Every Parody Tells A Story
Why did the Beatles cross the road in 1969? Because photographer Iain Macmillan asked them to on a late sunny morning in August. While a police officer held up London traffic, Macmillan quickly snapped photos of the Beatles crossing the famed Abbey Road that later graced the cover of their album of the same name. Abbey Road has since become one of the most parodied cover images of all time, imitated by artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers (The Abbey Road E.P.) and Kanye West (Late Orchestration: Live At Abbey Road Studios). But why?
The goal of an album designer is to please the band, says Los Angeles-based illustrator/graphic designer Janée Meadows, and her advice to new designers is to find out who their client's favorite bands are and then use their cover art as a starting point.
"Anytime you can get someone closer to their idol, it's a good thing," says Meadows, who sees artistic mimicking as a way to master different styles, and encourages young designers to practice the art of imitation. As a designer's imitating skills sharpen, they incorporate their own vision and make something unique.
Artists may use elements from several album covers to create a parody. Meadows created the cover artwork for the Donnas' 2007 album Bitchin', which features a close-up of a man's backside with a purple feather in his back pocket as a nod to the band's independent record label, Purple Feather Records. Donnas guitarist Allison Robertson sent Meadows the back cover image of Deep Purple's Mark I & II album, which features a woman's backside with a Deep Purple flyer sitting in her back pocket. The Donnas asked Meadows to use the Deep Purple cover as inspiration, but wanted Bitchin' to feature a male derriere in an "ultra-'80s airbrushed way."
Bitchin' can also be seen as a possible flip-side homage to Mötley Crüe's Too Fast For Love cover, the Crüe cover is a parody of another often-imitated cover — the Rolling Stone's Sticky Fingers, which caused a stir in 1971 with its provocative display.
Charles Grosvenor, the creator of AmIRight.com — a user-populated database of album cover parodies and other music trivia — calls the Clash's London Calling the "parody of parodies." A twist on Elvis Presley's 1956 self-titled debut album cover, which features a black-and-white photo of the King playing acoustic guitar and his name printed in neon-pink and neon-green, London Calling features a photo, taken by Pennie Smith, of the Clash's Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision Bass onstage at the now-defunct Palladium in New York.
Whether the purpose of a parody is to cash in on the popularity of seminal album or pay homage to an idol, or both, "parodies generally aim for the comedic jugular," says Grosvenor.
Grosvenor's interest in parodies began when a friend showed him Frank Zappa's 1968 We're Only In It For The Money cover, a parody of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Designed by British pop artist Peter Blake, the iconic Beatles album is being parodied again, only this time by the artist himself. In honor of his 80th birthday this year, Blake has redesigned Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to feature a slew of artists and public figures of personal significance. "I've chosen people I admire, great people and some who are dear friends," Blake told the Guardian. The celebratory cover features British artists such as Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello and the late Amy Winehouse, among others.
The Beatles have several albums covers that reign high in the often-parodied ranking, but none touch the popularity of the simple image of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr walking single file across Abbey Road. Abbey Road was even parodied by McCartney for his 1993 album Paul Is Live, designed to be a twist on the "Paul is dead" conspiracies.
Why has the Abbey Road image remained firmly entrenched in the pop culture zeitgeist more than 40 years later?
The answer may be difficult to pinpoint, but Abbey Road is a unique case in which even the smallest of details have become legendary. The Volkswagen Beetle captured on the left side of the cover was eventually housed in the official Volkswagen Auto Museum in Germany. Paul Cole, an American tourist seen watching the Fab Four from the right side of the street, was described in a 2008 obituary as simply the "man on [the] Beatles' Abbey Road cover." Today, the famous crossing has a live Web cam and is a destination for hordes of tourists and Beatles fans alike.
Could it be that album cover artwork is just as influential as the music encased in the album itself? To quote Rod Stewart, "Every picture tells a story, don't it?"
(Caroline Cooney is a New York-based freelance journalist and scriptwriter.)