Read That Vinyl
I have lots of friends who collect vinyl records and play them on turntables and of course this move back to vinyl, especially for classic 60s and 70s albums has now spread to new releases as well. All around the world vinyl is becoming cool again.
As I am not partaking in this trend I have to take it on face value that the vinyl sound is more warm and real, the sonic qualities more open and less harsh. And sometimes at a friends house I hear that but also a lot of the time I hear rice bubbles. In fact because they are playing old vinyl I often hear what I heard when I was a teenager. You are at the party, you whip out Physical Graffiti, everyone bows down to your wisdom and Zeppelin’s majesty and shit, someone has scratched the crap out of Trampled Underfoot.
Seeing now days I never listen to whole albums anymore be they from 1977 or 2017 and I listen to music just about everywhere other than where you can set up a turntable, amp and speakers I really am ambivalent about the return of vinyl.
Except for the one thing about vinyl that I really do miss and that is course, the record covers. You see if you were OBSESSED with music the best thing about the vinyl era is not the sound quality, nor the fact that vinyl is music made solid. It is not even the ritual of taking the record from its sleeve, perhaps cleaning it with some space age cloth, laying it on the platter and picking up the delicately weighted arm with the needle protruding below. Nor is it taking that electronic sound plough and gently dropping it in the record’s furrow.
No, the true excitement was long before then. It was in the record shop where you spent minutes, indeed hours, perusing record covers, memorising and absorbing the words and pictures. You could do this in the record section at your closest K Mart or in the coolest record shop in London, New York or LA. It didn’t matter although some stores had more to gawp at than others as rock and roll spread its genre range.
It was addictive and central to the record buying process as much as unzipping your jeans is central to sex.
Thanks in part to my cousins who introduced me to this practice and to the glorious hold that rock and roll has had on me I have spent many hours perusing record covers in record stores. My first experience was with my cousins Greg, Gary and Wendy at the now demolished Myers at Coorparoo.
I was tagging along. I was already aware of music and I was listening to the local pop music channel 4IP but had bought no music of my own. My parents were only marginally interested in music. Sergio Mendez and The Brazil 66 and Herb Albert as background music for dinner parties were about the extent of it. To me The Beatles were more an interesting cartoon on TV than a band, ditto the live action Monkees show, but something was stirring.
My cousins or at least one of them bought Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and I remember being utterly hypnotised by its foldout cover with the Guy Peelleart painting of David as a reclining dog. If I remember there were lyrics to that album’s first track, a preamble to set the tone for the theme of the album. I read them feverishly. I read everything including the publishing and copyright information and I was hooked.
Over the years I have done the same thing with 100s of albums for all sorts of reasons. Most times I never bought the album, lots of times I didn’t care for the artist but I was looking for connections and clues as to what was on the album, how it connected to other purveyors.
Sometimes the visuals were just too stunning to be ignored. Such masterful statements of intent, they drew me like flies to faeces. In those days how could anyone ignore Dark Side Of The Moon, the partial nudity on Blind Faith’s self titled or Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland or Roger Dean’s work for Yes.
Gatefold covers, airbrush paintings, special papers, cut out shapes, designer fonts, elaborate photo shoots, witty liner notes or just PLAY IT LOUD, it was all good.
What about Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story, Abbey Road, Led Zep’s fourth album and Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat? From the age of 12 to about 16 nothing and I mean nothing was more mind blowing and door opening and educational than all those covers.
Except maybe the hard core porn from the Colour Climax publishing company that certain boys would bring to school buried in the bottom of the school bags, stolen like their ciggies from their dads.
And unlike porn it wasn’t just the pictures.
All those lyrics, who played what instrument through which channel?
Who wrote the songs?
Exotic live venues like Earls Court, Fillmore East, and The Hollywood Bowl. Budokan, Sunbury.
Famous studios like Muscle Shoals, Electric Ladyland, and Sun. The Record Factory and Alberts.
Then just when it reached saturation point a whole new age of rock with its own visual language arrived. Punk and new wave brought far more outside influences to Rock’s visual language. A back to basics simplicity meeting the first round of post modernist self reference and the clash of rock’s roots, art movements old and new and the photo copier.
The sleeves for the Sex Pistols, XTC and The Clash, The Ramones cover photo, Marquee Moon, Iggy’s The Idiot, The Church’s Blurred Crusade, anything from Factory Records, The Hard Ons Girl In The Sweater, Black Flag, Remain In Light, Are We Not Men and the visual language of The Smiths.
So many, so, so many things to wonder at.
In 1984 we saw the advent of the CD and while the elements were still there the sum of its parts was much smaller and the magic was slowly lost as vinyl began the long fade out.
There was still some magic though - Sonic Youth, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, Sound as Ever, De La Soul, Madonna, Prince, Nirvana, Oasis, The Strokes etc. But even with the brilliant visuals, and art direction it just wasn’t the same.
And then came downloading and now streaming and all that was left was convenience and zeros and ones, easy, simple, portable and endlessly programmable. And I guess a little soulless.
But like the asteroid on an elliptical orbit vinyl is on its way back.
There are of course many books, articles and websites on the best album covers of all time, And of course plenty on the worst too.
Here are 10 personal and some not so obvious faves. I do cheat a bit as a couple of these are post CD era releases but art is art.
First of all, the work by Neon Park for the wonderful Little Feat, the southern USA boogie, rock, funk, country band.
The Cramps - Songs The Lord Taught Us
Butthole Surfers – Locust Abortion Technician
Aladdin Sane by David Bowie
The Stone Roses debut
The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street
The Blue Oyster Cult – On Your Feet Or On Your Knees
The Strokes- Is This It
The Triffids – Born Sandy Devotional
Cold War Kids - Robbers and Cowards