12x12: the LP Cover

Esthetics are highly subjective in any hobby as evidenced by the myriad web sites and auctions catering to collectors of all ilks--old telephone pole insulators included! There are few absolutes... only what rocks your world! In the case of vinyl, there are many major collector categories that can be identified and certain rules that carry over among almost all collectors. Paramount among these, condition is king! Condition is the factor that determines value and desirability. I'm often amused at the naivete of people who sell off collections and pause to covet those old Beatles, Presley or Sinatra records because they presume some great value. Far too often these are completely trashed and would be best suited for skeet shooting. The details of grading condition, and salvaging soiled vinyl beg for an article of their own, but simply put, clean unscratched records and untattered covers are the most desirable.

Although collectors are serious about their music, the covers of LPs, 45s and 78 book sets (78 singles had few covers to speak of) offer some interesting visual cues about cultural sensibilities relevant to their given era of release. These are an important part of record collecting esthetics. While we may debate the sonic attributes of vinyl vs. CD, the visual component is where CDs don't even make it to the starting block. Clearly the 12"x12" presentation of photographs and artwork sensuously printed on thick cardboard stock is beyond compare. Sometimes vinylphiles, myself included, will shell out cash for a cover alone if that cover is truly rare, unique, or replaces one plagued by ring-wear. I urge even the most skeptical reader to think about the wonderful covers created by H.R. Gieger, Hipgnosis, Roger Dean and others for progressive bands of the 70's like Flash, ELP and Yes . Now compare these covers to the CD issue...No Contest! 5"X 5" just can't convey the same impact, and if we begin to include the two panel gatefold album covers such as Yes' Tales from Topographic Oceans, the difference is even more apparent.

When it comes to LP covers, there are "veins" serious collectors will follow. "Exotica", "bachelor pad", and "cocktail" music of the 50's and 60's offers some of the most incredible, if chauvinistic, images of women. In many of these, the photography is crisp and evocative, printed on glossy stock that adds a dimensional quality. Aside from their beauty, the women are adorned in attire and/or exotic surroundings that can be campy yet entirely dramatic. They convey the essence of a very different era in our society, one which can be objectively appreciated for the period values it chronicles. The models Abbe Lane and Sandy Warner became famous for these with Ms. Warner the provocateur for an entire series of Martin Denny LPs that had exotic themes and stunning music. An offshoot of this can be seen in the "jungle" percussion and hawaiiana covers of the era. These may or may not include attractive women, but most certainly include exotic settings and fascinating props of instruments and sundry other items. Still other covers from this time reflect the emergence of early tube hi-fi systems, radios and televisions, sporting a decidedly retro look. , One of my prized possessions is Arthur Fiedler's Hi Fi Fiedler album, the cover of which features the distinguished conductor sitting among all the tube hi-fi equipment of the day. Portrayals of space are also of interest and are again more camp than serious science. Exemplary of this is Les Baxter's rare Space Escapades cover, the future viewed from the past ala Lost in Space. Even autos, motorcycles, and trains comprise another niche among collectors.

While any Jazz fan would decidedly attribute the success of early Jazz correctly to the outstanding music and musicianship, the photographic covers and designs by Francis Wolf and Reid Miles among others were outstanding portrayals of the modern era's greatest musicians in an ambience that conveyed love and integrity. Blue Note, Prestige, Emarcy, and Riverside were the premier Jazz labels of the day. Their covers captured the essence of Jazz during that period and needless to say, originals are enthusiastically sought after. Having just paid mere $26 on eBay for Art Blakey's first Blue Note pressing Orgy in Rhythm I can attest to that fact!

In the rock idiom, covers of distinction abound. Perhaps the Beatles' Butcher Block cover from Yesterday and Today is your pursuit (valued up to $10K ), or the Stones' Satanic Majesties 3D Cover (stereo version please...) at $125 or so on eBay. Old Doo Wop and R&B records have a certain look, as do 60's Pop and Psychedelic LPs. Of course the Progressive bands of the 70's set their own style for perceived other worlds. All of these share common design threads and say as much about the artists as the music does. I could go on and talk about 78 labels, the extraordinary prints that adorn many classical LPs and program guides, sountracks,ethnic covers, and so much more, but I think you get the idea.

Not all cover designs were created equal and sometimes the more dated a design the better. Album frames suitable for hanging are even made to display LPs and if you were to visit my humble abode, you'd see my proudly displayed Short Stories album which Harry Chapin autographed for me when I was 13 years old (rest in peace Harry..). For some nice glimpses of collectible cover art, check out the references below. You'll soon understand the passion.

Finally, a happy goodbye to one the east coast's true gentlemen record purveyors, Jeff Gerard. This is a man of bountiful wisdom and great generosity who has encouraged me both in the pursuit of vinyl (including this column) and the larger aspects of life. He and his lovely wife Judy will be retiring to Florida this summer, but since Jeff has already spent a few grand to air condition the garage where he'll be keeping the vinyl vault, you know we'll be hunting down vinyl with the gators soon! Good Luck Jeff!

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This article © 2000 Chris Vollor
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