by Art Chantry (firstname.lastname@example.org)
a long while back i mentioned my obsession with old 45 rpm records. more audio has been released on more 45rpm 7″ records that any other format. it’s an endless motherload of music and information and nooks and crannies. it never gets dull. every time i go looking at a thrift store or a goodwill or a garage sale or flea market, i find another universe perviously unknown to me. i always find at least one recording that is so completely unknown to modern science that i may actually have the only known copy of somebody’s one claim to immortality.
Most 45′s are released on the big labels (a few majors release the bulk.) try to imagine the millions of copies of “beat it” by michael jackson. imagine them all stacked up in one spot. now imagine them spread all over the world and all of a sudden, you start to see what i mean. there are millions and million and billions of beatles records out there. except a very few select releases (that are relatively scarce) they are so common that they have no intrinsic value (except to nostalgia seekers. they will buy anything. period.)
the items that fascinate me are the things that nobody wants. total losers that were maybe self-released by the artist( relatively cheap to produce in small quantities) and then sold off the stage or out of the trunk of a car after a show. imagine if you take all of these little tiny limited releases (some of them in total release runs of 50 or less) and stack them all together in one spot, it might be as big a stack as micheal jackson’s ‘beat it’. then spread all of these millions of individual small releases all over the planet, then you start to understand why i get so excited when i find a peculiar 45. it’s almost the very definition of “obscure”. you may have the only copy that wasn’t sent to a landfill.
now, that isn’t to say that any of these small releases are worthy of salvation. most of them are lost for a good reason. but, that isn’t to say they don’t have appeal. there really is something about the genuine creative sincerity that really gets to you. listening to some no-talent really give it his/her all, put their entire body and soul into the one record they will ever record, there is something about that that really connects to your humanity. incompetence is no longer an issue. emotional appeal is.
but, then there are records (more than you’d ever imagine) that really are truly great. they simply fell between the cracks for any of a number of reasons – distribution, dishonesty, bad timing, bad financing, all sorts of things. finding that sort of 45 is fairly easy and is the fuel that keeps you looking for more.
one of the ways i spot something odd or obscure is to read the label. they are full of information, but, often, you have to read between the lines. for instance, if you pick up a record by “bob miller and the millerbugs” on the miller label (obviously a band recording their own record on their own label) it could be a fake beatles-style band (with a name like that, it may be one of many bands released records in a fake beatles-style to cash in on the beatlemania craze). or it could be a really stupid but cool garage rock band from the mid sixties (cool but unimaginative names for bands abounded during the period.) it could be a lounge band selling the thing off the stage ( sometimes recorded in such a drunken stupor that it can be a laff riot.) it could be anything.
however, let’s say further inspection reveals a fine print address for the record company. it’s in nashville. so, it’s country western – 99% guaranteed. then you have to start to figure out what sort of country western it could be (another endless piece of detective work.) you buy it, take it home, play it and all is (sometimes) revealed. but, actually listening to it can open up many more cans of worms and the detective process just goes on. it a great hobby.
as you sort through the bazillions of scratched beat up dirty 45′d out there, you have to learn to do a quick-sort process. you instinctively begin to recognize labels as being “good ones” or “bad ones” (depending on what you like to listen to.) for instance, decca has a terrific early country western catalog. they released enormous numbers of really extraordinary early country artists. so, if you love that stuff, you grab all the decca labels immediately. however, decca also released early rockabilly as well. they had signed bill haley & his comets when he was still a country swing band. when he morphed into rockabilliy, he stayed on the label. then the label signed a few others to try to find replicate the sales success. so, if you have to collect rockabilly on decca, you have to get to know the
ferent performers and what they sounded like at which point in their careers to find the record you want. simple, right? it’s the tip of an iceburg.
so, after a while you start to eyeball scan the 45′s, label after label and make a quick cut based on what you can gleam at a glance. mercury? pass. delp-phi? ok, keeper (i’ll listen to it). mexican label? look closer…. and so on.
after a while you begin to appreciate the brilliant design solutions you see on these labels. there are so many record labels that have come and gone over the years that no one has ever managed to compile an accurate list of them. believe me, it’s been tried again an again. there’s just too many. in addition, the bigger companies would change the designs of their labels periodically. also, they would create ‘subsidiary’ labels to release other genres (or whatever.) as a result, there are many individual DESIGNS for labels, even within one single company.
predictably, i’ve actually begun saving the coolest designs and scanning the disks. i had plans on doing a book someday of just cool obscure 45 record label designs (again, with the hole drilled though the entire book, right through the cover. it was going to accompany the ‘generic’ 45 dust jacket’ book. of course, nobody was interested in the idea.) i scanned hundreds of these things and have a few boxes sitting around of hundreds of more disks to scan. it’s a big file, i’ll tell you.
these things are just so darn cool. think about it. what would YOU do if you had to design a memorable, eye-catching and practical presentation on a 3 1/4″ disk of paper with a 1 1/8″ hole in the center? what would you do? i’ve had to do it hundreds of times, myself (in my record design work) and it’s TOUGH! to make it look GOOD is almost impossible. you have to develop an eye and a sense of humor. otherwise, you just go for typing in the info on a generic non-design. those are pretty much your two options.
these little 45 labels are probably the single toughest and most demanding design gig you can do (outside of an actual logo – sometimes, labels combine the two. the label ‘becomes’ the logo). the endless number of very clever, even brilliant solutions these anonymous little american hack designers and commercial artists create is an enduring testament to american graphic design perseverance and ingenuity. i love this stuff.
i’m going to post a random sampling of several of these labels i’ve scanned….