In the latest episode of the 99 Percent Invisible podcast, reporter Sean Cole explores the origin story of the album cover art for Devo's debut album, Q: Are We Not Men?
Band members Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh were captivated by a kitsch illustration of professional golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez – a golfer known for his flamboyant attire and persona – on a package of practice golf balls. They decided that the image of Rodriguez, a character who defied conventional expectations of his profession, perfectly encapsulated the essence of their single "Be Stiff," a satirical commentary on the uptightness of authority figures. They used the image without seeking permission from the golf ball company or Rodriguez.
When Devo signed with Warner Brothers in 1978, they wanted to use the same image for their first album. But the label's legal department was worried about a potential lawsuit triggered by using Rodriguez's likeness without permission. The band sent a letter to Rodriguez asking for his permission to use the album, but didn't receive a response. So they came up with a new approach — a Mr. Potato Head-style pastiche of Rodriguez's face, combined with features of the previous four U.S. presidents, creating an absurd, unrecognizable figure.
As the covers were being printed, the band got Rodriguez's blessing. All he wanted was copies of the album to give to his friends as Christmas gifts. With trepidation, the band sent him the albums with the Frankensteinian face. Fortunately, the golfer was unfazed by the unflattering representation. He told Cole he was simply happy to have helped a young band and to have contributed to the spectacle of show business.
From the article:
While reporting this story, Sean Cole actually managed to get in touch with Chi Chi Rodriguez to ask him for his opinion on the record. It turns out that he wasn't mad about his image being distorted; he was just happy to help out an up-and-coming band. "I thought that these young people [were] trying to make a career out of it, and I could help them, and that's it!" For him, it was that simple. "Because I like to do something good every day of my life, and I want to leave the Earth better than I found it," says Chi Chi simply.
"I thought that these young people [were] trying to make a career out of it, and I could help them, and that's it!"
Chi Chi did listen to the record when he received it, but it wasn't really his style. He's more of a Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole guy. When Sean asked him about what he thought about his face being on the cover of an art rock band's first record, he had the perfect response: "Golf is show business, and when you're on stage you got to give the people a show," Chi Chi replied. "And that's … what Devo did. Devo came out to give the people a good time."
I also watched Troy Stone's wonderful documentary about the album cover, which includes a heart-warming meeting between Casale and Rodriguez for the first time. Rodriguez seems like a very kind and generous man.