Collectors deserve to get both fun and quality with new vinyl records

By Dave Thompson

There are two ways in which new vinyl can be packaged. You can go the route that NEMS took with their Black Sabbath reissues last year, and simply drop the record into a quickie re-creation of a 1980s-vintage budget-priced reissue, eliminating gatefolds, posters, lyric sheets, the whole lot .. Or you can take the approach that blessed the Robert Wyatt remasters a couple of years back, and not only throw in all the original bells and whistles, but add a digipacked CD as well, for an offering that genuinely makes the purchaser feel privileged.

You can gather discs together in a handsome box (Sundazed’s Velvets, as mentioned here recently); you can seek out rare editions and put them back on the shelves. Or you can create an altogether brand-new collector’s item. That latter pair is what we’ll be looking at this month for recent releases come along that make us glad to be record collectors. Emphasis on “record.”

Jimi Hendrix. What can there possibly be left to say, write or listen to that has not already been done a thousand times before? I don’t know. But that hasn’t stopped Experience Hendrix from finding out. Of course you are already familiar with “People, Hell and Angels,” the latest 12-track compilation of unreleased masters and outtakes garnered from what truly feels like a bottomless vault, so there’s no need here to discuss the album’s contents. But pick up the double vinyl LP version and just marvel at the packaging.

For a start, front and back photos look so much more impressive on a larger canvas, and the gatefold opens up in equally impressive style. We will refrain from jokes about a booklet that’s large enough for older fans to read without access to a radio telescope, and simply observe that opening and reading it packs a tactile wallop that is almost worth the price of admission.

I don’t know about you, but reading CD booklets has always felt like something of a duty; you want to know what you’re listening to, and this was the only way to do it. An album-sized book, on the other hand — well, it’s as much a piece of art as the jacket (or it can and should be, as this is). No flicking through and then filing this puppy away. This is an album for the coffee table. Oh, and it sounds terrific, too, so thanks to Experience Hendrix for thinking of one thing that a lot of labels still overlook— an inner bag that actually cares about the welfare of its contents. One day, all albums will be this well-loved.
“People” is not Hendrix’s sole new arrival. Mono editions of the Experience’s first two albums — “Are You Experienced” and “Axis, Bold As Love” — have also been produced, individually-numbered, limited editions that reproduce the original front and back artwork, then add an inner bag that provides liner notes and period photographs.

Unwrapping the debut LP is less of an “all-my-birthdays” experience than the “new” album is, because Reprise did not break the bank on packaging. Those of us who demand note-perfect reproductions have long since learned to be careful what we wish for. “Axis” is better, that gloriously “hey man, it’s 1967” sleeve opening up to reveal white on black lyrics and images on the gatefold. But it’s the music that really matters here .. and ah, what music it is.

I’ll admit I do not have original mono Reprise pressings. But a battered British Backtrack repressing of “Experienced,” vintage 1970, long ago acquainted me with the mono magic of that debut, and beyond a vague sense that the reissue may have had its bass boosted a little higher than it ought to be, I don’t think I’ll have any qualms filing the Backtrack back into the collection and airing the reissue instead. And “Axis.” Well, “Axis” is just one of those albums that one never tires of hearing. And if the mono mix of “Little Wing” didn’t lift the top of my head off, then, clearly, I need to find another extra-curricular use for the gatefold sleeve.

One teensy complaint, though, and this goes back to the inner sleeve I mentioned earlier. The paper bags that hold the two reissues are extraordinarily fragile — so much so that in the course of the 100-or-so mile journey these LPs took to reach me, the mere movement of both discs had begun to split the edge. A ha’pence of tar, that’s all we ask.

741157838718Also on the subject of packaging: picture discs. Back in the day, they were quite the hot item among collectors and casual purchasers alike. Early on in the format’s late ’70s/early ’80s reign, enterprising stores were decorating entire walls with new picture discs and were constantly having to replace the items, as they were selling out so fast. There’s still a lot of collector demand for certain releases, although it would be interesting to know whether anybody actually plays the things, or if they are just required to plug a gap in the collection.

Certainly, the old picture discs never sounded that good, particularly after a few plays; the gimmick — for that’s all it was, up there with strange shapes, random sizes and double grooves — was predicated on physical ownership, not aural enjoyment. And so, the picture disc faded from view.

Cleopatra is breathing new life into the picture disc fad with releases featuring MC5, The Vibrators and Iggy and The Stooges. Publicity photo.

Cleopatra is breathing new life into the picture disc fad with releases featuring MC5, The Vibrators and Iggy and The Stooges. Publicity photo.

Now they are back, courtesy of Cleopatra Records — one of the pioneers of the vinyl revival, and perpetrators, too, of some of the most thoughtful reissue campaigns of recent years (which we’ll examine in greater detail another month.) For now, three picture discs sit before me: Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” 1966-1970, both of which are compilations; and a reissue of “Pure Mania,” the debut of U.K. punk band The Vibrators, which illustrates both front and back of the original vinyl on the two sides of the disc.

A huge complaint with old-style picture discs was that the packaging was so generic. Many even abandoned track titles and info beyond whatever was pressed onto the vinyl. If you wanted to know what a song was called while it was playing, you had to spin your head at the same speed as the record to read it. Cleopatra gets around this by adding a two-sided cardboard strip to carry the basic information, and it has to be said that all three look very attractive (as, indeed, do others in the Cleopatra picture-disc series). A solitary play of each delighted; in fact, The Vibrators sounded positively vibrant.

I’m curious, though, as to what you make of picture discs — or indeed, the possibility of any other vinylized novelties that may be in the pipeline. Anyone of an age can doubtless still recall their own first exposure, way back when, to the manifold marketing devices of the age. A Monty Python album played different tracks according to where the stylus touched down. A Radio Stars 45 that was six, not seven, inches across — and was hell to play with an auto-return turntable. Don’t forget the many colored-vinyl limited editions that were, and remain, so much more common than the allegedly unlimited black vinyl pressing.

As fans and collectors, is there more that the labels could be doing to make us drool over the new release sheets? The first Record Store Day of 2013 promises us a green vinyl Velvet Underground album. The last few years have already seen the average Velvets completist spend almost as much on “new” releases as an original collection is worth; how limitless is our need to gather up everything?  Answers to the usual address, please!

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990,” 8th Edition and “Record Album Price Guide,” 7th Edition. (Krause Publications, www.krausebooks.com).

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