Michael Ochs is the brother of the late folksinger Phil Ochs and owner of the world's largest music photo archive. Now he also dabbles as a curator: For The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were, a new exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ochs asked nearly 100 artists and musicians to construct cover art for imaginary albums by legendary musicians.
"I wanted to take the stuff that's offered to us and put it in a different setting," Ochs says. "The misconception is that these are alternate covers for existing albums. These are total fantasy covers -- nothing more than fine artists interpreting recording artists."
The results span popular music of the 20th century: Robert Johnson, Frank Sinatra, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Talking Heads, and Björk are all honored. "I wanted to be sure each decade was represented and that all of the big icons were in there," Ochs says. "I was surprised by some of the choices. It's an interesting cross section."
The concept is simple: Ochs and artist Craig Butler recruited well-known pop-culture figures -- including photographer William Claxton, musician Graham Nash, artist Ralph Steadman, and author Kurt Vonnegut -- to create album covers for their favorite artists. "A general list of the top [musicians] was sent to artists for them to choose from, but they weren't limited to it," Ochs explains. "The only criteria was that [the finished piece] had to be in square format, up to four feet.
"And more people took advantage of that [size] than I expected," he laughs.
And whether it's Josh Agle's cartoon Sinatra, hoisting a martini glass over a splash of '50s-era design and color, or Tim O'Brien re-imagining Elvis Costello's All This Useless Beauty as a stately portrait, The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were is just as much a contemporary art exhibit as it is a history-propping realization of Ochs's and Butler's fancy. "I miss [record] covers," Ochs says. "I love the inner sleeves and the fact that you can read the lyrics. They were more of an experience than jewel cases are."
Fifty of the commissioned pieces premiere at the Rock Hall. Once the exhibit closes in September, it hits the road for two years, stopping at Seattle's Experience Music Project and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, among other places. "I wouldn't mind keeping this going," Ochs says. "We're still getting calls in from people who want to do one of these.
"We originally thought this was going to be more photo-intensive, since I was offering everything from the archives. But it covers the complete gamut of art, from paintings to digital prints to sculpture. I just wanted something I could hang on my wall."