[This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of deconstructions of album covers that blow our minds.]
Journey’s seventh studio album, “Escape,” was released in 1981 and spawned no less than four hit singles: “Who’s Cryin’ Now,” “Still They Ride,” “Open Arms,” and everyone’s favorite karaoke/wedding/cryptic Soprano‘s soundtrack choice, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” As if that somehow weren’t enough, these songs all come wrapped in fantastically mind-blowing cover art:
What’s so mind blowing about this?
The Birth of “Leet Speak”?
Did you notice the strange spelling of “Escape” (or rather, “E5SC4P3”) on the cover of this album? Looks pretty “1337,” doesn’t it?
Overthinking It readers are probably familiar with (and at least partially annoyed by) the prevalence of “1337” or “leet” speak across the internet. For the uninitiated, leet speak is the substitution of letters with numbers or other symbols to create a symbolic language decipherable only be a select–or shall I say elite–or shall I say “leet”–few.
Though leet speak became widespread with the proliferation of online gaming, in particular, Doom, the practice originated back the early 1980’s, when its use was limited to an actually somewhat “elite” corps of hackers and other sophisticated computer users to mask illicit activity (software piracy and porn distribution) from BBS administrators.
Hmm. Early 1980’s. You mean, like 1981 early?
Obviously, it’s a stretch to think that either the band Journey or the artist responsible for this album cover invented leet speak, or was even aware of its existence at the time. Yet, despite my best attempts at googling, I couldn’t find a more specific date for the birth of leet speak other than “the early 80’s,” which leaves open the oh-so-slight possibility that Steve Perry was teh 0r1g1n4l h4x0rs.
Even if the leet phenomenon and the Journey album art are causally unrelated, the two combined do result in some pretty rich irony. Leet speak was originally used by an elite few to mask the true nature of contraband material from both the unknowing masses and from the authorities. Journey, on the other hand, was the polar opposite from “contra”-bands (pun intended) like AC/DC or Judas Priest and strove to maximize its appeal among the unknowing masses.
So why use the cryptic spelling of E5C4P3 on its album cover? Perhaps to convey a sense of mystical other-worldliness to go along with…
The Star Ship Scarab Beetle
By now, you’re probably used to seeing the scarab beetle in association with Journey–it’s featured prominently on their mega-selling Greatest Hits compilation, of which I am a proud owner–but at the time of Escape, it was only the second instance out of their seven studio albums to use the scarab beetle on its cover. The previous album to do so, Departure, was released a year prior to Escape, and also featured other-worldly imagery, but Escape kicks things up several notches with its depiction of a warp-speed beetle busting out of some sort of spherical object.
(Updated April 23, 2017: Twitter user @raycoopteacher pointed out that Journey released a live album Captured that featured the dung beetle prior to Escape.)
Google mysteriously comes up short in providing an explanation as to why the band chose to incorporate the scarab beetle on its album covers. Fortunately for us, that allows us to create our own interpretation.
First, a quick primer on Egyptian mythology: the scarab beetle was notable for a couple of things: first, it’s a dung beetle. Yup, the band Journey chose the same beetle that begins its life eating from the ball of shit that it was born into, then later rolls its own ball of shit into which it will plant its own eggs. Nothing says “80’s power pop/rock” like shit-eating beetles, right?
Instead, let’s examine the other thing that the dung, er, scarab beetle is notable for. It’s a symbol of the Egyptian god, Khepri, who in turn is a symbol of rebirth, the sun, and creation. The solar association helps make some sense of the Departure album art–the beetle in that image is one of several heavenly bodies depicted–but that still leaves a lot to be explained for the star ship beetle on the cover of Escape.
The best explanation I can provide centers around the rebirth and escape elements. Rebirth, in the case of Journey, refers to the band itself: they started out as a jazz fusion/progressive rock group, but with the addition of singer Steve Perry in 1977, were reborn as a straight pop group. As for escaping, well, that one’s easy: “They took the midnight train, goin’ anywhere…” Granted, a dung beetle traveling at light speed is several steps removed from the midnight trains referred to in “Don’t Stop Believing,” but you get the idea.
Bonus Video Game Postscript:
Or maybe I’ve got it wrong. Perhaps the scarab beetle is meant to be a vehicle for the band to escape from groupies and unscrupulous promoters:
Yup, that’s the Journey video game based on the album Escape. Hmm, it looks rather difficult. Perhaps only the most “elite”—or dare I say, “1337”—players could truly master this one.
And now it all comes together.