A closer look at the cover for National Health’s “Of Queues And Cures”

This is the long-delayed, and probably final, episode in a series which has previously looked at the artwork for both Hatfield and the North albums and National Health‘s debut. The main reason for the delay will be easy to understand after reading what follows : I was wary that this particular story would negatively affect one of the main protagonists, namely the person who designed the cover, who somewhat hypocritically, I will refer to using the initials JM. Of course the full name is in the album credits, but at least a Google search with said full name will not lead here. This being said, I think it’s a nice and funny story, so let’s get down to it !

Unlike the previous three album covers, this one wasn’t shot or designed by Laurie Lewis, although Laurie was involved – he took the back cover photo of the band in a pub, which was short first, on August 4th, 1978, just days after the album had been completed.

pubphoto
L-R : Phil Miller, Pip Pyle, Dave Stewart and John Greaves

The front cover was obviously a reference to the “cures” part of the album’s title. Speaking of which, why Of Queues And Cures ? The band’s lighting engineer at the time, Sarah Jane ‘Soose’ Adams, remembers coming up with it :

I had seen a newspaper article about the decline of the National Health Service in the UK. The headline of the article was “Of Queues and Cures”. I thought it was a great-sounding phrase, and suggested it to Dave. Somehow it got to be used as the title for the album !

Dave Stewart then came up with a concept for the sleeve, and went looking for an art designer. JM, at the time art director at Poydor Records, was recommended by a mutual friend, whom Stewart believes was, confusingly, another “JM”, John Marshall (NOT the Soft Machine drummer), who later became his business manager. Remembers Dave of their initial meeting on August 16th :

I met her in her house in Hertford. I seem to recall she had a parrot which flew around her living room. I outlined my ideas for the sleeve : an old, Victorian, dark wood, glass-fronted medicine cabinet filled with medicines, tinctures and potions. She was in agreement with the idea, so I left it to her to find the materials and arrange the photo shoot.

The most striking and, it turns out, controversial part of the design came with the involvement of a friend of JM’s, PS, a silk screen printer and artist, who was responsible for making the visually rather striking plasticine ears, pickled in several of the apothecary jars. Continues Dave :

OQACcoverWhen I arrived at the shoot, she had filled the cabinet with glass jars, each of which – to my complete surprise – contained a number of luridly-coloured plasticine ears of various hues. This was evidently an idea she had thought up since our meeting, but hadn’t bothered to discuss with me. I thought it looked awful, and asked her to get rid of the ears, which to my eyes looked like a cheap, distasteful novelty item in a joke shop, rather than the moody, tenebrous 19th-century apothecary’s cabinet I was envisaging. This upset both her and the lighting crew, who had already spent some time perfecting the lighting on the ear-jars. I was amazed that *they* were upset with me, since I was the one who’d been put in a difficult position by her unilateral decision-making and lack of consultation. A long delay ensued while she tried to procure the objects we’d originally agreed on, but as the crew’s availability was limited, I had to settle on retaining at least one jar full of ears to fill a gap on one of the shelves.

By the way, it is unclear where the photo shoot took place – JM remembers it taking place “in Hertford, at a friend’s house, borrowing his dresser”, whereas Soose’s notes suggest it would have been at Pip Pyle’s house in Hatfield Heath (not Hertford, but not that far away). The date, however, is certain – September 22nd, coincidentally the same day Barbara Gaskin returned from her three-year sojourn in Asia.

Of course, what exactly the photo was supposed to convey is open to interpretation. I ventured my own to Dave :

The plasticine ears in formalin would seem to jokingly point to people’s lack of musical taste, as if their ears had been cut off and stored away, “otherwise they’d probably be listening to this album” ? Something like that ?

To which he replied :

You’d have to ask her ! My guess is they’re an allegory for disconnecting your ears from your brain, thereby not listening to what a client asks you to do !

Not wishing to end on an unpleasant (if amusing) note, I told Dave JM remembered him as “really nice and friendly”, so evidently she seemed to have forgotten about the tension during the photo shoot. Concluded Dave :

I remember she was nice and friendly too, shame about the miscommunication! If you mention it in the book please try not to hurt her feelings, I’m sure she was doing what she thought best.

 

 

 

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