Ministry-Psalm69
Ministry’s “Psalm 69” Released July 14, 1992

I specifically remember the day I purchased Ministry’s fifth album, ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ. I had no idea what ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ was, or even how to say it, but my anticipation for this release was high. Five or six months earlier, I purchased the “Jesus Built My Hotrod” CD single. The song sounded unlike anything else I had ever heard. Granted, I was 14 years old and my knowledge of music was limited, but “Hotrod” was a blistering track that made me seek out their earlier albums, like The Land of Rape and Honey and The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste. A month after turning 15, ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ finally hit the shelves. It’s cover art was mesmerizing. Dark, mysterious, and metaphysical, it was also unlike any album cover I had seen before. I instantly fell in love with it and had a gut feeling the album would be great even before it took its first spin in my CD player.

Not unlike other 15 year old’s, my father and I didn’t have much in common. But, I had rifled through his record collection many times and found myself fascinated with the artwork to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. We talked about that album and it’s art, as well as others in his collection. When I picked up ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ (weeks later I learned it was actually titled Psalm 69: The Way to Suck Seed and the Way to Suck Eggs – even though that isn’t printed anywhere on the album), I knew he would think the art work was cool. When I got home with the CD, I showed it to him and he loved it, too. We even used a magnifying glass to get a closer look at the various objects that seemingly floated around the border.

Today, photographer Paul Elledge‘s art work on Psalm 69 remains one of my favorite album covers ever. In celebration of the 25th Anniversary of Psalm 69s release, I’m honored to present this look at the album artwork. Ramon Oscuro Martos first covered the story behind the album art in his book …And Justice for Art: Stories About Heavy Metal Album Covers, but I got Mr. Elledge on the phone to ask some other questions about the creation of the cover and also to discuss the cover of the “Jesus Built My Hotrod” single. Not only did Mr. Elledge do the “Hotrod” single artwork, but he also directed the music video.

JESUS BUILT MY HOTROD

The “Jesus Built My Hotrod” single was the first Ministry song I ever heard. It was one of those rare occasions where I had no idea exactly what to make of it, but loved it right away. As soon as I came across the t-shirt with the album art, it became a staple of my wardrobe. The CD cover art has gone on to be an iconic image in both the bands catalog and 90’s alternative music. Some even consider it one of the greatest album covers ever made.

I asked Mr. Elledge about the inspiration for the album cover.

Paul Barker is a motor-head and we were talking about the time period of the 70’s, which is kind of our love of hotrods…the big block engines. And we were talking about the Hemi. I thought it would be really cool to have a super-industrial shot of an engine that was kind of like what you would see at a factory, not on an album cover. A super-raw, super in-your-face Hemi-engine. And we would make the type like it was a stamp, like it came off the factory floor. They (Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker) thought it was great.”

The CD credits read “Cover courtesy of Chrysler Historical Foundation” and “Design Photography by Paul Elledge.” I was curious if Mr. Elledge took this photo or if it was something he found.

I thought, why would I take a picture of an engine? I’m sure they exist and it would be cooler to have something from the time period, a 70’s picture of an engine from Chrysler. Just as industrial as we could make it. Not necessarily in reference to industrial music, as much as just to make it as raw as the music. I called up Chrysler and said, “do you have a picture of an early 70’s Hemi engine?” and the first thing they sent me was perfect.”

jesus built my hotrod cover art

The “Jesus Built My Hotrod” music video was a highlight of any night spent watching MTV’s Headbangers Ball or 120 Minutes. Featuring images of drag races, car crashes, and other strange ephemera, the video mirrored the music. Just as the band had layered noises and samples on top of guitars, drums, and vocals, the video also layered the images against the band performing the song. I asked Mr. Elledge how the video came about.

The challenge was I had big ideas. The other challenge was I had never directed anything in my life…at least since college. The first challenge was Ministry had to convince Warner Bros to give me the money to shoot the video. You could call me an A-photographer or art director, but I had zero reputation in the motion world. But, Al and Paul, in their contract, had creative control. Warner Bros was like, “How can you choose this guy, he doesn’t know what he’s doing?” and they said “He either does it or we don’t do a video” and boom, I was doing the video.”

Asking him about the production for the music video, he told me:

I created a storyboard and listened to the song like 100 times or more, in the dark. And I wrote down things and I just crafted this whole thing. Then I decided what I would shoot and wouldn’t shoot. I wanted to make it so that some things I shot people would think was stock (footage) and some things that were stock were things I shot. The shoot was three days, one day was with the band. I shot them on black so I could layer all the stuff going through them. Then I shot all these other characters, the “drag-racer, drag-racer” guy, and the auctioneers, and I did the animation in the studio, like in the beginning where there’s the face and all the little icons around the edge.”

[The video] was shot as three videos layered together in the final step. We spent three days shooting it, but probably spent six weeks editing it, because it was really complicated. We were doing things that nowadays would just be a button or an effect.

PSALM 69: THE WAY TO SUCCEED & THE WAY TO SUCK EGGS

What always set the album cover apart from its contemporaries is that it remains wide-open to interpretation. In the early 90’s, most album covers were straight-forward and were either a clear representation of the album title or the band. Psalm 69 had an unintelligible album title that only appeared on the spine of the CD case. The bands name wasn’t printed on the album cover and it also didn’t clearly represent any particular song on the album.

It does reflect the music on the album, first track to last, perfectly. As the album contains nine songs filled with a barrage of instruments, samples, and a pastiche of sounds, the album art is an assemblage of seemingly random objects suspended in air and framing a naked angel who may, or may not, be heading from the darkness towards the light. As Mr. Elledge says in the …And Justice for Art book:

Ministry layers music and sound on top of each other. The artwork was also constructed in a similar manner. Not only in the way I repeatedly exposed the image, but the way  I drew on it. The way I used props to create layers of narrative is just like the way they use lyrics.”

psalm 69 alternate inside photo
Alternate inside photo for the Psalm 69 album. Photo courtesy of Paul Elledge.

All of the objects seen on the Psalm cover had a purpose, even if they seemed random. He told Martos:

I went to these Latino stores in Chicago they call ‘Botanicas,’ where they sell these religious artifacts. I went to a Greek religious store, to a place called American Scientific that sells used science stuff, to drift stores, and even to flea markets. ….I was trying to make a reference to iconic imagery that has to do with the human memory, materialism, and relationship to objects where the objects become memory or something more significant. I wanted that cover to take people to a place – to what they’ve experienced with the music…almost like a religious experience.

I had always been curious as to how the photo was set up. Was the border of objects and clocks something constructed that the angel stood behind? He told me:

In those days, I would have in my studio…two, three, four sets built and I would shoot the picture and move the film from camera to camera so it would be a double, triple, quadruple exposure. So, in that case the angel girl was on one set on a backdrop, that was one picture. Another picture was looking straight down at all those objects, with a little bit of sand on the edges. And another picture was a textural feel that went through the whole thing. There were three exposures. Nowadays, people do it in Photoshop, but I did it all manually. And you never knew if you got it right until you processed the film three days later.

Elledge_910914_404_CS_R58030small
Outtakes from the Psalm 69 photo shoot. Photo courtesy of Paul Elledge.

Also, from the …And Justice for Art book, Elledge told the author:

Some of the real edgy stuff is me drawing on the actual negative before I printed it in the darkroom. I did everything on my own, by hand.”

This immediately made me wonder if he was familiar with Jourgensen’s studio work. Jourgensen, beginning with the Land of Rape and Honey album, began experimenting in the studio in ways no one had really done before. Not only did he appropriate beat writer William S. Burroughs cut-up technique by splicing pieces of analog tape together randomly, he took it a step further. In his book Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen he spoke of his method when recording Rape and Honey: “I’d rub some of the tape pieces in coffee; others had cigarette burns or urine stains.” I asked Mr. Elledge if he was aware of Jourgensen’s methods:

I did not know that at the time at all. But, when I told Al what I was doing he was very excited about the fact that I was taking a photo shoot that I spent a bunch of money on and I could possibly destroy the whole thing. He liked that I was taking lots of risks and I was pushing the envelope not to be so perfect, but to have a more emotional feel to the end work opposed to trying to make everything technically exact. Often, I would take really perfect photos and knock them down a little bit by doing things to them. Which is basically what he was doing with sound. But, I didn’t know it until after the fact.

I asked him if he was aware that over the years the album cover had gone from black and white to Sepia toned. I actually didn’t know if there was a story behind this, or if maybe that was the way it was originally intended.

Somebodies not paying attention. The original picture was done on a process called split tone. You made a black and white print and you toned it and the blacks went kind of purple-ish black and the highlights stayed normal black and white. It’s basically a black and white image with a very subtle cool tone in the shadow to make it more dimensional. For it to go sepia is completely opposite. It makes it kind of warm and fuzzy as opposed to cold. The original black and white should’ve been cool, because it kind of goes with the whole feel of the record.  The sepia thing is just somebody not paying attention to how it should’ve been done.”

It’s hard to classify industrial music. Ministry doesn’t sound anything like Throbbing Gristle, nevertheless they are both lumped into the catch-all category that started more than a decade before Ministry and Nine Inch Nails went mainstream. If you call Ministry industrial, fundamentally it is because they used the studio as an instrument. Not unlike how Paul Elledge used his camera as an instrument when creating the Psalm 69 cover art. Ultimately, whatever the intent of the album artwork, it succeeds in inducing contemplation. Something the majority of album covers fail to do. This is why it stands the test of time and should be celebrated 25 years after its release.

– J. Kevin Lynch

Postscript: Special thanks go out to Mr. Paul Elledge who was generous with his time and happy to speak with me about his work. If you want to know more about the album cover, I can’t recommend Ramon Oscuro Martos’ book …And Justice for Art: Stories About Heavy Metal Album Covers highly enough. In addition to featuring Psalm 69, many other great works are discussed. I spoke with Martos about the book in 2015 and you can read that interview here.

 

 

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