SINGLES (STILL) GOING STEADY Five Hundred 45s

Record collector porn?
Tribute to the subtleties – and vagaries – of sleeve design? A new graphic
history of the 45 is a little bit of both.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

“A single,” writes guitarist and musicologist Lenny Kaye in
his introduction for the truth-in-titling Five
Hundred 45s: A Graphic History of the Seven-Inch Record
(Collins Design), “stands
alone. An album, by its very definition, relies on segue and assemblage, the
emphasis on the artisan. But in a single, the song takes precedence.
Appreciated on its own terms, a single… is a world unto itself.”

 

Kaye further notes how a single’s picture sleeve is “the
dress shirt put on for a special occasion… an adornment chosen with care” – to
which a chorus of visual voices, some 500 strong spread across the book’s 480
pages, offers a hearty, “Amen, brother Kaye.”

 

You know the drill by now, as regards record sleeve
anthologies (cue up memories of the grandaddy of ‘em all, 1977’s iconic Album Cover Album): assemble full-color
repros of the sleeves – typically culled from multiple eras, although some
books zero in on specific time frames or genres – as visual pornography for
record collectors while sequencing the parade of images in such a manner as to
bring out aesthetic or thematic similarities. With the appropriate degree of
internal logic applied, even a pair of sleeves representing wildly different
eras and musical dispositions can appear linked, and for those of us who
consider rock ‘n’ roll to be a continuum rather than a collection of boxes, the
buzz one gets from the lightbulb that starts to flicker above the head is
electric indeed.

 

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the obvious eye candy
aspect of all this; every fan has experienced staring slack-jawed and
occasionally drooling at records he or she maybe wanted but never could find,
or had seen but couldn’t buy, or even owned but hadn’t looked at in a long time
and therefore the rush of familiarity was like running into an old friend…
whew. It’s actually the juxtaposition-of-images element of a book such as this
that’s probably the most delight-inducing, and I’d wager that’s as true for the
editor-compilers as for the readers. Five
Hundred 45s
authors Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz are both creative
directors and graphic designers who’ve worked on album sleeves for everyone
from Bon Jovi, the Beach Boys and U2 to Talking Heads, the Ramones and Lou
Reed, so they’ve certainly got the background that would allow them to discern
even the subtlest design congruencies among disparate source material. It’s not
altogether unlikely they might even be partial to the occasional inside joke
slipped sideways into their book, knowing that only fellow designers or hard-core
collector geeks will pick up on the references.

 

That in mind, some of the image-grouping here is so logical
as to be patently obvious (though no less delightful). Consider the series of
single sleeves from the Beatles, Manfred Mann, Jan & Dean and the Turtles
showing each group posed on a beach. Or two 45s from Frank Sinatra and Nat King
Cole depicting them in lonely/afterhours settings. Or a collection of Christmas
singles from Flat Duo Jets, Band Aid, Untamed Youth and the Cricketones: the
latter, operative over a half-century hence, apparently specialized in
holly-jolly images of Santa and Frosty, who somehow come off creepier than the
alcoholic, maniac ho-ho-hot-rodding Santas of the Jets and Youth sleeves. One
imagines a more in-depth examination of popular record sleeves from the ‘50s
would yield further examples of the repressed id that churned beneath the cultural
surface.

 

Other pairings are so improbable that I’ll wager no one
considered them until the proverbial lightbulb moment happened during a marathon
sleeve-flipping session among the compilers and the collector-benefactors who
pitched in to bring this project to fruition. Pigface’s “Empathy” 45 and a 1982
reissue of Cream’s “Badge,” for example, turn out to be not-so-strange
bedfellows, visually, thanks to the bold use of purple, red and white
geometrics. The members of Grand Funk Railroad and Madness line up behind one
another and fairly march in tandem across two pages, although I’ll lay a side
bet that no one has ever spun the
songs “Walk Like A Man” and “One Step Beyond” back to back. And speaking of
lightbulb moments, someone was clearly on the floor, clutching belly and
laughing hysterically when it was suggested that matching up Ism’s “I Think I
Love You” and an obscure Spanish Steppenwolf EP might be righteous; the almost
rabid look on the stylized wolf’s face that appears on the latter sleeve is weirdly,
uncomfortably similar to the grinning expressions that grace the humping-dog
mockups of David Cassidy and Shirley Jones on the former sleeve (of which more
than one wag has commented that they could never watch The Partridge Family again with a straight face after looking at
Ism’s brand of artistic license).

 

The book’s loaded with “aha!” or smirk-inducing moments such
as those, in fact. Some of my favorites included the similarities between:

 

(1) the Boomtown Rats’ “Rat Trap” and The Jacksons’ “Body,”
both of which show the groups posed semi-pyramid fashion, and with some members
in striped attire;

(2) The Chubbies’ “I’m The King,” featuring frontwoman
Jeannette Kantzalis standing in front of a U.S. flag and wielding a guitar, and
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” 45 sleeve, leading me to presume (but I
can’t be positive) it was a deliberate homage;

(3) a festive-looking El Vez (a/k/a The Mexican Elvis) sleeve
and a Blue Hawaii-related Elvis Presley sleeve – and of course we
know El Vez was paying tribute to The
King;

(4) a stark, black-and-white “Blank Generation” by Richard
Hell & the Voidoids and the Cramps’ original “Drug Train” 45, both records
I still own and cherish as much for the sleeves as for the songs (which I
distinctly recall playing to death);  and

(5) any number of sleeves designed by Kozik, Coop and other
latterday underground-artists who typically rendered their subjects in garish,
almost neon/day-glow colors while depicting them as buxom Satanic babes, cartoonish
monsters and mutant cartoon critters.

 

The book also includes a series of essays penned by designer
John Foster, film producer (and avid singles collector) Stuart Goldman, New
Bomb Turks singer Eric Davidson, Halo Of Flies/Amphetamine Reptile Records
mainman Tom Hazelmyer (no stranger himself to the allure of creating limited
edition collectors’ items), and Bruce Licher of Savage
Republic/Scenic/Independent Project Records fame (discussing his work using
letterpress printing to create some of the modern era’s most striking LP and 45
sleeves). Davidson, who authored the recent We
Never Learn
book about ‘90s punk, gets in some of the best lines as he
writes about the joys – and sorrows – about wandering into a record shop and
suddenly having eyes glaze over upon spotting a much-desired single – and, per
the “sorrows” notation, a much-inflated pricetag. For Davidson, it was a
limited-edition Dwarves 45 on Sub Pop that had him reflexively reaching for his
credit card, then momentarily balking at the price, then growing “flush with
excitement and shame”; for yours truly, it might be some exotic overseas XTC or
Flamin’ Groovies platter; for you, perhaps an elusive Beatles or Stones item.
Regardless, the rush of emotion Davidson describes is something pretty much all
of us can relate to.

 

Thumbing through Five
Hundred 45s: A Graphic History of the Seven-Inch Record
isn’t quite like
flipping through a record bin. But the little jolts of familiarity and
excitement are pretty real.

 

In Lenny Kaye’s introduction to the book he marshals a
capsule history of the artform, which dates back to 1949 when RCA Victor
introduced the 45 (and, for a couple of years, sparking a format war with the
33 1/3 rpm LP, until both configurations were embraced by the music industry).
The 45 progresses through its unquestionable heyday, the Punk explosion of the
late ‘70s, up to the contemporary era where, ironically, 45s are both
anachronistic fetish totems and visual symbols of the download era’s chief
“artifact” – the individual song.

 

“Rock and roll was awaiting the 45,” it seems, according to
Kaye. To that I’d add that rock and roll has never lost its love (and lust) for
the 45, despite periods during which rock has flirted with infidelity. Just
dart into any independent record store on the planet if you need convincing.
Amen, brother Kaye.

 

 

 

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