by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Ask most music buffs to mention a famously risqué or eyebrow-raising album cover from the ’60s or ‘70s, and they may mention Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ much-parodied cover art for Whipped Cream and Other Delights (featuring model Dolores Erickson covered in “whipped cream” – in actuality, shaving cream – and little else) or R&B/funk outfit The Ohio Players’ highly controversial but Grammy-award-winning gatefold jacket for Honey (featuring Playboy model Ester Cordet coated in the substance). Yet, in spite of the Ohio Players’ lasting reputation for consistently provocative album jackets for Mercury Records during the ‘70s, they never actually had an album pulled from the market and modified due to an objectionable cover (unlike, say, Roxy Music, whose album Country Life would be re-issued with its scantily-clad cover models removed from the album jacket entirely), nor did even the “bad boys of rock” themselves, the Rolling Stones. (The lone Stones album of the ‘70s to be pulled from stores and its cover replaced, Some Girls, was only re-worked due to legal reasons resulting from several female celebrities objecting to the unauthorized use of their images.)
In contrast, Three Dog Night – not exactly a band most people would ever associate with button-pushing – would have not just one but two separate albums recalled and their covers changed. The earliest pressings of their 1970 album, It Ain’t Easy, depicted the band members posing in the nude on the front cover; naturally, the record was hastily recalled and its cover altered to an innocuous living-room photo of the band’s three lead singers. [Copies of the original – often referred to as the “Wizards of Orange” sleeve – routinely sell into triple figures today and rank among the most collectible non-promotional LPs of the ‘70s. Ironically, a cropped version of that infamous album cover was used on the interior gatefold of the band’s 1971 greatest-hits LP Golden Bisquits.)]
The band’s 1974 album Hard Labor would prove to be just as controversial, originally being issued in a jacket – with a fold-open faux-medical-file manila folder attached to the cover – depicting an alien-like creature in a hospital delivery room giving birth to a vinyl album. Reaction to the cover was almost universally negative, and the band’s label, ABC/Dunhill, tried to alleviate the controversy by quite literally slapping a giant adhesive Band-Aid over the offending image. [Because of the cost involved, the label eventually just printed the image of the Band-Aid onto the cover to simplify matters.] Bizarre image though it is, it’s hard not to admire all the thought that clearly went into the packaging for the album, particularly the details of the faux birth records printed inside the aforementioned manila folder.
The notoriety of the cover art aside, Hard Labor – technically containing just eight proper songs, in addition to a prelude and two interludes, the latter of which would not be properly listed or separately banded until the disc was issued on CD – is one of the band’s tightest and most appealingly largely filler-free outings and boasts not just one but three of the most underrated singles in the entire Three Dog Night catalog. The band’s longtime producer, Richard Podolor, had departed after the previous outing, Cyan, but is here replaced by an equally gifted producer in Jimmy Ienner, best known at this point for producing all four studio albums from power-pop band Raspberries of “Go All the Way” fame. [Ienner would later go on to produce, among other hits, Grand Funk’s “Bad Time” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” and Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” and executive-produce the multi-platinum soundtrack to Dirty Dancing.]
Like most Three Dog Night albums, there are no originals here, but Three Dog Night always excelled at picking material that was not only high-quality but was obscure enough to sound new to most listeners (the band had the good taste and savvy enough to record material by and help introduce the world at large to such cult writers as Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, and Hoyt Axton, among countless others), and the band consequently very rarely felt like the cover band that it, in essence, technically was. The band also benefitted from having a strong permanent rhythm section, and though longtime bassist Joe Schermie left the band just prior to this album, guitarist Mike Allsup, keyboardist Jimmy Witherspoon, and drummer Floyd Sneed, all thankfully remain intact here.
The disc gets off to a delightful start with the snappy, vaguely gospel-tinged, Cory Wells-sung “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here” (very rarely heard on oldies stations these days, though the song made it all the way into the Top Twenty, peaking at #16), penned by a very young, pre-fame John Hiatt (later to become a cult star in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as the writer of The Jeff Healey Band’s “Angel Eyes” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Thing Called Love” and the recording artist of such critically-acclaimed discs as Bring the Family, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments.) The ballad “Anytime Babe,” meanwhile, comes from the pen of Larry Weiss, who had already written the hits “Help Me Babe” (The Outsiders, Eric Burdon and the Animals), “Mr. Dream Merchant” (Jerry Butler, The New Birth) and “Bend Me, Shape Me” (American Breed) and would later write Glen Campbell’s signature tune, “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
One of the band’s finest non-singles, the electric-piano-driven soul of “Put Out the Light,” follows next; Joe Cocker would later cover the song on I Can Stand a Little Rain, but Three Dog Night’s version is arguably the more passionate and lively of the two. [The song itself was penned by Daniel Moore, who’d previously penned a hit for the band with “Shambala” and was also responsible for co-writing the B.W. Stevenson hit “My Maria,” later a massive country hit in the ‘90s for Brooks & Dunn.] The album’s first side closes with a rendition of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo”; though Cliff’s reading is the definitive version of the song, Danny Hutton’s fine vocal performance helps make the track better than a reggae cover by Three Dog Night has any right to be.
But it’s the album’s second side that proves to be the more fun of the album’s two halves. “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” is yet another one of the band’s most underrated singles; it sadly peaked at only #33, but the song – equal parts New Orleans R&B, country, and gospel – is packed with hooks and was penned by the legendary Allen Toussaint (best known as the writer of such happy-go-lucky hits as Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That,” and Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law” and the producer of Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” and LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade.”) A second excellent Daniel Moore-penned cut, “On the Way Back Home,” follows and gives all three of the band’s lead singers each a chance to shine. The disc closes with its very best cut, a definitive reading of the circus-themed “The Show Must Go On,” written and originally recorded by Leo Sayer (later to rocket to fame in the late ‘70s as the singer of such hits as “When I Need You” and “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”). Sayer reportedly disliked the band’s version, if only because of a lyric change towards the end, but the band’s take on the song is much more radio-friendly than Sayer’s own reading, and Chuck Negron absolutely nails the song’s demanding vocal, turning in one of his very best performances with the band.
Hard Labor would unfortunately turn out to be the band’s last truly worthwhile album. They would only have one more Top 40 hit (1975’s “’Til the World Ends” from Coming Down Your Way), and after 1976’s American Pastime (which found the three vocalists ditching their longtime backing band for an all-star cast of session players) stiffed, the band would call it a day, although they would briefly re-surface on record in 1983 with the poor-selling EP It’s a Jungle, while Danny Hutton would unexpectedly and incongruously re-surface on his own on the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink (no, really!) with a remake of Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good.”