Stan Watts was an up-and-coming illustrator/photographer when art director Jay Vigon approached him about creating the cover for Quiet Riot's first U.S. album, 1983's Metal Health. Watts had done album art for Black Sabbath (1982's Live Evil), the Doobie Brothers (1981's Best of the Doobies, Vol. 2), and Martin Briley (1983's One Night With a Stranger, a prominent element of which was appropriated for Armor for Sleep's 2005 CD, What to Do When You Are Dead), as well as the poster for the 1981 horror flick The Howling. But even now, 24 years later, Metal Health is arguably his best-known project.
"Jay had me over, and we talked about the concept, which involved a straightjacket and some sort of iron-maiden mask—not the band but the torture device," recalls Watts.
"We wanted to create an icon that would represent the band," explains Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali. "[Bassist] Rudy [Sarzo] suggested we do something like the book The Man in the Iron Mask [which is actually the final section of 19th-century author Alexandre Dumas' classic novel The Vicomte de Bragelonne]. We figured we had a song called 'Metal Health,' and we thought maybe we could have a fan on the cover who's gone insane."
But who was that masked man? "A lot of people thought it was [vocalist] Kevin [DuBrow] wearing the mask," Banali says. "But Kevin has brown eyes, and the one eye you can see peering through the mask is clearly blue." Turns out it was Watts himself, who had hammered the mask out of aluminum, put Banali's red leather motorcycle jacket on backward so it would look like a straightjacket, and posed for the camera while his wife took the shot.
"I had a real low-tech approach to my work back then," Watts says. "I mean, that's a moving blanket in the background, not a padded cell. And there wasn't a lot of opportunity to show emotion behind that mask, so it all had to be done with lighting and that one eye."
Watts then airbrushed the print to achieve the dramatic, high-contrast look often seen in the work of Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, who had recently done a self-portrait for the cover of the Scorpions' Blackout. The final touch was the addition of four pins—each depicting the face of a Quiet Riot member—to the front (or, uh, back) of the jacket.
But, of course, it's the mask that everyone remembers most. "It was amazing how many kids would turn up at the shows wearing masks they made out of sheet metal in shop class or something," Banali says with a laugh. "They'd take them off for us to sign, and their faces would be all cut up." The mask became so iconic that DuBrow insisted on wearing one on the cover of Quiet Riot's next record, Condition Critical. But it was Watts who held on to the original. "I actually loaned it to friends on Halloween for a few years," he says. "That mask was quite popular."