Rob Walker | Essays

An Album-Packaging Feast

It is rare, to say the least, that I wish for a viral video to go on longer. But I’ll make an emphatic exception for a recent clip that pays tribute to one of my favorite album-packaging designs of all time.

The album in question in ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres, and the relevant packaging element is the gloriously over-the-top gatefold photograph of a preposterously decadent Tex-Mex meal. An Austin chef named Thomas Micklethwait got it into his head to recreate (and consume) this baroque feast, and filmmaker/designer David Bessenhoffer documented the impressive results in a two-minute, forty-seven-second video.

It’s satisfying as is, for sure—but I could have binged on this project.

ZZ Tom from Chapter Films on Vimeo.

Tres Hombres was released in 1973, when I was four or five years old. I don’t know how or when I ended up with my copy — maybe one of my older brothers handed it down to me?—but I’ve owned it for as long as I can remember. I grew up near Houston, and ZZ Top were my hometown heroes well before their surprising success on MTV. Even in my cranky I-hate-mainstream-music teens, I bought Eliminator, because I loved this band.

And for as long as I can remember (although for reasons that evolved over time), I have particularly loved Tres Hombres (sure, “La Grange,” but also: “Master of Sparks,” y’all!) and that incredible gatefold image. But it never occurred to me that it struck a similar chord with others. Let alone that there was a whole “back story” to be revealed.

So my agenda here is partly to second the enthusiasm of others for this remarkable bit of packaging appreciation. But it is also to offer my own slightly alternative version of that appreciation.  

The image that takes up the entire Tres Hombres gatefold is a photograph of a ridiculously ornate meal from (now defunct, but once a sort of Houston institution) Leo’s Mexican Restaurant, photographed by Galen Scott. While some of the huzzahs for the Micklethwait/ Bessenhoffer effort describe the image as “mouthwatering” and so on, I would politely suggest that this is misleading. Even as a kid in a far more naïve era of food-health thinking, this meal looked to me like a borderline-surreal gut-bomb—a culinary dare.

And I don’t know how possible it is to appreciate this in the digital-reproduction era, but in its physical manifestation the actual gatefold image is distinctly gritty and raw. Maybe it makes your mouth water, but at the same time it makes your insides grimace. What we see is so right it’s wrong, and so wrong it’s right. I’d call it “nasty”—but in exactly the way that Billy Gibbons’ guitar sound is nasty.

This quality is what made me, over the years (and, again, for reasons that evolved with time), repeatedly pull this record out and open the gatefold for a variety of guests who I am sure thought I was nuts.

I would try to explain: Remember that this was just their third record; the group had yet to hit the top ten; it wasn’t even an actual double album, so the packaging was intrinsically gratuitous; all of this happened in an age before MTV or the Internet, when a band’s ability to project itself visually was far more limited; and what ZZ Top had chosen to do with this highly rarified canvas was blow the whole thing on a huge picture of Tex-Mex food.

As many times as I tried to explain how beautifully insane that decision was, I don’t think I ever really succeeded. Even now, I don’t know if the Micklethwait/ Bessenhoffer endeavor makes anything close to the same point. But it doesn’t matter. Through this video they have surfaced an appreciation for this delightful bit of album-package design that I never knew existed. That’s delicious. So if Micklethwait and Bessenhoffer ever release more footage, I’ll scarf it down with no regrets.

My thanks to E for bringing this video to my attention. And as a side note, I’ll be in Austin on Sunday March 13, giving a talk about the luxification of analog. I will post details here (and on Twitter and  maybe Facebook) when I have them. I’m very much hoping I can find time on that trip to check out Micklethwait’s Craft Meats.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Music , Photography

Comments [1]

So much interesting!! I enjoy so much.
Taposy Rabeya

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