9 Great Questions About 9 Iconic Alice Cooper Album Packages
A little more than a week ago I received an Email from a guy in England claiming to be the “Ultimate Alice Cooper Fan”, Andy Michael. He found me through the “Back Stories” that I had been writing and publishing on RockPop Gallery” and then by visiting originalalbumcoverart.com.
After a somewhat formal Email introduction, Andy had a request that I had no problem supplying. It seems as there were gaps in his knowledge about his favorite passion… Alice Cooper. These grey areas prevented him from “connecting the dots” on what he felt to be key questions.
So as I was responding to his questions, I thought these great questions would make for some interesting reading for all fans. I hope that you will agree. Here’s how it rolls…
Hey Andy, I must say these are great questions and I really enjoyed answering each of them. I also tried to show not only my contribution to the PEE work product but to include the rest of the extremely talented group of artists as well. I have been very blessed to have been able to assemble “amazingly talented people” around me at pivotal times throughout my career.
More than the answers to your questions being about me, and a select few of my 209 covers that I championed, I feel they should be about the incredible assemblage of creative individuals who came together at that time in history to create these album covers. Every package (or job) I have ever done has been a group effort, which is why I can’t answer your questions any other way.
I have found that no matter how great someone is at what they do, it’s never about just them. I did lots of great work in my career, but it was only as good as the people around me who contributed to the collaborative effort.
Together we pushed the bar higher and higher – never satisfied with what we had just done but focused on how we could make the next one even better. It is how I, along with a hand full of others, through our art, like the music itself… left images for the world that will live on forever.
Q-1 Do you remember with each album who had the original basic idea for the art design and packaging? It seems to me there would have been a lot of cooks involved in that particular soup eg the band (some of whom had an art background), management, as well as the record company.
A - First Of all, we only did a few album covers that were originated by the record companies. I would safely say that out of the 209 album covers I have done to date, less than 6 were done for the labels. We were always able to create totally without a label or its art department having any input. Record companies internal art departments were always our constant competitor as well as our harshest critics.
Pacific Eye & Ear was responsible for 9 Alice Cooper album packages from “Schools Out” through “Raise Your Fist And Yell”. As the Pacific Eye & Ear Creative Director, my job was to initiate the preliminary thinking, rough design layouts and, in my case, all the “Custom Packaging”. For Alice, that was the “School’s Out,” “Billion Dollar Babies” and “Muscle Of Love” albums custom packaging and lettering/logos needed for “all” projects (music or corporate) that went through the art department. Once that was completed I would call a meeting in the art department where we would share both input from the client and my initial thinking as well.
I had assembled a young unheard of team of in-house illustrators starting with Joe Garnett, Drew Struzan, Bill Garland, Joe Pategno, Ingrid Heanke (who each went on to become world class artists). As a group, would spend at least a few hour’s “brain storming” and building on the original “starter ideas” that were in place.
Maybe we would end up in a different place, maybe not, but for sure we would always end up in a better place! Once we agreed that the concept was tight enough and in a great place, it was up to me to decide which illustrator or photographer would get the final “nod” on the finish.
As for input from the artist, band and or management, it was always about the same: rough track’s sometimes an album title, usually the single’s title, and my “discussion brief” with them explaining exactly what they were trying to message to their fans through their music.
Q-2 Generally, who had the final say? Artist? Management? Record company?
A – The groups we concentrated on always retained complete creative control over not only their record but its packaging. In some cases they even dictated who would print the final packages. Since we did very little work directly with record companies, outside of mandatory legal copy, they really didn’t have anything to say about the covers we created.
There were however, companies that specifically worked directly for the record companies internal art departments. We choose not to. That being the case, for us it was the artist, group, management, or any combination of these.
Q-3 It’s interesting that although Warner Bros had a marketing and art department, that they gave the job of designing the albums to an outside organization. I guess that happened a lot back then, when there was more money swishing around the music biz.
A – That’s a really great question Andy. We were constantly competing with the labels for the packages. In our case, as an outside design firm, the strategy from the label to the bands was always the same, “why would you want to go outside to do your cover with Pacific Eye & Ear, and pay them “big money” (usually from $2,500.00 to $5,000.00) when we have an excellent internal art department that you can work with for FREE?” We know this to be true as many of the bands we worked with played the pitch back again and again to us, almost verbatim!
We also know, first hand, that if the group chose the labels art departments, at the end of the day, they, at minimum, would pay triple what we would have charged! That decision on the group’s part just opened up additional portals that the labels could over-charge while creating more places to hide overcharging the groups.
Taking it one step further, I doubt that anyone knows this, but back in the day, record companies were not buying printing directly – they went through brokers. The firm that I worked with before I started Pacific Eye & Ear was just that – a very clever broker with good ideas and an in-house art department. What he was selling was a brand new concept and one that he himself pioneered: “Custom Packaging.”
“Custom Packaging” meant anything you could do to the standard package to make it special, such as adding extra panels, dye cuts, embossing, tip-on or other unique configurations. My bosses’ strategy was brilliantly simple, and one that I would carry over to my own company. Since all big bands had creative control over their covers, he would befriend the bands and their management then sell them on a package that was a “custom one” that only he could manufacture. The bands would then dictate to the labels that he was the only one who could do it correctly, and had the track record and portfolio to prove it.
His art department had one main function and goal, which was to create packages that were outside the “industry standard” so that he would be able to sell a higher ticket item, eliminate most all the competition and make bigger profits. For example, in the 70’s, a standard cover (front and back only) cost anywhere from .03 to .05 cents each. A “Gatefold” cover cost from 12 to 25 cents each, and the packages that we were creating cost around 25 cents and up.
You could say, he was an artist himself, but not in the traditional definition – his “canvases” were the clients and his “art” was selling them what he was creating – and he was really great at it – one of the best. I learned a lot from him, in fact “my ass is still burning!”
Q-4 Did you collaborate or exchange ideas with any member of the band, management or Warner Bros? Some of those album covers were so witty and in tune with Alice’s sense of humor that it wouldn’t be surprising if there was an element of collaboration. Or were you given total freedom?
A – Thank you for that great observation and complement, as it is at the core of the number one “Pacific Eye & Ear Value Proposition” to all our customers, both music and corporate alike. I created all album concepts that PEE did, because as Creative Director that was my main deliverable. We were smart and actually took the time to totally understand the music as well as how we likened the artists messaging to creating a brand that needed to connect with its consumer, and then be able to communicate with 100% clarity its brand proposition. We did this for every band consistently and we did it very, very well!
Q-5 I understand the first album you worked on was “School’s Out”. Is this correct? The credits state packaging concept by Sound Packaging Inc. and design by Wilkes And Bruan Inc.
A – Any creative person who has worked for a company that took all the credit for work that they’ve done understands what I’m saying. I understand the principle, but don’t agree with it. I feel that credit should be given to the creator, where credit is due, always, no matter what. Believe me when I say it was extremely hard to turn around and walk away from what I had built with Craig Braun – “School’s Out” as well as 6 other major covers. It was truly one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make.
But I knew what I was capable of, and with the self-confidence derived from the iconic pieces I had done to that point, I was certain that no one could stop me. I found my direction and the clarity that my best work still lay ahead of me. A line had to be drawn in the sand with Craig and I never regretted my decision. It was time for me to move on, but this time it was going to be for me.
After I left, Craig needed an LA Art Director with a West Coast following and a track record, so he partnered with Tom Wilkes, who had just ended a partnership with Barry Feinstein and Camouflage Productions. Craig couldn’t hire him, so he made him a partner. I think that Craig’s long term plan was to eventually shut down the New York office so that he could be out in LA almost full time. Sounds a bit like a bad soap opera doesn’t it?
Tom Wilkes took my comps and did the finishes on them, so seeing someone else get credit for something that they didn’t do and not even giving a shared credit – well, it was an extremely difficult pill to swallow! I wrote it off as to what I needed to do to get away from Craig. I met Tom years later, and when he heard my side of what had happened, he realized that he had been lied to as well, since Craig had told Tom that he had come up with the ideas and had the art department in New York do the comps.
The irony of it all was that I absolutely disliked Tom Wilkes for years because he had put his name on my work. However once we finally met, I quickly realized what a great guy and incredible designer he was. We laughed about it, got high, had some drinks and shared lots of “Craig stories.”
I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that the one story that Tom shared with me and that I really love the best – was the one about the afternoon that Craig pissed Tom off so much that Tom knocked Craig out cold! That was the beginning of the end for Wilkes/Braun – they only lasted another six months or, as Tom put it, “half way through the Tommy album”. Tom and I went on to become great friends.
In a different way than Tom Wilkes, I got my “Pound Of Flesh” from Craig by taking every group that I had done a cover for at Craig’s, with me – except one – to my new company. Craig, and what he took away from me, truly became the fuel that drove my creative energies for the next 14 years… so thanks Craig for making it happen!
Just a quick side-bar here and a moment of pause for the passing of Tom Wilkes, 4 months ago. He was a real unique individual and creative icon. He became a good friend and will be greatly missed.
Q-6 I was amused to learn that a year before “School’s Out” was released, the band 10cc released an album with a cover very similar to School’s Out. I assume you weren’taware of this especially as 10cc weren’t really known in the US until much later.
A – I wasn’t aware that there was such an album, in fact the only thing that I know about 10cc is that their version of “I’m Not In Love” is one of my favorite songs of all time. I am wondering if it weren’t a European release only because I couldn’t find a picture of it anywhere.
Q-7 Also you might be interested to know that about twenty five year later, Lauryn Hill of The Fugees released an album with a cover that looked inspired by the “School’s Out” cover.
A - I have always been a firm believer that “You know you’re leading when you stop doing what you’re doing long enough to look around and see that others are emulating you.”
When I am asked what made Pacific Eye & Ear so special, I always have the same reply: It was our unique combination of concept, illustration and lettering design-power that quickly made us a force to be reckoned with. And after our third Grammy Nomination, we were on the map forever – easily recognized as one of the top three album design companies in the country.
Q-8 “Muscle of Love” and “From the Inside” had album covers which were works of genius but were also really annoying because it was so easy to damage them every time you took them off the shelf and put them back, what with all the flaps and doors etc! Later on, the band Throbbing Gristle put out an LP with a sleeve made of sandpaper so that every time you took the LP off the shelf you damaged the albums around it!
A – Those packages dropped in a time that was the start of a movement called “Custom Packaging” and Pacific Eye & Ear was born right into and at the start of it. We were a small close-working, super creative force combining art, business and production expertise, that played a critical role in what I’m calling the “Golden Age Of Custom Album Packaging TM.” Everyone enjoyed it.
We all remember the large format albums with liner notes that were big enough to read and the Pop Art appeal of panties stretched over the record; a real zipper imbedded into the cover; or an over-sized wallet with a pull out Billion Dollar Bill or an album that folded up into a “pot cleaning” cigar box, because back in the day, all pot had seeds!
We graphic artists, illustrators and photographers provided the emotional connection that these covers helped evoke. Our contribution became another vital link between the musicians, their music, and the messages they were delivering to their fans.
We strived for originality and creativity, like the music we were packaging, and delivered it to the world via this newly found art form. Exciting and challenging, we were creating the rules and blazing a trail. It was a great experience, fresh and fulfilling, which regrettably only lasted 15 years – ironically it was the exact lifespan of Pacific Eye & Ear.
Q-9 Did you ever put forward ideas for Alice Cooper album covers that were rejected? If so, by whom?
A - Quite honestly Andy, I can say without reservation, we really did a great job of doing our homework while laying the groundwork that would wrap around the final look and feel. Each concept was customized specifically to Alice’s personality, clever wit and persona. So much so, that the final concepts that were rejected by Alice and Shep, really wouldn’t work for any other group.
Remember when “Alice was King” and his moment in the sun was at its “brightest” there was no one else like him or that would even being considered coming close. He was undeniably the original! One might argue that Kiss would be considered, even though they were all about the flash and sizzle, without much beef! Where as Alice was brilliant and his image and the show was more about the theatre and the music.
And, I want to thank you for asking such interesting and revealing questions that got me thinking. At the end of the day, a true statement would be that the entire “Golden Age Of Custom Album Packaging” (1970 to 1985) was created and driven by print brokers to make bigger commissions.
To their credit, they really were to “Custom Album Packaging” what Andy Warhol was to Pop Art. I don’t think many people know that Andy Warhol’s “Velvet Underground” album, with the peel-back banana re-sealable sticker, was the first ever “custom” album cover.
As I was remembering and reliving experiences in order to write these answers, two things rang loud and clear: first “no matter how long it takes to get your story out there, be patience, and when the time is right, the truth will definitely set you free” second, and equally important: “what I did with this newfound freedom is what has allowed me the ability to continue making history… instead of becoming it!”
“Long Live Rock N’ Roll! – Ernie