When I think of living rooms in the 1970s certain things always come to mind: brown shag carpet, G-Plan furniture, spider plants, an Alphonse Mucha poster on the wall, and on a shelf a copy of Motown Chartbusters Vol. Six with the bluebottle-spaceship cover painted by Roger Dean.
As a kid I thought that spaceship was fantastic — though I had no idea what it had to do with Motown — and was a big fan of Dean’s work along with other SF/Fantasy artists like Chris Foss and Patrick Woodroffe whose art adorned the covers of the SF novels I was reading. Before I started spending all my money on records I spent it on collections of their work like Dean’s book Views. My number one artistic wish at the time was to draw Marvel comics, but second would have been to paint like those guys.
Dean is best known for his Prog Rock album covers, particularly those for Yes so he might seem a strange choice of artist for Motown to commission, but the album came out in 1971 early in his career before he was too closely associated with Prog. He had already painted a couple of album covers for Afrobeat group Osibisa so he did have some previous with black music.
Looking at this and the Motown album I’m thinking George Clinton should have got Dean to do some Parliament/Funkadelic sleeves.
Though there was never a set style for the Chartbusters series, most volumes usually had art that was either abstract or generic and a bug-spaceship may not seem like the sort of imagery you’d associate with a soul record. Hiring Dean could have been another of Motown’s attempts to appear more tuned-in and hip to the long-haired generation. In the 60s they’d added psychedelic flourishes to records and released more socially-aware material, and Vol. Six came out the same year as What’s Going On? so this may have been a way of selling some more of that counterculture vibe.
Whatever their reasons they got a sleeve that is highly memorable and distinctive because it’s so unexpected, and I wish they’d given Dean the whole series to do. I also love how the back cover imagines a Motortown Review in the futuristic date of 2008 happening on a spaceship. Unfortunately we know the reality wasn’t quite so far-out.
Once upon a time, two little boys in France named Guy and Thomas saw this on the television and decided that when they grew up they too would be pop stars wearing space helmets. But when they told their friends of their dream all they said was “Don’t be daft, punks!”
The furthest abroad my mother ever got was to the Channel Islands on a family holiday in the 1960s, and later in life it was impossible to get her to step outside of West London, let alone England. But she had so many groovy sun n’ samba records like this I like to think that when she listened to them she dreamed of exotic locations, sandy beaches, the warm sun, and tanned hunks handing her chilled cocktails. But then it was back to the two kids and the council flat.
I’m not so contrarian that I’m going to claim this is better than The Beatles’ original, but this is the first version I knew so it always sounds to me like it’s the Fab Four who are doing the cover.
I have an emotional attachment to this record going back to my childhood that I wrote about in the early days of this blog and I still get a bit choked up when those kids start singing “Grocer Jack, Grocer Jack, is it true what mummy says, you won’t come back? Actually seeing them do it in this video is even worse — that little boy in the blazer!
I was playing it in the car the other day when from behind me my daughter started singing along “Grocer Jack, Grocer Jack…”. I swear I was overcome with such a wave of sentiment and happiness I thought I was going to cry for a minute.