The Fossil Records
So far on this blog, we've covered artists ranging from hugely successful (T. Rex, Roy Wood) to very niche but still sufficiently well known to warrant their own Wikipedia pages (Rote Kapelle, The Flock). For the next couple of posts though, we'll be venturing into truly obscure territory.
The folk group Archaeopteryx released one album in 1976, First Flight - A Collection of Songs About Birds. It was released as a 12 inch vinyl record by a well-known UK charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), with some nice artwork of the early fossil bird Archaeopteryx by Peter Martin (an artist about whom I have not been able to find out anything) on the front and rear covers of the sleeve. Archaeopteryx is of course famous as it has generally been considered the oldest known bird, hence the name First Flight (ignoring, of course, that pterosaurs actually took to the skies more than 50 million years before birds, and that the flight abilities of Archaeopteryx are the subject of much debate).
I assume that the record was intended as a fundraiser for the RSPB, although there's no information available online to confirm this. The album features classically-influenced folk versions of traditional songs about British birds, ranging from the nightingale to the turtle dove, recorded in a church in Buckinghamshire. The songs are interspersed with snippets of bird song from the BBC Sound Archives. There are no songs about fossil birds, so the link to Archaeopteryx is unclear.
If all that sounds like it might be unlikely to be up my street, you'd be correct: as much as I like some British folk music of this era, this is just too traditional and too folk for me. If you want to listen to it yourself then you'll have to buy a copy, because as far as I can tell, no-one has digitised it and made it available. It is a nice sleeve that will frame up well, and copies are available quite cheaply on Discogs and eBay. If anyone knows more about the back story to this record I'd love to hear it.
I actually donated a framed copy of this record to the 2017 SVPCA auction, the aim of which is to raise money to support attendance at the conference for those with limited funding resources. I felt slightly guilty when the bidding spiralled out of control, and one of our conference attendees ended up paying £60 for it, but at least the money went to a worthy cause. If the person who bought it is by chance reading this, please let me know what you make of the record...
Does it get any better than this? Marc Bolan's glam rock band T. Rex are surely not only the most successful pop group with a palaeontological moniker, but also the best. Hugely influential on everyone from Kate Bush to The Smiths, they were the biggest band in the UK in the early 1970s. Hot Love was their second single after shortening their name from Tyrannosaurus Rex, their first number 1 record, and just one of an astonishing series of perfect pop songs released from 1970–1973 (for my money, Jeepster is the best, but they are all great).
Most of the covers for Hot Love featured images of Marc Bolan and percussionist Mickey Finn. However, the Italian release (still using the name Tyrannosaurus Rex) was unique in featuring a rather Godzilla-like creature, presumably supposed to be a dinosaur, on the front cover. It was backed by the track Woodland Rock. You can get a copy fairly cheaply on Discogs.
Perhaps surprisingly, very few of T. Rex's record sleeves have images of dinosaurs on them. In fact, I've only been able to identify two others so far in addition to Hot Love: the UK promo, Japanese and French releases of the very first single by the band back in 1968, Deborah, which all feature versions of the iconic life restoration of Tyrannosaurus rex by Neave Parker, and the inner sleeve of their first album, the bonkers folk-rock of My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows, which features the same image. I'd like to cover the former in more detail at some point, but copies currently start at £80 on Discogs, so it probably won't be soon.
While we're on the topic of the Neave Parker Tyrannosaurus rex, check out the absolutely incredible poster (below) for the 1969 visit of Bolan's band to the Town Hall right here in Birmingham, hosted by none other than John Peel. I suspect that there may only be one copy of this in existence, but if anyone ever sees one for sale, please let me know. There are some other equally great and rare posters out there, including one to promote the 1969 album Unicorn. The poster was created by Tom Wilkes and features Marc Bolan and early band member Steve Peregrin Took nestled in the antorbital fenestra of a Tyrannosaurus skull. Another marvelous, psychedelic poster was created by George Underwood to promote 1968 album My People Were Fair...
Finally, I've not listened to all of T. Rex's albums, so I can't confirm how often dinosaurs appear in song lyrics, but there is at least one example, from 1968's Strange Orchestras:
"Saw a face in a conical of lace, it was a strange orchestra
Mannequin skin pounding on a bass-drum, strange orchestra
Lilliputian, evil in the eyes of the man with the leaf harp
He lusts for the urchin hiding under mountains of moleskin
A big cat like t-tyrannosaurus going to Lilliput
The ensemble make a tiny rumble, the celloist solos
The sky blackens and the bass string slackens and they stand statuesquely
Then they giggle and they wiggle through the door in the big dark oak tree"
Yeah. Make of that what you will...
The last post covered the single Brontosaurus by the British band The Move. This time around, I want to look at how that single was marketed over the other side of the Atlantic.
The Move's US label, A&M, published this X-rated advert for the single in Billboard in the summer of 1970. Is this really what songwriter Roy Wood meant by "doing the Brontosaurus"? Colour me skeptical. Is this even a feasible physical hypothesis for how sauropods did the deed? For more thoughts about dinosaur sex, see the links at the bottom of the page.
The text accompanying the advert was more than a little overblown, and in a few short but magnificent sentences managed to libel the plant-eating Brontosaurus ("savage and merciless", "pre-history's brutalest beast"), make an inappropriate joke about WW2 bombing of the UK, and make some highly dubious claims about the record being so "heavy" that it was destroying radios. Here it is, reproduced in full:
"It's not every rock and roll single that's musically enormous enough, intimidating enough, savage and merciless enough to call itself by the name of pre-history's brutalest beast. The Move's newest single is a definite exception.
In England, where more than a few have pronounced it the heaviest thing to hit the country since the last Luftwaffe bomber disappeared over the horizon, it single-pawedly restored The Move to a formidable position of prominence. The week it reached number four on the British charts saw more transister and other radios explode in mid-air than in the entire seventy-three years previous. Which might give you some indication.
Brave FM stations in this country have been programming it relentlessly, the damage to their transmitters not deterring them from sharing this "heaviest single ever recorded" with their listeners.
To understate feloniously, this is not a record to be taken lightly.
rock and roll
for those who dare."
You can view the advert on Google Books here. For those interested in the eternal questions around dinosaur copulation, journalist Brian Switek has written several articles about this, including for Smithsonian.com and Scientific American, as well as in his book My Beloved Brontosaurus.
These days I'm a resident of England's second city, Birmingham, making me (whisper it) an honorary Brummie. So I'm happy to feature a wonderful Birmingham band as the second post on this blog. For most people, Birmingham lacks the instant musical associations of cities such as Liverpool or Manchester, but it has produced some very fine bands, including Black Sabbath, The Moody Blues, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Felt, Swell Maps, The Spencer Davis Group and Broadcast. One of the most talented of all Birmingham pop musicians is Roy Wood, who in the 1960s and 1970s co-founded The Move, Wizzard, and Electric Light Orchestra.
The Move were one of the most successful of the "Brum Beat" bands of the 1960s, recording nine Top 20 UK singles and four albums. These include some stone-cold classics, such as the psychedelic pop of Blackberry Way, I Can Hear The Grass Grow and Flowers In The Rain. Brontosaurus was their eighth single, and is much heavier and sludgier than what had come before. The lyrics tell of a girl who:
"...can really do the Brontosaurus,
And she can scream the heeby jeeby chorus
Until you know what she's really got
'Cos she can really do it loud
Well, she can do it, do it, do it!
Now her daddy's getting old
And he seemed to lose control
When the Brontosaurus
Stormed into the house to trap her"
Brontosaurus is the sound of The Move moving (ahem) in a different direction - more in line with the direction of music in 1970. Roy Wood even designed for himself a jacket that he described as looking like "scaly dinosaur skin" to accompany this new sound. He wore this jacket and painted his face for the first time when the band performed Brontosaurus on Top of the Pops, developing the prototype of the look of his future glam rock band Wizzard. Unfortunately, the BBC tape of that episode of Top of the Pops has been wiped, so I don't know if any footage of the dinosaur scale coat exists.
My copy of the record is the German release. Most releases, including in the UK, appear to have used a plain cover, or an image of the band. As far as I can tell from Discogs, only in Germany and Scandinavia did a dinosaur appear on the cover. Perhaps because the image itself was deemed too disturbing for other markets? While recognisably a sauropod dinosaur, this monstrosity of a reconstruction is not going to win any awards for scientific accuracy...also, what the hell is going on with those legs? The left legs merge into the torsos and capes of two of the band members (Roy Wood is probably forming the front leg), while it is unclear what is happening on the right side: if the legs of the unfortunate Brontosaurus are merged with the remaining two band members in the same way, then that right front leg is in a pretty uncomfortable anatomical position.
The artwork is a reworking of that which appeared on the front cover of The Move's second album, Shazam, and which was credited to "Nickleby". That cover featured the four members of The Move dressed as superheroes, with oversized torsos, and their underpants outside their trousers. It seems likely to me that the artwork for Brontosaurus is also by "Nickleby", particularly given that only a couple of weeks separated the release of Shazam from that of Brontosaurus, but sadly I've been unable to find out anymore about this graphic designer.
The last thing I want to write about is Brontosaurus itself, one of the most iconic of all dinosaurs. A member of the sauropod dinosaur group, Brontosaurus was named in 1879. In 1903 it was proposed that the fossils of Brontosaurus actually represented the same kind of animal as another sauropod, Apatosaurus, which had been named in 1877, two years before Brontosaurus. As a result, throughout the 20th century the name Brontosaurus was considered by nearly all palaeontologists to be invalid. Despite this, Brontosaurus remained a touchstone of popular culture, and we will certainly be visiting Brontosaurus again on this blog in the future. Most recently, and to much fanfare, in 2015 three of my friends and colleagues, Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger Benson, proposed in a paper in PeerJ that Brontosaurus was actually distinct from Apatosaurus, 'resurrecting' the name. There's a good infographic on the history of Brontosaurus on Wikipedia.
So, this is a decent song from a great band, and a classic dinosaur-themed record sleeve. But what does it mean when Roy Wood sings that "she can really do the Brontosaurus"? We'll come back to one interpretation of that in the next post.
Brontosaurus has been covered by several different artists over the years, including Cheap Trick, The Lee Harvey Oswald Band (thanks to Alex Dunhill for highlighting this one on Twitter), and Tim Curry. You can buy a copy of the record on Discogs. The B-side of the record is the excellent Lightnin' Never Strikes Twice (better than the A-side in my opinion), and is well worth checking out.
We'll start this blog with something well outside my comfort zone: prog-rock. As someone who grew up listening to a lot of British and Northern Irish punk, I've always avoided prog. But for music/palaeontology crossovers, prog is potentially fertile ground.
The Flock formed in late 1960s Chicago, and Dinosaur Swamps was their second album. It's a mess of a record that veers stylistically from classic rock to psychedelic, country and jazz, with lots of typical (and, to my ears, somewhat annoying) prog elements, such as a lyrical 'concept' (apparently about some kind of a journey - go figure) and extended drum solos. Even the reviews that I've found on specialist prog sites aren't very positive, so I don't think I'm missing much through my ignorance of the genre.
The outer record sleeve is a gatefold, and the outside cover of the sleeve is a reproduction of a mural of pterosaurs (flying reptiles) at the American Museum of Natural History, painted by Constantine Astori and A. Brown in 1942. It shows a host of pterosaurs flying and clinging to cliffs above an ancient beach, with several different species, clearly including Pteranodon, Pterodactylus, Rhamphorhynchus and Dimorphodon. Fish carcasses litter the cliffs, and pterosaur footprints cross the beach.
Into this iconic piece of palaeoart, the band members of The Flock have been inserted. One stares up at the pterosaurs overhead, and screams with horror, one stares towards heaven with his arms outstretched, while a third (rather Jesus-like in appearance) crawls across the beach, pointing to something out of sight. The remaining four members of the band look remarkably calm, bored even. The inside of the gatefold has a map stretched out on what appears to be the desk of a pirate - the map shows a series of islands that have the same names as some of the album tracks (e.g. Uranian Sircus, Hornschmeyer's Island). It lacks any clear link to the pterosaur scene on the outside cover, but perhaps this beach is one of the bands' stops on their mystical journey.
It's unclear to me exactly what links the music on the album to the prehistoric world on the cover, or why the album is called Dinosaur Swamps. As palaeontological enthusiasts will know, pterosaurs are not actually dinosaurs (they are close relatives of dinosaurs, within the group Ornithodira), and so there are no actual dinosaurs on the cover. As far as I can tell from the album's lyrics, there's no obvious mention of prehistoric creatures, although the second track (Big Bird) is apparently about being carried away by a "Big Bird" to "another land", so perhaps this is a reference to the pterosaurs.
Musically then, I'd skip it. But it's a great example of a palaeontology-themed record cover, and thus not a bad place to start this blog.
There's more information about Astori's mural at the AMNH here. You can find Dinosaur Swamps on Discogs here, and you can listen to the entire album on YouTube.