Never again will our culture know one of the signature pleasures of my childhood: perusing vinyl record racks. Certainly there’s no shortage of LPs, which have gained credibility as objects of desire among the hipster set. But I’m not talking about today’s readily available assortment of used records, overpriced reissues and expensive new releases on 180-gram platters. I’m thinking of the bygone era before the introduction of compact discs, when 8-tracks were lumbering toward extinction but the Sony Walkman had yet to spur an otherwise inexplicable popular explosion of cassette tapes. It was that period from the late Seventies into the early Eighties, a time when seemingly every retail environment had a record department in which I could easily kill any amount of time. Those years cover my maturation from about age nine to age fourteen, when I was often facing idle moments accompanying my parents at various stores. The record bins were my refuge.
I spent hours flipping through the bins, an egalitarian art gallery that thrilled me with arresting imagery and opened my eyes to a wider world. Prior to the Internet, it was the primary source of information about recording artists you admired as well as a showcase for bands of which you had never heard. Oh, you might have picked up a few tidbits in a music magazine, caught your favorite group in a rare television appearance or heard the hits on the radio. But the record racks familiarized you with discographies, song titles and the imagery those artists wanted you to see. You could look through someone’s back catalog and piece together their longevity, relative popularity and aesthetic evolution. All of this could be gleaned by handling these marvelous, shrink-wrapped, 12-inch squares of cardboard packaging, sometimes bulging with the tantalizing thickness of double or even triple gatefolds.
That shrink-wrap was a big part of the allure. Unless you came across a used copy somewhere, there was no telling what was on the inside. Was the inner sleeve a blank paper envelope, or did it feature song lyrics and production notes? A gatefold cover carried the implicit promise of something that would be revealed upon opening it. Even single albums sometimes included unadvertised inserts, from promotional fliers to posters to iron-on transfers. There were no chat rooms, fan sites or Wikipedia pages that might help you out in this regard; if you wanted to know what lurked within, you had to buy it.
I recall one album that admirably exploited this fact. In 1980, Capitol Records released Rarities, a single-LP compilation of Beatles oddities in a gatefold sleeve. The stark front cover featured a small photo of a mid-career Fab Four looking decidedly un-fab, framed with an embossed white border so that it appeared to rest atop its drab, gray background. The back cover, however, was a treasure trove of information: a roughly 1,500-word text that not only described the attributes of each track but also hyped the inner gatefold, which featured a hitherto unpublished, uncropped reproduction of the notorious “butcher photo.” As the back cover explained, this photograph showed the Beatles “dressed in bloody butcher smocks and holding chunks of bloody meat and decapitated baby dolls.” It briefly saw public exposure when it was used for an initial pressing of Capitol’s 1966 compilation, Yesterday and Today, before consumer outrage (imagine!) prompted a swift recall.
I don’t know how many times I stood in a record department in the summer of 1980 reading the back of Rarities, imagining what the richly annotated tunes sounded like and trying to reconcile the typically wholesome image of the Beatles with the lurid description of their banned album cover. This is almost unimaginable to today’s adolescents, who are savvy enough to solve these mysteries with a few swipes of the smartphone. Indeed, do a Google search for “Beatles butcher cover,” and you’ll instantly see examples of not only the infamous pic and its uncropped Rarities version but assorted alternate images from the same surreal photo shoot. Similarly, it’s not hard to hear the album’s contents. But of course, I had no access to such research tools. Naturally, I bought the album. I was intrigued by the promised photo, delighted to find dozens more images on the inner packaging, and I certainly wore down the grooves of the vinyl over the years.
Most of the time, however, I was content to enjoy whatever pleasures were visible through the sealed cellophane. Sometimes I had only the mildest interest in the artists themselves but found great satisfaction in their well-designed and innovative album covers. Every KISS cover was as absorbing as a comic book. I loved the surreal quality of the albums designed by Hipgnosis for Pink Floyd and other groups. And who wouldn’t be intrigued by the functional zipper on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers or the die-cut windows of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti?
But I spent just as much time poring over titles I already owned. Again, it was a time of limited information compared to today. Musicians tried to get the word out in advance of new releases, often by issuing a single as a promotional tool. Sometimes record stores would maintain a chalkboard of impending titles, and the various music rags included the odd release date. More often then not, though, I found out about a new album by one of my favorites simply by visiting their section of the record bins over and over again. Once a year or so, if you were lucky, you’d discover some brand-new product. In the meantime, I enjoyed noticing minor variations in familiar albums due to numerous pressings. Hey! This copy of Chicago VII is smooth, but every detail of this copy is embossed! Hey! The back of every Alice Cooper Killer album I’ve seen is tinted red, but this one is tinted green! Luckily I rarely had the means to indulge myself with multiple pressings of the same album. Because I wanted to. And I would have.
No, you can’t quite capture the thrill today, even among the thoughtfully curated record racks of Half Price Books and the occasional indie vinyl shop. Now these albums are merely interesting relics rather than intriguing mysteries. This is true even for brand-new issues of previously unreleased music, which are almost always available in various digital formats as well, with sample snippets of every song a click away (if not a YouTube post of the entire thing) and cover artwork reproduced everywhere. It’s a buffet culture today, what with Apple Music and the like, and while I will always prefer to have as much as I want of whatever I choose, there is that subtle price we pay. It will never be quite so appetizing as when the costly privilege of breaking cellophane stood between your imagination and a mystery.