Weird At My School: Record Geek Porn

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First of all, a disclaimer: Even though the word “porn” appears in the subject of this post, it is totally Safe for Work. Or not NSFW. However you say it. There might be a brief reference to male nudity, but these days, Christopher Meloni shows more flesh on a good episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” than you’ll see on the Smiths “Hand In Glove” 45 sleeve, so it seems harmless.

There are many types of books about music. There are biographies and autobiographies, full of salacious anecdotes and, in the case of the latter, large gaps in the narrative; Peggy Lee skips whole decades in hers. There are comprehensive histories, like Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians by Peter Guralnick, or Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978 - 1984, that send you down the bottomless rabbit hole of exploring a specific genre. And there are fat tomes of collected lyrics, which are a terrible waste of money*, since you either already know all the words to that song (because they were printed on the inner sleeve of the album), or at least think you do (because they weren’t, or you bought a Japanese import), or you can find them on the Internet for a lot less than it costs to buy a hardcover book with fifteen lines of text per page and half a dozen crappy line drawings.

And then there is Record Geek Porn.

Of course, I didn’t know that’s what it was when I developed my taste for it. Back in the 1980s, if you lived in a small town and had any interest in owning the esoteric records you read about in Trouser Press, your best bet was to sign up for various mail order catalogs. These cheap circulars rarely had more than a couple grainy black and white Xeroxed photos to illustrate the wares available, but they compensated with copious information: Track listings, b-sides, country of origin, picture sleeve details, etc. For a kid who lived an hour or more away from a good record store, they were like oxygen. You might not be able to afford the merchandise, but you knew the music was out there... waiting.

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As I grew older, and gaps in my record collection became tougher to fill, I found myself purchasing more and more Record Geek Porn. Glossy books with lots of faithful reproductions of record sleeves, and minimal text. Titles like Vinyl Hayride: Country Music Album Covers 1947 - 1989 and Punk on 45: Revolutions on Vinyl 1976 - 1979. They are usually ridiculously expensive, so now I try and wait until they wind up on a remainder table. But sometimes I don’t. When you are stuck in Mason City, Iowa, for a week with little to do, ogling the pages of Horrifically Bad Album Covers will sustain you until you find a town with better crate digging opportunities. That’s money well spent.

This weekend, I went to Sonic Boom to purchase a single CD. But instead, like Jack returning home with the proverbial magic beans and no cow, I came back with a copy of Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited by Rob Young. Almost 200 pages detailing the history of the best UK independent record label, ever, from its first single release (“Paris Maquis” by French punks Metal Urbain in 1978) and its golden age shilling acts like Scritti Politti, the Raincoats, Robert Wyatt, and Galaxie 500, through the awkward middle years, and subsequent return to form with Belle & Sebastian, the Strokes, et al.

Rough Trade features a thorough A-Z of artists on the label, a complete discography, and an extensive interview with label founder Geoff Travis. And, naturally, so many photos of rare and out-of-print records -- including a two-page spread detailing all the Smiths’ 7-inch singles, so now you know who the naked dude on the “Hand in Glove” sleeve is -- that I thought about tying a bib around my neck to catch the drool. It’s that sort of book. You want to devour it in one sitting, but keep putting it aside so you can savor what you just enjoyed. You read about the making of a record, then go over to the library and pull out your copy, and gaze lovingly at the jacket, and feel this weird sense of... validation. Geek.

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And when I was all done? I went online, and ordered a record I had never heard of -- let alone heard -- before purchasing this volume: David Gamson’s 1982 cover of the Archies’ hit “Sugar Sugar.” RT(T)088, to you catalog buffs. I won’t disclose what I shelled out for it, but the damn thing is coming from Germany, so you know the shipping was dear. My only regret is that, if I’d paid closer attention, I probably could have ordered it for $2.99 + S/H from one of those mail order catalogs back in high school.

* Patti Smith excepted. But she’s a real poet.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 10, 2007 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    I often wonder if today’s youth will relate to the concept that static visuals used to accompany a musical product...if they get their mp3s legally I suppose there’s a single .jpg file of “cover art” that might come with the package, but the whole genre of visual art meant to package and accompany a musical product seems to have been largely replaced by videos, and these days videos aren’t as certain to be “what the artist’s label chose to go with the music” so much as “what someone uploaded to YouTube,” for better or for worse.

    The idea of new and future generations of musiclovers encountering the music of the Smiths, Joy Division and the Pixies without the accompanying art is kinda eerie to me; those artists put a lot of thought and branding into their graphic design choices and their visual flavor is hard now to separate from their musical products, just as for many people Daft Punk’s videos are integral to their music. But I suppose the synaesthesia of ear and eye, like everything else, is a-changing, and, having first tragically shrunk from twelve inches to five for cds, and from five to the puny size of your ipod’s display, the “record cover” will soon be as quaint an antique as bubblegum cards and Burma Shave signs.

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