Thursday, 17 February 2011

Flip, Don't Shuffle

Back in the 1980s, did you ever have a friend who, whenever he bought a new LP, immediately pulled out a fresh TDK C-90, taped said LP and put it away safely, never to be played again? I did. He wasn't even old enough to drive a car at the time, so it's not like it was so he could have music on the move. And, we're not talking about some priceless mega-rarity that needed to be preserved for posterity either. More often than not it was something along the lines of a Cutting Crew or Mr Mister album. Never fear, charity shops the length and breadth of the UK are doing a fine  job of archiving those particular LPs. To me, having the original LP but hiding it away and settling for an inferior format as your permanent listening medium is bizarre. It's like marrying Kelly Brook, locking her in a cupboard so she doesn't get grubby and having carnal relations instead with Susan Boyle, all the time keeping your eyes shut and telling yourself that the noises you're hearing are the same ones Kelly would make. Call me reckless, but I would much rather risk soiling Kelly Brook. 

For illustrative purposes only

Forget the 1980s, right now in 2011, records are to be played. MP3s are no substitute for the real thing. Don't digitise your entire collection and consign your records to the loft. Why don't you just photocopy your Picasso while you're at it and stick the xeroxes on the wall? "But MP3s are so easy", you say. Perhaps if you got into the habit of getting off your backside every twenty minutes or so to flip a record over instead of hitting shuffle on your iPod, you might start really listening to the music again and gain an insight into how and why the songs on your LPs are sequenced the way they are. You might also reacquaint yourself with the buzz of anticipation that can only be attained by lowering the stylus onto a slab of gently rotating vinyl and hearing that muted pop as the needle settles into the groove prior to unleashing Track One, Side One.

Sorry to disappoint any of you hoping that today's post would feature men with amusing facial hair. By way of consolation...

Is It Real Or Is It Memorex?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Face Fungus Of The Day

Okay, everything I was saying in my previous post about being able to judge a book by its cover or, rather, what an album sounds like from its artwork, forget it! Chilliwack's Breakdown In Paradise has such a gobsmackingly dreadful piece of cover art that I suspect I have the only copy ever sold.

Going cheep

What were they thinking? It's a real shame too as the LP contains some top notch Canadian AOR. With Loverboy's debut, REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity, and strong releases from Journey, Touch, Harlequin, Triumph, Prism, Le Roux and a host of other bands with the same target audience all competing for sales in 1980, how did the band expect this sleeve to help their album leap out of the racks? Fortunately, anyone whose curiosity was sufficiently piqued by a collage of budgies to flip the sleeve over, was rewarded with a magnificent group photo that left the viewer in no doubt that what we had here was a proper ROCK band: satin shirts slashed to the waist, copious chest hair, girly tresses and... a beret! Perhaps I'll do a feature on berets in Rock at some point: a much maligned item of Rock 'n' Roll regalia. But, all of this is beside the point. The purpose of this post is to highlight an outstanding contribution to facial hair on an album sleeve. John Roles is credited with guitar and backing vocals in the sleeve notes, but surely his in-no-way-only-popular-with-men-of-a-certain-sexual-proclivity facial adornment deserves its own mention. Hell, it deserves its own tour bus!

Form an orderly queue ladies...

THAT is the moustache that I threaten my wife with when I shave off too many days' stubble at the end of a long week. It lasts about as long as it takes to be reminded that I can't have a tattoo or a motorbike either. Now where's my beret...?

It has to be a '9'

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Cover art: you may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but...

A love of cover art is one of the oft-stated reasons for choosing vinyl over CD or, for pity's sake, MP3. Everyone has a favourite piece of LP artwork and a compelling reason for their choice: Hipgnosis-designed record sleeves are always striking, thought-provoking and laced with a surreal sense of humour; Alice Cooper's packaging is as much an event as the music therein;

Alice gives you something to play with

the monochrome, M.C. Escher-esque artwork for the first couple of Blue Oyster Cult LPs has no doubt provided the impetus for many a herb-fuelled cosmic conversation; 

Blue Oyster Cult get cosmic

and the iconic portraits that Mick Rock captured for Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack are truly classics of the genre. 

Although I can appreciate the clean lines and stark graphic design of the covers that adorn albums by Kraftwerk, PIL, Spliff and any number of New Wave, Punk and Krautrock artists, to me they have the cold, impersonal, perfunctory appearance of the packaging for the consumer disposables filling our supermarket shelves. 

Is it a record or a packet of aspirin?

I firmly believe the sleeve should be a reflection of the record's content, so it is probably no surprise that music that is mechanical, aloof, less flamboyant, reined-in and all together simpler should be housed in artwork that is utilitarian and unembellished. Imagine the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks wrapped in a Roger Dean sleeve!

For sleeve art to mirror the evolution of the band's sound is a clever trick. One example that springs to mind of a band who achieved this is Judas Priest. They went from the fantasy, fallen-angel artwork of Sad Wings Of Destiny and its accompanying epic, piano-inflected, progressive style of Hard Rock, to a trio of albums in the late 70s/early 80s (Stained Class, Killing Machine and British Steel) where, as the music within became increasingly concise, edgy and lyrically grounded, so the LP artwork evolved to reflect this, culminating in a shadowy, menacing photograph of a hand gripping the cutting edges of a razor blade.

Even Judas Priest's logo became sharper

Sleeve art is very important to me and, as I understand it, to anyone who holds vinyl dear. When I first started dating my now-wife, she claimed Love Hunter by Whitesnake as her favourite album sleeve. Fancying myself as a bit of an artist and hoping to win major Brownie points, I dug out my paints and attempted to recreate the artwork, replacing the woman in Chris Achilleos' original artwork with a portrait of my 'squeeze'. The resulting picture has pride of place on our bedroom wall. My mother-in-law's face when she clapped eyes on her daughter, naked, astride a colossal, rearing serpent was a sight to behold! Serves her right for walking in without knocking.

I was lucky enough on a trip to the United States a few years ago to chance upon the San Francisco Art Exchange, a fantastic little art gallery featuring rock art photography, paintings and drawings. I got chatting to the gallery owner while browsing an exhibition of photos of the Rolling Stones and, realising just how much of a music nut I am, he showed me around their behind-the-scenes store rooms. I still get chills just thinking about the hundreds of iconic images I saw that day, amongst which were Roger Dean's original artwork for The Magician's Birthday (Uriah Heep), Astra (Asia), Tales From Topographic Oceans (Yes) and, the absolute highlight for me, Relayer (Yes).

Roger Dean's masterpiece

To see every brush stroke up close without so much as a sheet of glass between me and, arguably, the greatest example of fantasy cover art ever created is an experience that will live with me always. And yes, the original Relayer artwork is for sale, price: $2,350,000.00