Cover Story – Steve Braunias: 100 Beautiful, Strange and Frankly Incredible New Zealand LP Covers (Oratia Media $50)

Guaranteed to send you down a ‘white’ rabbit hole, Steve Braunias’ new book is a dedication to the music that we once treasured and fashion trends we revered. He makes it ok again to pull these out from the back of the cupboard, shake off the dust and drop the needle again. Sure, no one else will understand. But who really cares. This is the real history, here! Isn’t it?

It’s long been held that music is one of the primary keys to understanding culture and history. A song or a recording can be a snapshot of our individual or collective thinking at a particular point in time.

Writing on great album and records is not new. Most music critics and experts feel a compulsion to create some commentary on what they consider the best releases. to Rolling Stone puts out a top 500 every 20 years or so. So does Billboard magazine. Everyone has a go. Even author/play-write Tom Stoppard managed to put out a personal playlist – when he’s not shoehorning his music favs into scripts like ‘High Fidelity’.

All of these provide reference points about the time and place when these ‘iconic’ albums were made. What what happening, who was dating who. What drugs, clothes, politics or relationships other influences were impacting. Nick Bollinger and Grant Smithies have already put out great works on our own homegrown classics.

But, you may ask, makes a classic? What about the others, the forgotten, the left overs, the rarities that are overlooked by history. Maybe the uncool and quirky? What happened to those albums.

That’s where Journalist Steve Braunias comes in. Thanks to spare time and access to his local Sally Army Store in Henderson, Braunias has managed to build up a collection of real ‘clunkers’ spanning the decades from 1957–87, when the LP was ‘King of New Zealand recorded music’. This book is a celebration of the cover art of these albums, presented in full size, in all their techno-four colour separation glory.

Braunias will be well known to newspaper readers, as a journalist, editor, reviewer and publisher. He’s also a staff writer for the New Zealand Herald and literary editor for current affairs website Newsroom. He’s clocked up over 40 awards for his work. The author of 12 books, most recently ‘Missing Persons’ (check out our interview with Steve on this book.

The 100 albums here are divided into themes, accompanied by Braunias’ inimitable dry wit, with some retro-fitted empathy bearing down on the often naive art direction, fashion choices and occasional gaudiness displayed on these glossy covers. He also draws on his own experience collecting over 800 albums from op-shops and junk parlours around the motu, never passing up an opportunity to reflects on what each says about our own particular brand of popular culture.

There is definitely an over abundance of Country & Western hayseed music, alongside too serious born-again Christians with a lack of fashion sense. Then there’s the hard-drinking piano players jamming out ‘party hits’ on their Lowrey Organ in support of their local music retailers. Most of these are un-listenable these days. but the covers are gold!

There are more than a few crimes against music, with the biggest being Carol O’Halloran’s ‘Jazzercise’ album. Surely green tights with pink leotard is a felony in several states across the country.

There are a few legends like Kiwi legends, too. Like Peter Posa’s ‘White Rabbit Album’, with it’s slimy Playboy Bunny cover, complete with Peter doing his best not to look uncomfortable – and failing.

Hello Sailor appears too. On the CD and cassette versions I owned, I never noticed the brief show of a nipple on the cover illustration. I wonder if that had a few retailers refusing to display this in the front window?

There’s also the The Yandall Sisters, and ‘our Kiri’ (in her early bouffant hair-do days) and other ‘lesser’ known jokers like a random guy who owned a menswear store in Whanganui. They all have one thing in common, though. What does music look like? What images do we need to convey this?

Braunis tells their stories, the ones behind the record covers. Remember, back then, it was still a huge deal to get to a studio, record, get a company to back and put out your album. That could be the gateway to a huge career. Hippy/psyche oufit The Rumour thought so. They were mildly successful. But now, having faded pretty much into obscurity, finding their albums and discovering their music is a pleasure and a journey.

The Rumour's cover to 'Holy Morning' is a stunner, though.  Taken at Red Rocks and featuring the best example of a 70's moustache courtesay of singer Shade Smith (real name 'John') - named after a character in TS Elliot's poem 'The Hollow Men'
The Rumour’s cover to ‘Holy Morning’ is a stunner, though.  Taken at Red Rocks and featuring the best example of a 70’s moustache courtesy of singer Shade Smith (real name ‘John’) – named after a character in TS Elliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’

The Rumour’s cover to ‘Holy Morning’ is a stunner, though. Taken at Red Rocks and featuring the best example of a 70’s moustache courtesay of singer Shade Smith (real name ‘John’) – named after a character in TS Elliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’
The Rumour’s cover to ‘Holy Morning’ is a stunner, though. Taken at Red Rocks and featuring the best example of a 70’s moustache courtesay of singer Shade Smith (real name ‘John’) – named after a character in TS Elliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’

Thanks to the vinyl revival they have come back from the grave. Their albums, printed back in the early 70’s and scratched and buffed to buggery can still command a $50 price tag for their now rare-as-hens-teeth album.

The stories he relays around each album are based on research and one to one interviews with some of the artists like John Stevens. From those we learn interesting and previously unrecorded facts. Stevens, for example, worked at the Alicetown EMI Record Pressing Plant, smashing out 900 copies a day, before his recording career took off. A year later he appeared on an album cover pressed in that same plant, thanks to his smash hit ‘Jezabel’.

Then there’s the glam girls, Tina Cross (spread eagled against the graphitti ‘X’ from the Mi-Sex cover) and Jane Ussher’s super sexy ‘wet’ look image of ‘Shazza’ Sharon O’Neil. Grrrr! Not!

If Braunias has ever let me down, though, then it’s his passing glance at 1980’s Flying Nun and alternative covers. Actually, I really wanted a whole book on this perod. But he does includes the Gordons, iconic punk AK79 compilation, and of course, the FN ‘Dunedin Double’ – The Chills/Verlaines/Stones/Sneaky Feelings release. Three fabulous B&W images that sum up a decade and a genre. The latter features IV’s with Martin Phillips and Caroline Easter from the Chills, alongside Doug Hood (early Chills Producer) and Francisca Griffin from Look Blue Go Purple. I wanted more interviews about this period (my time!). He’d gain access to the Holly Grail. Just add in Bill Direen, Hamish Kilgour and Chris Knox and, sigh … Oh, well.

Towards the back of the book there’s a section called ‘Pieces of Art’. This is dedicated to the more ‘outrageous’ covers – bands like The Human Instinct, Space Farm, The Simple Image, and Mantis made some incredible, if garish and outlandish to wrap up their music. There are less stories about these, with the author letting the works speak, err scream. for themselves.

All in all this is a fabulous read. A great present for anyone who loves music, history, culture and, of course, vinyl! It’s well made (just like a record, same size, too). Great prints of the albums. Put this on a coffee table and I guarantee someone will pick it up, giggle away, and then hum a tune or tow. Maybe even spin a yarn about one of the bands or their time they were in a choir or marching team. If they do, then make sure there’s plenty of beer in the fridge. It’s going to be a long afternoon.

We couldn’t resist creating playlist based on the artists in this book. Sing along with these gems from the albums in this book while you read.

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