By Mark Hughes
The few exciting “artworks” I saw as a child were the covers for records (also fondly known as albums or LPs) that I owned in the ’70s. Growing up in the Australian outback with no local museum or gallery, album covers were a visual connection to a different, exciting, impossible life. Music from a record took me to the outside world in a way our old wireless radio couldn’t.
The earliest present I remember (possibly for my 4th birthday from my parents) was a Sesame Street album, with Rubber Duckie gracing the cover. I don’t remember the colors of the cover when I unwrapped it, but I soon took to it with my texta pens and it turned into an abstract colorful mess. I was mesmerized by the cover and its enclosed piece of vinyl—round, shiny and fragile—that when taken by my parents to play on our record player took me straight to Sesame Street.
It wasn’t that I had no experience with music on the farm. My father, a man born in 1926, had a large collection of old 78rpm records. The collection is still intact and probably also represents other worlds he could only hear and dream about: the old worlds of Hollywood, big jazz bands, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Temple. At least on two occasions, my parents gave my brother, sister and me for Christmas an old wind-up gramophone player. We would raid Dad’s old records and if my recollection is correct, too many were scratched or shattered in fights, so we were delegated particular records which were to be used exclusively on the gramophone player. We must have played these old records many times—I can still hear the melody and words of “Goodnight Irene” (1932) and “Pick Up After You” coming out of this box, sounds that could be slowed down or speeded up depending on how quickly we wound up the player. I was fascinated by the needles that needed to be changed and the fact that music could come from a black heavy piece of shellac, a wind-up box and a small needle. It was technology like no other.
As we grew out of the gramophone players (or more likely broke them and too many of Dad’s records) and as I grew older I would relish going into the nearest town to buy an LP. Not having much money, I had very few, but the albums represented the times like nothing else in my possession. They were generally “top 40” compilation “33-1/3” albums with such names as TEASER, RAGER and SCREAMER. Nearly all of these had images of women or women’s body parts on the cover. Too young to understand the real implications of packaged sex, I was nonetheless excited by the cover with the screaming girls, or the one of the huge open woman’s mouth (the grooves of the lips embossed into the cardboard) and perhaps the sexiest—the woman whose cut-off denim jean shorts revealed the names of the songs written in marker on one of her butt cheeks. These covers, and the music they played (Air Supply, John Paul Young, Abba) provided an exit to other worlds only matched by television. It was almost the only traveling I ever did.
The albums owned by my older brother and older sister made clear the differences in our ages. My brother’s Police album seemed too old and sophisticated for me, and my sister’s taste in country music could not have been more different from mine. I would look at their album covers like looking at school books they would read, with little interest or understanding.
A source of frustration were the smaller 45rpm single records which provided instant gratification upon purchase, but their lack of a “true” cover, and the limited choice of songs (the “good one” on the front and the far inferior song one never listened to on the back) made them feel like a waste of precious pocket money.
The care of an LP was something we learned the hard way. The scratches on the vinyl from the needle, the chips and breakages from dropping and the warping from leaving the album on the dashboard of the car in the sun (in one instance right after being purchased) brought tears and anguish. I am certain if I was to play those albums now, the scratches and general lack of care and my own immaturity would also reveal itself in the music. The whole package of my childhood and the times, record and its cover, merge together.