Cover artwork for 'Cruising With Ruben & The Jets'

Cal Schenkel is best known as the former house illustrator of cult rock composer Frank Zappa. While not the only artist to collaborate with Zappa, he was the most prominent and productive. He designed various album covers, video covers, concert posters and advertising comics. Schenkel was also the go-to guy for Zappa's side projects with other musicians. His art work is instantly recognizable due to its ratty and chaotic but joyful style. He was known to see the beauty in ugliness and passed this gift on to his fans. Schenkel also goes down in history as the first artist to become closely associated with one particular rock act. He gave Zappa a visual identity long before Hipgnosis, Lemi Ghariokwu, Pedro Bell and Overton Loyd did the same for respectively Pink Floyd, Fela Kuti and Parliament.

Calvin Schenkel was born in 1947 in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. He came from an artistic background: his grandfather was a landscape painter and his great uncle scribbled in his manuscripts. Schenkel studied at the Philadelphia College of Art, but dropped out after one semester. A self-taught artist, Schenkel drew inspiration from both "high" as well as "low" art. He was influenced by Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, James Ensor, Edward Kienholz, Sigmar Polke, Jess and Dieter Roth, but also by Wally Wood, Mad Magazine, E.C. Comics, Gahan Wilson, George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat', Jay Ward's 'Rocky & Bullwinkle' and Carl Barks' 'Donald Duck' and 'Uncle Scrooge' stories. The dog-nosed characters in his own art are a tribute to those in Barks' comics. He also had a keen interest in amateur drawings, the so-called "outsider art". All these influences are stewed together in his own style, which explains his fondness for doodling and collage. Later in life he also expressed admiration for John Kricfalusi, Steve Cutts, Stephen Hillenburg, John Seabury, Kaz, Drew Friedman, Patrick McDonnell, Gary Taxali, Edel Rodriguez, Reg Mombasa, Glitchr, Gary Panter and Susan Natalie Murphy.


How to Comb a Jelly Roll

While Schenkel's college experience was brief, he did meet his future girlfriend, Sandy Hurvitz, during this period. In 1966 they moved to California, where the hippie subculture was booming. By sheer conincidence he was picked up by a bunch of hippie girls on their way to a recording studio in L.A. It turned out to be the office of Verve Records, where Frank Zappa was recording his debut album 'Freak Out!'. Schenkel witnessed some of the recordings, but didn't partake in them and only met Zappa in passing. Some months later he noticed the album in a store and bought it. He liked the music and got back in touch with Zappa when his band toured in New York City. Initially it was Hurvitz who got closer involved with Zappa's band, the Mothers of Invention. She performed as a singer and pianist for them. Yet she hadn't forgotten her boyfriend and encouraged him to show his artwork to Zappa. The "king of underground rock" liked what he saw. During his teen years, Zappa had occasionally made paintings, but became too preoccupied with music afterwards. Schenkel was immediately hired to create some advertisements for Zappa's latest album 'Absolutely Free' (1967). In the years that followed Schenkel would draw ads for Zappa's other musical releases and concerts too. These were predominantly published in comics magazines and often drawn in a comic strip-style, complete with panels, speech balloons and funny doodles. Zappa's son, Ahmet, credits his father as the first rock 'n' roll musician to exclusively advertize in comic magazines. In an interview Zappa explained that he considered comics readers the ideal target audience for his eccentric music. Some ads published near the end of the 1960s appeared in issues of Marvel comic books, more specifically the series 'The Fantastic Four'. The fact that Zappa was a personal friend of Jack Kirby presumably helped. An image from a 'Sgt. Fury' comic can also be seen on the cover of Zappa's album 'We're Only In It For The Money' (1968).


Schenkel's ads for 'Absolutely Free' and 'We're Only In It For The Money'

As such, Cal Schenkel became part of Zappa's entourage. During his first European tour in 1967 Schenkel acted as the official photographer, set- and light designer of each concert. He even briefly moved in with his taskmaster. In New York City he commuted to work at Zappa's apartment, since his art studio was there. Occasionally he slept over. When Zappa moved to L.A. Schenkel received his own studio in a wing of his estate. Later he'd move out and rent a studio in Melrose, which was a former dentist's office. Books and photographs of teeth were still lying around. Schenkel would later use this imagery for the cover design of Zappa's 'Uncle Meat' (1969). Apart from advertisements, he designed various concert posters and particularly record covers. His best known album cover for Zappa is probably 'We're Only In It For The Money' (1968), which was a parody of the cover of The Beatles' 'Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band'. It depicts Zappa and his Mothers in drag, rather than the Fab Four's satin uniforms. Instead of a flower corsage spelling out their band name Schenkel did the same with a bunch of vegetables, a nod to Zappa's song 'Call Any Vegetable'. Zappa had made a list of all the people he wanted on the cover, but it turned out to be too difficult to find all the required celebrities, left alone pictures of them. Only Jimi Hendrix managed to make it to the fotoshoot. While the Beatles could afford to hire life-size wax statues and cardboard cut-outs of all the celebrities Schenkel just relied on a collage of cut-out photographs, most of them lifted from magazines he happened to have in his vicinity. To make up for all the people they couldn't portray Zappa just gave him his high school year book to pick pictures from. The final cover showed images of - among others - U.S President Lyndon B. Johnson, criminal Lee Harvey Oswald, TV host Rod Serling, pop musicians David Crosby, Nancy Sinatra and Elvis Presley and silent movie actors Theda Bara, Lon Chaney Sr. and Max Schreck. Schenkel also depicted himself, holding a crate of eggs in the right corner. The young boy playing accordion in the top center is also him. To avoid legal troubles all photos of (then) living people received black censor boxes in front of their eyes. Zappa also asked the Beatles' label E.M.I. for permission to make this spoof. According to some sources Paul McCartney was not amused with this mockery, even though he named Zappa's 'Freak Out!' (1966) a major source of inspiration for 'Sgt. Peppers'. What the other Beatles felt about 'We're Only In It For The Money' is not known. But since Zappa once recorded on stage with John Lennon in New York City in 1971 and had Ringo Starr appear as a guest actor in his film '200 Motels' the same year there was presumably no ill blood. 'Sgt. Peppers' was such a cultural phenomenon that 'We're Only In It For The Money' made both Zappa as well as Schenkel more notorious. Countless other parodies of 'Sgt. Peppers' have been made since, but 'We're Only In It For The Money' was the first and remains the best known.

We're Only In It For The Money
Cover art for 'We're Only In It For The Money'

Since Zappa was such a productive artist Schenkel always had something to work on. His record covers ranged from plain photographs ('Lumpy Gravy' (1968), 'Hot Rats' (1969)) over collages and assemblages ('Uncle Meat' (1969), 'Burnt Weeny Sandwich' (1970), 'Tinsel Town Rebellion' (1981)) to full-blown illustration work (1968's 'Cruising With Ruben & The Jets', 1971's 'Fillmore East, June 1971', 1972's 'Just Another Band From L.A.', 1972's 'The Grand Wazoo', 1975's 'One Size Fits All', 1986's 'Does Humor Belong In Music?', 1992's 'Playground Psychotics' and 1993's 'Ahead Of Their Time'). Schenkel didn't limit himself to just the front and back covers either. Inside the sleeves one could find remarkable illustration work too. Many of these images have become classics. For 'Uncle Meat' (1969) he created a booklet which features a model drawing of a rifle with a doll's foot stuck upon it. On the same page we find a little comic strip starring a giraffe who listens to Captain Beefheart's song 'Moonlight on Vermont' (from 'Trout Mask Replica', 1969). In the next panel he suddenly gets a doll foot jammed up its ass. The booklet also presents a synopsis for a never-realized film Zappa had in mind, including a storyboard for which Schenkel provided the drawings. The cover of 'Cruisin' With Ruben & The Jets' (1968) depicts a musical band whose lead guitarist is immediately recognizable as Zappa. It marked the first instance of Schenkel using his now familiar dog nosed and -eared people. The illustration is quintessential Schenkel art: drawn for the fun of it, rather than worry about technical virtuosity. He also named it his personal favorite. Schenkel also drew the vacuum cleaner dancing around a gypsy campfire inside the sleeve of 'Chunga's Revenge' (1970). He painted the delightfully amusing cover of 'Just Another Band From L.A.' (1972), where Zappa and his Mothers are seen driving an enormous car. Another unforgettable cover is 'The Grand Wazoo' (1972), where two armies of musicians fight one another on the front, while mad scientist Uncle Meat grins in his office on the backside. The most ambitious record cover Schenkel ever made was 'One Size Fits All' (1975), co-created/designed with Lynn Lascaro. The back cover shows a parody of the constellations, with all star signs being either puns, intellectual references or inside jokes. Some jokes refer to Zappa personally, while others are nods to friends of Schenkel, namely the stars Alison Wickwire, Laura, Aunty Letty, Katy, Chunky, Novy & Ernie. With some covers Schenkel merely oversaw the design, packaging and lettering, while other artists provided the cover illustration or photograph. This was the case with albums like 'Chunga's Revenge' (1970), '200 Motels' (1971), 'Over-Nite Sensation' (1973), 'Waka/Jawaka' (1972), 'Apostrophe' (1974), 'Roxy & Elsewhere' (1974), 'Bongo Fury' (1975) and 'Zoot Allures' (1976).


Back-cover for 'The Grand Wazoo'

Schenkel was also closely involved with Zappa's musical enterprises. For a while Zappa and record producer Alan Douglas considered creating their own label, "Moop". Some advertisements for it were published in The Hit Parader during the summer of 1967. Schenkel drew them in comic strip format. They starred Zappa himself, making it some kind of celebrity comic, and featured very surreal storylines. Douglas however felt it was all a bit too bizarre and thus the project never got off the ground. Yet the project wasn't a total waste of time, though. One image in the comics - a dog-faced man - would later be used for a T-shirt logo when Schenkel started his own mailing order device in 1980. Since it caught on so well he made it his official logo. 'Ralph', as the character was christened, can also be seen in the crowd on the cover of Zappa's 'Tinseltown Rebellion' (1981). While the Moop project never went anywhere, Schenkel did design the logo for Zappa's independent record label "Bizarre", while John Williams did the same for its counterpart label "Straight". He was also the art designer for various artists who signed up with Bizarre or Straight: Captain Beefheart ('Trout Mask Replica', 1969), Wild Man Fischer ('An Evening with Wild Man Fischer', 1969), The GTO's ('Permanent Damage', 1969), Lord Buckley ('A Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat', 1969), Ruben and the Jets ('For Real', 1973) and Tim Buckley (1973's 'Sefronia', 1974's 'Look at the Fool'). Schenkel also designed a cover for his girlfriend's debut album, 'Sandy's Album Is Here At Last' (1968). Their relationship didn't work out and Sandy Hurvitz later became a solo musician under the pseudonym Essra Mohawk. Later Schenkel was also together with Zappa's secretary Pauline Butcher, followed by a relationship with groupie Sandra Leano, with whom he had a daughter, Raven. Leano later became part of the all-female band the GTO's (Girls Together Outrageously). Zappa produced their first and only album 'Permanent Damage' (1969), for which Schenkel created the cover lay-out.


Schenkel's comics for Moop

Schenkel worked as a production designer for Zappa's movie '200 Motels' (1971), building the sets of Centerville, "a real nice place to raise your kids up." He also directed the animated intermezzo 'Dental Hygiene Dilemma / Does This Kind of Life Look Interesting To You?', which occurs halfway the picture. Set to Zappa's compositions of the same name, the short is a parody of educational films, in this case one about dental hygiene. It features Zappa member Jeff Simmons being seduced by the Devil to steal the towels from his hotel room. The piece ends with a sarcastic reposé whether the busy and ungrateful life of a "fake rock 'n' roll guitar player in a comedy group" looks "interesting" to you? The cartoon is amazingly surrealistic and one of the more memorable moments of this cult picture. A grotesque version of Donald Duck also has a small cameo, obviously without approval from the Walt Disney Company. Schenkel made another rare animated cartoon in 1974, which advertised Zappa's latest release, 'Apostrophe'. It was broadcast on some local U.S. TV channels. In 1972-1973 Zappa wrote another film script, 'Hunchentoot', which spoofed monster B-movies. Schenkel adapted part of the dialogue into a comic strip, 'The Curtains Are Closing'. The text deals with "the greatest known 'philostopher' (sic) Quentin Robert D. Nameland" and would later be set to music as part of Zappa's epic musical fairy tale 'The Adventures of Greggery Peccary', available on 'Studio Tan' (1978) and 'Läther' (1996). Zappa tried to find a director for 'Hunchentoot' for many years, even contacting Terry Gilliam and the creators of the cult TV show 'Mystery Science Theater 3000', but it always remained in development hell. The moustached cult musician did establish his own video label in 1985, "Honker Home Video", for whom Schenkel designed the logo. The logo image featured Zappa's majestic big nose inside a TV screen, accompanied by the speech balloon: "It's a honker!" Schenkel also illustrated the VHS covers of three Honker Home Videos, namely 'Uncle Meat' (1987), 'The Amazing Mr. Bickford' (1987) and 'The True Story of 200 Motels' (1989). In 1991 he designed the poster for the tribute concert 'Zappa's Universe'. Even when the cult musician passed away in 1993, Schenkel was still asked to contribute illustrations for some of his posthumous releases, such as 'Cheap Thrills' (1998), 'Son of Cheep Thrills' (1998) and 'Mystery Disc' (1998). He also redesigned the cover of an older album, 'The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life' (1991) which originally just had a picture of Zappa performing with his band.


Still from Dental Hygiene Dilemma

Cal Schenkel also worked outside Zappa's realm. He enriched the record covers of artists like Emitt Rhodes ('Emitt Rhodes', 1970), The Fugs ('Golden Filth', 1970), Shango ('Trampin', 1970), George Duke (1976's 'Liberated Fantasies' and the design of 1976's 'Live on Tour in Europe'), Ether Hogg ('Snivelization', 1994) and Tom Waits (1973's 'Closing Time', 1974's 'The Heart of Saturday Night', 1975's 'Nighthawks at the Diner' and 1976's 'Small Change'). The piano Waits is seated behind on the cover of 'Closing Time' was actually located in Schenkel's house. It's sometimes incorrectly assumed that Schenkel painted the cover of 'The Heart of Saturday Night', since he is credited as its designer and since it is also a homage to another famous record cover (in this case Frank Sinatra's 'In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning'), much like 'We're Only In It for The Money' spoofed 'Sgt. Peppers'. In reality the cover was illustrated by Lyn Lascaro while Schenkel was just the art director. Schenkel could have also added a cover design for an Eric Dolphy album to his catalogue, but the plan fell through and it eventually ended up as the cover for Zappa's 'Burny Weeny Sandwich' (1970).

The Curtain Comes Up
The Curtain Comes Up, comic strip by Schenkel and Zappa

Despite his long career and work for other artists Schenkel will always remain first and foremost associated with Zappa. Many fans still believe that he created each and every record cover for him, which is not the case.To debunk some common misunderstandings and give credits' worth we provide a small overview of the illustrated covers other artists made: Jack Anesh ('Freak Out!', 1966), Neon Park ('Weasels Ripped My Flesh', 1970), Marvin Mattelson ('Waka/Jawaka' , 1973), Gary Panter ('Studio Tan', 1978, 'Sleep Dirt', 1979, 'Orchestral Favorites', 1979), John Williams (the gatefold sleeve of 'Joe's Garage' 1979), Roger Price ('Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch', 1982), Tanino Liberatore ('The Man From Utopia', 1983), Donald Roller Wilson ('The Perfect Stranger', 1984, 'Them or Us', 1984, 'Francesco Zappa', 1984), Larry Grossman ('The Old Masters', 1985, 'Make A Jazz Noise Here', 1988), Uri Balashov ('Civilization Phaze III', 1994), Gabor Csupo ('The Lost Episodes', 1996), Matt Groening ('Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute', 1996), Ralph Steadman ('Have I Offended Someone?', 1997) and Christopher Mark Brennan (1999's 'Everything Is Healing Nicely' and 2007's 'Wazoo'). Schenkel wasn't the only graphic designer to work on Zappa's side projects either. The animated TV advertisement for Luden's Cough Drops, for whom Zappa wrote the musical score in 1967 and which can be heard on 'The Lost Episodes' (1996), was animated by Ed Seeman. The 1975 comic strip 'Zappa in Zoeloeland', for whom Zappa wrote the script, was drawn by Kamagurka. The claymation in Zappa's film 'Baby Snakes' (1979) was created by Bruce Bickford. Brother A. West illustrated Zappa's autobiography 'The Real Frank Zappa Book' (1989). Zappa was also special guest voice in the Ren & Stimpy episode 'Powdered Toast Man' by John Kricfalusi and allowed his music to be used in Everett Peck's animated adaptation of his comic strip 'Duckman', which was animated by Gabor Csupo. He would have been special guest voice in Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons' too if he hadn't been so ill with cancer by that time.


Back-cover art for 'One Size Fits All'

Cal Schenkel perfectly captured the spirit of Zappa's music. He drew in a loose, cartoony style with little concern for the "norm" of "good artwork". Much like Zappa he brutally blended different art forms together, yet did it with a sense of humor. Some may look a bit cluttered together or even ugly to some, but there is always a charm to it. Both artists were even quite ahead of their time. Schenkel can be considered a predecessor of punk art, almost a decade before it happened. The naïve look of his drawings, his use of cut-outs and odd juxtapositions, all done by someone without any professional training,... would all become part of the punk aesthetique. Much like Schenkel doesn't always receive credit for his contributions to punk art, his efforts for Zappa have also been downplayed. Being a notorious control freak the cult composer was closely involved with all things released under his name. He often suggested overall themes or imagery to his illustrators, which they had to include in the artwork. Many of Zappa's record covers are brimful with tiny details and references to his lyrics, which encourages fans to spot the "secret" messages. He also had final say over the end product. Schenkel was no exception to this, but otherwise received enough creative freedom to do his own thing with it. It cannot be denied that Schenkel's graphics have done a lot to attract more attention to Zappa's recordings, particularly since his music rarely received airplay. Whether as an advertisement in a magazine or a cover in a record store: they were always eye-catching. Many Zappa fans still treasure the hours they've spent gazing at all of Schenkel's sleeve designs, while listening to their newly purchased record. For this feat alone he deserves far more respect. In a 1968 questionnaire, 'Data for Sensitive or Critical-Sensitive Position', Zappa named Schenkel his "favorite contemporary artist". Coming from a man who cited people like Salvador Dalí, Jules Feiffer and Yves Tanguy as influences in his 1966 'Freak Out!' list, this meant a lot. Schenkel can be heard on 'Lumpy Gravy' (1968), where he utters the two surrealistic statements: "That's very distraughtening" and the album closer "'Cause round things are boring". He can be seen, asleep at his desk, in the sleeve of 'Just Another Band From L.A.' (1972). Last but not least, Zappa dedicated one of his songs to him, 'For Calvin And His Next Two Hitch-hikers' on 'The Grand Wazoo' (1972), which was inspired by an eerie encounter Schenkel once had with two mysterious and non-conversational stoned hippies whom he once took for a lift.

Schenkel is still active today, selling artwork and new versions of classic Zappa covers. In the 1990s he brought his mail ordering company online. He illustrated the cover of a 2013 catalogue about Frank Zappa's singles, 'Exhibition Guide: Aagot.No Rokne - Helmut King - The Frank Zappa singles'. In 2016 he was one of many celebrities who appeared in promotion videos to collect money for the upcoming documentary 'Who the F*@% is Frank Zappa?' by Alex Winter. Cal Schenkel was a major influence on artists like Gary Panter, Edwin Pouncey, Ryan Duggan, Winston Smith, Mike Kelley, Wayno, Robert Beatty and Matt Groening. Groening credits both Schenkel and Ron Cobb with inspiring the design of his 'Life in Hell' book covers. The idea of using two horizontal lines sandwiching one image was borrowed from the cover of Zappa's 'Hot Rats' (1969).


Ad cartoon by Schenkel, named after the song 'Eddie Are You Kidding?' from the 1972 album 'Just Another Band From L.A.'

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