A closer look at the first National Health album’s cover

Next in our series of classic Canterbury scene covers is the magnificent debut album by National Health. As with both Hatfield and the North covers, once again Laurie Lewis was entrusted with shooting the photos for both the front and back cover.

The album had been recorded in April 1977, shortly about Alan Gowen and Amanda Parsons had left the band, with both agreeing to stay on for the duration of the sessions. National Health however were still without a record deal at this point, and by the time the deal with Charly Records was finally signed the band was down to four members, and only they appeared on the photos, which were taken in December 1977.

The front cover was a rather obvious reference to the band’s name. Dave Stewart in those days wore cheap glasses provided by the British NHS so they bore the mention “National Health”, and the band was named after them.

national_health_LP

The cover photo showed the band visiting an unidentified patient. A review suggested – not entirely ironically – that, with such talented musicians taking so long to secure a record deal, said patient was probably the British music industry !

There is a darker undercurrent to the photograph as it was taken (on December 6th) at St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London, which happened to be the same hospital where Alan Gowen would die some three and a half years later.

No such thing was on Pip’s mind however when I asked him to remember the photo shoot.

Laurie set the shot up, he managed to blag some sister at a hospital to let us come into the ward for a shoot. No mean feat when you think about it… ‘Excuse me, do you think I could just bring in this rock’n’roll group and their children into your ward of very ill people and do a photo session for their album ?’ Laurie always had the gift of the gab for anything like that !

Who is supposed to be the patient in the bed ?

No-one, really.

Why all the ugly gifts ?

Well, you always bring gifts to hospital, so we bought all this junk instead of grapes and magazines. I wanted to take this much further, with like hoovers, blow-up dollies, golf clubs etc. But perhaps we would have been shown the door before we even got through it !

Why is Dave the doctor ?

Well, he looked like one ! He rolled up with a stethoscope.

Who is the guy with the nurse ?

Pretty sure that was Laurie Lewis’ dad.

And the nurse ?

I think she was a real nurse in the ward. She was working…

Laurie’s dad is talking to a couple…

The lady with the blurred face was probably just a visitor. We all had to keep quite still because Laurie always used a slow lens speed if possible.

The boy sitting behind you looks familiar…

It’s Sam, and I think maybe Alice is concealed behind him.

What about the guy in the red jacket ?

I don’t know, maybe a friend of Laurie’s ?

It appears what became the front cover was initially intended as the back cover, and for the front, the band toyed with the (rather silly) idea of using the picture of an elf (a phonetic play on “National Elf” !). Thankfully they changed their minds, decided the hospital shot would be the front cover, and another shoot was set up, this time at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, on December 21st.

Remembered Pip :

The “joke” as such, was instead of having the band shot on stage it would be role reversals and we’d be the audience. And the nurses – the National Health ! – would be on stage… Obviously Ronnie’s was a convenient place to shoot in the daytime when no-one was playing. Laurie and I knew Ronnie Scott a bit so we just asked him if we could use it.

Ronnie Scott himself sat at the piano, and the club’s doorman played the drummer. The bass-playing nurse was not an actual nurse this time, but Soose, Dave Stewart’s girlfriend who did the lights for the band on tour.

national_health_back

Pip Pyle, Dave Stewart and Neil Murray are seen sitting at a table applauding and cheering, but the fourth figure with his back to the camera whom one would assume to be Phil Miller isn’t actually him – Phil never showed up so his “part” was played by someone else with long hair, possibly a lady. Coincidentally, a year later a similar situation arose for the Soft Heap cover, when Elton Dean turned up late and a random passer-by was asked to stand in for him, conveniently wearing a hoodied coat !

Rick Chafen, who later organised National Health’s US tour in 1979, had a funny anecdote about the t-shirt Neil Murray is seen wearing on the front cover :

I had a friend who ran a record store when the National Health album finally came out, and he made a shirt pretty much like the one Neil is wearing. I met Neil after [National Health and Steve Hillage’s] Lyceum show, and mentioned that I had a friend who’d made a shirt just like his. “I doubt it,” he replied. “I’m wearing it backwards for the photograph !”

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