Frank Zappa’s Album Covers by Cal Schenkel, part 2: the 1970s

Part 1 of this article, covering Cal Schenkel’s album covers in the 1960s:

Zappa entered the 1970s with two albums that included material previously recorded by the Mothers of Invention and assembled together in the studio. The first, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, used unconnected recordings which were edited to form new music collages. In The Real Frank Zappa Book the man wrote this about the culinary preferences which gave birth to the album name: “I like fried spaghetti. I like fried anything. Whatever it is, FRY IT – unless it is a hot dog. Then you stick a fork in it and burn it in the fire on top of the stove (yes, folks, the legendary Super-Delicious Burnt Weeny Sandwich). By the way, the best time to eat fried spaghetti is for breakfast.”

Like the music, the cover art was also a collage, created a couple of years earlier when Zappa engaged with producer Alan Douglas to develop ads and album covers for a number of albums. Douglas had the rights for recordings by Muddy Waters, Richie Havens and others. One of them was Eric Dolphy, for which Cal Schenkel assembled a mixed media collage: “It took about a day. I found all these interesting things and it just went together very quickly. But then the project was cancelled and the piece of art just sat there. Then Frank used it for Burnt Weenie.”

We skip the next album consisting of Mothers recordings, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, featuring the art of Neon Park, and come to Chunga’s Revenge, an eclectic mix of jams, blues, jazz, avant garde and Zappa’s flavor of pop. The front cover photograph of Zappa taking one healthy yawn (not a pose) was taken by Phil Franks at a boring record label reception in England.

If you venture to open the LP gate fold, you will find a beautiful illustration by Cal Schenkel with an odd character about which he said: “The idea for the inside spread was to illustrate the line ‘A gypsy mutant industrial vacuum dances about a mysterious night time camp fire…’. The vacuum-cleaner girl goes back to Frank’s early career—he saw a machine for cutting vinyl discs that looked like a ‘gypsy mutant vacuum cleaner’, as the song goes, and so I basically illustrated that lyric.”

Gypsy Mutant Vacuum Cleaner made a number of appearances on later Zappa projects, including the film 200 Motels and the back cover of One Size Fits All.

Chunga’s Revenge vacuum girl illustration

1971 started with a live recording at the Fillmore East, providing a peek at the debaucheries abound in the life of rock musicians. The cover is perhaps the simplest of all of Zappa’s albums. Cal Schenkel, who wrote the album title with a pencil, remembers: “With only a couple days to put something together, we decided on the bootleg look.”

Also in 1971 Zappa realized his visual fantasies with the movie 200 motels, a surrealistic film about the craziness, boredom and yet more debauchery that goes with the life of a rock ‘n roll band on the road, where musicians have two main concerns: ‘when are we gonna get paid?’ and ‘when are we gonna get laid?’ The cast included all the usual suspects including the Mothers, Theodore Bikel, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr in the unlikely character of none other than Zappa. Ringo remembers how Zappa got him involved in the movie: “He came over and he laid out this whole score, at least 25 pages of the score. I said, ‘Well, what are you showing me that for, Frank? I can’t read music.’ He said, ‘I just wanted to show you.’ He said, ‘Will you play me in the movie?’”.

Who’s who? Zappa and Ringo on the set of 200 motels.

The well-known album cover and the poster for the movie was illustrated by David McMacken, who a couple of years later would also create the fantastic cover for Over-Nite Sensation. Cal Schenkel focused on the film and set design. Zappa said in an interview: “Cal is doing all the designs, all the characters, all the backgrounds, and then the stuff is executed. Cal has designed this great environment, most of it stylized stuff, like the front wall of a house would be scrim on a framework, painted so that if you front-light it you can see what’s painted on it and if you back-light it, it transparentizes and you can see the characters behind in sort of a dreamland type tiling.”

Dental Hygiene Dilemma

Within the movie there is a cartoon segment named Dental Hygiene Dilemma, about band member Jeff Simmons, a bass player who hears the devil telling him ‘Why are you wasting your life night after night playing this comedy music’ and quits the band just before filming starts. Zappa recalls: “In order to replace him, we went through all kinds of weird shit and ended up with Martin Lickert, who was Ringo Starr’s driver.”

In an interview with Martin Melhuish in 1971, Zappa recalled the process of making that cartoon: “Cal Schenkel and Chuck Swenson did the cartoon. I wrote the music. Cartoons are done to a track. A guy sits down with a pair of earphones, the thing is already on magnetic film and frame by frame he marks on a sheet how long it takes to say, ‘I am stealing the room’. I gave him some specific elements that I wanted to have in it but when you’ve got someone like Calvin, you don’t want to tell him everything you want to do because he’s so creative, you just have to give him a rough idea.”

In 1973 Ian Pollack conducted an interview with Zappa for Digger magazine, focusing on the movie 200 Motels. In it Zappa said: “I trust Calvin’s imagination to convert anything I would do in terms of music, he will convert it into a picture which I will identify with.”

In 1972 Zappa released one more live album with a similar Mothers lineup to the one that performed on Fillmore East—June 1971. The centerpiece of the album was Billy the Mountain, a rock opera satire about a mountain and his wife Ethel (a tree) who collects royalty checks from posing for postcards. It gets more and more ridiculous by the minute, and there are nearly 25 of those minutes on side 1 of the LP. Cal Schenkel created another mixed-media art for the album cover.

The inside LP gatefold features Cal Schenkel at his desk with a fabricated storyboard drawing and the following blurb: “Schenkel collapses in debris during preparation of story board for BILLY THE MOUNTAIN. Clay model of roving monolith visible near left elbow. Studebacher Hoch and his trained flies appear over Schenkel’s head and to right. It is too bad you can’t really see his Pennsylvania ashtray here.”

Just Another Band from L.A. inner gatefold

We skip Waka Jawaka with the sink cover illustration by Marvin Mattelson, and come to another great illustration by Cal Schenkel for the cover of The Grand Wazoo. This is one of the best illustrations you can find on any album cover, and Schenkel humbly explained: “The Grand Wazoo was pretty much a straight interpretation of the story that’s inside. Frank wrote it out inside, I just interpreted.” Interpreted he did, the unlikely story Zappa concocted about the emperor Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus who has an army of unemployed musicians going to battle with people who don’t like music. Got it? Schenkel continues: “If you look at it closely, it’s kind of bad. The anatomy is way off. I always felt it was appropriate to utilize your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Everything is inked right on the art with acrylic and marker — that one’s really naive.”

Another illustration graces the back cover, this one giving a face to the character Uncle Meat, again based on a story by Zappa (trust me, somehow it all connects): “Stu, which is Uncle Meat’s first name, crouches malignantly near the book case, fumbling through a stack of books, records, newspaper clippings, religious pamphlets, and campaign buttons. He applies light friction to the rash on his throat, muttering ‘Yes, yes … it’s all here … every bit of it … everything I need to create my greatest masterpiece!’”

The Grand Wazoo – the Uncle Meat character

The Grand Wazoo is also significant for name checking Cal Schenkel on one of the tracks, For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers). There is a story here too, concerning two hitch hikers the artist once picked up in Zappa’s car, who after entering the vehicle uninvited and seating themselves in the back seat, became oblivious to their surroundings and unresponsive. The story is told here in full: Zappa found it an appropriate subject for the track that opens the album:

We skip one more front cover, this one a great Dali-esque drawing by Dave McMacken for Over-Nite Sensation, a celebrated illustration by the same artist who drew the front cover of 200 Motels. The music on the album was more accessible, earning Zappa his first gold record. Lots of memorable tunes on that album, bringing his raunchy lyrics to the masses. Here is the opener, Camarillo Brillo, with fantastic drumming curtesy of Ralph Humphrey:

In that front cover drawing there is a television set with a maniacal face of Zappa. The inside gatefold features panels with credits and lyrics. This was Cal Schenkel’s less celebrated contribution to the album art but significant enough for Zappa to mention in an interview: “The interior, ladies and gentlemen, is executed by Cal Schenkel. What it represents is the rear view of the television set which is oozing the slime, and as you might have seen, if you ever turned your TV set around, there’s some sort of fibreboard background with holes in it for vents . . . and the little noodle-like objects that are leaking out around the things that have the lyrics on it are supposed to be rear-zone slime extrusions that are oozing down over some of the illustrations.”

Over-Nite Sensation inside gatefold

1974 came and passed with two Zappa albums: Apostrophe (‘) – Zappa’s first top 10 album, and Roxy & Elsewhere, a double live album. Cal Schenkel was responsible for overall design, but not the front covers art. His last major work for Zappa in the 1970s came the following year with the album One Size Fits All, which was also the last Mothers of Inventions album. It represents one of the best incarnations of the group, featuring among others George Duke and Ruth Underwood, both shining in this live footage from 1975:

The front cover brought back a favorite recurring object featured on a number of Zappa songs, the maroon sofa. Again this is an illustration based on a story concocted by Zappa and Cal Schenkel. The top left portion of the front cover refers to 17th century scientific drawings, explaining how LPs are manufactured, with pointers to the grooves, label and hole.

The back cover was inspired by a National Geographic sky chart: “The back cover was my idea, Oh, why don’t we do a star chart? I found one and goofed on all the names and put together a funny star chart. I liked that.”

Zappa’s studio albums output in the second part of the 1970s slowed down due to financial and legal disputes with his manager Herb Cohen and record labels. He focused on live performances as a main source of income, and Cal Schenkel moved back to his home town in Pennsylvania. Some of the well-known covers from that period featured photographs by Gary Heery (Zoot Allures), Lynn Goldsmith (Sheik Yerbouti) and Norman Seeff (Joe’s Garage).

In 1980 Schenkel visited Los Angeles and reconnected with Frank Zappa, who asked him to create the tour book for his Fall Tour 80—Crush All Boxes. The artist created yet another fantastic collage inside the book, combining old photographs of Hollywood scenes and events:

1980 tour book

The live album that followed the tour was called Tinsel Town Rebellion. Schenkel remembers: “I did that piece for a tour book, a quicker version, then Frank said, ‘Why don’t we use this for the cover?’ and I said, ‘Well I can do a more involved version’. So I got involved.”

The involved version that became the cover of Tinsel Town Rebellion is indeed a detailed amalgam of photographs cut with an X-Acto knife and arranged skillfully, and is well worth a close look. In it you will find Lon Chaney as The Hunchback of Notre Dame hanging upside down, a trio of old women playing saxes, scenes from early Hollywood classics such as Gold Diggers Of Broadway, Charlie Chan on Broadway, The Merry Widow, Peter Pan and The Invisible Man.

The original name of the album was the same as the tour – Crush All Boxes, and if you examine the album title you will notice the original title written and erased behind it.

During the time covered in this article, Cal Schenkel also worked on albums by other artists, some of them managed by Frank Zappa’s manager Herb Cohen. A few of note are a trio of albums by Tom Waits (Closing Time, The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at the Diner) and a number of covers for Tim Buckley (Greetings from L.A., Sefronia and Look at the Fool). The front covers were photographed or illustrated by others, and Schenkel acted as graphic designer. He mentioned that part of his career in an interview: “It had always been difficult for me to find work I could really be creative with. I didn’t know where to look and I didn’t fit into what everybody else was doing. So much of what I did outside of Frank, like for Tom Waits or Tim Buckley, was basically graphics – nothing too special.” Tom Waits’ Closing Time is a personal favorite, with the photograph by Ed Caraeff taken in Cal Schenkel’s house.

Cal Schenkel continued to work sporadically on album covers after his association with Zappa, but as he referred to that part of his work, “I did a lot of stuff I wouldn’t want to mention – a lot of groups that just disappeared, obscure groups that no one would ever have seen.”

He remained very modest about his contribution to the world of art: “A lot of people ask me if what I did on those covers was original with me and I suppose that in the context of record cover art, what I was doing was in fact different. But in the context of the art world in general, it wasn’t very original at all. What I was doing was introducing fine art techniques and sensibilities into the commercial art form.”

His legacy will forever be linked with the visuals connected to Frank Zappa’s music, and like the genius musician’s art, both could easily navigate through multiple forms and styles in any direction their creativity took them. Talking about Zappa’s multifaceted art and his contribution to it, Schenkel said: “They were Frank’s identities, and he was in control of them and I was really just satisfying these various concepts. I didn’t create his identities for him in terms of explicit concepts. But in terms of visuals, we worked off of each other. So it was a true give and take, with the understanding that he had the final say. It was very informal and open. It was important to him to have a complete approach to the packaging of himself and his music because he saw himself as a complete artist, from music to visuals”.

In summary, one last quote from an interview with Cal Schenkel by Steven Cerio in 2010. When asked how Frank Zappa should be remembered, he said:” If I were to sum up his meaning to music and art in this century, it’s as someone who opened new doors by experimenting with so many different things, expanded the envelope, and brought other types of music into Rock.”

And when asked how he should be remembered: “To some extent, in the same way – for connecting diverse parts of art. I think one of the things that I feel that I did was bring different types of art into that commercial records package.”

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