Jun 082015

“Yeah, I was all over it the day it was released. It didn’t work for me on first spin. ‘Know Your Rights’ has some energy, but it quickly exhausted itself for me with over-the-top outrage. ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ had some promise until they started singing in Spanish and doing the screechy call-and-response thing. Then came all those ‘Red Army Dragnet’/’Ghetto Defendant’ turds. Terrible! I played it a few more times thinking I’d missed something, but nothing could save that album.” (For the record, then and now, I think it’s only worthwhile for “Straight to Hell,” the original edited version from the vinyl release, not any “director’s cut” version I’ve heard leak out on digital reissues.)

“Did you like Sandinista when it came out?” he followed.

“Yeah!” I said without hesitation. “What was great about that album was that, during the weird or boring parts, I could immerse myself in the poster or record sleeves that came with the record. There were cool cartoons and song lyrics and whatnot. Sometimes the lyrics were cool enough to make me tune into a song next time around.”

It’s been a while since I’ve pulled out my old vinyl copy of Sandinista, but whether it was actually the record sleeves for the 3-LP set and/or some poster that folded open, the point was, the packaging was cool. It allowed me to enter the world of The Clash at the time of their making that record. I will forever skip “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”—there are few songs on earth that send me lunging for the tone arm faster than that one—but I appreciate them trying to encourage me to like it with a humorous comic strip included in the packaging.

Combat Rock had nothing of that order to distract me or pull me into a subpar bit of songwriting. The front cover shot of the band sucked. The back cover was even worse, with some lousy font that matched the music. The inside sleeve was not enough to get my mind off the music for a couple of minutes. Gergs and I agreed that these examples were yet another reason why vinyl will forever be better than other formats for rock ‘n roll recordings.

“Another one I’ll give credit to,” EPG said, “is Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. I never got into that album the way you did—that’s the beginning of the end for me—but I could get lost in the inner sleeve. I need to pull that one out and try it again.”

Is there an album you can’t imagine appreciating as much as you do if you hadn’t had the benefit of exploring the packaging during your initial spins?


  17 Responses to “Vinyl Victory: The Benefits of Distraction”

  1. Album: Magical Mystery Tour. As a boy, the comic book inside (which I now recognize as lame and insincere) didn’t just buy me time to absorb the album — knowing that it was inside helped push me to purchase it. I had been saving up my allowance for weeks to buy an album–my first-ever LP purchase of my own. I didn’t walk into the Jamesway in Ithaca, New York, in 1969 with MMT in mind. I’m still convinced I got it because it was the album cover that most resembled candy or breakfast cereal. I didn’t really dig the album at first. It just wasn’t as grabby to me as the few Beatles’ albums that I’d already heard from my parents’ collection, especially Revolver, which I later stole from them (still have their copy, 45+ years later). But reading that dumbass MMT comic-book insert bought MMT a few more spins and eventually some of it started sticking.

  2. Oh man, that’s a TREMENDOUS example from my youth as well! I hadn’t thought of it, but the candy/breakfast cereal packaging tie-in probably drew me in as well.

  3. machinery

    More of a college age thing, but … I loved reading the stories that went along with the Resident’s Eskimo album. It kinda set you up for what was happening. Like they let you know they were hunting a seal (I think) and then you hear the thud in the music. So funny!

  4. tonyola

    Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick is my example – I first listened to it while perusing the large fold-out newspaper-style cover which not only had the lyrics but also various amusing stories. I was just beginning to get into prog at the time, and having something to read while the record was playing certainly helped my acceptance of the admittedly long-winded music.

  5. Yes, their covers were great gateways to their ridiculous recordings. You don’t get that from listening to the Residents on Spotify, do you?

  6. The newspaper-style packaging seems to have legs. You’ve reminded me of the (unintentionally) funny Four Seasons’ psychedelic album that I love, with some long-winded album title that is currently escaping my mind.

  7. tonyola

    You’re thinking of The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. I’ve got that in digitized form. You’re right about it being unintentionally funny – the Four Seasons were trying to be hip and with it by this point.

  8. ladymisskirroyale

    I loved the 3-fold “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Even when I didn’t get the lyrics (hello, “All the Girls Love Alice,” “Social disease”) I still liked looking at that artwork.

    Fast forward a decade, and the sleeve art on Love and Rocket’s “Express” or the lyrics sheet on “Earth, Sun, Moon” kept me pretty busy. I still really enjoy a handwritten lyrics sheet.

  9. 2000 Man

    I can think of a lot of them. One of the things about vinyl is you don’t have a remote to make it skip tracks. The album art becomes a wonderful diversion while you’re trying to figure out if you like an album. I never even cared if there wasn’t much to look at or if I’d pretty much read it all in five minutes, but that’s when you start to appreciate a cool black and white photo, or a funny quote.

    I think maybe it’s easy enough to skip songs and play songs over on a record, but it involves getting up to do it. So usually we just let it play, and that’s when people find out the difference between a good album and a great one. I mean, even old Creem magazines would do when the album art was skimpy and came with the same advertisement inner sleeve for Schlagers! or what seemed like 20 different Ben E. King albums.

  10. misterioso

    Am I the only Clash fan who basically likes Combat Rock?

  11. I think it’s decent.

  12. hrrundivbakshi

    I like it, too. It’s wayward and dreamy/nightmarish, and that’s a good thing. The hit singles are sharp, too. I mean, it’s not Great by any means, but to my way of thinking, it is “good.” God forbid a rock/punk band should take stylistic risks when their core groove is getting old and stale.

  13. What stylistic risks did they take that they didn’t cover a year or two earlier on the 3-lp Sandinista? I’m not saying you shouldn’t like Combat Rock, but don’t make it seem like anyone who doesn’t like it wasn’t able to keep up with the changing times.

  14. hrrundivbakshi

    No, sorry, you don’t get to hide behind your love of Sandinista — the putative “equal” to Combat Rock in terms of innovation and risk-taking. If you think that’s true, and the only thing that makes Sandinista bearable are the paper products that accompanied it, then what exactly are you saying? That you prefer the paper products of one over the other? To my mind, the two albums are equal in musical quality, but Combat Rock wins out for not requiring me to shuffle over to the turntable to lift the needle every other song or two.

  15. In a sense, YES, I’m saying that Sandinista is better thanks to a triumph of packaging. I also think it has more songs with cool, relaxed grooves, even if you cut the total by two thirds, to account for an imbalance of release lengths. However, I’m definitely saying that Sandinista’s packaging alone makes it a much better album than Combat Rock. I can’t believe you’re able to simply listen to that album and not be put off by the album cover art! (And believe me, although I’m mostly serious, I’m aware the joke is, in large part, on me.)

  16. Defending the extremely bloated Sandinista while claiming that Exile on Main Street would be better served as an ep is some pretty impressive logical gymnastics.

    I like some stuff on both albums but I don’t think they have much in common at all. One is the product of smoking an immense amount of weed and a desire to experiment with dub and other niche musical genres. The other seems to be an attempt to have a more polished, almost pop album. For as overplayed as it is, Rock the Casbah is a great single.

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