Richard Bangham is a bona fide rock artist.
And he's versatile, too: just as comfortable with reggae, pop and jazz.
If Bangham's name stirs few memories of packed concerts and music videos, fear not. He's behind-the-scenes talent, a man designing album covers since he was 19.
Visitors don't have to venture far into Bangham's living room to realize he's not your typical nine-to-fiver.
In the heart of his Silver Spring home, right next to the television set and the dining room table, sits a bulky Xerox machine he uses to copy liner notes or recently finished covers.
He creates most of his designs in the basement, figuring out the concept, tinting black-and-white photos or drafting the calligraphy for the album title. He'll work on as many as five at a time, and has done more than 100.
As the washer and dryer rattled in the background, Bangham, 37, detailed his career on the periphery of the music scene: his stint in a gold-sequined bikini as backup singer for Root Boy Slim, the time he cut a record using a Slinky as percussion and his cable appearance as Professor Knowledge on a Langley Punks television pilot.
"I blow up at the end of the show," he revealed.
Despite such heady on-stage glamor, he now pays his bills from the work in the basement. Lately, he's been illustrating Jamaican albums, many of them for Ras, a Washington-based company.
The work can be tedious. It may take 10 hours to devise the correct calligraphy, or 10 drafts to make a singer's cheek the right shade of pink.
It can also be complex. On one cover, he had to integrate color photography, an original illustration of a ghost and three-dimensional lettering. It can involve as much typography and camera work as illustration.
The best projects, he says, are those where the company gives him a tape and leaves him on his own. When he designed "The Fugs' Greatest Hits," the band had split up and could not be photographed. Bangham dressed up in a large overcoat and a knit hat, like a street person, and posed alongside huge graffiti proclaiming "The Fugs' Greatest Hits."
"When in doubt, a picture of me will always do," he commented.
Another time, all he had to work with was a group photo used on a previous album. He blew up part of the photo, tinted it, and -- presto -- a new cover.
"Some of my best covers have taken 10 minutes to do," he said.
Bangham also supports himself as a free-lance commercial artist. The Xerox, a tan '68 Cadillac convertible and an IBM typewriter all came from an advertising company unable to pay him in cash. His last regular paycheck came when he was a 17-year-old short-order cook. But some jobs since have been wilder than others.
How else to explain his brief career as one of the Rootettes, the "female" backup group for Root Boy Slim, who is famous for "Boogie Till You Puke" and "You Broke My Mood Ring."
Working with Root Boy's albums, Bangham realized he was devoting all his time to Root's career, so when asked to hire a new backup singer, he decided he needed the money more himself.
"It was one of the most ridiculous career moves I ever made," he said. He broke his collarbone trying to roller-skate during one encore, and crashed into a tambourine and needed stitches during another.
"I kind of think it was my pay-back for avoiding the draft," he says, on mature reflection. "It was sort of like the Army without the discipline." He still designs Root Boy Slim album covers, however, and will do the new one when the group signs with a new label.
Before hitting the music business, Bangham attended the University of Maryland School of Architecture, but left before graduating. He worked for Architect of the Capitol George White and says he got kicked out of White's office when he suggested jazzing up congressional hallways with brighter colors. He didn't get fired, but eventually left for New York. There, he paid the bills with jobs at Country Music magazine and Money, and even won a national award with a cover design for Screw magazine.
Don't worry. It was mostly a pair of lips.