Former Mill Valley Radio Producer Creates Documentary on Album Art

Who among us doesn't have a few old-school record albums squirreled away in the closet somewhere?  Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass with the naked woman covered in whipped cream? The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in all its psychedelic glory?

Does anyone even remember records?

It's hard for Eric Christensen to forget them, especially when he has more than 20,000 sitting as reminders in his Mill Valley home.

He's been acquiring them since he was first bitten by the rock-and-roll bug as a kid in the '50s. At first it was the bands that drew him in; the Beatles, the Stones.  But gradually, like the acceptance of broccoli, his tastes changed.

"I used to collect only for the music," Christensen said this week, leaning on his wall of records. "Now I collect for the cover."

It was back in the '40s when someone discovered those plain brown wrappers that records came in could be spruced up with pictures or art. Christensen came to realize each one of those albums was the unique work of a photographer or an artist. Even Andy Warhol made record covers.    

"Warhol had done a lot of covers," Christensen said. "I just thought, 'Hey, at a used record store you can get a Warhol print for under $10.' "

It was while pondering his vast vinyl acreage, Christensen decided there was a story to be told about cover art. The former KGO radio producer set-out to make a documentary film about the great album covers that had moved him. The film is called Cover Story.

He ended up interviewing dozens of musicians and artists including Steve Earle, Nick Lowe and Yoko Ono, who once used her husband John Lennon's bloody glasses for the Season of Glass album cover.     

"I realized as an artist this was her expression of something very tragic that happened in her life," said Christensen. "And she put it on an album cover and shared it with everybody."

Christensen's real coup d'état was tracking down the woman who once posed nude as an 11-year-old for Blind Faith's controversial album cover, taken by San Francisco photographer Bob Seidemann.   The cover was famously rejected by Atlantic Records as too shocking, only to have Eric Clapton put his foot down.

"There was this window between the late 60s and early 70s," said Christensen, "where a group like Blind Faith could tell the record company, if that ain't the cover, you don't have an album."

Christensen said album art was one of the few ways an artist could ride a band's musical wave to get their own art before new audiences. San Francisco artist Michael Rios' paintings have been seen by millions of people because they graced the cover of Carlos Santana's cosmically popular album Supernatural.

"However many people are buying Santana's music," said Rios in his studio,  "and the few albums I've done with him already, are getting to see a little taste of my art."

But Christensen's film also mourns the passing of the record album as a vehicle for art. He dismisses the current vinyl comeback as not much more than the blast of a defibrillator on an already dead victim.   

"The CD era reduced the size of the art work and thus the impact," said Christensen. "But the digital download, it's something on an iPhone."

One can imagine how little bravado the Stones' Sticky Finger cover would've conveyed if it had been released as a digital booklet. And just picture Led Zeppelin's Hindenburg cover reduced to the size of a thumbnail.

Album covers, Christensen said, are snapshots of time, history and trends. They conjure up memories of old romances, musical obsessions and cultural references. 

You can think about it like this;  it's hard to imagine many years from now, remembering back on where you were the day you downloaded Adele's album.

Christensen's film is playing around the Bay Area for select showings. Check out his website for a calendar.


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