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Story Behind The Album Cover: Brownsvile Station’s Motor City Connection, with Michael Doret

American Artist Michael Doret is known for his letterform and image designing, and over the years he has created a number of rock album covers, with his most famous clients being Kiss, he also worked on covers by James Brown, The Blue Hawaiians and The Squirrel Nut Zippers. In 1975 though he was hired to create the cover for Brownsville Stations’ Motor City Connection album. The album was released in August of ’75 and would be the band’s last for Big Tree Records. It would also be their last as the classic trio of Cub Koda, Michael Lutz and Henry “H-Bomb” Weck, as guest Bruce Nazarian would join the band soon after on guitars. The album didn’t fare so well in comparison to the band’s earlier releases, part of which might’ve had to do with their being no single release from it. Motor City Connection is a great harder rockin’ album from Brownsville Station, featuring such favorites as “Automatic Heartbreak”, “Give It To Get It”, “Self Abuse”, and “They Call Me Rock ‘N’ Roll”; an album (like most of the band’s catalogue) which is long overdue for a CD (and vinyl) reissue! Certainly, one of Brownsville Stations’ best, and their most eye-catching cover from Michael Doret who talks about how he created this album’s front cover (the back cover features the logo again, along with credits and band photos; see comments). He also talks about some of this other album covers, notably the 2 he did for Kiss, and other aspects of his career.

Your background in art and your connection to the music world early on?

My background was that I attended The Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture. I thought I would become a fine artist of some sort, but I ended up falling in love with graphic design, realizing that I wasn’t cut out to be a painter or a sculptor. After graduation I held a series of staff positions in the design departments of various companies before going out on my own as a freelance graphic designer. At that point I hooked up with the preeminent airbrush artist of the 1970s—Charles White III. We collaborated on many projects including several album covers, among which were “Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade”, “Chubby Checker—Greatest Hits”, and “Gentle Giant—Octopus”..

How did Motor City Connection for Brownsville Station in 1975 come about?

That was so long ago that it’s hard to remember all the details . . . but I was contacted by Paula Scher from Atlantic Records who had recently become familiar with my work and asked me to design and create art for this cover. There’s really not much more to this story than that. As a young freelance designer, I wasn’t looking to work in any one particular area, but was interested in all kinds of projects from movie title treatments to posters to book jackets to advertising, etc. As I became more and more known in the design field, I got more and more assignments to solve all kinds of different design problems. Record jacket design was just one area of design for which I was lucky enough to get hired.

Familiar with the band?  How did you approach putting that cover drawing together -where the idea came from? Any band input?

Honestly, I wasn’t familiar with the band, but that really didn’t matter. What is important is that a designer should be able to approach any design project, make themselves familiar with the subject, and be sensitive to what the client wants to project. I was never a big fan of heavy metal, but that really didn’t matter in this situation. What was important was that I create a cover that would call to people from across the record store aisles and attract attention to itself while telling the story that the band wanted to tell. I had absolutely no input from the band (no contact with them either), so I had to rely on what Paula told me about them (there wasn’t much), and my own intuition.

My thoughts on the cover design were pretty basic: design a cover that pulled together some of my favorite elements of automobilia into one cohesive design that spelled out the name of the album and the group: elements like car badges, chrome ornament, monograms, rockets, reflectors, etc. Color was also important to me, and I incorporated the colors of the 1955 Nash Rambler that was my parents’ first car. Combining all these elements was a challenge—but was also a lot of fun for me. So, the idea was to create sort of a collage of automotive elements that together formed (in my mind) the ultimate car statement.

[*Pics below: 1. Michael: “My Dad in our 1955 Nash Rambler. I loved the color of this 2-Tone car and used it for reference for the album cover. 2. Michael: “The “88” photo is one I took of an Oldsmobile ornament, one of the pieces of automobilia used for inspiration on the cover.” 3. Editor: MCC promo w/ hype sticker

A bit about how the cover was done – how long it took, etc.

Today this cover would have been a lot easier to do than it was back in 1975. Today I could have done this cover digitally, and it would have only taken a fraction of the time that it actually took me. Back then it was a laborious process which involved inking all the black linework, and then using colored adhesive films to fill in the color.

Any feedback from the band or label?

Sorry—I really can’t remember. But I can tell you it was one of my favorite pieces at the time (and it still is).

You went on to do Kiss’ Rock n Roll Over — presumably your best-known album cover? Recollections on coming up with that drawing?  As well as reconnecting with them for the Sonic Boom cover after so many years?

Well, I guess the decision as to which is my best-known cover has been made for me. I don’t think Rock and Roll Over is any better than Motor City Connection—or better than any of my other covers. I just think that Rock and Roll Over just got seen a lot more. At the time I did that cover I was pretty much able to get away with doing whatever I wanted. The kind of art I was creating (letterform-centric) was something people hadn’t seen before, and so it was difficult for most people to know how to criticize it. The only changes I was asked to make were minor ones—Gene and Paul had some comments about the details of how I drew their faces—but that was the extent of it. Years later (2009) Paul contacted me, asking if I would be interested in doing another album cover for Kiss. They felt that Rock and Roll Over had become so iconic for them, that they wanted to do something similar for Sonic Boom. One thing I wasn’t crazy about was that this time they did not want me to illustrate their faces as I did on Rock and Roll Over (you know what sensitive egos performers have)—which meant I had to somehow use existing photography because they did not want to do a photoshoot for this album cover. They had Tommy Thayer in charge of their photo archives, so he and I went over all the photos that were available, and I picked a few that I thought could work. When I say “work” I mean that I could mess around with the photos so that they became less photographic and more just plain graphic. I didn’t want to just repeat Rock and Roll Over, so I designed the cover so that it was more or less Rock and Roll Over turned inside-out so that the album name was exploding outward from the center, and the faces were now on the outside perimeter. They loved the new cover, but you know how fans are . . . there was a lot of “Rock and Roll Over was the greatest album cover, but this cover is shit”. Everybody’s got an opinion.

Were you ‘into’ much of the music you created cover art for?

As I mentioned earlier, I never was a big fan of heavy metal. If I was creating a cover for a book, nobody would expect me to be a fan of the book or the author. What’s expected of a designer is to understand the client’s needs and to create something appropriate and which communicates what they want to say.

You did a number of covers – what are some of your favorites (any stories with)?

I mentioned the covers I created with Charles White III—those were done in collaboration with him. But (as with Rock and Roll Over and Motor City Connection) I went on to create more than a few covers on my own. Of all the album covers I’ve done I’d have to say my favorite is “Bedlam Ballroom” for Squirrel Nut Zippers. That one was by far the most difficult to create—and the most rewarding. And that art was nominated for a Grammy (didn’t win). Then there were covers such as “Subway Serenade” for Looking Glass, and two comedy album covers: “The Monty Python Matching Tie & Handkerchief” and “Saturday Night Live”. 

You did the lettering (only) for the US/Canada release of Gentle Giant’s Octopus!?

Yes—I designed the glass jar lettering and the lid lettering for that cover, and Charlie did the illustration. That was at the very beginning of my career, and I was quite happy to be involved in such a high-profile cover because I did not yet have the “gravitas” to get that kind of project on my own.

Album covers have only been a part of your career, what else have you worked on that people might recognize your work from?

Well, there was the poster I created for Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in the Park—which I am very proud of. Lately there’s been a lot of interest in that piece, and I’ve been reprinting and selling that poster. Some people might recognize the logo I designed for the New York Knicks, and others might be familiar with the title treatment I created for Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. And then there were the covers I created for TIME Magazine.









*If interested in obtaining the Simon & Garfunkel print, contact Michael DoretAlphabetSoup@MichaelDoret.com

*Photo of Michael Doret, courtesy of MD.