This website is too small to encompass the larger debate on what technology has done to creative expression. It’s too easy to say that Paradise Lost was written longhand by a blind man and 50 Shades Of Grey was Web fanfiction given a thorough, anonymous remix by unknown hands before being shock-marketed into ten million Kindles nationwide. The print era gave us a lot of junk and Thought Catalog occasionally publishes something that is actually worthwhile. There’s no simple sum-up to be had.
For right now, I’d like to focus on the fact that a lot of things that would be the subject of endless discussion and hand-wringing in 2014 were simply done without fanfare in previous eras for all sorts of reasons that no longer seem even slightly relevant: the difficulty of getting actual photographic media, the limitations of reproduction equipment both audio and visual, individual degrees of freedom in the creation of high-budget, mass-market-oriented product that would be considered suicidal today.
But none of that explains why the first album from
snitch-rockers Southern rockers The Allman Brothers features the band posing nude in a stream.
Here’s the photo if you want to see it; I have it deliberately undersized just in case you’re at work, but full res is there for the clicking.
The shot was taken by semi-famous rock photographer Stephen Paley, who somehow convinced Duane Allman to pose completely nude for individual shots in that same session. One of those shots made it into the gatefold of the Boz Scaggs LP. There was definitely something going around at the time, wasn’t there?
But consider two things:
Why was the photo taken? Was it “fanservice” for the band’s female and presumably almost nonexistent gay-male fanbase? It seems unlikely; this isn’t a beefcake photo in the slightest, it’s not provocative, none of the Allmans seems particularly well-suited to nude photography. Virtually any of the standard rock-photo tropes of the time would have made more sense. Concert photos. Posed shots in front of a brick wall. Pictures of the tour bus. Blank space. The picture is more or less the worst possible use of the gatefold. While it in no way implies anyone in the band is gay (although the is-he-or-isn’t-he controversy concerning drummer Jaimoe’s ethnicity that took place later among the band’s touring fanbase is easily, and comprehensively, answered in the shot) it would make most Southern men uneasy to have a photo like that in the house.
How was the photo taken? Did the photographer suggest it? Did the band suggest it? Was it a joke that acquired too much momentum to let go? Was it just some of that weird 1969 sexual-revolution business, the belief that there was something spiritual about being naked? Was it the result of some weird power play between the label and the band? Between the photographer and the band? Was everyone high? Or, oddity that it would be, was the band in the habit of bathing in the creek between rehearsals?
The Internet should know this: to put it mildly, the Allman Brothers have been the subject of more than their fair share of rock scholarship. But it doesn’t seem to. The nude photo is Southern Rock’s Big Lipped Alligator Moment. No other records feature the band posing nude. Interviews don’t refer to it. It’s a non-canon plot point, so to speak, like Greedo shooting at Han in the cantina. Our national image of the Allman Brothers is that of a bunch of hicks jamming out something that sounds like Lynryd Skynyrd, with perhaps a minor nod to Duane’s death or Greg Allman’s marriage to Cher or the whole snitching-on-Scooter thing. At no point in our collective imagination does the crew that rocked “Whipping Post” across a thousand arenas in the Seventies ever sit down naked together in a stream. Yet it certainly happened and the modern reissues of the CDs preserve the photo, which is how I know about it in the first place. I was hoping for some liner notes and what I got was Deliverance porn.
If I had to guess as to how the whole thing happened, it would be something like this: A minor label (Capricorn) releases an album that isn’t expected to sell much (that expectation being ably fulfilled, by the way) and they completely hand over creative control to the photographer, who is anxious to make a name for himself. The easiest way to do so is to get everybody naked. The band agrees because at that point in the process they’re suffered so many humiliations at the hands of the label that posing nude in a stream seems fairly minor. Nobody thinks too much of it, the album is a slow seller, it isn’t really relevant until a few years later when Layla drops and Duane dies and a newly minted crop of fans comes looking for it.
That process almost couldn’t happen today. Minor CD releases today tend to be self-funded, which means the artists are extremely conservative in the packaging and very cheap with the art. Major CD releases are the product of monstrous conglomerates full of interns and experts fine-tuning the appeal of everything from the lens color filters in the video to the font used on the iTunes promo banner. Neither of those processes leads to a dumbfounded band blinking in a creek somewhere.
I suppose this brings me to Nick Drake, someone whose death, like Jaco’s, I sometimes find hard to take in retrospect. In the modern music business, would Nick have been allowed to make three albums that sank as hard as his did? (And I mean they sank; I cannot find anything that suggests that Nick Drake sold over 11,000 records during his lifetime.) Probably not; he’d have been shown the door after the first one failed.
Yet, on the Internet, I’d like to think that Nick Drake would have found fans, that a grassroots movement would have built up, that he would have managed a rogue single on iTunes somehow, that he would have become a Matt Nathanson or a Lumineers. Failing that, he could have at least maintained a fan base, a group of people eager to hear his music, small but supportive.
I’d like to think that I would have reached out to him and offered to play bass on his record, maybe cover some of the harmonies. And that we’d find ourselves finishing the record, and some sort of photo would be required. Behind the studio there’s a stream. Nick and I look at it and I laugh, “Remember that stupid Allman Brothers shot?” And he does, and we disrobe and crouch down in the cold, flowing water, and I put my arm on him, and I look him in the eye, and I say,
“Hey, Nick, you know what it feels like to want to to swallow every pill in the bottle at once?” And he’d nod. “Me too,” I’d say, and then we’d stand up, and dry off, and climb the path back to the studio, still laughing.