Can you name the current top three singles in the charts? Probably not, unless you’re under 16 and addicted to gladiatorial TV pop shows. And how many Design Week readers fit that category?
There was a time when knowing, even owning, the current hit singles was a matter of importance: one of the ways you showed your pop-culture alertness. But not any more. Today, no one much cares about the singles charts. Hit singles sell fewer copies than they used to. Songs arrive in the charts and then vanish as fast as they arrived. Record companies discount singles to the point where they are barely economically viable.
And compared to the dear old seven-inch vinyl single, CD singles just look cheap and disposable.
The vinyl single has, since the 1950s, occupied a unique place in the hearts and minds of music fans. The brilliant critic and writer Greil Marcus called them ‘three-minute utopias’, and you know exactly what he means. Most of us remember the first single we bought: it’s up there with the first snog, a major emotional landmark.
There are a dozen books on classic or contemporary album cover design, but until now there’s been nothing on the packaging of the humble single. A new book attempts to rectify this omission. Titled 45 RPM, it is billed as a ‘visual history of the seven-inch record’.
It’s an unpretentious and seemingly random selection, exuding, for the most part, a goofy nostalgia. You browse through it as if flipping through the record racks in a good charity shop (one that the do-it-for-a-living record collectors haven’t yet found). The first thing you notice is the omissions: only one reggae sleeve; no hip-hop; no dance music. And probably far too many examples of the 1990s amphetamine-fuelled, slacker-generation artwork of Art Cantry and Frank Kozik. (If you don’t recognise these two names, then you probably don’t have records by Electric Frankenstein or 7 Year Bitch in your collection.)
This is not a book for designer aesthetes. Most of the work on display is schlock (nothing wrong with that, of course; since when was pop about good taste?). But among the 200 or so covers featured here, only a small percentage can be said to have genuine visual merit. The only outstanding sleeves on view here are a selection of Punk sleeves (Buzzcocks, The Adverts and the Sex Pistols), some goodies from the 1980s (David Bowie, Talking Heads and Depeche Mode), and perhaps most unexpectedly, the covers of ten Rolling Stones’ singles. Spread over four decades, the Stones emerge as the undisputed kings of 45 packaging.
This is no surprise; Jagger has always been an astute commissioner of graphic design, photography and art direction. Stones sleeves (both albums and singles) have always made use of the hottest talent of the hour: David Bailey in the 1960s; Robert Frank and Andy Warhol in the 1970s; John Warwicker and Paula Scher in the 1980s; Stefan Sagmeister in the 1990s – and that’s without mentioning a dozen other brilliant photographers, designers and art directors.
Oh, and by the way, 45 RPM contains an essay by Roger Dean. Now, how many designers (of a certain age) started on the road to professional life after sticking one of the great man’s posters on their bedroom wall? Budgie? Yes? Uriah Heap? Go on, admit it.
45 RPM, A Visual History of the Seven-inch Record is edited by Spencer Drate and published next month by Princeton Architectural Press, priced £13.95.
New York-based Drate is a designer whose clients have included John Lennon, Bob Marley, The Beach Boys and U2.