He wasn’t a musician, but Gary Burden is no doubt a part of many a record collection, particularly the ones belonging to those who dig or dug the Southern California folk-rock scene of the late sixties and seventies. Burden, who died at the age of 84 on March 7 in Los Angeles, designed memorable album covers for Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
In a 2015 interview with National Public Radio, Burden described his mission succinctly: “I visualize music.”
That same year, he was in Toronto, accompanying his artist wife, Jenice Heo, who had an exhibition at the Struck Contemporary gallery downtown. There I chatted with him at length about his life and career. He talked about trading in his three-piece suit for whatever the cats in Laurel Canyon were wearing back in the days of Mamas, Papas and CSNYs. I heard his tales of driving fast cars recklessly in the hills and working with the meticulous Neil Young and other rock stars.
Mostly he talked about his craft, and the care that was put into pre-digital-era designing. For example, the format Burden wanted for the first Crosby, Stills & Nash record would have cost the record company 25 cents an album to produce. At the time, 1969, LPs cost eight cents to make. The label was dead set against paying for Burden’s sophisticated finish and expensive embossing, but the band backed him up and the album was packaged at a high standard.
Burden remembered what the suits at the record label had told him: “You could put a good record in a paper bag and no one would care.” But some did care, and many still do.
Taking place on April 21 is Record Store Day, an annual event involving limited-edition vinyl releases available at bricks-and-mortar vinyl shops all over the world. For the occasion, The Globe and Mail asked five musicians about their most prized pieces of vinyl. They talked about a lot of things: the liner notes, the album art, how the record was acquired and how it was played. The one common denominator? None of the records came in a paper bag.
Edmonton-born rapper and former Edmonton poet laureate Cadence Weapon, on Winter in America (1974) by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson:
“Winter in America by vocalist Gil Scott-Heron and keyboardist Brian Jackson is one of my all-time favourite records. I love that I happened upon it at a record show, which is a music-nerd convention where you pay a cover charge to go into a hall and peruse various booths of sellers from far-flung corners of the country and potentially buy their wares. I walk around with a list of records in my phone’s notes marked “Buy On Sight.” Winter in America was on it at the time. Seeing the worn, vaguely psychedelic cover of this soulful seventies jazz-funk classic in person was thrilling. The packaging of a record can tell so much of the story of an album, and I try to keep that tradition alive with my own music. I try to put things in my packaging that could make people as excited as I was when I opened the gatefold of Winter in America and saw a collage of inner-city decay and the following statement: ‘In the interest of national security, please help us carry out our constitutional duty to overthrow the king.’”
Jay Ferguson, singer-guitarist from the veteran power-pop quartet Sloan, on Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces (1979):
“I was 12 years old in 1981, when I met some older guys who worked and hung around a used-record store in Halifax. When I told them I was heading to Toronto that summer, they gave me directions to Vortex Records on Dundas Street East, then owned and run by their friend and vinyl lifer, Bert Myers.
One of the records I purchased there, and still own, is an original British copy of Elvis Costello’s third LP, Armed Forces. While not only musically wonderful, the original artwork and packaging is a graphic designer’s tour de force that needs to be held to be appreciated. Designed by the legendary Barney Bubbles, every detail of the record and packaging down to the labels and credits was obviously considered and uncompromised.
Throughout the years playing in Sloan and working on our own LP covers, we may not have created anything as wildly elaborate for a single LP, but the impact of making your record look as good as it sounds has always rung true for me.”
Barbara Hannigan, the Grammy-winning Nova Scotian soprano, on Neil Young’s Comes a Time (1978):
“Playing a record is a tactile experience, in a very specific way. It requires such delicacy. So, you really feel that you’ve come of age when you’re finally allowed to touch the family record player. You’re given a sense of responsibility and care for this precious object of art, a record album. If you’re not disciplined and you’re not concentrating, you can hurt it. There’s a fragility to the album, but a strength as well. Because it has power, that object.
My boyfriend recently gave me the 1978 Neil Young album Comes a Time. He knew I’d love the music, but also the picture of Neil Young on the cover and the title of the album. I don’t have it with my other albums. I can see it all the time – that faded black-and-white photograph with his goofy grin, holding his guitar. It was very romantic gesture. Much more than buying me a CD or giving me an iTunes gift card.”
Brendan Canning, co-founder of Toronto indie rockers Broken Social Scene, on the 1970 Charles Mintz single Give a Man a Break/Finder’s Keeper’s:
I had heard the song on [New Jersey community radio station] WFMU. Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo played it. Give a Man a Break is a pretty hard-hitting funk song by Charles Mintz. It became my holy grail to get this song.
But I couldn’t find it. I even talked about it in an Australian press interview. A woman heard the interview and reached out on the Broken Social Scene Facebook account and sent me an eBay link to the song. I bid on it, but didn’t win. We were on tour. I was on a plane, and the auction still had hours to go.
A year and a half later, the record just showed up at my house. A friend from San Francisco flagged it at Amoeba Music in Los Angeles and had it sent to me when it came in.
I think I like the flip side, Finder’s Keeper’s, even better than Give a Man a Break. It’s kind of like the song Otis Redding never recorded, you know? A real hard-hitting power ballad. It’s not the slickest recording. The vocals are a little buried. But there’s just something about it.”
The Vancouver singer-songwriter Hannah Georgas, on Wye Oak’s Shriek (2014):
“A good friend of mine gave me the album Shriek by Wye Oak on vinyl for my birthday a few years back. I fell in love with it and played it constantly. I was looking through the credits one day and noticed the album was mixed by the French record producer and engineer Nicolas Vernhes. I looked him up and found out that he’s mixed some of my favourite sounding albums. I reached out, he got back to me and he ended up mixing my last album, For Evelyn. I thought it was pretty special to discover this incredible band through a friend and then find Nicolas through their music.”