The vinyl story

Fifties and Sixties records sleeves defied the laws of censorship and good taste. Rob Chapman gives his approval
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The Independent Culture
Back in the days of 78s, record sleeves had a purely protective function. They were there to keep the slabs of shellac apart. These unwieldy discs were sold encased in thick card covers that came in a choice of plain brown or plain brown with the retailer's name stamped on it. The post-war introduction of the long player brought with it a radical shift in promotional packaging, although it took some time for this design revolution to filter through to record company thinking. Photographers were usually commissioned to "interpret" the music in a fairly literal fashion and rarely got the chance to experiment.

The first musical forms to get a more sophisticated high-art treatment were, unsurprisingly, classical music and jazz. Ironically, at a time when a generation of art students were turning away from Modernism and embracing the bright new shiny world of pop culture and the consumer society, classical sleeves of the 1950s often came adorned with abstract motifs; there was lots of mock Mondrian and pastiche Pollock. Many sleeves for the Blue Note jazz label from that period are now quite rightly regarded as design classics, and still stand as the blueprint for mannered cool.

The Blue Note look has now become just another house style - a shorthand for hip - but other aspects of early sleeve art offer a different glimpse of the times in which it was made. Due to the music industry's perennial desire to surf every known trend, coupled with the fair exchange rate mechanism of the car-boot sale, there is no shortage of material out there. Beyond the rigid con- formity of good taste there lies a whole forbidden zone of imagery to revel in, a mass of sleeve designs that speak volumes about popular culture in the post-war period.

Throughout the 1950s, records were released to complement every conceivable function. There was music for barbecues, music to accompany your home movies (the cine camera was the camcorder of the 1950s), music to lull your baby to sleep, music to seduce to, music to celebrate your stay at Butlins or Pontin's. There were spoken word albums instructing you on everything from how to stop smoking to how to get a divorce. Sound effects records, designed to test-drive your state of the art hi-fi, celebrated recording technology itself, and even the most mundane balladeer could expect to have their sleeve lovingly adorned with hi-tech gadgetry.

These sleeves speak of a world of leisure and lifestyle that has all but disappeared now. Perhaps the only comparable recent phenomenon to be exploited by the record industry has been the keep-fit craze that began in the late 1970s and peaked with the aerobics fad of the 1980s. (Although it can surely only be a matter of time before a spate of How-To Line Dance CDs join that fine tradition of instructional dance discs that stretches back to the How To Cha-Cha and Rumba records that accompanied the vogue for Latin American music in the Fifties).

What the 1950s record industry really excelled in, though, was the secret language of desire. In the puritanical post-war period, sex was one of the last commodities to come off the rations. In Britain, this was a time when censorship still reigned supreme, comedians on the BBC couldn't mention chamber pots or old maids, and nudity at the Windmill or Gaeity still had to be represented by static nymphs. If you wanted more, you had to search out the under-the-counter world of unregulated pleasure, but the record industry brought this clandestine world into the suburban home. There was a thriving catalogue of adult entertainment on long players and a whole subtext of fantasy and neuroses etched into their covers which reveal as much about the sexual mores or repressed desires of middle-America and middle-England as any Kinsey Report.

A series of burlesque albums was released in the late 1950s with titles like How to Strip For Your Man and How to Belly Dance For Your Husband. You can still find copies of these albums in collectors shops with the words strip or belly dance blanked out or even cut out of the sleeves. Sometimes the censorship was carried out by vigilant Customs and Excise officials, but more often it was done by record retailers nervous of what they could publicly display under Britain's strict obscenity laws.

As a result, a whole subculture was nurtured via mail order. Adult humour records for "swingers" sold in their thousands without ever appearing on any pop chart. These were usually recorded live in front of night-club audiences who were treated to risque and politically incorrect humour from the likes of Ruth "innuendo dispenser" Wallis and "busty" Rusty Warren - both bold, bawdy and very funny female raconteurs who had hardened, cynical club crowds eating out of their hands. If the sleeves of these efforts were, like the comedy material itself, clothed in winks and nudges, the covers that accompanied the Fifties exotica cult were rather less subtle. At a time when Lena Horne or Eartha Kitt could be banished from network television in the US for embracing a white bandleader, the forbidden world of inter-racial desire found crude expression in the sleeves of many Latin American and Afro-Caribbean recordings. The common motif here was a lone white woman writhing and gyrating to the pulsating rhythm of a tom-tom or bongo drum. Not too many prizes for guessing what all that was about.

Compared to all this, rock music's attempts to construct a vocabulary of significant gestures and poses looks dull indeed. Received wisdom suggests that the "significant" rock sleeve reached perfection around the same time as rock itself. What this means, of course, is the sixth form surrealism of Roger Dean's tableaux for prog-rock band, Yes, or Hipgnosis' visual conundrums for Pink Floyd and others. What rock has singularly failed to do in 40 years is develop a visual iconography that transcends straight photographic representation. Whether it's David Bowie with a red lightening flash on his face, or a clump of heavily spandexed rockers, it's still basically a bunch of guys saying cheese for the camera.

And yet there exists a whole universe of record sleeves where the, invariably semi-pro or amateur, entertainers are at ease doing precisely that. Flashing a richly inane showbiz smile, these artists exude the sheer pleasure of just being there, happy to have their 15 minutes in the limelight. Sure it's cheesy, sure it's gauche, but it's honest, ordinary and democratic too. Such ordinariness challenges and undermines rock's pompous notions of exclusivity and self-importance at every turn. Session guitarist, and inventor of the Coral Electric Sitar, Vinnie Bell stands centre stage on his own sleeve looking as subversively straight as the surrealists did in Andre Breton's group photographs of the 1930s. It is of course one of rock's many paradoxes that as a general rule the straighter looking the artist (The Ventures, Link Wray, The Tornadoes, the Tarantino soundtrack crowd in general), the stranger their music and their visual representation appear as they reverberate down the ages. The inverse is often true of rock acts who strain to be weird, angry or rebellious, while all the time selecting from an ever-decreasing repertoire of gestures.

Perhaps the single most misunderstood and misrepresented pop cultural phenomenon of recent times has been the so-called easy-listening revival. The term easy-listening is hardly adequate categorising, as it does, a vast musical territory that encompasses everything from Burt Bacharach's sublime pop to cop show theme tunes. A couple of years ago, I took recourse to the terms "loungecore" and "world musak" instead, partly as a way of sidestepping this. But mostly I did it to poke a little conceptual fun at the kind of po-faced critics who felt terribly undermined by such shocking lapses in taste. It was most noticeably the thirtysomething generation of rock critics (the kind who go dewy-eyed at the mention of pub rock) who were most affronted by the playful pleasures of easy-listening.

Sadly though, like much else in the 1990s, the easy-listening boom suffered an overdose of irony. In an instant, a rich and diverse tapestry of musical textures was reduced to the one-note samba of Music We Can All Have A Laugh At. Well sure. As a product of the rock era myself, I'd be hard pressed to make a case for Singalonga Max Bygraves or the regimented parping of The James Last Orchestra. All I'm asking for is a little parity here. You may find the prospect of Mrs Mills playing the piano the last word in hilarity. I wouldn't petition for her inclusion in the Music Hall of Fame either, but then I find all those tortured rock artists with their hand-me-down Hank Williams habits and their Charles Bukowsky fixations equally hilarious, so it's thematic horses for courses I guess. And as for kitsch, surely there has been no more kitsch spectacle in recent years than U2's Zooropa tour. Not since Emerson Lake and Palmer peddled their schlock synthesiser classicism around the stadia of Europe in the early 1970s, anyway.

Just as the true worth of the easy-listening boom was that it threw into sharp relief some of the untenable, and unquestioned myths of the rock world, the sleeves of easy-listening's musical netherworld suggest nothing less than an alternative design history. There's still something quietly subversive about the whole loungecore project that refuses to go away.

In his 1996 Diary, A Year With Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno noted that when he took his children to the Natural History Museum they were far more entranced by the haunting mystery of a stuffed owl in a glass than they were by the trendy computer graphics laid on for them. That's pretty much how I feel about the relationship between record sleeves and the CD graphics that are making cover art obsolete. You can keep your twirly- whirly cyber shapes (they already seem to make techno look retro to me anyway). Just give me a picture of Mexican orchestrator Juan Esquivel sitting next to an enormous telescope that will allow him to peer into some unfathomable musical future. 'Album Covers from the Vinyl Junkyard', with an introduction by Rob Chapman, is published this week by Booth-Clibborn Editions priced pounds 22 Lifestyle options: choose from 'How to Belly-Dance', complete with bonus instruction booklet, top; or 'Music for Gracious Living: Barbecue'. Above: the fast-talking, wise-cracking Rusty Warren

Mother-in-law jokes and more: Bert Henry's 1960 'Stag Party Special', "a spicy mixture of sex and belly laughs", top; Woody Woodbury's 'Saloonatics' from 1961 - "party gags and saucy songs"

Ido Martin's 'Mambos and Cha Cha Chas' - one cover among many suggesting inter-racial desire, above middle. What hi-fi: demonstration disks proved the power of your equipment (above)