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Great covers: Satan Is Real (1960)

August 18th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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The Satan Is Real album cover routinely is included in lists of “worst ever covers”, alongside Millie Jackson fighting constipation, Orleans getting closer than close, and dirty old John Bult parking his cigarette as he seduces Julie on her 16th birthday. Of course the Satan Is Real cover is a bit naff — the dentally disadvantaged Evil One at the back is not very convincing, never mind real. And yet, I think it’s a fabulous cover.

Ira and Charles Louvin (whose real surname was Loudermilk) were hugely popular country/gospel artists in the 1950s. Elvis Presley was a huge fan, and his mother Gladys ranked the siblings as her absolute favourites. The brothers were of contrary character: Charles (who at 82 is still recording and performing, having supported acts like Cake and Lucinda Williams on tour) was easy-going, kind and tee-total; Ira a highly-strung, ill-tempered alcoholic. Elvis had just released his first single when he got a gig supporting Hank Snow at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. At country music’s Mecca, he ran into the Louvin Brothers and made it a point to gush at his heroes the way fans tend to. Ira, inebriated (and not with the spirit of the Lord) reportedly brushed him off, saying that he had no interest in talking to “a white nigger”. As noted, Charles was the charming one.

Were it not for the artwork on the cover of Satan Is Real, the Louvin Brothers might well have been forgotten outside the circles of their ageing fans and assorted country aficionados, despite their enormous influence on the genre, on Elvis and Johnny Cash, and especially on harmonising acts such as the Everly Brothers and Gram Parsons’ various platforms. The Byrds covered The Christian Life, from Satan Is Real, during Parsons’ stint, though his voice was for contractual reasons overdubbed. Parsons also turned the Rolling Stones on to the Louvin Brothers — sadly for fans of irony, that was just after the release of Sympathy For the Devil — among other country acts.

The iconic cover, we should not be surprised to learn, was Ira’s idea. In the photoshoot, set in a rock quarry, the 3,7m (12 ft) Satan was made of plywood, built by Ira himself, and his furnace which the Louvins are cheerfully dancing away from, was created from burning kerosene-soaked tyres. In the age before Photoshop — the blue screen of the still image — they actually had to pose before the flames which nearly engulfed them as all hell started to break loose when the overheated rocks started exploding and the fire started to go out of control.

The brothers’ contrast in temperament find expression on the cover. They may be dressed in identical white suits of Christian purity and pink shirts (as popularised by Ira‘s “white nigger”), but where Charlie looks positively angelic, Ira gurns almost demonically as he contemplates with terror how he may be destined to sup with Lucifer one day.

The grotesque cover and the bombastic title suggest that the sound of Satan Is Real should be as trite as a 3-D image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Well, yes and no. Of course, the lyrics are for a great part traditional fire and brimstone stuff with little reference to the finer points of progressive theology. Sinners are Ira and Charlie’s compadres in the wicked world, and to the enlightened brothers the friendly thing to do is to kick their friends’ sinning arses to the nearest Pentecostal church where they can repent. Nonetheless, the lyrics are delivered with sincerity, and whatever self-righteousness there may be is accompanied by an acknowledgment of their own sinfulness.

But the music lover will likely not turn to the Louvin Brothers for counsel in the dogmatic realm. They’ll tune in because the music is great. Now and then a spell of kitsch sets in — Ira’s spoken sermon in the title track, for example — but then one listens to the harmonies. Hell, these good ol’ boys sure could sing! For sanctimonious country kitsch, Ferlin Husky is your go-to man; the Louvin Brothers were consummate country harmonists and musicians (Ira’s mandolin-playing too is exquisite).

Two of the tracks address the problem of alcoholism, referring with not too much of a subtle touch to drunkards, of whom Ira was one: The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea (a cover of the Carter Family song) and The Drunkard’s Doom. In a cruel twist of irony, Ira and his fourth wife, Ann, died in a fiery car crash after being hit by a vehicle operated by, you guessed it, a drunken driver in Williamsburg, Missouri. At the time, a warrant of arrest was out for Ira — for drunk driving.

The Louvin Brothers – Satan Is Real.mp3
The Louvin Brothers – The Christian Life.mp3
The Byrds – The Christian Life.mp3

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  1. August 18th, 2009 at 10:11 | #1

    Great tracks – well, except for that lame effort by the Byrds! Gee, they were an inconsistent pop group!

    I like Christian songs like that, I don’t find them silly at all. :-)

    That stuff about alcohol I don’t find ironic at all, more indicative of what problems alcohol can cause sometimes, especially in cultures that promote overuse.

  2. sluggo
    August 18th, 2009 at 18:28 | #2

    link for more album coversw does not work

  3. August 18th, 2009 at 20:09 | #3

    Thanks for the alert. Fixed.

  4. August 21st, 2009 at 22:39 | #4

    Two things struck me:
    1. Satan looks a lot like the one who’s a regular on South Park.
    2. They actually look like they’re enjoying themselves in hell.

  5. August 24th, 2009 at 20:14 | #5

    Nice piece, dude. For any traditionalists out there still buying actual CDs, the 30-track compilation ‘My Baby’s Gone: 1955-1964’ is superb. Soul country at its best.

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