The Album Era: Circular Speculations on a Period Concept
Tapestry is an icon of the Album Era, that relatively brief but eventful period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s when long-playing records dominated the industry, deeply informing our relationship to popular music. Insofar as it indexes Carole King’s graduation from pop singles to rock albums, Tapestry chronicles the inception of the album as a mature work of musical art in which songs are sequenced and covers are designed to tell a story, frequently about growing up. And rock music itself grew up during this era, exhibiting a new cultural maturity and seriousness.
Over the next six days I will share some thoughts and theories I’ve been developing over the last few years about this period concept, which I believe informs everyone’s relationship to popular music, whether or not they were alive during the time to which the concept refers. – Loren Glass, author of Carole King’s Tapestry
It all spirals out from the point where the needle hits the groove, that microscopic material link across time and space that transmits the sound on the record to the ear of the listener. This link, wherein the contours of the groove re-present in the semi-permanence of plastic the otherwise ephemeral shape of the sounds we hear, embodies the analog idea. Vinyl, the synthetic plastic polymer of which records have been made since the forties, has come to determine what we mean when we distinguish analog from digital technologies of sound reproduction, and therefore how we conceptualize the historical shift from the analog to the digital age. As a storage medium, vinyl combines analog continuity with indexical contiguity, thereby creating an overdetermined material connection between past and present. In its transference of sound to signal to groove to needle to signal to sound, vinyl enables an emotionally charged and epistemologically fetishized relationship between moments of production and reception. It enables, in other words, a particularly personal relationship to a specific past, an intimate entanglement between private memory and public history.
The circuit only seems seamless. The transmission of sound to and from the groove on the disk has been interrupted by other more attenuated and editable media since the twenties, when electronic means of amplification and transduction were introduced into the process of sound recording and transmission. Then in the thirties magnetic tape revolutionized the recording process and it was only after the final product was approved that it would be pressed onto vinyl. Finally, after WWII, AM and then FM radio were crucial to disseminating and popularizing the music that listeners would purchase on records. But vinyl differs from all of these surrounding media in its material fixity and durability. Unlike magnetic tape, which can be edited, altered, and erased, vinyl is durably fixed in the form we receive it, emphatically cementing it to the time in which it was made. The most stable and permanent storage medium for recorded sound, vinyl has come to epitomize a fixed analog form in the frantically fluid media ecology of the digital era.
This analog engagement is enhanced by the uniquely multimodal nature of the long-playing album, which comes to us not just as a piece of plastic inscribed with sound but as a multimedia package designed for the sale, consumption, and storage of this sound. The album appeals to us on a variety of sensory and conceptual registers. Obviously, its aural dimensions are key, and the fantasy of indexicality enabled by the format undergirds our sense of emotional and empirical attachment to the era in which the albums were made (and to the musicians who made them); but the visual and verbal elements of the label, jacket, and sleeve are of equal importance and provide crucial complements to the listening experience, both in its immediacy and in its recollection.
Frequently the packaging design reinforces the aura of indexicality associated with vinyl, deploying photographs (often of band and family members, thereby invoking another meaning of the term “album”) and handwritten lyrics and liner notes, all linking the album tightly to the material and personal contexts of its production. The visual design of the jacket and sleeve and the verbal strategies of the liner notes frame the temporal experience of the long-playing album as well as the ways in which it gets inserted into history, both public and private.
Or instead of “frame” we might say “encircle,” since the shape of the record is frequently referenced by the packaging that contains it. Such references range across literal and metaphorical registers, enabling the shape to accrue a variety of significations. One common trope was to exploit the analogous shape and function of the camera lens and the vinyl record, both circular forms which seem to transmit empirical sense data directly to the present from a distant place and time. Daniel Kramer’s edge-softened cover photo for Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Joel Brodsky’s encircled photo of Van Morrison on the cover of Astral Weeks (1968), or the famous circular mirror in the hotel room in Milan on the cover of The Best of Leonard Cohen (1975), all overlay the shape of the camera lens that took the photo onto the round record within.
Many album covers feature headshots that metaphorically situate the contents of the album in the brain of the artist, a conceptual relationship reinforced by the indexical aura of both photo and record. Afros and Jewfros had a particular aesthetic and cultural appeal in this prominent genre of album cover, kicked off by Roland Scherman’s instantly iconic cover photo for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (1967) and then artfully recapitulated in Ira Friedlander’s cover design for Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire (1971) and Esther Anderson’s revolutionary cover photo for the 1974 reissue of Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire!
Holding these jackets in our hands as we listen, gazing at the cover art, looking at the photographs, reading the liner notes and lyrics, the meanings of what we hear are shaped by what we (frequently simultaneously) see and read. And this meaning making process itself occurs over time, indeed over lifetimes, which is to say not only that we continue to return to and revise our understanding and appreciation of the LPs that we discovered in our adolescence, but also that we hand these down to our children, so many of whom go through a “stage” of listening to our music (usually The Beatles) before moving on to their own contemporaneous tastes.
Not only do album covers emphatically and repeatedly reference and trope on the circular shape of the object within, but the object within also gradually makes its presence and persistence known by the ring wear that appears on the jacket over time. Vinyl ages, and the cracks and pops we hear on used records mark the expanding temporal gap between production and reception, which is also a period of individuation, insofar as what began as a mass-produced commodity over time becomes the uniquely auratic object that we own. The LP is multiply marked by time, registering not only the date of its issue but also the passage of time since.
Many of the label trademarks reference the circular form of the album as well, increasing its ubiquity. Indeed, the labels, both major and minor, were themselves agents in establishing the relationship between time and the record, providing multiple guarantees of and instructions for the quality and preservation of the object over time. In this capacity, the labels worked to enhance the “charismatic” nature of the album as both a scientific invention and a cultural icon. The technical instructions and assurances they provide are as significant as the liner notes and the lyrics in shaping how we listen and how we remember what we heard. As Columbia guarantees on the back cover of Highway 61 Revisited, this “high fidelity monaural recording is scientifically designed to play with the highest quality of reproduction on the phonograph of your choice, new or old…in short, you can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete in the future.” Records age, but they don’t die.