I have mixed feelings. As I sit here listening to old Yes music, I long for the days of album art, yet wish that we had today’s digital technology in the 1970s. I want my cake, and eat it, too. If you're under the age of 40, you may not know what I mean when I say "album art", but it was a beautiful thing that peaked in the 1970s and died with the Compact Disc.
Some of you may be too young to relate to my issue, so let me take you back to the days of vinyl, and some vivid memories that make me pine for the old days.
It’s the summer of 1972, I was 15 years old, and I’m in the garage of my cousin, who had a fancy stereo set up out there. Among his collection of LPs was
My words but a whisper - your deafness a shout.
I may make you feel, but I can't make you think.
Your sperm's in the gutter - your love's in the sink.
I was tuned in pretty well in those days, and I remember going to
Alice Cooper's 1972 classic "School's Out" album was wrapped in a pair of panties. That's right. The album cover was modeled after an old-time wooden school desk, and when you opened it, the tri-corner panties greeted you wrapped in plastic around the record.
Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti" played games with the sleeve. When you pulled it out, different images appeared in the windows. The Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers" LP had a zipper on the front. Grand Funk Railroad released "E Pluribus Funk" in 1971 in the shape and color of a huge coin. Stickers were attached that warned us to be careful opening the album, lest we cut the record. The stickers on CDs prevent you from opening it. That's progress. I could go on, but you get the picture - I hope. Suffice it to say that albums used to be artistic statements. Now, they are sometimes nothing more than a digital download that gets dumped on an mp3 player. Impersonal, I say.
OK, so I'm an old man living in the past (another Tull reference), but if you were around in those days, and remember breaking open the cellophane packaging, you'll know what I'm talking about. There were moments of great glee when we would realize that our next album purchase was a "double album" or contained a poster, lyric sheet or big photos of the band. Likewise, disappointment would follow when there was nothing but a white record sleeve and cardboard cover. A little artwork went a long way toward making that $5 purchase bring a huge return.
The downside to the old vinyl records was the apprehension that would follow breaking open the cellophane. Would it skip? Would the record be scratched? We had to handle them like Superman handles Kryptonite. Dust and dirt were the enemy, and imperfections would ruin the subtle nuances of King Crimson's "Lark's Tongues in Aspic".
The CD is so durable that you can leave them in your car in Phoenix in July, store them in plastic sleeves and generally abuse them and they still sound the same as they did when you brought them home. If my old Gentle Giant albums sounded that good in 1973, I probably would have avoided a childhood dust and dirt trauma that took years to recover from. How odd that the music of the day was so intricate as to lend itself to the digital technology that would not exist for another 15 years. The music industry made a fortune off of people like me who rushed out to replace our old Renaissance and Nektar albums on Compact Disc, so that we could re-live the joyous music of our youth without the fear of dust and grime.
But what is missing today is the great album art of the old days. Artists like Roger Dean, whose work adorned the LPs of Yes, Uriah Heep and others is lost in the 5" x 5" format of the Compact Disc. Albums, you see, were a foot square, and when they were folded out, they presented a wide-screen viewpoint of a concept that the artist and band had worked together to present to their audience. It was a symbiotic relationship that ceased to exist when music went digital.
The disappointment came when we replaced those old records, and the album art was reduced to the comparative postage stamp. The music sounded better, but the look was lost. If it were up to me, CDs would have been packaged in 12" x 12" sleeves with the artwork intact, leaving the disc as the only thing "compact".
Then, old folks like me could re-live the wonderment of seeing Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream and Other Delights" as we did in 1965, when semi-naked women on album covers were an oddity, and even if we didn't like the music, we bought the album because we wanted to stare at it for a while.