By Nicholas Nicou
As any collector of vinyl records will doubtless tell you, cover artwork can be just as important to an album as the music found on it. After all, whether music fans decide to peruse albums in a record store leaf through a friend’s collection to find new tunes to listen to, such artwork is their first port of call and, simultaneously, the very first indication of the music which may lie within.
Perhaps more importantly, cover artwork will be an album’s defining symbol in both the present and for generations to come; far from being an afterthought, it is a timeless evocation of an artist’s songs, as well as an overt expression of their artistic outlook at the time of release.
In many cases, an album’s artwork can become the artist’s defining symbol, an emblem which can spawn its very own, unique mythology: who doesn’t associate the band Nirvana with the swimming baby who graces the cover of their second album, Nevermind? Why else would the prism on the cover of Dark Side of the Moon have become synonymous with Pink Floyd in the years since the album’s release in 1973?
Santana’s eponymous 1968 debut is another album which fits neatly into this bracket. Indeed, though its artwork may at first seem simple, a plethora of optical illusions hide within the main image, making for a delightful artistic trick of the mind, and, simultaneously, encompassing the unique, psychedelic vibe of the group’s début effort.
Upon first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that the artwork is impressive, but one-dimensional: on the right flank, the band’s name in a psychedelic font; straddling the left, a proud lion, roaring as it bears its prominent white teeth.
However, the image is far from simple. The lion’s eyes are, fact, two gasping faces, leaning on an outstretched arm on both the left and right of the cover to achieve perfect symmetry. Atop the eyes, the lion’s furrowed brow reveals a further two heads, facing each other in profile to frame a third facing the spectator from within the lion’s mane.
What may at first seem like cheeks are in fact another two faces, one on each side of the lion’s face with whiskers protruding from the eyes, mouth and chin.
Regardless, it is the final illusion which impresses the most. It is a figure which is so prominent that you will be stunned you did not see it sooner.
Look closely at the bottom of the sleeve in centre and you will see two, slender black legs, emerge from the darkness underneath the lion’s chin. Then, as your eyes are drawn upwards, you realise that the soft, bright white hairs forming the tuft on the lion’s chin are, in fact, part of a straw hula skirt.
In the lion’s mouth, which before looked so innocuous, we realise that the teeth, tongue and lips of the animal form the frame of a black woman: the lips become arms crossed, hugging the underside of breasts whose nipples are obscured by the lower canines. Meanwhile, on the top lip, upper canines straddle the lady’s broad shoulders as the incisors become a necklace to grace her neck.
It is only then that we see the face of a black woman appear on the underside of the lion’s nose, her closed eyes, nose and mouth indicated by the lightest of touches of white on black. The nose itself is then revealed as a hat sat atop her head, which, in turn, can be seen as two howling faces à la Scream.
You cannot help but smile when you first uncover the figure staring back at you.
Where the lion had once been the prominent image staring out from within the album sleeve, it is now the black woman at its centre who draws the gaze of the observer. Though at first hidden, her understated presence now relegates the powerful image of the roaring lion firmly to the background.
For the artist, Lee Conklin, the idea first emerged when he recalled the image of a lion from an animal picture book he had as a child. “With a little inspiration from the muse Mary Jane”, he set out to use the image as the core of a gig poster for a concert headlined by Santana. Though not inspired by the band’s music, the image impressed the band so much that they asked Conklin to recreate it for the cover of their début album:
Even then, I knew that I was making art for future generations and so even though Bill [Graham, band manager] usually liked posters in colour, I detailed this one in pen-and-ink…the challenge has always been to subvert the poster form to whatever my muse insists on and then to convert my psychedelic experiences to any medium I’m working in. I made it my mission to translate my psychedelic experience into paper.
Just like the music on the album it accompanies, Conklin’s image is a unique evocation of the fact that the same work of art can be viewed from various perspectives over various generations, and that album artwork can be just as important to an album as the music it accompanies.
Considering the experimental, adventurous music the band showcased on their eponymous début, it is fitting that Conklin’s artwork should invert the expected.
Quotes from Conklin taken from Cover Story’s great article ‘Cover Story – Santana’s “Santana”, with illustration by Lee Conklin’ accessible at the following link: http://rockandrollreport.com/cover-story-santanas-santana-with-illustration-by-lee-conklin/#sthash.zWEiTl3H.dpuf