The closest I ever came to getting suspended from school happened when I was in Grade 12. It was “team and group photo day” for the yearbook, so my friend and I decided we would get in every single shot. It was easy — students took the photos.
That’s not enough to get you in trouble, really — but, we also decided it would be hilarious if we were sneakily giving the finger in every photo. And we did: Chess club, drama club, co-ed volleyball, computer club, debating team, etc. Fingers on the knee, on the shoulder of the person in front of us — even one on a friend’s boob. A pair of bird-flipping longhairs in almost every group shot, smiling away like lottery winners from Bancroft.
A couple weeks go by before my friend and I are called down to the office after morning announcements. We are ushered into the principal’s office. He and both vice-principals are gathered around a coffee table, where sits a stack of 4×6 photographs. The photos were honestly hilarious.
“Look at this! Fuck you… fuck you… fuck you,” said the VP, flipping through the photos and holding them up. “Well, fuck you too, boys. Get out of here. We don’t care where you go.”
Before we left, they asked us if we had anything to say. My friend came dangerously close to asking if we could have the photos. But, instead, we went straight downtown to the Woolworth’s photo booth machine and had our picture taken, flipping the bird.
We didn’t invent this idea, in fact — a few birds have made their way onto album covers in my record collection. Some get airbrushed out eventually, and some don’t. I’m not talking deliberate, featured middle fingers designed to be the main art. I’m talking about sneaky birds — deliberate or accidental.
One of the most famous ones is on the cover of the awesome self-titled Moby Grape debut album. Not only was the American flag, held by guitarist Skip Spence, obscured — but so too was the middle finger given by drummer Don Stevenson. In initial pressings it can be seen on the edge of the washboard resting against his knee. Some later pressings put the airbrushed finger back in. I’m not sure which versions are worth more — I have two copies of the mono first pressings.
Johnny Ramone always seemed miffed nobody talked about him giving the finger on the cover of The Ramones’ first album. That’s probably because it’s clearly his index finger — offensive in Europe, but not over here.
Another famous bird, is one hand-drawn by Neil Young on the cover of his 1975 album Zuma — often included on lists of worst album art of all time. Down in the bottom left corner is what I first thought to be a tiny cactus, but it’s obviously a hand giving the middle finger. It was never censored out.
But sometimes birds get censored even if they’re not birds. The cover of Alice Cooper‘s breakthrough 1971 album Love It To Death had his thumb airbrushed because it looked too much like an entirely different appendage was hanging out of the singer’s pants. Not “the finger”, but still offensive, so it was eliminated. An honourable mention here, I suppose.
And here’s another debatable airbrush, which wasn’t even “the finger.” Yesterday I acquired a copy of Emmylou Harris’s Elite Hotel, which came out in 1975 — four days after Christmas for some reason. She earned a Grammy for it and it was her first #1 record.
Most editions of Elite Hotel, which show the then-28 year old sitting on the steps of said establishment in jeans and high boots, have airbrushed fingers. My copy doesn’t and it’s hard to figure out why they felt the need to do it. But it was decided it looked too much like she was giving the finger. There’s no way she was. Knowing what we do about Emmylou, if she wanted to give the finger we’d know: Harris took out an angry full page ad in a music magazine after reviewers failed to mention her band.
And, if you’re wondering what my high school did with those photos, well — they made it into the yearbook with hilarious black Sharpie marks over our offending digits.
Serious collectors’ items.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check out him out on Discogs.