March 7 – Burden Made The Look For The L.A. Sounds

Today we remember a man Neil Young calls a “friend for life” and “collaborator,” a Grammy Award winner whose name surely appeared in the rolodexes of California’s musical elite in the ’60’s and ’70s…but whose name is all but unknown to most fans. Designer Gary Burden passed away this day in 2018, at age 84.

Album covers are an integral…often overlooked part of our musical listening experiences,” the CBC reminded us in a tribute to him. And Gary was among North America’s best at creating memorable ones. He was born in Cleveland to “a very conservative family and I didn’t fit in.” Curiously, his way of getting away from that was one of the most conservative-seeming routes… he joined the Marines! After leaving them, he spent a bit of time leading a “beatnik” lifestyle in California before settling down enough to go back to school. He studied design at the University of California, eventually graduating and working in architectural design. His lucky break though was having Cass Elliott hire him to remodel her house.

She liked what he did, and got along with him so she told him “you should design our new record cover – you know how to design things!”. And he did, designing the first Mamas and the Papas album cover…and getting to hang out with the group, and other Laurel Canyon musical friends of theirs all the while. “I blew off my three-piece suit and never looked back,” he says. “I was born – the real me.”

Soon he was the “go to” guy for the L.A. Music crowd when it came to making album covers. “How to visualize the music, that’s been my mission.” Conor Oberst, one of the last musicians he worked with says “Gary always wanted the album packaging to reflect the spirit of music (and thus) he was often at odds with the record labels when they sought to cut costs at the expense of what he and the artist had envisioned.” Happily he usually got his way!

After the Mamas and the Papas, he soon was doing covers like Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut, the Doors Morrison Hotel (taken looking in to a real hotel named that, which Ray Manzarek had discovered driving around L.A.) and Crazy Horse’s self-titled one. That was a memorable one on two counts. One, because Burden typically envisioned and designed the cover, he more often than not got a photographer like his friend Henry Diltz to take the actual photo. “I was intimidated by the camera,” he said, but for this “I took that picture of the horse.” Which leads to the second reason it was memorable – “it was trying to bite me!”

He did Joni Mitchell’s famous Blue (“this was such an honor for me. That’s the only cover of hers that she didn’t make herself.”) , the Eagles Desperado and Jackson Browne’s The Pretender. But his most enduring artistic partner was Neil Young. Young liked Burden and his art, and told Rolling Stone they made at least 40 album covers together and “I still have covers for unreleased albums that he made for me” which he says will see the light of day eventually. It was with Young that Burden won a Grammy, for packaging of a Young box set in 2010. Burden picks Young’s On the Beach as his all-time favorite. The one with Young, facing away from the camera, staring at the sea in a bright yellow shirt beside a tacky yellow lawn dining set and with a fin from an old Cadillac sticking out of the sand “was about America in the ’70s where everything was cheaper than it looked.”

Burden was survived by his wife Jenice Heo, an artist herself. She worked with him on some covers and was for a time Art Director at Warner Brothers records. It’s hard not to think that his passing mirrors a passing of an era in music… because say what you will about Spotify or downloading mp3s, there is just no comparison to seeing a little 200X200 pixel picture on a phone screen to holding a 12” X 12” piece of art in your hands while listening.

17 thoughts on “March 7 – Burden Made The Look For The L.A. Sounds

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    What a cool gig the guy had. Of course he had the talent to make it work but that would be a great way to make a living…of course you would starve now. Not a musician but creative all the same. Since he didn’t take some of the pictures I guess he just laid it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes, it sounds like he did everything but set the camera settings; he’d envision it, find the location, tell the photog where to shoot from etc, on the Joni Mitchell album he says he wanted it to look like an “1880s cyanotype” and he figured out how (which wasn’t that difficult IF you worked in photography and had taken courses in it back then, but would be very obscure to ordinary people; involved adding a bit of some particular chemical to the developer while developing a typical B&W print) , on ‘After the Gold Rush” he decided to take the original photo and ‘solarize’ it to make it look like a sort of weird negative then he added the lettering, making it look rusty because “What comes after a gold rush? Rust” … quite a cool job, like you say.
      With re-emergence of popularity of vinyl, there are probably some doing it again but likely on the side… I doubt they get budgets for the covers like they used to!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Badfinger (Max)

        The covers were more than half the fun…and on so-so albums they were 70s percent of it. It was important to have a cool looking cover. Think about Elvis and his 60s and 70s covers…ugly as hell and only one is remembered…the Aloha one…the rest were cheap photos of Elvis…that was the Colonel’s doing…short term he made money…long term he lost credibility…and that is something you can’t buy.

        Love hearing how they done those…now it would be more of a filter but then…it was like an art.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. For sure… another area where the Beatles really took the reins and ran with it (album art and memorable covers.) Albums like ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Sgt. Pepper’, ‘Abbey Road,’ ‘Hotel California’… not only great images but probably as widely recognized as the music itself.
        Yeah, he could have gotten a pretty similar effect on ‘Blue’ by using a deep blue filter and color film (and nowadays by just manipulating the color palette digitally) but he went the older route. I did a few prints that way in the ’80s (maybe early 90s)… it was a cool look. There was a chemical you could add to do the same but give you a sepia effect too.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. photography? It is, but of course it’s a radically different field these days. In terms of the old film developing though, while working in a film lab (with the machines, in light) was quite cool, B&W film developing and printing was a bit of a pain in the ass… no question it was cool to actually see the picture appear in the pool of developer under the faint red light, but the chemicals smelled, a lot had to be done in the dark, and for many like me, to do it at home, I had to drag a lot of stuff into a small bathroom to work in. I don’t miss it, but it was something special to show a print and have not only taken that picture but made the print too.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Badfinger (Max)

        Yes Photography… it looked more like an art in the old days…and that would have been cool. You would almost need a small room dedicated to that.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. that would have been ideal. It is funny how it’s changed through the years… back 100 or so years, it was so rare, photographers would go town to town and families would put aside special days to be photographed. Then it became common place with things like Instamatics, but high quality images were still … elite, because good cameras were manual and one had to understand the basics like depth of field and film speeds, differences between films etc. That diminished in 80s with decent quality point-and-shoot 35mm cams, and SLRs got autofocus and ‘program settings’… but there was still a market for portraiture and weddings and things. Nowadays, with cel phones, everyone thinks they’re a photographer, few get printed, so results viewed on a 2″ screen tend to look good and the professional photographers are becoming endangered species.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Badfinger (Max)

        Yes it’s becoming rare. Bailey actually got a $500 wedding gig coming up taking pictures. It will be done on his 35mm digital camera. He wants to do film but he said he will take it.

        You never know…like vinyl it could come back more…there is a difference.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Cool…congrats for Bailey. There does seem to be a little resurgence of 35mm enthusiasts, like vinyl as you say, but the range of films & places processing it is pretty limited now. And like vinyl, expensive! No more $3 rolls of film and $10 developing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. There is nothing like the tactile holding of a piece of art. It is sad , so sad, that the buyer- or as the Record Company puts it ‘consumer’ loses out when you download their ‘product’ it is not presented with the whole real artistic vision. A decent well-thought record cover acts a kind of visual teasing foreplay before the big reveal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. very much so… I’ve said before, the one way I think LPs really outdo CDs is in the artwork and packaging…and don’t even get me started on digital downloads! Some covers and liner notes were works of art. I remember being blown away by the art for ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ when I got that as a kid, both the cover and the inside lyrics with a little painting for each song. Really added to the enjoyment of the experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had a book- tattered and now lost- of record covers of the 70s- there were many brilliant ones, Its A Beautiful Day, New Riders Of The Purple Sage, the genius concept of a one for a group called Camel sticks in my mind.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. never heard of a band called Camel but I’ll try to look up the cover. I have a mini-coffee table book of cool album covers I was given a few years ago… fitting because looking through it, there’s a lot of art inside, as you’d see in a similar book of masters paintings.

        Liked by 1 person

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