Friday, October 25, 2013

Album Art

It is the nature of us folks of slightly advanced age: the Medicare Generation, the Baby Boomers, Old Farts, Former Hippies, and other general terms for anyone over fifty, to compare our times to today in such a way that it is obvious that civilization has gone to h-e-double-toothpicks in a shopping cart. We had it so good in our day … flushing toilets and the electric-light-bulbs. We rode our bikes with no helmet, drove our cars with no seat belts, and had to call up our girl-fiends (or boy-friends) from pay phones or suffer the possibility that our younger siblings would listen in on the extension.

Yup, it was a simpler time of black and white TV and AM radio. We gradually graduated from LPs to 8-tracks to cassettes, improving portability along the way, but nothing like today’s iPods and smartphones that seem to be surgically attached to every runner, walker, and stroller we see on the street and in the stores and restaurants.

Let’s talk about LPs. That’s Long Playing … as in “Long Playing Records” or, as we quaintly called them in comparison to old picture books: “albums.” Of course, we also had “45’s,” but it was album rock that really set the stage for the sixties. Soon we were consuming concept albums and enjoying the art work as we shared the music and the experience.

Now days we have CDs. Never mind that they don’t match the LP in sonic capability, what about the art work? You need a magnifying glass to really enjoy what was once a great part of the hip scene. And don’t get me started on downloads and iTunes. Sure, Apple has some of the album artwork and on a large, hi-def screen it does approach the intimacy of an album cover, but you don’t pass the laptop around the room as you listen to the music and an iPod is a terrible visual tool and isn’t about sharing at all, unless you count giving one of the ear plugs to your buddy to enjoy the left channel. And albums had more than just a front cover. I spent many an enjoyable listening hour accompanied by liner notes and intimate inner art.

Oldsters and geriatric hipsters will wax poetical about sitting around the listening room (that’s LR in architectural parlance) and passing the album artwork around while listening and possibly passing around something else.

Whether it was the special covers of “Yes” or “Santana” or the “Beatles,” these were works of art worthy of the sonic art contained on the black disks. Some were very expensive productions. I remember a Stones cover that was one of those 3-D things that changed when you moved it or a CSN cover that was almost leather in duplication of a picture album. Later, these were changed to simple photographs of the more expensive materials to save on production costs, but still the artwork was prominent.

And it wasn’t just limited to the front cover. It extended to the back, and the sleeve, and often the covers opened like a book providing two more surfaces (sometimes even more) for graphics and photos and liner notes. These are all things long gone in this age of downloaded and digitally compressed musical product that is about as tasty as a tomato shipped from Chili to us hipsters used to tasting the music fresh from the garden.

These covers were real art: Joan Miro, Max Ernst, Mondrian, Picasso, Dali, John Martin, Rene Magritte, Jean Tinguey, Bruce Pennington, Eddie Jones, Jack or Josh Kirby, and … of course … Derek Riggs.

A band’s first contact with the public is the picture on the front of the cover. This was before MTV … and I mean back when MTV was “Music” TV and before late night concerts and Saturday Night Live. You knew the band personally from the cover. Sure, there were also posters for concerts and clubs, but that’s pretty much gone too now days. A record release was a cultural event. It was a big canvas and had a big art to go with it … and then there were the “gatefold” covers that had inner surfaces and there were included notes and other goodies and even the record sleeves could receive art to complete the concept. In those days a album included a lot of art, both sonic and visual, to excite and entertain and inform the listening public. It was part of the art and the experience. As Jimi would ask, “Are you experienced?” Well … I am.

That all ended with the CD crystal case. In marketing terms the crystal case was just a complete disaster. The covers went from being impressive objects of art to practically insignificant additions. Reduced cover pictures were all there was, and they were singularly unimpressive like miniature ceramic birds.

The rise of the MP3 download has finished off the art form. Now there’s practically no avenue for you to advertise your new album and link it with a certain image or style. Your music has no covers. There is no way to link merchandise with these products; this is an important source of revenue for all bands. The customer cannot identify the product by the image or link himself to that product with a certain style. T-shirts and other tour merchandise substitute, but not at the level of exposure of the original record cover.

Yup, in my day we had it good. Sure we had to walk to school … through the snow … up hill … both ways. But we had album covers. You young whipper snappers don’t know what you’re missing. Now, about hip-hop music and rap!! Oh, don’t get me started.

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