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Cover Stories: Beck, ‘Odelay’

Beck Odelay front cover
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Classic album covers come in many different varieties. Some reach classic status due to their artistic merit, others because they were banned or altered for being too controversial. The creators of some sleeves were at least as famous as the bands they worked with – like Roger Dean or Hipgnosis. Finally, some album covers are classics for no other reason than they are so bad.

And then there are those jackets that become iconic because they make us smile, like the cover of Beck’s 1996 album, Odelay, with its leaping, shaggy dog. Just look at that hairball. Who’s a good dust mop? You are! You’re a good little dust mop!

That shaggy mutt is a Komondor – a Hungarian sheepdog known according to the American Kennel Club for its “imposing strength, dignity, courageous demeanor, and pleasing conformation.” The AKC also notes that the Komondor is a “medium energy” dog, so maybe we’re catching this one after a nap or something. The dreadlock-like coat is natural to the breed, and dog people don’t call them dreads, but rather “white cords.”

That’s great stuff for a rousing game of dog trivia, but what the heck does it have to do with Beck? Is the photo some kind of pun on “Devil’s Haircut”? Are shepherds known for shouting “Odelay!” at their hounds? Maybe Beck was a member of the Komondor Club of America?

The truth is much more mundane. The authors of 100 Greatest Album Covers lay out the hurdle-scaling reality:

Beck’s cover caused quite a stir when it first appeared as no one was quite sure what the picture was all about. This was precisely the intention that Beck had in mind when he picked it out in a last minute decision to avoid his album being delayed. The only comment  the record company could make about the cover was one of relief when they learned that the album would be released on time.

The same book asserts that it wasn’t Beck who found the classic photo but rather his girlfriend “Lee,” though they likely meant Leigh Limon, whom the singer dated throughout the ’90s.

Limon spotted the photo in a book on dog breeds. The photographer was Joan Ludwig who, as luck would have it, was sort of the Annie Liebovitz of dog pictures. Ludwig’s career stretched all the way back to the ’30s. An L.A. Times article from 1992 calls her the “grand dame of the business,” and notes that her photos “have run in virtually every dog magazine in the country.” Ludwig was a fixture at dog shows, but what attracted the connoisseurs to her work was her ability to capture humor in her images. She certainly caught the joy in this one.

Odelay co-art director Robert Fisher (he shares the credit with Beck) recalled for 100 Greatest Album Covers tracking down Ludwig:

Once we had found the picture of the dog I set out to see if we could obtain the original transparency…. [Ludwig] happened to live just a few blocks from the office. She was in her late ’70s, I think, and was enthusiastic to have someone come visit her. Her garage was filled with boxes of dog pictures and after hours of searching I couldn’t find it so I ended up scanning the image directly from the book. The quality wasn’t so great but it did give the cover a certain look that I liked.

After a little Photoshop to make the photo square, Fisher and Beck had their album cover – almost. Fisher found a typeface in a book of Western woodcut typography and added the cover’s text. He notes that the singer “felt that it was kind of ambiguous, chosen almost at random. The viewer could read into the cover whatever they wanted.”

Odelay went on to sell two million copies on the backs of future classics like “Where It’s At” and “Devil’s Haircut.” Beck’s girlfriend Limon ran off with a member of the band Whiskey Biscuit in 1999. The incident inspired Sea Change, so we actually have Limon to thank for two great moments in Beck history.

As for Ludwig, she passed away in 2004 at age 89. The photographer isn’t remembered as a footnote in album cover history, but rather for the exceptional body of work she produced for dog lovers over her long career.

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