Colin Hogg on the best album cover book of all times

That Steve Braunias’ greatest fan seems always to have been Braunias himself has long lent an odd aspect to the gifted, difficult 61-year-old. His brand of charming but shameless self-boosterism is an interesting approach to a natural gift and speaks more to the subject’s doubts than it does to his talents, which, in Braunias’ case, are large and charismatic.

As demonstrated in his latest book, where he has done something wonderful that taps into one of the other interesting things about him, his love of the unloved, the unglamorous, the sometimes frankly awful. For him heaven is the sad mall in an edgy suburb. Which is just where he found the inspiration for Cover Story (Oratia, $50), an LP-sized book dedicated to the golden age of New Zealand album covers.

It was in a Salvation Army second-hand shop that he bought his first box of old Kiwi LPs, kick-starting a habit that saw him amass a mountain of half-forgotten vinyl, realising in the process that he had a work of cultural significance on his hands. Hence Cover Story.

It’s such a good idea, I wish I’d had it myself, but I’d be all wrong for the job, having a fatal weakness for glamour – something that was apparently completely absent from the Kiwi music scene of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, according to the often gasp-inducing evidence presented in Cover Story. Things did pick up a bit in the 80s, but that’s the least-fun part of the story in some ways.

Kiri and good old Whisky (1966), photographed by Selwyn Rogers

The book unearths the 30-year lifespan of the New Zealand recording industry (if that’s the right word), starting from 1957 with the country’s first locally-recorded and pressed long player, South Sea Rhythm by Bill Woolfgramm and His Islanders with Daphne Walker. Its murky cover shot was taken in a hurry in the long grass and ferns of the Grafton Gully and it shows.

Braunias’ writing, in a chunky preface and separate essays with many of the covers, is often marvellous and brought to colourful life through encounters with the artists themselves or elderly eye witnesses.

He lays his policy on the line in his opening pages: “John Dix’s seminal history of early New Zealand music, Stranded in Paradise, reads like a holy war waged by the forces of good (rock’n’roll) versus a dark enemy (squares, with their accordions, their balloons, their string arrangements); Cover Story sides with the squares. They had more fun.”

Sometimes it looks like they did, though they’re a bit ugly with it, especially pianist Jack Thompson, an ivory tickler from Gore with the look of an old bruiser, described by the author as  “a loveable Kiwi joker who made life in New Zealand a better, happier place on Friday and Saturday nights in countless homes where his records were taken out of their hilarious sleeves and played loud for parents across the nation to dance for hour after tipsy and then downright drunk hour”.

Cover art by two great artists, Chris Grosz and Bill Hammond

Perhaps my favourite of the 100 sleeves, presented life-size through Cover Story, is Jack Thompson Meets Garth Young from 1968, with Thompson (piano) and Young (Hammond organ) facing each other at their keyboards, fags hanging from lips, undone ties, both well-oiled by the looks.

Recordings in the “golden years” captured here were mostly drawn from the dreary Kiwi reality of choirs, dance and brass bands, Polynesian party music, popular pub entertainers (like Jack and Garth), and country music of the western variety. It’s about as close as things got to glamorous until a bit later on.

Many of the earlier cover photos would have been rejected as postcards, but they were often an afterthought in those days. Some are out of focus. Some – like Peter Posa’s White Rabbit LP featuring the artist leering at a bunny-girl’s bent-over bum – are out of time.

A period charm arrives with the late 1960s and 70s and the rise of local rock bands. The mighty Underdogs Blues Band pulling a Carnaby Street pose on the fire escape at Invercargill’s Civic Theatre for their first album is a classic. The album’s terrific too and just one of a handful in Cover Story you’d want to play without some sort of anaesthetic.

But that’s not the point of this beautiful and alarming book. The more awful the cover, the better the story that Braunias tells.

Classic LP cover designed by John Halvorsen

Later, things did turn glamorous and even arty, thanks to the work of photographers like Philip Peacocke (Dave McArtney), Jane Usher (Sharon O’Neill) and Murray Cammick (Street Talk) and artists like Joe Wylie, whose extraordinary centrefold for Patea Maori Club’s Poi E, is given a centrefold in the book.

And it’s a nice handful, 12 inches by 12, a glossy, sturdy softback, weighing in at a kilo or so. It’ll take quite a bit of Christmas paper to wrap, but it’ll be a hit, believe me. You shouldn’t dare play some of these records, but it’s lovely to have them in this vinyl-free format.

And, really, it begs a Volume Two, particularly as this one’s labelled “Volume One”.

“The squares had more fun.”

Cover Story: 100 beautiful, strange and frankly incredible New Zealand LP covers by Steve Braunias (Oratia Media, $50), is available in bookstores nationwide.

Colin Hogg is a writer known for his music journalism, reviewing and column writing, and for his books and documentary making. In 2018, he published Sam Hunt: Off the Road, his tenth book.

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