Search This Blog

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Five Bands Vol. 5 - For The Love of Vinyl Album Covers

Don’t be scared away by the word "vinyl" in the title of this column.  We’re not even going to touch the question of whether pristine virgin vinyl sounds better than a compact disc.  See, my hearing is basically screwed on a number of levels.  I spent many years in front of amplifiers both on stage and off without wearing hearing protection.  Thus, I do have some hearing loss so you could play me a virgin pressing of something and I likely couldn’t tell the difference between that and a CD. 
So why am I talking about vinyl?  The reasoning is even geekier than any argument about audio.  It has to do with album cover art.  If there is only one thing I bemoan about the switch from vinyl to CD and now to digital streaming, it's that the artwork shrank.  There used to be something I really enjoyed about getting that vinyl album with the double gatefold sleeve and perusing every inch of it for some small clue as to what the band was about.  It was mysterious and it went beyond just getting the lyrics on the album sleeve.  It was about looking for the essence of the music in the cover art itself.   
I’m 49 years old and I will still pull out an album cover on occasion and take it all in while listening to music.  In this column,  I'd like to share some of my favorites with you. 

The Five Albums In My Collection With My Favorite Art:

1.  Miles Davis - Bitch's Brew:  Seriously, this is a work of sheer genius both for the content of the album and the artwork on the cover.  Shrinking it down to a five inch by five inch CD booklet is like shrinking down the Mona Lisa to a wallet picture.  Laying on the floor staring at this while Miles Runs The Voodoo Down plays is about the closest you can get to touching God without help from recreational drugs or a life of chastity and meditation.  The inside of the album cover contains one of those awesome old marketing pieces from Columbia where someone tries to explain exactly why this album is amazing.  In this case, Ralph J. Gleason writes everything he needs to in the first paragraph (but of course then goes on to write thirteen more).
“There is so much to say about this music.  I don’t mean so much to explain about it because that’s stupid, the music speaks for itself.  What I mean is that so much flashes through my mind when I hear the tapes of this album that if I could I would write a novel about it full of life and scenes and people and blood and sweat and love.” – Ralph J. Gleason

2. KMFDM – UAIOE:  This one wrapped me up so tight it took years to untangle my brain.  The music is as brutal as any KMFDM album, but it’s that cover art (all black, red and white) that had me lying on the bed, staring at it over and over again.  The island in the background exploding into a blood red sea is freakish enough but the face staring out at you is infinitely scarier.  There’s a look in his eyes that screams anarchy and the lazy right one hints at madness.  There’s the bit of saliva that has escaped from his front right tooth and is sliding over his lower lip.  There’re the small drops of sweat beading down from his forehead and there’s the smile that says, “It'll be fine, just trust me.”  He is the true face of The X-Files Cigarette Smoking Man.  When the towers in New York went down in 2001, this is the face I thought of, smiling and walking away from the destruction.  When we first moved into this house, I wanted to frame this and put it on the wall in my home office but my wife outvoted me.

3. Lou Reed – Lou Reed:  So all I’d ever heard by Lou Reed was Walk on the Wild Side and (thanks to MTV) I Love You Suzanne.  I found this record in a used record store when I was about 16 and I remember buying it because of the name, but the cover wrapped it’s corners around both lobes of my brain and captivated me.  There is so much going on here.  First, you’ve got New York in the background, which is exactly what should be on the cover of a Lou Reed album.  Then you’ve got this wave breaking down the center of the street.  What the hell is that about?  Oh but wait, Lou’s name is spelled out in flowers floating above while hummingbirds flit around it.  Then, below is this Faberge egg unfolding to reveal a jewel-encrusted flowerpot. 

And of course, all of that is there just to throw you off the trail of the real essence of the album. Lou Reed’s first album is all about the figure in the lower left hand corner.  The dark bird with its head down, half cast in shadow and ignoring the mystery, wonder and beauty of what’s going on around him is the distillation of the ten songs on this album.  I got all of that from listening to it repeatedly and studying the cover and who knows?  I could be totally wrong, but that's what it says to me and my listening experience was better off for it.  

4. Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine:  If album cover art is meant to create an impression of the contents of the album, no other artists may have hit the mark truer than Kraftwerk.  Despite many people trying to get me to listen to Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, I just wasn’t a big fan.  Which leads me to one day when I was 17 and loitering in Spec’s Music in Lakeland, Florida.  My favorite record store clerk saw I was picking up Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark' Crush album.  He quickly steered me over to Kraftwerk, which prompted me to explain how much I didn’t like them. 

He gave me the record.  Seriously, he must have written it off as stolen or something but he slipped The Man-Machine into the bag and told me to give it a serious listen.  The Man-Machine is much less cold and robotic than some of their earlier stuff and as I stared at the album cover, I realized that they had subtly insinuated that on their cover.  The red shirts, snappy black ties and dynamic diagonal lines of the cover art suggested something that was still regimented but more stylish, slanted and off-kilter.  Sure enough, The Man-Machine was only a few steps removed from that OMD album and the cover art was much cooler too.

5. Elvis Costello – Armed Forces:  I’ve saved the best for last.  When it comes to cover art in my album collection, my copy of Armed Forces takes the cake.  Then, it smashes the cake, bakes another one and takes that one too. 

First off, there’s the cover with its herd of elephants standing next to the bones of their fallen.  The painting is gorgeous and the elephants are a symbol of unstoppable power representing the music on the album inside.

Closer inspection of the album cover reveals that this isn’t your normal sleeve.  In fact, to open it, you have to flip it over where you’ll find significantly different cover art mixing images of soldiers, tanks and pop art.  Plus it’s split horizontally across the middle allowing you to unfold it.

Open those two flaps and your brain is assaulted with color.  This time it’s less military (although there are some sailors in the upper half).  But like that puzzle in the Hellraiser movies, there’s still more to unfold.

A visual bomb has now gone off and it’s blowing the rods and cones in your optic fluid through the back of your skull.  Luckily for you, you’ve peeled back the fruit to its wonderful nugget of sonic goodness, but inside there’s more than just the album. 

Remove the vinyl and you get the total visual of the “Elvis Costello and The Attractions Armed Forces” artwork.  That’s still not the end though.

Aside from the album itself, there's an EP of a live performance as well as individual cards with photos of the band members.

Hours.  Hours and hours and hours were spent poring over this cover art while listening to Accidents Will Happen, (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, Goon Squad and Oliver's Army.  Despite Imperial Bedroom having my favorite Costello song (Beyond Belief), Armed Forces is my favorite Elvis Costello album.  Even today, when I play it on my iPod I appreciate it more because of the time I spent with its cover, soaking in the music and appreciating every note, every word and every pause between tracks.

Long live Vinyl.
One more thing!  Since we're talking about retro stuff, why not pick up a copy of my book The Wash?  You can even get a good, old-fashioned paper version of it!  You can follow this link to my Amazon author's page to get a copy for yourself.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!


Anonymous said...

A quality sound system will reveal the obvious superior experience of vinyl. Although Your hearing is not as shot as Danny Elfman’s, I promise you there is a difference!

Armed Forces is pretty darn spectacular. It was always a bonus to get extra goodies inside an album to augment the listening experience. Whipped Cream and Other Delights, now that had an impact on me as a young boy. Imports too, it was always weird to see something very familiar packaged differently and in an unfamiliar language – but too expensive. Double albums were awesome. So this is the land of Dinosaurs, not so bad!

Cary said...

I know what you mean about getting extra goodies. In a couple of weeks I'll be posting about how the Sex Pistols pirated themselves. In the post you'll see some more vinyl I have that I won't part with and one of those came with a newsletter/advertisement called "PUNK". Reading that with the benefit of hindsight it's both hilarious and heartwarming.

Anonymous said...

There was one goodie I was not happy with, Madonna's Like a Prayer album heavily saturated with patchouli oil! The aroma was still detectable decades later.

Cary said...

Dude! I got the CD of that when I lived in Japan. I just traded it in to Amoeba Records last year. It still smelled like patchouli! To put this in perspective, I bought that in 1989!