Music to Cover Your Eyes To

If you hunt for music -- especially vinyl -- in thrift stores, junk shops, at garage sales or flea markets, chances are you've seen and rejected thousands of the records that now make up the bulk of Houstonian Nick DiFonzo's world-famous collection of bad and strange album covers. As he puts it on his excellent and widely imitated Web site, the process goes a little something like this: "I noticed that when a collector nerd looks through a box of old records at a thrift store, he will often pull out some '70s religious disco exercise record, make some sort of witty remark about its lameness to his bored girlfriend, and toss it back while grumbling how you can't find good records at thrift stores anymore."

DiFonzo used to be the same way. But as he writes in the foreword to the first of what will soon be three books in his series The Worst Album Covers in the World, he now considers himself a collector of "forgotten" records. "These aren't the ones you'll find displayed on the wall in the record shop, they're not the ones listed in value guides usually, and most record collectors don't even notice them. These are the records that remain in the sale box after everyone else has already rifled through it and bought the 'good' ones."

A native of Pennsylvania, the 33-year-old DiFonzo took a job as TV news technician in Austin after college. It was there that he found himself more or less forced into collecting these albums. "Austin was full of hipsters -- everyone is a record collector there," he says. "It was hard to get the 'good' stuff there."

A few years ago, DiFonzo accepted a position with KHOU, and says that Houston has offered happier hunting, both for the conventional good stuff as well as the weird stuff. "Sure, you'll find some weird records in places like Indiana," he says, seated on a stool amid his stacks in his Garden Oaks-area home. "But nowhere near as many as you can find down here. And Houston's even better than Austin. Here, you've got immigrants coming from all over the world, and lots of them bring their records with them. And there's just something about Houston -- there were a couple of little labels here. I swear to God I must have about 50 records from this company called Ludwig Sound Recording Studios, and every one of them has a terrible cover, so I can only think that this guy had something to do with these awful covers."

Albums like these furnished DiFonzo a niche. Today, his house is full of these finds, many of them plucked from the bins of the thrift stores on Long Point. He's got live albums that proudly proclaim they were recorded at Holiday Inns or, in the case of '70s local band the Town and Country Trio, At Shakey's Pizza Parlor and Ye Public House. He has a couple dozen of the late-'50s "Music For…" and "Music to (insert activity here)" genre -- there's everything from Jackie Gleason Presents Music to Get Misty By and Music for a Strip Tease Party to Music to Grow Plants and Music to Drill Oil Wells By. And there are hilarious relics of the hippie era, like the instructional album How to Blow Your Mind and Have a Freak Out Party, which suggests that you "Put a rock and roll record on the phonograph…point a kaleidoscope at the TV screen…Now play the record at a different speed. YOU ARE NOW FREAKING OUT." Copasetic, man.

Perhaps weirdest of all are the literally hundreds of 30- and 40-year-old Christian albums that make that old saw about the past being another country seem like the understatement of the century. In their case, the past seems like another planet altogether. In addition to whole stacks of records by Dr. Jack Van Impe and Tammy Faye Bakker, there's the solemn, white-booted "underworld preacher" Freddie Gage pondering the sordid life he escaped on the cover of All My Friends Are Dead, not to mention Sing for God and Country by the Singing Midget Lowell Mason and the Crusaders.

And many, many more, Joyce certainly not least among them. Today, DiFonzo can't remember exactly where he picked up this iconic LP -- he thinks he got it at an estate sale in Austin for about a dime. But now this Sealy pastor's wife's 22-year-old gospel album has made it all the way from his Web site to the Vanity Fair-affiliated blog, where The Rock Snob's Dictionary authors David Kamp and Steven Daly shoot down the rumor that the eponymous Joyce was, in fact, British actress Maureen Lipman posing as "music-hall oddity Joyce Grenfell." (Whatever that means.)

But at least Kamp and Daly give DiFonzo the credit he is due. Many bloggers and other Netizens have not. Some have swiped his images, added their own snide commentary and passed them off as their own finds. "It doesn't bother me that people take some of my albums and put them on their site," DiFonzo says. "But it's pretty bad when some sites take, like, all of them. But what are you gonna do?"

In addition to his Web site, DiFonzo has already compiled two books around these discoveries: The Worst Album Covers in the World, Vols. 1 and 2. He's almost done with the third, and this one will be more easily available stateside than the first two. (To buy those, you have to go through either DiFonzo's Web site or DiFonzo says that one of the reasons he's had a hard time getting his books published over here is that he pokes so much fun at religious albums, and that some companies are frightened of a red-state backlash. Nevertheless, he says, Volume 3 will be out this year.

Anyway, to whet your appetite, we've selected a few more of the best of these, the worst album covers ever.

Julie's Sixteenth Birthday First, off there's Lake Charles honky-tonker John Bult's album Julie's Sixteenth Birthday. DiFonzo says Bult intended this cover to portray a concerned father giving his daughter plainspoken advice as she approached womanhood -- and he even plays me the title track, which reveals this to be so. Problem is, with this album cover, Bult missed communicating that idea by several miles. If every picture tells a story, then the one Julie's Sixteenth Birthday tells is illegal everywhere except maybe places like Thailand and West Virginia. Just what is Bult telling Julie there? That she's now too old for him? That she's now old enough to know he gave her genital warts? Or maybe he's just trying to put a happy face on the fact that he just won her in a poker game in a bet her father made straight-up against his 1978 El Camino…

Let Me Touch Him Moving on to even more masculine domains -- areas where no girl or woman dare tread -- we have the Ministers Quartet's Let Me Touch Him. If these manly fellows are in a race to whoever the him is they want to, um, "touch," I'm betting on the guy with the glasses second from right. He's got a lean and hungry look; he seems much more eager than the other fellows to get with the touchin'.

Devastatin' Dave Devastatin' Dave the Turntable Slave doesn't want to touch you. He does want to Zip, Zap and Rap you, though. And make sure you say "no" to drugs.

The Christian Crusaders As DiFonzo notes in his book, while many Christian bands took special care to wear matching outfits, "what's strange is how the people don't seem to match. Where else would you see this motley crew other than on a Christian album cover?"

Tino Spanish pop star Tino -- whose prior band Parchis had a hit with a cover of the Village People's "In the Navy" -- rocks the 1981-style jailbait rent-boy look. We're betting he tells all his tricks it's his "first time."

Aerobics Country Style Ah, yes, a seminal album in the development of the great American folk art of line dancing.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax