Cartoonist Robert Crumb’s delight in old records and their jackets—he’s a longtime collector of 78s—is well known, so it’s no surprise that he began illustrating album covers early in his career. His first commission was for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills (1967), the band’s second album and their first major success. It was a success for Crumb as well: his confrontational, raw artistic style proved a good match for the band’s sound, his delight in transgression (his original plan for the cover was to portray the band naked and in bed) appealed to the rebellious youth who comprised many of the band’s fans, and his whacked-out sensibility captured the psychedelic vibe of the period. In an era when distinctive and creative album covers were the rule, the Cheap Thrills cover still managed to impress, strongly enough that it was selected the 9th best album cover of all time by Rolling Stone in 1991.
Crumb would go on to illustrate many more album covers. The preponderance of this work has been for re-releases of classic blues, jazz and folk recordings (he says he drew many of these album covers not for cash, but in exchange for 78s), but he also did illustrations for contemporary groups including his own band R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Crumb’s album covers were originally collected into a book published in the Netherlands in 1994, and that material and more (including about 50 illustrations not included in the Dutch edition) is now available in a revised edition published by Norton as R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection.
Norton’s book/slip jacket package is beautifully designed and entirely appropriate to its contents. The book is an oversized, almost square (10.4″ by 10.3″) volume encased in a paper slip jacket with a hole in the center allowing you to see a circular cover illustration, a presentation which recalls the packaging of 10-inch 78 rpm records. Within the book, album cover designs are interspersed with other music-related materials (cartoons, record labels, trading cards, photographs), all nicely laid out and presented in vibrant color. Even the end papers are enticing—they sport a composition of trading cards from the “Les As du Musette” collection, displayed against a black background which really makes the colors pop.
Leafing through R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection provides a trip down memory lane for those of us old enough to remember the psychedelic years, and a good introduction to the spirit of the musical times for those of younger generations. Histories of music often concentrate on the hottest contemporary bands and most popular new songs released each year, an approach which can miss the total musical context of a period. One thing which was distinctive about the ’60s and later was the ready availability of classic recordings in modern format (the LP), and it’s not just Robert Crumb who was fascinated with the likes of the Memphis Jug Band, Robert Johnson, and the North Carolina Ramblers. These bands had a strong influence on contemporary musicians as well, and many a college student became hooked on traditional forms after hearing touring performers such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Although Crumb’s style is distinctive (you never have to guess who drew one of his illustrations), he also has a remarkable range—his raw, underground comics style is frequently on display in his music-related work, but so is his ability to do realistic drawing (e.g., a 1996 illustration of Merle Haggard for The New Yorker) and to evoke a retro style while retaining his modern sensibility (evident in the trading card sets and his many covers for re-releases of ’20s and ’30s recordings).
Crumb is at his best with his illustrations of traditional musicians—his trading card sets of jazz, blues, and country artists are legendary—and his best work captures the dignity of the performers while also expressing the sense of transgression and sexuality which has always been a component of popular music. One wonders what kind of parental advisory the Recording Association of America would have put on a title like “I’m a Bear in a Lady’s Boudoir” (recorded by 1920s artist Ukulele Ike, a.k.a. Cliff Edwards, and rereleased by Yazoo with a cover by Crumb which leaves little to the imagination) or The Hokum Boys’ “You Can’t Get Enough of That Stuff,” also re-released by Yazoo with a Crumb cover featuring two amply-endowed young ladies strutting their stuff.
If I have a criticism of The Complete Record Cover Collection, it’s that it would have been nice to have an essay placing Crumb’s work in context, both of his own life, and of the musical scene of the times. There is some historical information included — each item in the book is accompanied by a brief description and date (e.g., “Ordinary Record, drawing for a record label, never published, 1973”) — but the arrangement of materials is not chronological and the reader needs to bring their own historical knowledge to bear in order to get the most from viewing these works.