It seems in recent years that there has been as much ink spilled lamenting the death of vinyl and its accompanying artwork at the hands of the tiny machines we all use to listen to music as there has been about the rise in album sales while CDs continue to decline into obsolescence. So it’s kind of a moot point to talk about one format versus the other and what it means in a greater social context (though I’m still all for having such discussions). But while it’s probably not necessary for there to be yet another book celebrating record sleeve artwork—especially when Roger Dean did such a superb job back when the only alternative to vinyl was 8-tracks—I’m still endlessly fascinated by such volumes.
Matthew Chojnacki’s Put the Needle on the Record: The 1980s at 45 Revolutions Per Minute, focuses, as its title indicates, on the ’80s, and more specifically, singles from the decade. As he explains in the book’s introduction, it was in the ’80s that what we saw became almost important as what we heard (and sometimes more so). The advent of MTV ushered in the video as both a new art form and marketing medium, subsequently lending greater importance to visual presentation on all fronts. Plain paper sleeves were no longer going to cut it and even the seemingly disposable single needed to be wrapped in something shiny and eye-catching.
Of course, the ’80s had its own set of graphic trends, ranging from art deco revivalism to street art and collage, while the work of pop artists like Keith Harring and Kenny Scharf also emerged into the collective stream. Add in the fashions of the time—the leather and spandex of the hair metal bands, the asymetrical haircuts of the new wave types, and the bangles, leggings and sweaters of the pop groups—and it’s an era rich in contextural eye-candy.
Unfortunately, Chojnacki never really capitalizes on the material at hand. Put the Needle seems thrown together haphazardly. The format is two sleeves paired on facing pages, and often the thread tying his choices together seems trivial or even non-existent. What do the sleeves for Ratt’s self-titled EP and Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” single have in common? They both feature legs. Or Berlin’s “The Metro” and the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone?” People looking through the windows of old buildings. Sometimes the connections made aren’t even about the art work, but the songs themselves or the artists. Limahl (the former Kajagoogoo frontman) and Rob Stewart? The both have similarly frosted spiky hair.
Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that the author made the attempt to credit the designers and photographers who worked on the sleeves, and in many cases, actually interviewed them. Chojnacki does make some substantive comparisons that reveal trends of the time and show that he is not without insight. However, the lack of consistency (not even every sleeve is commented on) is glaring. Additionally, if greater thought was given to the book’s progression and its content as a whole, this collection might have more greatly represented the ’80s. As it is, the book neither defines the decade visually nor offers a cohesive assessment of what unites the 200-some covers contained within. Instead, Put the Needle feels random, like the parade of images one might see searching through the dollar bin. Sadly, such cratedigging is usually more rewarding.