For many the defining work of both Hatfield and the North and, possibly, the Canterbury Scene as a whole, The Rotters’ Club was, like its predecessor, housed in a memorable cover designed by Pip Pyle’s friend Laurie Lewis, who went on to design quite a few striking album covers for a wide range of artists well outside the Canterbury Scene realm.
The basic premise of the cover was the existence of an actual organisation named “The Rotters’ Club“, which wasn’t quite as fictitious as it may have seemed – begun as an informal partnership between Pyle, Elton Dean, road manager Benji Lefèvre and guitarist Bernie Holland (of Jody Grind, Hummingbird and Jeff Beck’s “Diamond Dust” fame) as a banner for all sorts of extreme practical jokes, it eventually morphed into an occasional gigging band, most memorably for a Christmas gig in 1977 involving Dave Stewart, Gary Windo and assorted members of Patto.
To return to the front cover, the idea was that the Club would receive fan mail, which would be answered by a beautiful young secretary identified (thanks to her signature) as Ruby Crystal, who happened to resemble a famous Hollywood actress. The resemblance was not accidental, as Laurie Lewis explains :
The cover was based on a glossy photo of Joan Crawford. I’d been to see an exhibition of the great Hollywood photographers, and was lucky to shoot (with permission) many of the prints on display, using a black umbrella over the shoulder in order to avoid reflections in the glass. I found an attractive image of her lying on a beach signing autographs over her own portrait. That became the basis of the sleeve. Naturally she was signing her own name, so I substituted the name of a family friend, Ruby Crystal.
Of course, the name “Ruby Crystal” was an in-joke, since Matching Mole’s 1972 album Little Red Record (with a pre-Hatfield Phil Miller on guitar) had vocal contributions by someone using that alias. It was later revealed that she in real life was none other than film actress Julie Christie, a close friend of Robert Wyatt and Alfreda Benge (Ruby Crystal was Alfie’s nickname for Julie, and Gloria Gloom was Julie’s for Alfie).
Instead of photos of herself, Hatfield’s Crawford lookalike was shown signing a photo collage which was fully revealed on the back cover, and is described by Lewis as…
…another, more complex collage of images, using a close up of the actress’s hand signing an unholy line-up of suspects, against another dramatic sky, this time in monochrome with demons from the first album, as a vague nod to continuity, and a nymph on a winged horse seeing them off. At street level, a seaside outing of 1920s workers congregate with the band as children, looking every bit a bunch of Rotters. Someone observed : ‘Sergeant Pepper meets The Bash Street Kids‘ !
Also of interest is a photograph which was used for promotion at the time and later appeared in the CD reissue of the album, showing Hatfield in somewhat luxurious surroundings. Below is an alternate shot from the photo session :
There was an interesting background to this particular shoot, as Lewis remembers :
In 1973 I’d stayed in Manhattan and made a series of pictures of life on the street at night, returned to London and tried selling them to the Sunday Times Magazine. The editor was enthusiastic, but said he couldn’t use them, because “we already did America last year”… However, he was looking for a photographer to shoot a series on the new hotels being built on government grants in London around this time – not particularly exciting, but it was an assignment… Later, when Hatfield were looking for a location for The Rotters’ Club group portrait, we waltzed into one of those hotels, which provided a suitably incongruous backdrop. Not having time for permissions, we breezed in and quietly shot it.
When we discussed details of the sleeve, Pip Pyle insisted on his great memories of this and other photo shoots :
Laurie’s photo shoots were always a lot of fun, because he always had enough cheek to charge in somewhere like a 5-star hotel and just charm someone to let us move into the poshest lounge for a shoot, or the motorway picnic shot with the Hoover and stuff.
I also asked Pip about some cryptically worded credits on the back cover, like a thank you to “the staff at Hatco“. What exactly was Hatco ?
Just a joke name for the all the people, musos, roadies, record company, agency and umbrella for all the projects we did. It never was an official de facto business – similarly “Tedious Enterprises Inc”. However, Dave did get a Hatfield and the North bank account, of which I was co-signatory, for all group business. He even got us registered for V.A.T – a feat in itself since filling in the forms alone was as complicated as nuclear physics ! He certainly was the most organised accountant I’ve ever come across, his tour accounts were so detailed, neat and correct. Even a packet of chewing gum bought on expenses, had a separate entry. Almost an art form !
Another interesting reference was to various band roadies, including “Benj & Tony”. Of course “Benji” is none other than the above-mentioned Rotters’ Club founding member Benji Lefèvre, formerly a roadie with Delivery, Soft Machine, Nucleus and Matching Mole (who named “Brandy As In Benj” after him), who since 1973 had graduated to working for Led Zeppelin. He however still found time to reunite with his old mates. Remembered Pip :
Benj did quite a few gigs with Hatfield, and there are some legendary stories of the mayhem he inspired on the road that would fill several chapters in any book – but I think I’ll keep them for my book of ‘road stories’ which I plan to write when I can’t hold a drum stick anymore ! But he was on the Zeppelin payroll, so it was never a sure thing that he could make it. Besides, it wasn’t fair to Jack [Balchin] and Rick [Biddulph] who were stalwarts of the group, although I always did my best to get Benj along because he was so outrageous and funny. Tony Wiggins was a roadie who worked with the Softs, and he worked with us spasmodically from the start of the group. He was more of a “tour manager” than roadie, and became known for rushing around with a clipboard, bribing custom officials and so on.
Laurie Lewis would of course go on to design the cover of National Health‘s first album and contribute the band photograph for the back cover of the second, Of Queues And Cures, the background to which will be covered in a future blog entry.