Fondly remembering the days of provocative and playful album covers... and mourning the loss of the art and soul of vinyl.
By Sean Daly
Published March 9, 2006
Never mind that the whipped cream was actually shaving cream, or that the come-hither model underneath the strategic cloud of foam was three months pregnant: Forty-one years after it first titillated the world, the cover of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream & Other Delights remains the sexiest album art of all time.
I can hear the groans now. What about the "import'' version of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland? Too natural. Roxy Music's Country Life Too Euro. REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity? (Too Speedwagony.) The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers? (Oh, that's just sick.)
Nope, not one of these comes close to the life-affirming visage of young Dolores Erickson, posed in front of that lime-green backdrop, presumably naked save for a wedding gown of white foam. One hand holds a red rose; the other hand is lifted to her tongue. She's wearing a puff of white in her hair, an unlikely pillbox hat. Her big, brown doe eyes have that naughty-nice Natalie Wood thing going on.
"To this day, people come up to me and tell me how much they love the album," Alpert wrote in the liner notes of a reissue last year. "And then there are those who come up and say they really, really love the album cover!"
I believe in Whipped Cream's all-time greatness now more than ever, especially as I stare at the cover for a new album called Rewhipped, a "remixing" of Alpert's classic disc released Tuesday. Rewhipped is perfect for hipster soirees: classic cocktail cool reworked with techno swirls by such avant-gardists as the Thievery Corporation.
Of course, what the album sounds like isn't the issue. It's what it looks like that depresses me. A plasticine perfect young woman, tanned and airbushed to Mattel-toy smoothness, is posing on her tummy, feet in the air, wearing a barely there "bikini" of cream. Her eyes have been injected with that lime-green glow. Whereas Erickson looked stunning but approachable, the new gal, model Bree Condon, looks like she gets her mail at the Playboy Mansion.
Normally, I'm not one to frown at an attractive woman in a perishable two-piece. But Rewhipped bothers me for all sorts of reasons, from the professional to the deeply personal. First of all, the cover of the new disc represents the dire lack of imagination in modern album art. Not only is the new cover boring, it'sBaywatch. When it comes to whipped cream, more is more, and I'm not the only one who thinks so.
"That was my Halloween costume one year," says JoEllen Schilke, owner of St. Petersburg's Globe Coffee Lounge, about the Dolores Erickson cover. "And that was the most popular night of my life."
Schilke has 60-some copies of Whipped Cream collected in the Globe; she figures she needs 98 in order to "tile" an entire wall of her popular shop.Whipped Cream is still such a treat because of its "shock value," she says. When I show her the cover of Rewhipped, she shrugs her shoulders. My thoughts exactly.
Thanks in large part to its cover, Whipped Cream spent 141 weeks in the Top 40 - 61 of those in the Top 10. What's the last album cover that sparked dialogue and helped drive sales? Maybe Jane's Addiction'sNothing's Shocking, a 1988 album that featured buxom mannequins with their hair on fire. Perhaps the Black Crowes' Amorica (1994) or Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals (1998).
But why should artists care? On a basic level, the artistic limitations of a 5- by 5-inch CD jewel case are obvious, especially after the relatively spacious 12-by-12 canvas of the vinyl album jacket. Plus, if you want to express yourself "visually" these days, you shoot a music video, an art form that coincided with the technological transfer from vinyl to tape and CD.
In a few years, album art will cease to exist altogether. Poof. Gone. Bye-bye. If you think I'm exaggerating, remember that iTunes, which sells data files for digital players, recently passed Borders Books & Music and Tower Records on the list of top music retailers. That means when you buy Whipped Cream & Other Delights on iTunes, you get the music . . . but not Dolores Erickson. In fact, you won't get any pretty pictures at all.
My father gave me both Whipped Cream and the Ohio Players' Honey album way back when I was still in Garanimals. It was like a rite of passage. Honey, which has the second-sexiest cover of all time, featured a "gatefold" cover that unfolded to reveal a woman wearing nothing but the titular confection. Not only was the cover a landmark moment in the mainstream acceptance of black sexuality, but it inspired dozens of urban legends: The honey was actually glue! The model was murdered in the studio! You can hear her screams onLove Rollercoaster!
The funny thing is, my dad still checks in on those albums. "Still have Ohio Players?" he'll whisper out of female earshot. "Whipped Cream, too?" For him, this is the bonding equivalent of having a baseball catch.
When I was a wee lad sprawled in front of the hulking family turntable, album art was the primary rabbit hole into the music, especially for such albums as Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Supertramp's Breakfast in America. I wouldn't be a music writer if it weren't for the years spent deciphering the covers of Abbey Road or Highway to Hell or Highway 61 Revisited.
To commiserate about all of this, I called Ben Vaughn, a Hollywood composer who has scored such hit sitcoms as 3rd Rock From the Sun and That '70s Show. Vaughn is a noted vinyl junkie, with about 5,000 albums at home. "I buy a lot of albums just for the covers," the 50-year-old musician admits, laughing. "Sometimes I don't even get around to listening to them."
When I tell him about Rewhipped, he sighs and says, "We're working in miniatures now," referring to the shrinking size of album art, the lack of notable album art and, especially, digital music making the music biz a "singles market" again. That is, more and more people are buying singles, not albums - and definitely not album covers.
Vaughn's Venice Beach recording studio is decorated with dozens of album covers, all of which have a common theme: an exotic woman. As Vaughn makes his music - his new album, Designs in Music, is a swell lesson in Space Age swing - he is surrounded by albums by Ray Conniff, Martin Denny and, of course, the Ohio Players and Herb Alpert.
"I had this idea to do a documentary film on album cover girls," says Vaughn. "In fact, it was going to be called Album Cover Girls." He managed to track down Erickson, now a painter outside Seattle, but the project fizzled. Still, it wasn't a total loss: "She painted a self-portrait" posing for Whipped Cream, he says. "So I bought it from her. It's hanging in my apartment now."
Surprisingly enough, Vaughn isn't that mournful about the impending death of album art. "The first record I bought was the single for Twist and Shout by the Beatles," he says. "There was no art, but I didn't care. It was about the music."
Music, he adds, is returning to its purest state.
I'm not so sure I like that. And I know my dad's going to hate it. As far as the Daly men are concerned, the world is a much better place with a dessert-topped Dolores Erickson in it.