The last in our triptych of new releases this week (damn, I wish we could publish three of these every week!) is J. Niimi’s book about Murmur. Like Daphne and Franklin before him, J. stubbornly refused to adhere to the word limit in his contract. And I stubbornly refused to make any cuts to his manuscript. So instead, we reduced the text size a bit and managed to cram the whole thing into 160 pages. And fascinating stuff it is, too – including fresh quotes from Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, and revealing commentary on Walker Percy’s essay “Metaphor as Mistake” in relation to Michael Stipe’s lyrics.
Like the books on Grace and Armed Forces, this one should be on sale in the normal places about two weeks from now. Here’s an extract:
I don’t know if I saw the “Radio Free Europe” video on MTV first, or if I just saw the Murmur cassette sitting in the racks where I had also bought the Police’s Regatta de Blanc. In any case, it was at a shabby fluorescent-lit store with a full-sized cardboard display of the Journey scarab-UFO in the entrance and rubber bracelets and yellow plastic 45 inserts at the counter and shrink-wrapped Van Halen jerseys folded in black squares in the record bins. One wall of the store was lined top-to-bottom, front-to-back with horizontally placed cassettes, a library sideways.
The cassette was still a relatively new thing. Record companies hadn’t yet figured out how to market or package it. Its puny rectangular face was too small to reproduce LP cover art with any modicum of point-of-purchase attractiveness. The logic of retail space concerns (mall record stores in the early ’80s were basically bazaar stalls where a twelve-inch LP cover equaled a square foot of real estate) and the fragility of the plastic cases dictated that they be stacked along a wall, their sides too small to project any greater degree of content than the spine of an LP. As a tape-buying consumer, you had to know what you were looking for.
R.E.M.’s label at the time, I.R.S, was manufactured and distributed by A&M, a major label, the better to reach us suburban mall rats. The retail-visible side of the R.E.M. tape looked exactly like that of all the other A&M bands. A cassette of an album by the Police looked the same as one by R.E.M. – artist and album title in unremarkable bold white typeface against a black background. The “cover” of the cassette was a miniature of the LP art (slightly larger than the one depicted on the cover of this book) with a black space-filling void beneath it, the same info reproduced within in the same plain white lettering.
Chalk it up to the fact that cassettes were still an uneasy experiment in the industry, a presumed short-term phenomenon that record companies intended to capitalize on until the consumer tape recorder market went away (with the aid of the “Home Taping is Killing Music” campaign and its admittedly dope logo, the crossbones behind a white cassette-skull). Record companies didn’t invest too much in the cassette-as-product, because they hoped it was a short-lived fad. Commercial cassettes from this era projected an air of Okay, tape-boy, that’ll be $7.98, come again. Store-bought tapes even looked a bit like illicit product in their austerity. The tape swiveled back from its clear cradle into a small black box, a graphic abyss that seems even more mysterious now in an age when even the carriages of subway cars are conceived of as viable commercial ad surface.
This lack of cover art, of information, was part of my initial experience of Murmur and of R.E.M.