Blog on the Tracks
GUEST BLOGGER, DARRYL
Today, and next week the inmates are running the asylum. You'll remember I asked readers to Right This Blog! (And if you hadn't caught up already, I announced the winners earlier this week - their copy in). But we have to start somewhere. So we start today, with Darryl and his post is about good albums with bad cover artwork. Thank you Darryl...
After postulating the idea of bad album art as an idea for a blog post I then wondered if it might be a redundant topic given the current forms of music consumption. Cover art has been atrophied down a digital black hole, withering from substantial physical forms to a few hundred pixels on iTunes or Spotify. Does anyone care? Is the art of the album sleeve as dead as most musicians' royalty streams? Is anyone making an effort to produce challenging cover art when their canvas is so diminished?
I recently read the 33 1/3 Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kirk Walker Graves. It read more like an analysis of a major historical figure than a paean to a beloved album. The author spent a sizeable chunk of one chapter discussing the cover art for the album, its relationship to Mr. West's previous works, and it's relevance to his public persona. West's grumpy pan is scatter-gunned all over the media landscape, and that's no fun for anyone. The internet and the trash blown ghetto of the tabloid press present an endless river of musicians and other celebrities doing their best to break the narcissism meter.
The profligate media is something of a reversal of fortune when compared to my early record (wax kids!) buying experiences. All I knew were the mysteries the album cover showed me and the glimpses offered by publications like Rip It Up, NME or Melody Maker. We handled albums with a reverence that correlated to their expense and delicacy but also to their significance as a substantive cultural event that was ours alone. My parents were unlikely to understand or care for Fire Dances by Killing Joke which was as it should be. This imbued the experience of owning and playing those albums with a sense of separation from my parents generation. It also split us into tribes and the sleeve of an album was one of the signifiers of those allegiances.
The range of imagination or lack thereof in the arena of album art is truly as diverse as the music they are designed to contain. Music packaging has a rich history, most of which I'm not prepared to tackle. For the purposes of this blog, we will stick to 1960 to the present day. Marketing departments exist to sell a product. Musicians, photographers and designers have often thwarted that ambition with their influence over the image of an album. Some covers are downright lazy or cobbled together afterthoughts. Others appear to be drug-fuelled follies, or are concepts so overwrought in detail and execution that they get in the way of the intent of the record itself.
The best music book I've read in a while is Stuart Coupe's biography of Michael Gudinski ("Gudinski - The Godfather of Australian Rock'n'Roll"). Gudinski is a larger-than-life figure who has dominated the scene across the last 40 years - starting off with big ambitions and realising them, across band management, international touring, publishing, promotion, even film production.
Stuart Coupe is a veteran Aussie rock scribe. He's been involved in record companies and artistmanagement too - he's done the PR-thing and carried off face-to-face interviews with most of the big names in the biz - Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, you name it...
Recently I was in Australia for a quick trip visiting family and friends. I timed my visit perfectly (finishing the book on the plane) so that I could meet up with Stuart in full book-promotion/interview mode. We sat in his writing office for a couple of hours, a memorabilia hall of sorts, piles of books and records and CDs. As we talked I kept scanning the room - a concert ticket on the wall here, poster over there, signed Leonard Cohen LP on display, a signed Iggy Pop one too.
A life in music. A life dedicated to music.
Stuart was the perfect person to write about Gudinski - because writing about Gudinski is a story about Australian (and New Zealand) music. It's about so many great bands across the seventies and eighties: Skyhooks, Cold Chisel, Paul Kelly, Split Enz, The Swingers, Hunters and Collectors...it's a story about power and ambition, greed, muscle, money and might. But it's a story - through all of that - about passion. And Coupe was there. He's met Michael along the way at various points - and this pops up in the story.
Those four studio albums by The Velvet Underground all made a huge impact on me. But the sentimental favourite is Loaded - it was the very first CD I purchased. I was a tape buyer, right through until the early-1990s, I wasn't going to give up that tape collection...I had a tape-deck in my car and a tape-player in my bedroom, there was one as part of the family stereo in the lounge too. I was happy. My father had to convince me that I needed to move to the new medium. So sometime around 1992/3 I bought my very first CD. And I chose Loaded.
At that stage I really only knew The Velvet Underground via compilations and I was starting to hear covers. I was a Lou Reed fan, had plenty of his albums, but this was back when I lived in the wee country town, back when a weekly - or monthly - trip to the music store mean taking in all that they had in the racks and sometimes (nervously) asking if it was possible to "order" something. A special order could take months.
I bought Loaded - the first Velvet Underground album I ever saw on a rack in a shop when I was on holiday in Mt Maunganui. Cue the cliché of hearing a life-changing/monumental album. Until I first sat down with Loaded all I knew was Sweet Jane and Rock'n'Roll and I knew them primarily via Lou Reed live-concert versions. I had heard the VU versions, but they seemed like afterthoughts at that point.
As soon as I heard the album every song was a new favourite - that clean Beatles/Byrds/Beach Boys-like charm to the opener, Who Loves The Sun, the unplanned, unknowing antecedents for alt-country such as New Age and Train Round The Bend and the majestic closer, Oh! Sweet Nuthin' - even the doo-wop influenced I Found A Reason would seem, now, like alt-country was always something that was waiting to happen rather than simply something dreamed up in marketing as a way to get people buying country/fringe-indie...
I love those first three Velvet Underground albums - and most days I figure it's (nearly) equal but Loaded is always the one I feel like listening to above the other VU albums (the next best is the collection of off-cuts and leftovers, VU). Loaded is always the one with the (very) special connection; I'm transported back to that time, that summer of discovering CDs, of taking the plunge, of starting a collection, which started me wanting to write about music, and document my collection, which started me working in music stores, which started me obsessing over the physical product, of studying collections in anyone else's house - I'd visit and spend the first 15 minutes staring at any CD-racks or piles of LPs. (I still do this if there are still albums in a person's house; I'd never ask to scan their hard-drive...does anyone do that?)
The picture here (below right) flashed up on my Facebook feed this morning, seemed like an idea for a topic...what one band would you listen to for a whole month if you had to pick only one group? (We'll include solo artists, duos, any musical act - it doesn't need to be a 'group' by definition).
In this day and age with YouTube, streaming, digital music collections that are carried in the pocket or accessed via accounts it might be hard to image committing to listening to just one artist for one month. And what would you gain from it? On the other hand, because of all that technology, it's never been easier to attempt this sort of silly challenge.
I love these sorts of challenges - a bit of a hypothetical, a bit of fun.
I've had days where I've played an album on repeat endlessly, the whole day and then on into the next. I've had weeks where I seem to be playing the same two or three albums only.
But it's hard for me to get more obsessive than that. My job, reviewing music, requires I listen to it - work through as much as I can.
Okay, first up, apologies for the no-show on Friday. Some of you were probably happy with that which only brings up a question around why you bother, not why I bother...anyway, I was away on holiday, and after a plane ride that saw us leave Brisbane to not land in Vanuatu, be diverted to Fiji for three hours on the tarmac only to be returned to Brisbane to stay in a hotel for three or four hours before a very early bus took us back to the airport to try it all again...my prize at the end of it all was No Internet.
Does a man good to be offline now and again. And apart from not fronting up here on Friday - and not being able to explain/excuse myself - I didn't feel bad at all. Social media grinds on without me, someone else posts far too many YouTube clips and raids the meme-drawer.
I usually 'work' through my holiday, keep up the posting, usually try to tag in a gig or something but not this time. This time it was almost entirely about catching up with friends and family. I favoured books over music - in those times when I was stuck in a 12-hour return-to-sender, wasted travel-day - and enjoyed far too many beverages most of the time.
But I did do one significant piece of 'work'. I interviewed someone over in Australia - for a future episode of Sweetman Podcast. And I'm looking forward to editing that for you all to hear. (Should be up later this week).
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