August 16, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau
Sometimes the treasure unearthed while shuffling through trash records has nothing to do with music. Sometimes the cover is all you need because the artwork is just too good to throw away. It’s kinda like dealing with pulp novels: Cover art often beats out content.
This week’s column has nothing to do with the music. In fact, there wasn’t even a record in the sleeve when I pulled it. That’s not to say Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs weren’t a nifty little rock ‘n’ roll combo. I mean, who doesn’t like “Wooly Bully”? These guys were early purveyors of what was called “Tex-Mex,” a blend of early-‘60s frat rock and Texas/Mexican culture. The record here was their first, and contained a few originals, a few covers — nothing too special beyond the shtick (the Arab garb, the band’s hearse on the back cover, etc.), and not too dissimilar from ? & the Mysterians who were also kicking out some Tex-Mex garage rock jams around this same time.
The focus here is about the lovingly enhanced cover — just feast your eyes on this masterpiece, dear reader. Those staunch record collecting individuals out there will no doubt wince at the fact this is the cover to the mono pressing of the LP (mono editions are normally harder to come by and, therefore, highly sought after), but that just adds to the ridiculous beauty of it all.
So, let’s talk about disposability. There was absolutely no indication back in 1965 a record such as this would be thought of as collectable. For the most part, mid-’60s rock ‘n’ roll was centered on hits rather than longevity. Only a handful of bands who had already established themselves a few years of hits were looked upon as being long-distance runners — everyone else was thought of as a bunch of larks. Fifty years ago the record companies (big and small) didn’t expect the average teenager to give something like Wooly Bully more than a few listens, have a few laughs, and then cast it aside once the new Stones record became available. There the record would sit on the floor or in a pile with other cast-offs, collecting dust maybe left out of its sleeve getting scuffed and scratched, seen only peripherally, if at all. Then the possible second life begins, (something not predicted by record execs) when a younger sibling rediscovers it when the older brother or sister is out of the house and its life and impact rejuvenates.
Once the old folks who ran the record biz realized just how powerful the medium was, well, everyone wanted to make some money. Still, until 1967 when rock ‘n’ roll became “serious,” the genre was essentially kid’s stuff — a single market with actual LP’s being more of an afterthought, an effort to squeeze as much money out of a band as possible. The industry was just another part of a disposable culture this country has fostered since the end of WWII. Pop culture was a big deal 50 years ago, but so little of it was thought of as being substantial. Comic books, bubble gum cards, toys, transistor radios, television programs, even Pop Art was all flash and of little importance. This general disregard lasted until maybe the summer of 1968 when things began to get serious and ugly for even White America — war, protests, assassinations and later, Watergate, took the fun out of culture for a while, almost erasing the good-natured fun of it for a good 10 years. Only with the passage of time have these artifacts shown themselves as viable contributors to the fabric of American Society regardless of value or stature.
Critics weren’t the only ones looking at all this tripe as being easily discarded because, apparently, fans thought so as well. This record here, this very copy of Wooly Bully proves of just how disposable American culture was at that point in time. If the graffiti is to be believed, Maria Rivera and Gayle Andrew left behind an artifact of those throwaway times; they obviously liked this record but didn’t think twice about taking to the cover with pen and pencil. This cover is a map of their world: The local radio station is name-checked (KSOL, 98.9 on your Bay Area dial), friend names (”Kathy E.” and “Joe Goulet”), possible inside jokes (“Do it do it do it”), a quick review of the record (“this album gots soul”), and Ms. Andrew practicing her signature on any available part of the back cover.
The best part, though, is the impact of another facet of our cultural brew which the Rivera/Andrew team prominently featured in their work. You may notice the members of the band have been given black eyes and, on the left side of the front cover you’ll see the phrase: “We’d rather fight than switch,” which was the successful ad campaign for Tareyton Cigarettes, a Top 10 brand in the mid-’60s. In the company’s print advertisements, a smiling man or woman was shown with a smoke and sporting a black eye; the idea, of course, is their love for Tareyton was such that they’d take a beating instead of lighting-up another brand. A catchy phrase and a catchy look. A successful ad campaign, a really successful one, becomes part of the day’s verbiage; part of everyday life until its cast aside once the new Pepsi or Charmin ads are unleashed.
Tareyton ads were enough of a household term they (subconsciously or otherwise) made their way from Ms. Rivera, Ms. Andrew, or whomever’s mind, and became part of this pen-and-ink motif. The ads were being honored as well as mocked just as the cover of this record was being mocked. And it wasn’t just these two girls and their friends, but no doubt by kids all over the place. Pop records, advertising, music, cigarettes — they’re all one and they’re all throwaways.
Fast forward to the Here And Now: We’ve come to a place where copies of records (mono or otherwise) are obsessively coveted, sealed airtight in mylar bags not to be touched for fear of devaluing it. (“You won’t be buying it because you can’t afford it; in fact, I’m not even comfortable with you even holding it.”) Then, down the street at a small antique store you’ll probably find individual print ads razored from old Look, Life, and Billboard magazines have been given a similar fate: sealed in mylar and individually priced starting at five dollars a piece. (“Sure, you’ll be able to buy that, you can even hold it.”) Everything’s for sale, everything has its importance. Heck, even absolute garbage such as defaced record jackets are held up to a momentary spotlight and given a half-assed 1,000+ word dissertation.
Still, aside from all the pontificating, what it all boils down to is this copy of Wooly Bully is just downright funny. One can only imagine what pen ‘n’ pencil disfigurement Rivera and Andrew unleashed upon their Stones albums.