Australian album art in the 80s part 3: Great Southern Band
What is the definitive image of the Australian experience and how would you choose to represent it? By urban skyscrapers or suburban housing estates? Through rural farmlands or coastal vistas? How about by our expansive deserts or uncharted tropics? Australia provides a rich and diverse landscape and its inhabitants are even more varied, so finding one unique way to represent the entire country can be challenging. Numerous bands stepped up to that challenge during the 80s, with their own unique take on what Australia is, and what Australians look like.
For Mental As Anything, at least on 1983’s ‘Creatures of Leisure’, it’s all about the suburban experience. The band is seen gathered out the front of a typical Australian home, engaged in all manner of listless activities – from reading the paper, to lawn mowing, to waxing the car or simply relaxing in the afternoon sun. It’s an image most Australians would be familiar with, right down to the red roof tiles and astro-turf, but it’s hard to tell if it’s a parody or a celebration of the shared experience. Knowing the band’s tendency towards the silly and surreal, you can’t help but feel they’re poking a bit of fun, but there’s an authenticity and straightforwardness to it all that is hard to deny.
The cover shot was taken by designer and photographer Syd Shelton, a London based graphic designer who began his career in Sydney in 1972, as a photo-journalist for newspapers such as The Age and Nation Review, a progressive arts publication that ceased publication in 1981. Shelton went on to photograph life in Sydney’s working class, as well as numerous international punk superstars such as The Clash, The Undertones and Elvis Costello.
Assisting Shelton with design and illustration are band members Martin Plaza, Greedy Smith and Reg Mombassa – all visual artists in their own right, who have contributed in some way to nearly all the Mental As Anything covers. Mombassa is most famously known as the illustrator behind most of the early Mambo graphics.
There’s no mistaking the intention behind Goanna’s ‘Spirit Of Place’ (1982), which takes us from the outer suburbs right to the centre of the country. A massive jet plane flies out over the top of Uluru, a quintessential Australian icon. Behind it is a blazing sunset, and before it are endless flat plains of desert.
From what I’ve been able to gather, the cover was designed and illustrated by Goanna’s own in-house art and design team Goannart – featuring band members Judi Kenneally and Neil Curtis. The style closely echoes early 20th Century tourism ad art, and the use of a strict yellow, red and black palate is a clear tribute to Australian Indigenous culture. The band’s name and album title are emblazoned across the top and bottom in giant serif capitals, and as overtly patriotic graphics go, this one is all class.
While their location’s couldn’t be any different, there’s a similar composition at work with both Australian Crawl’s ‘The Boys Light Up’ (1980) and Cold Chisel’s ‘Circus Animals’ (1982). Both depict a serene, desolate view of their location, with the band featured in the distant background. The horizon sits high up in the image, and we get the feeling we’re only seeing a small glimpse of a massive landscape.
For Cold Chisel, the location of choice is the harsh, dry Lake Eyre, a salt lake in their home state of South Australia. The band is gathered around a tiny caravan, providing only the smallest amount of shade. It’s quite a cinematic image, and unusual for an album cover.
For Australian Crawl it’s back to the beach, and ‘the boys’ are photographed in slightly surreal fashion, half submerged in water, looking back at a sunbathing woman on the shore. Additionally, ‘The Boys Light Up’ is probably the third most famous album cover to feature a big beach umbrella, closely following Supertramp’s ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ and Neil Young’s ‘On The Beach’.