Duck Duck Book

62 – 45 rpm
07.12.2009, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

45 RPM : a visual history of the seven-inch record / edited by Spencer Drate.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 741.66 F745 2002; one copy, no holds]

The 45 was once the very height of pop music cool.  Singles were cheap, easy to carry around, and provided a quick musical fix without the commitment of an LP.  If you wanted a hit, it came on a 45, adulterated only by a (usually) forgettable song on the B-side; whereas LPs were full of all kinds of non-hit nonsense you’d never hear on the radio.

But in addition to filling a particular musical niche, 45s were physical objects as well.  Albums have album covers, where great strides in graphic design can be made.  Or sometimes, not made.  45 RPM chronicles the evolution of singles’ cover art, from the 1950s when classical, jazz, dance music, and pop were all put out on seven-inch records; through the 60s, 70s, and 80s when Top 40 hits were all available as singles; and finally to the 1990s, when 45s were an important medium of the alternative music scene.

The images in 45 RPM are widely varied.  Two Frank Sinatra records (on facing pages) feature lovely painted covers that look like nothing so much as hard-boiled pulp novels.  Duke Ellington is caught in a terribly modern candid photograph, hatted, smoking while sitting at his piano and not looking at the camera at all. Fabian, Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, Paul Anka, and Roy Orbison gaze directly at us, gorgeous and wholesome but maybe a little dangerous with their hair pomaded and sweet smiles on their faces.  The Rolling Stones and Sam the Sham and the Pharos are all dressed up in costume.  The Foundations, The Yard Birds, The Impressions, and America are just standing around in very stylish looking groups, as if their carefully arranged portraits were wholly candid.  Al Green is relaxing in a white chair in a white room wearing a white suit and white shoes, radiating calm and cool.  The B-52s are half cartoons. The Clash have assumed the position, hands up against the wall and facing away from the camera. In the selection of covers from the 90s, artists don’t appear at all — Instead there are cartoons, mock newspaper advertisements, photo montages, and a little more artsy irony than is perhaps truly necessary.

The record cover images are arranged in groups, by decade.  Within each section, however, there is no firm logic apparent in the arrangement — if there are several records from a particular artist or group within a decade, they’re usually shown one after another, but that seems to be it.  This is unfortunate, especially in the first decade during which the range of genres is broad.  Also, each 45 cover is shown solo, with no caption or explanation accompanying it.  This successfully highlights the visual aspect of the covers, but since some of them are completely wordless, it’s a little frustrating if you don’t recognize the band or the record.  There is a discography in the back of the book readers can use to track down which record is what, but it doesn’t list page numbers or other clear identifying data, and flipping back and forth is inconvenient.

On the other hand, I will say that after looking through the book, I had a whole afternoon’s worth of songs playing in my head.  Maybe visual stimulation is a really good way to get my brain to start replaying what it knows?  I can’t say, but I will tell you that I as I type I’ve got Ella Fitzgerald doing “Cheek to Cheek,” Talking Heads with “Take Me to the River,” Tom Jones’s “She’s a Lady,” Aretha Franklin doing “Freeway of Love,” Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” and Elvis Presley’s “Are you Lonesome Tonight,” all playing in the jukebox of my mind.  Catchy.


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