In the history of album cover design, there are legends: Alex Steinweiss, the designer at Columbia Records who in 1939 came up with the crazy idea of replacing the standard labels on album covers with original art; Saul Bass, who created bold, iconic images for film posters that translated instantly into classic record covers; Reid Miles, whose use of typography on Blue Note records defined jazz's visual style throughout the '50s and '60s.

And then there are the other guys.

Often uncredited, usually underpaid, and working at small labels with even smaller budgets, many art directors in the age of vinyl had to create something out of almost nothing. Their work might not be in the same league as the aforementioned greats, but you can't deny that the final products aren't eye-catching. Even as the musicians on these records have faded into obscurity, their albums still provide a kick via their outrageous cover art.

Admittedly, a lot of our viewing pleasure is derived from savoring each album's inherent campiness (ah, scooters in space!). But even the silliest cover art displays a level of craft that just isn't bothered with by most CD designers today. As the record album shrank from the LP's 12 1/2-inch-square canvas to the CD's sub-5-inch napkin, so too did the aspirations of graphic artists. Now, the goal is to simply show the singer's face so consumers know what product they're buying; back in the '40s, '50s, and early '60s, art directors often aimed to visually describe the music itself, to actually relate the experience of the LP. The best designers were music-lovers themselves, and that affection showed in the final artwork–something not possible with modern-day labels' preference for retouched head shots.

But finding such albums–even the indie-label output of obscure musicians featured in this article–has become increasingly difficult. Collecting old LPs and 78s for their cover art is now a competitive little industry. There was a time not so long ago when you could stroll into any thrift shop and walk away with dozens of space-age oddities for pocket change. In the '70s and '80s, it was considered horrendously uncool to even look at an old lounge-music LP (let alone buy one), and these rec. room cast-offs clogged junk-shop shelves along with ugly lamps and dusty bowling trophies. In 1993, however, RE/SEARCH Publications put out Incredibly Strange Music, which profiled collectors of oddball LPs. Suddenly, alterna-hipsters across the land unanimously agreed that buying the records their parents threw away 20 years ago could be even more radical than just hating their music.

Thus, for the past decade, finding choice album cover art has become increasingly difficult–the Salvation Army outposts have been raided, the AmVets ransacked, the Goodwills ravaged. Now, those 50-cent albums are Sani-sealed in plastic sleeves and are placed on sale at vinyl record shops for anywhere between $10 to $50. If you attend a record show, prepare to be stunned by the sight of pierced-lip modern primitives jostling for $30 Yma Sumac LPs. These are sad times indeed for the cheapskate album collector.

Many have turned to eBay for their vinyl-art needs, but the risks are many and the deals are few. Certainly, there is a great convenience in simply typing in the titles you want and watching them appear like a line of cherries on a slot machine. But the true album-art lover relishes the total experience of the hunt: sitting on a concrete floor in a smelly thrift shop on the bad side of town, legs aching from lack of blood-flow, throat itching from the plumes of dust that arise from nonstop record-flipping. You must look through every box and every milk crate; you must flip past every water-damaged cover and every Sing Along With Mitch LP; you must examine everything…because you never know what treasure might be tucked away amid the countless 101 Strings and .38 Special records. And when you do score–when a fabulously bizarre album cover suddenly appears after 50 strikeouts–the rush of pleasure is like a sudden infatuation. I have found you, and you are mine!

The following albums come from such searches at garage sales, library sales, antique malls, and flea markets–but no record stores. For many years, I adhered to a strict $1.50-or-less policy when buying oddball records; I didn't want to pay much more for a record I wasn't really going to listen to. (Plus, the sense of self-satisfaction is that much stronger when you pay a buck for an album that you know would be priced 20 or 30 times greater by a record dealer.) But my addiction has grown, and I often feel pangs of regret for all the silly record albums I cast aside and will never see again. Now, my budget is up to $5–perhaps even $10 for a choice piece. Although I still reserve most of my record money for jazz LPs, I feel an almost anthropological urge to collect the forgotten absurdities of prior generations. I yearn to see just how bizarre people could be back then, even though they didn't realize it at the time. Could we be the same?

Here is a sampling of works by those "other" art directors at small labels, covers that I haven't seen recorded yet in album-art books or websites. Although these LPs are not nearly as valuable or as edifying as those designed by recognized album artists like Jim Flora, Robert Jones, Rudolph Deharak, Erik Nitsche, David Stone Martin, or Burt Goldblatt, they are worthy of enjoying again on their own terms. Goofy, weird, and indeed incredibly strange, they are reminders of a time when records were meant to be fun and not just global profit sources.

 

(For more info on classic album designers, purchase Eric Kohler's wonderful In the Groove [Chronicle, $18.95].)

 

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