and was considered a pioneering release in the fledgling jazz-fusion movement paving the way for the likes of Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Soft Machine.

Miles Davis's groundbreaking jazz fusion album In A Silent Way was released the previous year - Carr who would later write an acclaimed biography of Davis claims not to have heard it at the time of recording Elastic Rock, reinforcing the notion that advances in music tend to come from different sources at the same time.

A lovely timelesss instrumental jazz rock album with lots of laid back guitar grooves it is actually very similar to John McLaughlin's brilliant Extrapolation album which also came out around the same time. It's easily my favourite album in this selection.

I've also sampled the two follow up albums We'll Talk About It Later and Solar Plexus, both worth hearing for those that like their jazz fusion just a little bit more easy listening than Bitches Brew. It is nice to discover at least one new band worth investigating further from this log entry - after all one of the main points of the blog for both me and you!

Paladin / Charge!

Paladin, a UK band formed in 1970, were signed to Bronze Records who also managed Osibisa and Uriah Heep. The picture demonstrates a theme Dean was increasingly interested in - the fusion of man, animal and machine (brilliantly and most simply rendered on the Budgie Squawk cover).

It's tempting to say a lot of this music sounds the same. Is it because it is of a period (early 70s rock) or did Dean himself become a bit typecast in the sort of music he was asked to work on?

Charge! from 1972 (the band's second and last) is another album that has some slightly grating about turns which breaks up a fairly consistent rock album. Some great guitar work (reminiscent of Wishbone Ash actually), lots of organ (like label mates Uriah Heep), plodding bass, multiple vocalists, backing strings, some bluesy harmonica, and passing honky tonk piano (but lacking the swing of The Stones or Little Feat).

There isn't much of huge originality here and it's one of the most dated records of this selection being closer to the fleeting glam rock of Slade or Sweet than prog rock. Nevertheless there are moments to be enjoyed like the classy Mix Your Mind With The Moonbeams where Paladin's multi instrument kitchen sink approach comes together beautifully, and the multi-part Watching the World Pass By which concludes with impressive guitar shredding a la Freebird.

Lighthouse / One Fine Morning

In 1971 Dean was commissioned to design the European edition cover for Canadian rock band Lighthouse's One Fine Morning album. Several versions of the cover were made, each showing the sea retreating a little further with the land appearing. The final one of the series (shown below) featured a classic flying monster dragonfly and was used for a later album by Lighthouse. These pictures, with the windows, arches and ramps, are probably the most typical Dean drawings from this selection.

Lighthouse were literally a large band with 13 original members on their formation in 1968 incorporating a brass and string section (including members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). Declining an invitation to play Woodstock they nevertheless appeared at the famous Isle Of Wight Festival a year later and went on to become one of Canada's most popular bands in the early 70s.

One Fine Morning is definitely on the soft rock end of the scale. The songs are mostly easy listening ballads embellished with backing vocals, horns, flutes, strings and vibraphone, just occasionally gaining some funk momentum. Not that I know them well I imagine they were similar to Chicago. I also imagine they would have been good fun live. Just look at this lot:

It's also not surprising they have been covered by Santana.

Rock Trivia Point Of Note: Saxophonist Howard Shore went on to become a film music composer winning Oscars for his Lord Of The Rings scores.

[Additional text on the artwork in this article has been sourced from Roger Dean's 1976 book "Views"]

About The Author

Eddy Bamyasi

Eddy is a music writer from Brighton, England, named after a Can record. Each Sunday he logs and reviews the albums that happen to be in his vintage Pioneer 6-CD magazine changer, amongst other things.


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