Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Probably the Greatest Album Cover of All Time

I recently picked up a whole lot of old and obscure Kansas and Kansas-related music from various sources. For those of you who don't know, I grew up in a house of older brothers who liked progressive rock in the 1970s, and I still seriously dig bombastic music from the likes of Kansas, Yes, Genesis, ELP, Renaissance and Dream Theater. While I've been seriously grooving on some great old live Kansas stuff from 1976 and 1980 as well as much of the Kerry Livgren solo stuff I've never been able to find, the real prize was unexpected. It wasn't even music. It was the cover to Kansas singer Steve Walsh's 1980 solo album, Schemer-Dreamer.

Check out all its majesty:

I'll describe it for the visually-impaired.

The whole cover is a painting. At the top of the picture is the artist's name, "STEVE WALSH," in huge block letters in a font that would not look out of place on the side of a football helmet. Under that, bracketed by the tiny words "SCHEMER" and "DREAMER" is the man's face, lips slightly parted as he sings or perhaps concentrates on a distant moving object, his hair ruffled by the wind. A mountain range resembling the Grand Tetons stretches across the background, with a blanket of green trees covering its roots.

To the right of giant-Steve-face is a three-quarters, or "cowboy" shot of Steve singing. he is shirtless; in fact he wears only a pair of red short-shorts. His torso ripples with muscles. To the left of giant-Steve-face is another Steve of the same scale as singing-Steve which can only be called athletic-Steve. Athletic-Steve's entire body can be seen performing a vault of some kind, revealing athletic footwear and knee pads. His torso ripples with muscles. The short-shorts are the same.

(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned here that the shorts-and-kneepads combo is what Steve wore for most or all Kansas gigs in the 70s. It wasn't a fashion statement, it was utilitarian; he covered every inch of that stage during a high-energy performance, and in fact used to do handstands on his keyboard--I've seen him do it as late as summer of 2000. It's amazing. He wore shorts because he would have sweat through his clothes in short order, and kneepads because of, well, knee protection. But you know what? Peter Gabriel and his band wore knee pads in the 1980s, and they had the decency to keep their shirts on for the concerts and album covers.)

At the bottom of the frame, stretching from side to side in the shadow of the mountains is the inside of a massive stadium, with the silhouetted figures of what appear to be roadies stacking rectangles of various sizes and shapes around a huge rock band setup.

But this is the best part: Dominating the picture, directly underneath giant-Steve-face and apparently in the middle of the stadium scene is a fourth, greatest Steve: NRA-Steve. Still shirtless, now wearing yellow shorts or pants, his hip cocked to the side to match his devil-may-care smirk, Steve is pointing not one but two massive handguns directly at the viewer, one of which has a scope of some sort on it (not really appropriate for a pistol). He's wearing sunglasses and, for safety's sake, ear protection. Yes, it would be a shame if he damaged his hearing from the sound of his enormous handguns blowing gaping, bloody holes in the fans who bought his album. His torso, of course, ripples with muscles.

Here's what the All Music Guide has to say about the cover:

"A great album cover should give an indication of the sound of an album, or at least its sensibility. Happily, that much is indeed true with Steve Walsh's solo debut, Schemer-Dreamer, which sports what very well could be the greatest album cover in rock history. There are no less than four illustrations of Walsh, all shirtless and in running shorts, with the point of focus being an image of Walsh in sunglasses towering over a stadium and pointing two guns at the viewer (thankfully, he's being safe and wearing ear protection); above it is a glamorous head shot silhouetted by a mountain range, with his hair looking appropriately wind-swept; to the right is a shot of him singing and to the left, he's engaged in an indiscernible athletic activity. It's a portrait of an id raging out of control -- it's the Dirk Diggler album brought to life!"

Don't ask me what Schemer-Dreamer sounds like. I haven't heard it yet and may never listen to it. I want to savor the mental image I have of what it should sound like, a sort of combination of "Hold Your Head Up," "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," and "Trogdor." If there's another 1980 arena-rock machismo cliche that can be squeezed into the picture, I can't figure out what it could be or how it could fit in there.

Steve Walsh is a great singer, probably my favorite rock vocalist of all time. But this album cover is clearly his greatest contribution to civilization. Thank you, Steve Walsh, for the exercise in huge ego and horrible judgment that greets viewers of the cover to Schemer-Dreamer. #### "Dust in the Wind." Your place in the rock pantheon is secure.



  • At 1/02/2008 7:25 AM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    Probably the Greatest Post of All Time on Andrew Hamm's Blog.

  • At 1/02/2008 8:23 AM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    Thanks for sharing that. Hilarious!!!!

  • At 1/02/2008 5:18 PM , Blogger Joey Fanelli said...

    Speaking of 70s progressive rock, and of Yes, I've been meaning to get into Yes but I don't know where to start: so could you or any of your readers suggest to me which Yes album or albums I should start with?

  • At 1/02/2008 10:12 PM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    You should start with "Fragile", "The Yes Album" and/or "Close To The Edge". They are the trifecta. Other Yes records are good (I personally love "Relayer", but it's very challenging) but those are the megaclassics.

    A Kansas "Best Of" would be great also.

  • At 1/02/2008 11:26 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    I second the vote for "Fragile", Joey. Probably the definitive "Yes" album.

  • At 1/03/2008 9:23 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    A third vote to start with Fragile. Although Yessongs isn't a bad place to start either; it has pretty much all of Fragile, The Yes Album, and Close to the Edge live.

  • At 1/03/2008 6:01 PM , Blogger Joey Fanelli said...

    Alright, I'll start with Fragile and work my way through the rest of your suggestions. Thanks, all.

  • At 1/04/2008 8:53 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    The more I look at the cover of Schemer-Dreamer the more I'm convinced I saw it as a child and thought it was odd even then. Why is that Indian pointing two guns at me?

  • At 1/04/2008 12:33 PM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    This thread has me listening to late 70s/early 80s prog-pop. There was a period there when some bands that sprung from progressive roots were making headway selling millions of hits with progressive flavored pop.

    "Point Of No Return" with it's fantastical theme and wierd time signature was a hit single.

    So I've been listening to my best of collections from Kansas and Styx. Both great bands that mixed (sometimes) hard rock with progressive elemets and pop sensibilities.

    I can't imagine Dream Theater breaking the Billboard top 40, but "Carry On Wayward Son", "Come Sail Away", "Turn it on Again", and "Tempus Fugit" did.

    It was a great time to be a music loving kid.

  • At 1/04/2008 3:49 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Dream Theater tried to crack the top 40, and their single "Pull Me UNder" got a lot of play on Headbanger's Ball in 1992. When they released a more "commercial" album, Falling into Infinity, their audience (including me) hated it.

    So they said "Eff it," and just started recording what they wanted to. Every album since that decision has been a prog-rock freaking masterpiece. They sell out venues in the US and Japan on every tour, they sell gobs and gobs of albums and DVDs; their fans can't get enough.

    So no, no hit singles. The environment is all wrong for a progressive hit right now. But Dream Theatre is doing just fine for themselves.

  • At 1/04/2008 6:35 PM , Anonymous Philip Hamm said...

    Not that there's anything wrong with pop, mind you. ... I also this week recorded the two Squeeze records I have to CD. Good stuff!

  • At 1/04/2008 8:32 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    Squeeze...good call Philip. "Tempted by the fruit of another, tempted but the truth is discovered..." what a great line in a great song, among other Squeeze gems.

  • At 1/05/2008 12:37 AM , Blogger Dave T said...

    I'll always love Squeeze's lyrical mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime. Among my faves:

    "Never chew a pickle
    With a little slap and tickle
    You have to throw the stone
    To get the pool to ripple"

    And of course:
    "At my bedside, empty pocket, a foot without a sock
    Your body gets much closer
    I fumble for the clock, alarmed by
    The seduction
    I wish that it would stop"
    (to get the full effect, 'wish' must be pronounced as a two syllable word).

    And is there any love for The Fixx out there? "One Thing Leads to Another"...

  • At 1/05/2008 12:38 AM , Blogger Dave T said...

    Also, Styx's "Too Much Time on My Hands" was the anthem of my senior year in high school...excellent...

  • At 1/05/2008 9:22 AM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    Oh, plenty of love for The Fixx Dave! As for "Too Much Time on My Hands"...if only! I can't even REMEMBER what that was like! But I've loved Styx since their heyday. I've seen them live three times (the first time WITH Dennis DeYoung, but sadly I was too impaired to really enjoy it!)

    But Andrew, I finally figured it out - an epiphany, it came to me in a moment of silence. The sheer simplicity of the reason behind "Big Head Steve's" parted lips and wistful expression. It's SO obvious, I don't know HOW we could have overlooked it! He's DREAMING of SCHEMES involving his combination of athletic, singing, and sharpshooting skills (ensuring any such schemes would be performed shirtless and in 1970's gym shorts with rippling muscles!)

    See? You can SEE that I'm right, can't you?

  • At 1/05/2008 10:12 AM , Blogger pnlkotula said...

    Dennis Deyoung was amazing as Pilate several (ahem) years ago at Wolftrap. We're old...

  • At 1/05/2008 11:14 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I saw the first tour of Superstar that DeYoung did with Ted Neely (awesome) Carl Anderson (awesome) and Irene Cara (horrible) in 1992. Ted Neely is like five foot seven, much like little Steve Walsh. DeYoung was ill, but his understudy was wonderful. I had just played Simon Zealotes for Elden Street Players the summer before, and my buddy opined that I was better than the Simon on their tour. A nice unsolicited compliment.

    Man, I want to do that show. And Chess. Are you listening, Richmond theatre producers??

    As for scheming-dreaming Steve, I am entirely sure you're right, Frank. Those are the eyes of a schemer and the parted lips of a dreamer. Let's see, how can I find a way to combine my love of singing, ambiguous athletic activity, and large handguns into a single work of art?... I know! An "Ok Corrall" musical where the final gunfight is a dream ballet!

    Now you guys have me seriously jonesing for some New Wave...

  • At 1/05/2008 3:00 PM , Blogger Dave T said...

    Elden Street?!?! Andrew, did you ever do a show with Joe Gems as musical director? He's my father-in-law! Holly grew up in Reston. The only production of "Chess" I've seen is the one that Elden Street did and that Joe musical directed. Weird!

  • At 1/06/2008 9:37 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I was in the pit band for that show! I played keyboards. My brother Peter was the Arbiter. Boy, that Industrial Strength theatre is a funny space to perform in...

    Little Theatre of Alexandria did Chess earlier the same summer. They got permission from the creators to do the original pre-Broadway version. much better lyrics; byzantine plot lines.

  • At 1/08/2008 9:40 AM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    BTW, Ange, I left the records I wanted to borrow with you when I visited last. If you happen to have an old LD mailer I would appreciate if you could drop them in the mail. If you have the old USA release of "Three Sides Live" I'd love that, also. I don't know when I can get down there and I really want to dive into "Seconds Out" and "Tales From Topographic Oceans".

  • At 1/08/2008 10:16 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I haven't had any LD mailers for at least 8 years, but I'll see what I can do.

  • At 1/14/2008 9:58 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...


    As if having read this thread, Dream Theater has just announced their first-ever compilation CD: DREAM THEATER COLLECT THEIR GREATEST HIT (…& 21 other pretty cool songs). The release reads, in part:

    "Referring to Dream Theater’s first and only major radio hit, “Pull Me Under,” the compilation’s tongue-in-cheek title is a testament not only to the band’s sense of humor but also highlights the acclaimed New York-based quintet’s ability to make music and cultivate a legion of fans on its own terms, without help from radio or MTV. "


  • At 1/14/2008 4:05 PM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    That's funny. I'm funny.

  • At 2/15/2010 3:20 PM , Blogger Robert said...

    Hilarious! Steve Walsh clearly had no issues with self-esteem.


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