A guest posting by Fraser Pettigrew
[“An Elvis Costello fan struggling to re-fold his copy of Armed Forces.”]
Aside from the music, one of the chief pleasures of vinyl records is the variety and artistry of their physical format and packaging. From the moment Andy Warhol placed his peelable pink banana on the cover of The Velvet Underground with Nico and The Beatles commissioned Peter Blake to design the cover of Sgt Pepper, the LP became more than just a disc of recorded music and presented a challenge to every marketing department’s art director to come up with novel twists in sleeve design that would catch the attention of press and public.
[“Geogadi, three discs, five sides, double pocket sleeve, Jesus wept…”]
The unintended consequence of this creative compulsion is that anyone with a decent-sized record collection will possess LPs whose packaging fails the most basic test of a mass consumer product – usability. In their quest for gimmick, record companies have delivered discs that frustrate their owners in any number of ways, and some of the most common I will now illustrate with items from my own collection, and some others.
[“Armed Forces, harder than stripping and reassembling an AK-47.”]
For starters there are the numerous examples of pocket sleeves, or other unconventional wraps that require more than a simple tug or tilt to release the vinyl. This is definitely not a recent contrivance confined to such as Stereolab‘s Emperor Tomato Ketchup or Geogadi by Boards of Canada (beware: also features an unplayable side 6). In my shelves I have elderly examples such as an Australian pressing of Tommy by The Who, Roberta Flack‘s Killing Me Softly, and excellent Brit-disco album Four From 8 by The Real Thing. Elvis Costello‘s Armed Forces came in a famously complicated five-flap fold-out like a two-dimensional Rubik’s cube, containing a poster, four postcards and a bonus single as well as the actual LP itself, but none of that made it any easier to get at or put away again safely in your collection without the neighbouring LP getting jammed against a protruding flap as you tried to replace it. Good job Ballistic Bob wisnae a record collector.
[“Copping flack for nuisance value”.]
The envelope sleeve is the next nuisance to be dealt with. My original UA label British edition of Can‘s Tago Mago is a good example. Worth a bob or two to collectors, but fragile and prone to wear and tear with repeated use, to the point where the closure tab doesn’t really do its job any more, reduced to a flabby puff of frayed paper that won’t fit in your letter-box never mind the tiny slot it was designed for.
[ “No can do”.]
Inconvenience of format rather than packaging brings us to albums that are not played at the conventional 33rpm but consist of two or three 45rpm 12 inch discs. If you have a turntable with a speed selector switch this is hardly any issue at all, but if you have invested in some higher-end hi-fi equipment you may have to lift the platter off its spindle and manually move the rubber band to a different position.
Welcome to my world, in which cracking good albums such as Cabaret Voltaire‘s 2×45 (the clue is in the name) or Spiritualized‘s Laser Guided Melodies don’t get the turntable time they deserve because I find it all too much effort.
mp3: Cabaret Voltaire – Breathe Deep
mp3: Spiritualized – You Know It’s True
This of course is nothing to those (not me) who may have been tempted to buy the 1980 single Buena/Tuff Enuff by Joe ‘King’ Carrasco and the Crowns (I know, why would you?), issued by Stiff Records in a 10 inch 78rpm version. This is the point at which gimmickry becomes pure perversity.
mp3: Joe ‘King’ Carrasco and The Crowns – Buena
The multi-disc 45rpm album became more common with the advent of the CD era. The Rough Trade version of Ultramarine‘s Every Man and Woman is a Star, as well as the Spiritualized debut just mentioned, date from the time when a 12 inch 33rpm disc simply couldn’t accommodate the 60-70 minutes of music that had become the norm for CD albums without loss of signal volume. For convenience, however, this format quickly gave way to double-vinyl 33rpm sets where the sides were simply a little shorter than normal.
[“Howie B, don’t get comfortable.”]
Even then, things could get out of hand. Sly and Robbie‘s Drum & Bass Strip to the Bone, mixed and co-created by Glaswegian hip-hop artist and producer Howie B, is quite a nifty, grinding rhythm work-out by the legendary Jamaican duo. But the ability to get a good sense of it as a whole has been severely hampered by pressing it on no fewer than FOUR pieces of vinyl. There’s about 75 minutes of music in there but the longest side only just manages to graze 11 minutes before you have to get up and flip it. Most of them are more like seven or eight. I mean it’s quite funky in parts so you MIGHT not want to sit down, but it’s definitely not one to stick on while you do some knitting.
[“Transparent vinyl, it’s all or nothing.”]
Coloured vinyl may be attractive but it can be a pig if you’re trying to pick out a particular track. The darker and more solid the colour the better – a judiciously placed light source can help you see the division between tracks. But if the vinyl is transparent, like my RYKO re-press of Bowie‘s Hunky Dory, then forget about it.
mp3: David Bowie – Life On Mars
Everyone will have examples of records whose packaging discourages frequent playing on account of shoddy manufacture. Machine Says Yes by FC Kahuna is my example, whose two pieces of vinyl hide in woefully under-sized inners and are impossible to remove without gripping the rims tightly between thumb and forefinger, violating all the rules about contact between greasy skin and the playing surface.
On the plus side of that equation, my copy of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane was picked up about 20 years ago in an Amsterdam back-street pop-up shop for the princely sum of 3 Euros. It’s an original 1973 UK pressing that I suspect had never been played on account of the fact that the inner sleeve is too big to fit into the outer, and I think it had languished for years in the back of a record shop, unsold until it found its way into my hands. Three cheers for printers’ errors.
Plain silly packaging is not the unique preserve of vinyl, of course. One needs only think of the 12xCD ‘pharmaceutical’ blister pack edition of Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. It’s one of the truly great albums of the 1990s, but the pill-pack concept renders it nigh-on unplayable. Even if you ruined it as a collector’s item by opening the blister pack to get at the CDs, could you really be arsed popping each single-track disc into your player, especially disc 7, all 2 minutes 22 seconds of it? Seriously, fuck that for a game of soldiers.
mp3: Spiritualized – Home Of The Brave
But frankly, nothing beats The Return of the Durutti Column for plain silly. First released by Factory Records (who else?) in 1980, its sleeve consisted of two sheets of heavy duty number 1 glass paper, specially designed to utterly ruin whatever sat next to it in your record shelves. The concept was nicked from situationist Guy Debord‘s book “Mémoires”, and was originally contemplated the previous year by PiL for their second album. Nothing could be less abrasive than Vini Reilly‘s delicate, jazzy guitar pickings contained within. I have a later reissue of the plain, black-sleeved edition that came out after DIY enthusiasts snapped up the first pressing. (Discogs notes: “All sandpaper copies were stuck together and sprayed at Palatine Road by Joy Division to earn some extra cash – although Ian Curtis did most of them as the other members were watching an adult film in an adjoining room.”)
[“Colonial crimes – NZ pressing of Tommy, polythene bag AND pocket sleeve”.]
My penultimate pet-peeve is the half-moon polythene inner sleeve, mercifully rare in the UK and America, but regrettably common here in Australasia. Trying to slide such bags back into the outer sleeve without the tops crumpling up into a bulging blob of plastic is like the proverbial effort of pushing jelly up a hill with your nose. Combined with the pocket sleeve as in my copy of Tommy, it was calculated to kill music much faster than home taping ever would.
And finally, to the mother of them all, an LP that manages to combine at least three of the above design defects and yet still holds a prized place in my record collection. Yes, it’s Metal Box. A tarnished tin film can that doggedly refuses to release the three 12 inch 45s inside, however much you tilt and shoogle it, vainly trying to keep your fingers off the surfaces as you winkle them out.
After I’ve hoiked the platter off my deck and flipped the speed regulator I can finally play it.
Ten minutes later and I’m up again changing sides, or trying to coax another disc out of the can.
The main reason it was originally pressed in this format was to give full rein to Jah Wobble‘s bowel-shaking bass, and the amplitude of the groove is so physically large it used to literally throw the needle into a jump on my old turntable. Even now I turn up the tracking weight on the arm when I play Albatross.
mp3: PiL – Albatross
And yet for all this it’s the music that wins. It’s simply one of the greatest and most uncompromising albums ever released, and worth wrestling with on a regular basis. I could buy a CD version, or even the 2xLP ‘Second Edition’. But, well, you know… it just wouldn’t be as much fun, would it?
Joy Division clearly.
Isolation, Shadowplay, Decades and The Eternal are the back four of post- punk. Hannett, Gretton, Saville and Wilson the midfield, Curtis, Sumner, Hook and Morris the wide players.
‘Some of the crowd are on the pitch, they think it’s all over…’