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.
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. See bit.ly/yellowsubmarinebook. A limited edition box set is also available.
“I DON’T THINK PROG WOULD EXIST IF THE BEATLES HADN’T DONE WHAT THEY DID.”