The Fossil Records
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.
Welcome to The Fossil Records - a blog about the intersections between the world of palaeontology and the world of vinyl records. A pretty niche topic, but this is largely for my own amusement.
I'm a palaeontologist working at a large research-intensive university in England. My area of research is late Palaeozoic and Mesozoic reptile evolution, including dinosaurs. I've been fortunate enough to name a few new dinosaur species over the years, and get to work in the field and museum collections in many countries worldwide.
I'm also a vinyl record enthusiast. I have been since I got into music as a teenager in the mid-1990s. At that point vinyl was very out of fashion, and I used to be able to pick-up quality stuff, from Kraftwerk to The Prisoners, very cheaply at car boot sales and in charity shops. It's a lot harder to do that now, sadly, and I buy most of my records online. I don't have a vast collection - probably somewhere in the region of 350-450 LPs and a much much smaller number of 7 inches - and it's dominated by indie, early punk, post-punk, country, and classic rock, with a small amount of reggae, soul and ska.
The idea for this blog came about because an English Literature colleague and I were putting together an exhibition on changing depictions of dinosaurs in popular culture over the last two centuries. For me, this represented an opportunity to look at the links between dinosaurs, geology and the fossil record, and popular music, through the use of palaeontological imagery on record sleeves and in band names and lyrics. Also, to buy some weird and wonderful records. Those are the topics that I'll be exploring here.