Black Vinyl Rituals and the Madness of Crowds

Lou Reed's 1971 debut solo album.

You know, if you’d asked me yesterday, “What fascinating topics do you expect get all excited about tomorrow?”

I would have probably guessed things like: “The rise in domestic US police helicopter surveillance, attendant budgetary concerns ramifications for displacement of military helicopter forces with turboprop aircraft in counterinsurgency operations and smuggling interdiction!”

Or….”Supreme court obscenity decisions!” Or “The terminal ballistics of the .223 Remington round vs. the 5.7 NATO, as compared to .30 caliber in terms of their wounding capability against zombies vs. werewolves vs. leprechauns in Kevlar body armor!”

Or ” “the heat death of the Universe,” or “Frozen human heads,” or “metastatic renal cell carcinoma” — you get the idea.

Would I have guessed “Typography in album covers?” Probably not.

Yet this wonderful article by Sonalia Vora at thoroughly fascinates me. Titled “50 Years of Typography in Album Covers,” it surveys some of the more interesting and innovative examples of how type can be used to unique effect, and specifically how it has been used in one of the most influential popular arts of the second half of the 20th Century.

While the article itself is fascinating just from a typography-nerd perspective, it also got me thinking about how much energy my friends and I used to put into vinyl.

Today’s “album cover art” usually apes the general format of the LP — as did CD covers. But there’s no reason for it. As a digital sound artist today, you can create whatever images you do or don’t want to accompany your work, both in marketing and artistic terms. You can slap them up wherever you want in whatever style and aspect ratio you please, with no guarantee that anyone will ever see them or pay attention if they do. The musical artists and their music-industry representatives have even less control today over what images get seen with music than they did in the days of my youth — when the biggest problem they had was that someone would “illegally” home-tape their hard rock album on one side of an TDK SD90 b/w Harry Bellafonte’s Greatest Hits.

This was, of course, back before “irony.”

And when I say “music industry representatives,” I am of course including every stratum of the “industry,” since there’s nothing even remotely close to a monolithic one-tiered music-industry structure today. Not that there ever was — but the world was a hell of a lot closer to it once upon a time. Nowadays, “music industry” means major-label, indie-label, mini-indie-label, sub-mini-indie-label, some-guy’s-garage, my-uncle’s-computer — and, of course, my favorite sector of the entertainment business, the vast legions of participants in the “Tap-tap-tap-hey, Mabel, is-this-thing-even-on?WHEEEEEEEEZZZZEEEE!” movement.

In the days of 12″ vinyl, the album cover had so many attendant restrictions — typography among them. Now that there are very few restrictions on the art that accompanies music, there is no rigidly-defined connection between this specific very limited art form and the specific, very limited art form of popular music. As a result, I believe the connection is breaking down in somewhat bizarre ways. Since I believe that all brilliant art owes its brilliance at least partially to its limitations, I find it fascinating to consider where the hell the connection between popular music and visual art is going.

Maybe…say…here? Yeah, pretty much. And a million other places, too. Here, say.

Thats why the album cover is in many ways an art form we are losing. At the very least, its impact has gone supernova now that 12″ vinyl is mostly the territory of collectors and DJs; now the 12″ vinyl art is the accretion disk around a black hole of what amounts to fanatic, if influential, devotees.

And as for CD covers? In the years between the decline of vinyl’s popularity and the rise of digital downloads, CD covers never really got the momentum they needed to become as vibrant an art form as album covers. Now, online “album” art may often imitate the album-cover art form, but there’s no reason other than nostalgia.

The art that accompanies a collection of music tracks or other audio — spoken-word, instructional, or whatever — used to be as  critical a part of most music lovers’ experience as the smell of the record itself.

There used to be this whole ritual to getting down a 12″ record, slipping it out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, dusting it off if you’re anal, and then listening to 15-to-25 minutes of magnificence (or utter suckiness).

The ritual made the magnificence that much more rewarding, and the suckiness that much more outraging. All the mediocrity in between that made up the vast bulk of the music lover’s experience — even on albums from acts one loved — had so much more freakin’ weight in its blandness. A disappointing new album seemed soooooooooooooooo disappointing when in order to listen to it, you had to invite all your friends over, clean your needle and all STFU for twenty minutes with your heads bowed in gurgling prayer.

Mind you, this might have been after you (or your “much cooler” friend of a friend of a friend with a mullet and a scraggly little mustache and a half-shirt and a primer-grey Chevy Nova) drove all over town because the record store closest to you had already sold out of the new album, or hadn’t gotten their shipment yet, or whatever. The investment of time, energy in experiencing rock ‘n’ roll at its highest level was significant back then; it helped create an identity that today’s downloads simply don’t engender.

I am not partial to that whole vinyl ritual that purists still love. Sometimes they try to rope me into such rituals, waxing philosophic about the dedication vinyl-listening takes.

I am far from unsympathetic to their fanaticism; in fact, I have also been considering joining a Civil War re-enactment group. I’ll even go so far as to say that under the right circumstances and with the right people, the experience of listening to a new vinyl album was very much like going to Church. It still is, I’m sure, to those who trouble themselves to engage in it.

But the very act of that ritual, in my experience, ensured that the most ritual-obsessed among us would be kinder to the albums they listened to than I was. I was often left rolling my eyes at what I considered to be total crap, while stoned heshers swayed back and forth in rapturous, hallucinatory ecstasy. Whether my friends were kinder to music because of the ritual, or I am just a crankypants — well, I think that debate could go on into the next century, but why bother?

I was not more kindly disposed toward music I had to work to listen to. I always found those sacred, obsessive rituals of vinyl to be an enormous pain in my Tusk. But for others, the music took on a mystical quality because you had to burn incense and intone “Oh, God, thou art so big!” to even get that slab of black spinning ’round on your turntable.

Then, once you’d decided whether you liked it, or which tracks you liked — then the true rituals began.

The mixed tapes.

But those days are too hallowed to speak of.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s a whole ‘nother set of rituals to digital music, with downloads and playlists and sharing, and the volume of music I can consume, experience, enjoy and think about is lots greater. I’m able to find more obscure and historical works, so that, for instance, listening to Blind Willie McTell is as easy as typing “Blind Willie McTell,” hitting return, and clicking maybe twice.

Or just going to Techyum.

In the “old days” — when I was a mullet-wearing tot with a Pink Floyd T-shirt — a scraggly-haired guy in a Levi jacket who had a Blind Willie McTell album at home would have been a god. The best I could do was a significant percentage of Chess Records’ The Real Folk Blues series, which took me obsessive trips all over town.

Now, Blind Willie can serenade you down through the ages, for free, as can The Tubes, Cheap Trick, Iz Kamakawiwoʻole, and Bands that I borrowed a car and drove an hour to go buy, not only in their original renditions but freaky video mashups by people named “Mizz Rammstein.”

Personally, I’m glad to save the gas.

Even though the car I drive today gets a lot better mileage than my  ’76 Dodge Cornet with a V7…that is to say, a V8 with one cylinder misfiring and a back seat that emitted the distinct bouquet of Bartles & Jaymes vomit.

Oh, the good old days…they were good enough. But not always “great.” And at least the future doesn’t suck as much as I always kinda figured it would. See, kids? It really does “get better!”


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