Book Review: Put The Needle On The Record

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but with record jackets, that’s the whole point. Many albums are well-remembered for their covers and some are even preserved for posterity in the countless album cover compilation books out there, but the poor 45 has traditionally fallen through the cracks, even when sometimes sporting better artwork than its parent LP. In Put The Needle On The Record: The 1980s at 45 Revolutions Per Minute, author Matthew Chojnacki rescues more than 250 sleeves from obscurity, presenting them with eye-popping detail and intriguing insights on each page.
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Interject the words “pop music” and “image” into a conversation and odds are that within seconds, you’ll wind up talking about the 1980s, and probably about the era’s music videos. MTV wasn't the only place with innovative music visuals, however; some of the most striking images of the time could be found on the sleeves of 7” singles, as amply documented in Put The Needle On The Record: The 1980s at 45 Revolutions Per Minute [Schiffer Publishing].

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Many albums are well-remembered for their covers and some are even preserved for posterity in the countless album cover compilation books out there, but the poor 45 has traditionally fallen through the cracks, even when sometimes sporting better artwork than its parent LP. In this sleek hardcover, which takes its title from the classic M.A.R.R.S. single, "Pump Up The Volume," author Matthew Chojnacki rescues more than 250 sleeves from obscurity, presenting them in eye-popping color on each page.

While the book is mainly a visual primer, Chojnacki peppers the pages with short anecdotes and insights, gleaned from the cover artists, art directors and musicians involved. Often revealing, the stories range all over the place: Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats recounts wooing hot-rod legend Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to create artwork for their “Sexy & 17” single. Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon admits trying to find a girlfriend who looked like the famed Patrick Nagel image that graced the cover of Rio. And there’s even a bemusing look at both covers for The Smiths’ “What Difference Does It Make?” UK 7”—the original cover was a movie still of Terence Stamp, who objected to its use, prompting singer Morrissey to pose in a parody of the actor for the second cover.

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They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but with record jackets, that’s the whole point. Accordingly, the collection often slyly underlines how certain genres were sold based on the iconography of their covers. As the text makes clear, however, not all musicians were (or are) comfortable with their art being represented by the artwork of someone else. Today a pioneer in the field of sonic branding for advertising, Martyn Ware recounts how his first band, Human League, had a clause in its record contract giving the act complete control of its music and covers.

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As might be expected, some of the visuals were created while the music was likewise being created in the studio, as former NYC cabbie James Rizzi recounts about drawing the cover to Talking Heads spin-off Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” sleeve, noting, “Chris and Tina had taken me to the Bahamas for the recording of the single. So, the cover art, which was not based on an existing piece, was very much influenced by their music and the beautiful setting of the Bahamas.”

One catty pairing of 45 covers—Stevie Nicks and Chewbacca, for, respectively, “Rooms on Fire” and Meco’s “What Can You Get A Wookie For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb?)”—brings to light another forgotten moment of recording history. Meco recounts,

“In the summer of ’80, I had the idea for a Star Wars children’s Christmas record [including the ‘Chewbacca’ single] and wrote a long letter to George Lucas. Much to my great surprise, he called me and we spoke for over an hour. RSO Records quickly agreed to the deal and I gathered my team for the LP, Christmas In The Stars…. I was unhappy with the singers who attempted ‘R2D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas.’ Then my co-producer, Tony Bongiovi, suggested we try his young cousin. And the rest, as they say, is history, as his rendering of that song became Jon Bongiovi’s first recording. From that inauspicious start, and with a slight name change, he went on to tremendous success with Bon Jovi.”

Anyone with an appreciation for art—or for the artists whose work was sold inside these sleeves—will get a kick out of Put The Needle On The Record. It could use some more text—some of the entries are frustratingly oblique and short, and extended interviews the art directors on hand would be most welcome—but the main point of the book is to provide lots of visual stimulation and a touch of nostalgia, and in that regard, Needle will get under your skin.

Put The Needle On The Record on Amazon

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