One of the joys of attending a Sun Ra gig back in the day was queuing up at the end of the show to buy whatever vinyl the band members happened to have with them. Most of Ra’s music appeared on his own Saturn label, but its production and distribution were always chaotic and barely organised. Its main sales force was the band itself, who now sat down on the front of the stage and began to sell their stack of LPs, adding their signatures to the sleeves if requested.
Some of these – always limited edition – Saturn albums were sold in plain white card covers, others had some simple, printed graphic designs, while the best appeared with colourful hand-drawn artworks. These fine drawings were created and drawn by the Arkestra members themselves, some even by Sun Ra himself.
Jerry Gordon: ‘Everything to do with Ra’s label was confused, and I believe it was intentionally confused’
Few of the covers gave away any information about the album itself, whose details might or might not be scrawled on the disc label, and it was not uncommon for one album pressing to contain previously released material drawn from two or three existing records or to repeat the A side again on the B side. Indeed, Glenn Jones, from Rounder Records which distributed Saturn’s offerings, recalls ringing up the Arkestra at its base in Philadelphia and asking what the title of their latest album actually was so that he could market it properly. Ra himself would often answer the phone. When the Arkestra was on tour, Glenn had to work out the album title himself.
In his introduction to this book, music historian and DJ Irwin Chusid makes the point that as Ra’s music was unconventional, so too was the artistry, singularity, the DIY-ness and the very ridiculousness of his album covers. With a major label, the sleeve design told you what you were about to buy. With Saturn, you were buying an original work of art, one in which design and musical content rarely coincided. As the proprietor of Philadelphia’s Third Street Jazz & Rock store, Jerry Gordon, remarked: “Everything to do with Ra’s label was confused, and I believe it was intentionally confused.”
This beautifully produced book tries to make sense of this deliberate confusion. The printed covers are reproduced quarter-size, the handmade covers almost full size, with many of the printed and handmade disc labels also shown. A selection of non-Saturn covers ends the book. Few of the albums are easily identified, but such precision is not required to wonder at the varying artwork itself. Images drawn from ancient Egypt and space age travel jostle up against cartoons, doodles, and other fantasies.
To see one of these covers, better still to own the record itself, is to be part of another world, a place of fantasy where everything was possible and every place and planet easily visited. This is a book that will give huge joy to Ra’s legions of fans, and also to those still coming to terms with the phenomenon that was the Sun Ra Arkestra in full, majestic flight.
Sun Ra: Art On Saturn by Irwin Chusid & Chris Reisman. Fantagraphics Books Inc., Seattle, 240 pp, illustrated throughout in full-colour, $75. ISBN 978-68396-658-6