Friday, March 04, 2005

morphing formats

Since CDs became the prevalent format for albums there's been a slowly declining complaint that they don't offer the same sense of artefact as LPs.

Although it must be said Julian Cope certainly gives it a good shot. His outsize box for the 20 Mothers CD housed a gatefold sleeve in the classic double LP style, but nonetheless it was eclipsed by the album's vinyl counterpart in gatefold sleeve pressed on double purple vinyl.

His new one, Citizen Cain'd is one of those very rare CD releases that matches the glory days of the LP. Housed in a spooky slipcase featuring a solar-illuminated monolith, the Armenian font and plain black CD box is hugely striking.

The foot-wide vinyl album may have been subject to adding snaps, crackles and pops to the audio to those of us who weren't surgically careful with our records, but still, the LP made up for it in other ways, primarily in the artwork.

The hugeness of an LP sleeve wasn't just handy for skinning up on - a clear majority of second-hand vinyl copies of the White Album I've seen have tiny brown scorch marks - but it also allowed a richness of detail in the artwork. A lot is lost when you shrink certain things down to CD size.

George Underwood's intricate and exhaustingly absorbing flouncy hippy cover for Tyrannosaurus Rex's equally exhaustingly titled My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows is a case in point, as are most of the luscious enigmatic covers on 1980s releases from darkly arsty label 4AD.

Contemporary audio artist Christian Marclay - good little Guardian article on him here - has taken full advantage of the physicality of the vinyl format in an assortment of works inventively disrespecting the form and its artwork.

Footstompin' is just one of the brilliant LP cover composites from his Body Mix series of the early 1990s, showing as part of a retrospective of his work at the Barbican in London right now.

Still, the shrunken artwork and generic plasticity of appearance isn't the only problem of the CD format. A whole generation has grown up who regard the LP in the same way as us old 'uns think of 78s and wax cylinders. They don't understand the term 'you sound like a stuck record'. People are studying for their finals at university who were only just about born when Brothers In Arms was busy being the first ubiquitous album of the CD era. They have no innate understanding of the vinyl format and so loads of titles of reissued albums don't make any sense to them on CD.

The single-sidedness of CDs means that The Two Sides of Tony 'T.S.' McPhee suffers the same problem as Keith Moon's Both Sides of The Moon and Genesis' Three Sides Live.

Man's hilariously named 2oz of Plastic With A Hole In The Middle not only needs the scaling down of those 'side' album titles, but also converting to the metric system.

Island Records' 1971 sampler album El Pea needs retitling See Dee.

They must've hit these problems before though. Was that Man album's cassette version called Quarter of An Ounce of Plastic With Two Holes, Each About A Quater of The Way In From The Edge As You Hold It Landscape?

Public Image Limited got around this with their 1986 album Album, and had a cover featuring just the single word. The other formats featured the words 'casette' and 'compact disc' respectively. This was a time when, confusingly, the word 'album' was often used as a synonym for LP, and 'single' meant vinyl 7-inch.

Which led to a painfully circular argument with a member of staff upstairs at WH Smith in Southport in 1987. The Jesus and Mary Chain had released the title track of their album Darklands as a single. I wanted the CD single. 'I'd like the CD single of Darklands' She handed me the CD of the album. 'No, this is the album, I'd like the single'. 'It's not an album, it's a CD'. 'Yes, I know it's a CD, it's a CD album, ten tracks. I'd like the CD single, four tracks' 'The CD or the single?' 'It's a CD and a single'. 'Well that's the CD'. 'Yes, it's the album though'.

It does serve me right for trying to buy records at a shop more geared to selling Jackie annuals and glitter pens.

There are those who've been ahead of the game by focussing on the content rather than the physical form of the medium. The visionary David Byrne titled Talking Heads' 1978 album More Songs About Buildings And Food, and Leonard Cohen's made a lifelong habit of this, from his 1967 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen through Songs From A Room, Songs Of Love and Hate, Live Songs, and Recent Songs to the 2001 album Ten New Songs. Smart move from the Prophet of the Heart.

Dylan, ever the greater prophet, was even further ahead than Cohen and Byrne when he called his 1963 album Another Side Of Bob Dylan. It's a straightforward pun on the facet of his personality/the record, except that the record - as Tony 'T.S.' McPhee, Genesis and Keith Moon will tell you - has two sides. Dylan's title makes more sense on CD than on vinyl.

I am aware that even these musings will shortly be regarded as quaintly anachronistic. Perhaps, Men In Black style, the record industry's known this all along, that CDs were to be a short fad like MiniDiscs, DCCs, 8-track cartridges, DATs and so on, and that it was worth waiting to re-do the artwork until it can be Genesis - 17.7 Megabytes live, or the Island Records sampler Bilyuns ov Wuns and Zeer Ohs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mini discs. I just bought an original copy of a Scritti Politti album on minidisc (Anomie and Bonhomie - the best pop album of the last ten years). I only bought it as an artefact. I have the CD too. It wasn't released on vinyl. Shame.

Odd that....