With his Yel­low Sub­ma­rine graphic novel hit­ting the shops, it’s all aboard for a fan­tas­tic voy­age around the MAD Mag­a­zine edi­tor and Simp­sons artist’s best‑loved records.

Prog - - Contents - Words: Jo Ken­dall Portrait: Stephanie Cabral

Bill Mor­ri­son cre­ated Bongo Comics with Simp­sons cre­ator Matt Groen­ing and he now ed­its the leg­endary Mad mag­a­zine. And his record col­lec­tion shows that he loves pro­gres­sive rock…

When I was very young, in the late 60s, my older brother and I shared a bed­room and we had an

AM/FM ra­dio that sat on a unit be­tween our beds. I tuned into AM sta­tions that were loud, ex­citable and Top 40-based, like a party all the time. My brother would switch it to FM, when rock sta­tions such as WABX were start­ing to pop up. I re­mem­ber the con­trast in the DJs – quiet, sub­dued, se­ri­ous. The mu­sic was tran­si­tion­ing from jazz and clas­si­cal to Black Sab­bath, Cream, Iron Butterfly – long-form records that took 20 min­utes to play. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘They’re putting on this long one to smoke a joint!’.

We grew up in Detroit, Michi­gan and it was a hot­bed of what was hap­pen­ing in the 60s. We lived near Lin­coln Park, where there was a mini Hol­ly­wood Bowl stage and the MC5 played there. The MC5 even went to my high school, although I didn’t know un­til much later. They should have had a plaque up.

Be­fore prog, I was into glam. My in­ter­est in Todd Rund­gren came from that, with his mul­ti­coloured hair and turkey feath­ers sewn into his clothes. When he did his Todd Rund­gren’s Utopia al­bum, that blew me away as I was al­ready lis­ten­ing to A Wizard, A True Star and Some­thing/Any­thing?. Utopia came out and I re­mem­ber putting head­phones on and ly­ing back and lov­ing it. It was very dif­fer­ent, with its syn­the­sis­ers and a jazz fu­sion el­e­ment.

I al­ready knew Jethro Tull and loved Aqualung and Thick As A Brick. My best friend got A Pas­sion Play when it came out. I re­mem­ber lis­ten­ing to it at his house and it grabbed me. I love the flute and the sto­ry­telling on that al­bum, and I’m a sucker for the­atri­cal el­e­ments in mu­sic.

Next I found El­do­rado by ELO. The hits drew me in be­fore I heard the deeper tracks. What at­tracted me was the fu­sion of rock and clas­si­cal. I hadn’t grown up with clas­si­cal mu­sic, so this – and car­toons such as Bugs Bunny – in­tro­duced me to opera and clas­si­cal. I was 12 or 13 and start­ing to look for some­thing dif­fer­ent. That was ex­cit­ing.

Prog be­came more im­por­tant for me at art school. I went to the Cen­tre For Creative Stud­ies in Detroit and got a whole new group of friends who were into Gen­e­sis and Yes. There was a small record shop in town but we’d go to Kmart and a chain store called Korvette that had a big record de­part­ment. I haunted dif­fer­ent places. Not ev­ery­body had ev­ery­thing so you’d get on your bike and roam around. It was the same with comic books. They didn’t have any comic book re­tail shops back then so you had to go around news­stands and lit­tle mom-and-pop shops. It was in­con­ve­nient but fun – it added an el­e­ment of the hunt.

The sleeve graph­ics would al­ways jump out at me. I was a comics and illustration fan so the ones that re­ally smacked me be­tween the eyes were lav­ish, such as Roger Dean’s stuff for Yes. Yes had cap­tured my ear early. They had lit­tle break­out hits such as Round­about that would show up on the AM sta­tions. That was the way in for me: the or­gan, the gui­tar, a hy­brid pop song.

With Gen­e­sis I re­mem­ber see­ing pic­tures of Peter Gabriel on­stage in Creem and Cir­cus mag­a­zines, but I hadn’t heard the mu­sic. At art school I got Fox­trot and Nurs­ery Cryme. My taste was ma­tur­ing: glam was gone and disco was king – and I hated disco. The whole of The Lamb Lies Down On Broad­way is my favourite, but I love Sup­per’s Ready – I could play that over and over. There’s some­thing re­ally en­chant­ing about it.

I lis­tened to Queen from Sheer Heart At­tack up to the late 70s. The first two al­bums es­caped me un­til art school, then I heard them via a friend. Queen II was pre-pop, when they weren’t sure what they were go­ing for. There’s art rock, blues, glam… At the time I was get­ting into The Lord Of The Rings and other fan­tasy films and books. This fit­ted re­ally well.

Kansas had a lot of hits on the ra­dio but I didn’t get into them un­til I was in my 30s. At the time I was work­ing on The Simp­sons, do­ing the art for the mer­chan­dise. I was also help­ing [Simp­sons cre­ator] Matt Groen­ing set up Bongo Comics, which did all the Simp­sons comics and books. Matt had a huge record col­lec­tion. One build­ing we worked in, he had a room next to his of­fice that was all records, with one wall for Zappa alone. I was find­ing less mu­sic to be in­ter­ested in but I started ex­plor­ing Kansas, and I picked up Song For Amer­ica and went, ‘Oh wow, this is re­ally dif­fer­ent.’ I then bought ev­ery al­bum and for a pe­riod Kansas were my favourite band. I love a lot of Leftover­ture but Song For Amer­ica’s ti­tle track is won­der­ful: it tells such a story and gives you the vi­sions of the sweep­ing plains and the Na­tive Amer­i­can peo­ple. One song, Lamp­light Sym­phony, still brings me to tears – it’s a ghost story, a love story and it’s very emo­tional.

My first mem­o­ries of pop mu­sic in my house are around

The Bea­tles be­cause of my older sib­lings. I was about two years too young to be a Bea­tles fan, but I re­mem­ber see­ing them on The Ed Sul­li­van Show. Then there was the US car­toon se­ries and as I got older and into the psy­che­delic pe­riod, my brother had Sgt Pep­per’s… and he schooled me on the ‘Paul is dead’ myth. When I started to draw in ju­nior high, I’d do por­traits of The Bea­tles and other rock stars. I saw Yel­low Sub­ma­rine on TV in the early 70s. I loved it – it’s got a great mes­sage that love con­quers hate, and I love how the Blue Mea­nies be­come good at the end. There’s re­demp­tion.

I don’t think prog would ex­ist if The Bea­tles hadn’t done what they did. Their ex­per­i­men­ta­tion to­tally changed what was ac­cept­able for a rock al­bum. Long be­fore my Yel­low Sub­ma­rine graphic novel, I got to do a Simp­sons par­ody of Sgt Pep­per’s. It was a fol­low up of the al­bum The Simp­sons Sing The Blues, to be called ‘The Simp­sons’ Yel­low Al­bum’, but it never came out. It sat un­used for years and then Fox had an an­i­ma­tion art pro­gramme where they pro­duced prints and it got turned into that. After that it was the ba­sis for a couch gag.

Most comic work I’ve done is hu­mour, but I have an ama­teur work based on prog that I never fin­ished. On Utopia’s Ra al­bum they had a song called Sin­gring And The Glass Gui­tar, a lengthy num­ber about a quest. It’s very Tolkien-es­que so I set about il­lus­trat­ing it in comic book form. I got a few pages in and had to give it up, my first and only at­tempt at a prog comic. Maybe when the MAD phase is over, that might be my next project.”

Yel­low Sub­ma­rine is out now via Ti­tan Comics. See­low­sub­marine­book. A lim­ited edi­tion box set is also avail­able.


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