In widescreen, with Technicolor and stereophonic sound, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made the finest Hollywood musicals of the 1950’s. As excellent as these films are they can’t begin to compare with the real life musical extravaganzas that make up our own personal lives. Our lives are journeys filled with music. The music flows from radios, cars, family & friend gatherings, offices, schools, stores, movies, airports, bus & train stations and that stereo inside your head. The times of your life, the best, the worse, the marvelous and the mundane, are stories woven into a musical soundtrack, because as the Ritchie Family sang, “Life Is Music”
Life Is Music:
The Record Label: Musical Works of Art
by Rix Roundtree-Harrison
Having a radio DJ for a dad was great because when the radio station's records reached the end of their rotation cycle my dad would box them up and send them to me. When I received the records I was not only excited about the sounds I was going to hear, I was also excited about the vinyl record disc themselves. The beauty of the record label art would hypnotize me and place me under a spell. Prior to placing the record on the turntable I would hold each one up to my eyes and closely examine the colors, graphics, and images that made up the record label design. As I basked in the radiant glow of the intoxicatingly beautiful Epic record’s sunburst label, I could almost hear ATCO’s horn trumpeting the arrival of brand new and exciting music. I then began to wonder what amazingly wild music awaited me behind Asylum’s door. With his omnipotent image at the top of the Mercury record, I eagerly anticipated the awesome sounds I knew the god Mercury would deliver to me. Simultaneously I awaited the musical enlightenment I knew the sage old Buddah would reveal.
After my father died the radio station records stopped coming, but the record seed had been planted and I started using my allowance, lunch money and money made from mowing lawns to buy records. Today I have an eclectic music collection that consist of the genres R&B, Rock & Roll, Heavy Metal, Disco, Country, Bubblegum, Punk, Big Band, Eurodance, New Wave, House, Synthpop, Doo Wop, hi-NRG, Rock-A-Billy, Soul, New Age, Rap/Hip Hop, Alternative, Opera, Italo/Euro disco, Jazz, Techno, 1940s & 50s Pop Vocalists, Electronic, Freestyle/Latin, Rock, Dance, Funk, and Pop music.
I’m very proud of my diverse music collection. It spans nearly 80 years as it begins in the 1930s with all that jazz, rock ‘n rolls through the 1950s, and electronically pulses into the 21st century. It is made up of 45 rpm (Revolutions Per Minute) vinyl singles, 33 1/3 LPs (Long Play vinyl album), 12" vinyl singles, Compact Discs and digital music files. I've even got 78 rpm shellac records that I inherited from my music loving Aunt Izola. Among those vintage 78s from dear aunty are, Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin' Heart,” its a yellow label with MGM's Leo the Lion in a black circle, Jo Stafford's "Jambalaya,” a red label with the word Columbia at the top of the record label, with a musical note and a CBS radio microphone sitting above it, and Nat Cole's (printed as "King Cole") "Nature Boy,” a purple Capitol record. Though I have these 78s I have never played them because 78s were before my time and I've never had the equipment on which to play them, but it's a thrill just to have them in my possession.
Just by looking at a record label you can tell that a lot of thought goes into the design of the label and logo. Things like the illustration choice, the name, and graphics are carefully thought out by the record company folks in order to deliver a specific message to the music lover. For example, the label, A Different Drum, the name alone says that this company moves to its own beat, and doesn’t follow in the foot steps of anyone. They are looking to appeal to those who seek something different (who "move to the beat of a different drum”); in their case the drums they beat are the electronic drums of synthpop, the exciting synthesizer based electronic music that is their forte. This is illustrated by and encircled figure of a lone man who beats a tribal drum positioned between his legs. Then there’s Klone, Synthicide and Radikal records, all three deliver their message by playing with a word. Klone, specializes in dance remakes (cloning) of the hit songs of others, while Synthicide who, as their name suggest, released synthesizer based hi-NRG dance music. At Radikal records, you wouldn't find regular run-of-the-mill pop music there, because you couldn’t get more radical than Techno, which was the label's specialty.
There are those record labels that combine their name and artwork to create their logo and label design. Capitol records has a capitol dome that sits atop its cursive name, Bigtop record's name, in all caps, sits over a circus tent, Polydor records has half a record sitting above its name that is printed in lower case lettering, while a trumpet sits beneath the large capital A and M of A&M records.
Some record labels are beautiful in their simplicity; a stylized version of the label’s name on a somewhat plain background is their label, like T.K, Strictly Rhythm, ZE, London, United Artist, "O", Verve, TSR, Curb, Chrysalis, and RCA Victor.
Simplicity is not the case with record labels that you can actually get lost in. These labels are made up of beautiful intricate scenes designed to draw you into them. For example, Casablanca records consist of camels in the desert, a walled kingdom is in the background, and in the foreground, a movie crew shooting a movie. Parachute is an open chute falling through a cloudy sky. Prelude records deposits you on the discotique dance floor with its pulsing and flashing Saturday Night Fever disco lights. Island record’s label has a calming effect as it takes you away to a balmy tropical isle, where a silent palm tree sits alone in the night, silhouetted by the light of a bright yellow full moon. Motown records takes you on a journey through the state of Michigan with its state map and a bright red star indicating you’ve reached Detroit, the "Motor City." Vertigo records is cleverly designed to do just that, with it's mesmerizing concentric circles that lure you into their spiraling depth, vertigo is indeed induced.
Some record labels possess the illusion of movement and action; labels like Riva record's ferocious lion that is swiping its razor sharp claws at you. There’s the Nervous record's guy who gets a buzz cut when a flying vinyl record slices off his spiky hair. Filled with fierce screaming winds, the bulging sails of the tall ship propel the vessel through violently slashing seas on the stormy Marlin record label. Figures on each side of the word "Smash" are violently shoving the letters together, making a mash of the Smash record logo. You can almost hear NinthWave record's vibrating sound waves as they pulse towards an ear shaped like the number 9. But of all the “active” records labels, I’ve got to say that the Cutting records label is one of the best and most ingenious. Cutting’s label does not present the illusion of movement....at first. Taking up the entire face of the record/CD is the picture of a still circular saw blade. Then, when the disc spins the saw blade spins, creating the look of a rapidly spinning circular saw blade that as you know, can be hazardous to body parts that get in the way.
Some record labels are composed of effective still pictures, like the old fashion radio with a record inserted within it of Radio records, the frightening looking negative-positive robot of Battery records and STAX record's "Stax-O-Wax" records. I can’t explain why, but I just dig Eightball record’s black e-ball, which, instead of having the number 8 emblazoned on it, it is stamped with a lower case “e”. Then there’s IRS record's intimidating fedora and Foster Grant wearing International Record Syndicate man (the picture fills you with dread, you can almost hear the IRS man issue the threat, “Buy only IRS records, or else”). There is also Liberty record's Lady Liberty hoisting her torch into a kaleidoscope of colors, and Volt record's arcs of red lightening.
Decca and FFRR records designed their labels to symbolized superior recorded sound quality. FFRR's label just spells it out, as the letters FFRR float into a waiting ear, encircling this is what the letters stand for, telling you exactly what you are getting, a Full Frequency Range Recording. Decca record's label has an image of a running masked harlequin who holds the world in her hands. This is an illustration of Decca's motto as they promised the listener, "A New World of Stereo Sound." These labels were not just whistling Dixie or using catchy phrases, because back in the early days of stereo sound these two labels had a reputation of delivering the highest quality sound recordings. During World War II, the engineers at FFRR created a high fidelity hydrophone that was capable of detecting German submarines by their engine noise and made possible greatly enhanced frequency ranges. This new technology was carried over into the FFRR recording studios. The engineers at Decca created the legendary "Decca Tree," which was a stereo microphone recording system designed specifically for big orchestras. Even today, audiophiles seek out FFRR and Decca vinyl records from the early days of stereo for their spectacular and superior sound quality.
Not only were the record labels interesting, even the sleeves they came in held their own fascination. 45 rpm sleeves and LP inner sleeves could be artistic, instructional, promotional and informational. Mercury's 45 rpm sleeve had a group of young people at a party gathered around a stereo listening to Mercury records, this symbolized that the hip young and beautiful party people listened to Mercury records. Capitol chose to use their inner LP sleeve to promote and advertize the other artist on their roster by filling both sides of the sleeve with pictures of LPs by their other artist, Decca would do the same with their 45 rpm sleeves. Columbia used its inner LP sleeve to educate the music lover on the ways to care for their records, phonographs and phonograph needles. Mercury would use their inner LP sleeves to advertise their brand of record players, Decca would do the same with their 45 rpm sleeves, telling the record buyer to run out and purchase Decca guitars and phonographs. Capitol, proud of their iconic Hollywood headquarters, would use the 45 rpm sleeve to promote their unique and legendary circular record shaped recording facility, "The Capitol Tower Building."
The coming of the Compact Disc was the beginning of the end for artistic record label design. With the CD, almost all record companies simply (and lazily in my view) just silk screened the record label’s name/logo in black on the plain silver CD face. When this practice began there were times that the record company logo on the CD was so small you would need to place the CD under a microscope in order to see the logo. Okay, I exaggerate, a bit, actually, the logo could be so small that you needed a magnifying glass to see it, and that’s no exaggeration because there were times I had to do just that. Mercury and Capitol records were the biggest culprits of this. I got the feeling that maybe they were so ashamed of the music they were putting out that they did not want to be associated with it, so they would make the logo so small that you would not be able to make it out, so you wouldn’t know which record company was to blame for releasing musical dreck.
The record companies Atlantic, Capitol and Columbia would sometimes silk screen the Compact Disc face with the entire old vinyl label design, making the CD look like a vinyl record from the past. When this was done it was so cool, as the colors, illustrations and graphics on these CDs were much sharper, crisper and clearer than they had ever been on the vinyl record’s paper label. But for the most part, the face of most CDs was just silk screened with art from the CD booklet cover, or there was no design or color at all, just the record company logo on the plain silver face of the CD.
Many believe that the arrival of the digital music age will be the nail in the coffin for the artistically beautiful record labels. With 20 -25% (and this percentage is expected to grow) of music buyers accessing their music via digital music files through Internet based music sites, the era of the picturesque record label may well soon be over. I already miss the beauty of record label art. I even miss the ugly labels like, RSO record’s sick looking Pepto-Bismol coloured cow, Modern's dull notepad, Boardwalk’s garish sea and sky, Warner Bros’ palm tree lined Burbank street, Moonshine and SBK’s whatever those designs are, and MCA and Salsoul record’s rainbows. MCA’s rainbow label was just a yawning bore, and Salsoul’s, with rainbows all over the place, was a sad mess. Record companies make a note, if record label art ever makes a comeback; leave rainbows to leprechauns…..please.
But ugly or beautiful that's the disadvantage of digital music files, no record label artwork and no physical interaction with the music. I’ve got digital files on my laptop, desktop and phone. I listen to them while I work, commute and surf the web. But when I listen while doing these things I find that I’m not “into” the music. The music becomes just a backdrop of sound, not a soundtrack for my life, just sounds to get me through the task I’m working on.
Music should never be relegated to being just background noise. You should set time aside specifically for it, then sit down and enjoy it the way you would when you take time to consume and enjoy a fine wine, premium beer/ale, a really good steak, or gourmet ice cream.
When I listen to music on vinyl records with their intriguing record labels, and their educational, promotional, and informative record sleeves, it not only involves my ears, it also required the involvement of my hands, eyes and imagination, making listening to music a pleasurable tactile sensory participatory experience.
But Todd Durrant, the big chief at A Different Drum records summed it up best when he said, “Sure, computer files are “hip”, but there’s something lacking when you don’t get the entire package that the artist intended to present. Long live the real world and the solid products that you can hold in your hand.” Amen brother.
© 2011 Rix Roundtree-Harrison
Written by Rix Roundtree-Harrison