Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction: Low-Hanging Fruit Pt. 4 - Gatefolds

If you really want to get into the spirit of Record Store Day, squeeze through the used aisles and pick up a few gatefolds. These oversized works of mass-produced art are the quintessential vinyl experience. They say you can’t roll a joint on a digital download. But you can eat an entire midnight munchies meal off of an open gatefold. And many of them are cheap cheap cheap. Some of my favorites were a mere $2.99. Like the three Carole King albums I own, Tapestry, Music, and Rhymes & Reasons. All together they cost me less than the price of a good sandwich, and they’re classic specimens, especially the latter two: great big pictures of Carole at a grand piano with her husky at her side and sunlight warming through the window; soft close-ups of her smiling and lost in thought. They’ve got a matte finish with a linen texture that feels nice on your fingers. It’s intimate, like you’re in Carole’s house and sipping tea as she sings to you. And I’m not ashamed to say I love Carole King, gatefold or no. I was a little kid when her music was everywhere and it couldn’t help but shape my mind and soul. “So Far Away” gets me every time, even when Johnny Rivers sings it, which he does quite well on Home Grown, his best, in my opinion. Here the guy who sang “Secret Agent Man” goes on a jag through sunny early 70s commune-esque spirituality. This record also comes in a gatefold. Another matte finish, faux linen, but with lots of pictures of Johnny with a bushy beard, smiling, in meadows full of tall grass and flowers. He sings the hell out of some of the best songs of that era – “Our Lady of the Well,” “Rock Me On the Water,” “Fire and Rain.” Just a gorgeous record.
            Some classic gatefolds don’t qualify as low-hanging fruit because they’re expensive, such as the Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request, arguably the greatest album cover of all time, at least for people who have taken a lot of acid. A 3D photo of the band in wizard costumes is not easily topped. Inside is a maze and a crazy collage. I got my copy for 70 bucks in Atlanta – the exact same pressing of the one I got for Christmas my junior year in high school, brand new in the shrink-wrap. Probably cost $10 back then. No, what we’re interested in here is art for the poor man: Santana’s Caravanserai – big orange sun over a dark blue sky and desert and camels, inside a gloriously blurry sunset over the ocean; Allman Brothers Eat A Peach – peaches and melons the size of truck beds on the front and back, opens to a vast panorama of Magic Mushroom Land; Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond – mirrored pyramids that rise lengthwise, up and down, one to sunrise, the other to night; Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste looks like a tongue licking an ass until you open and see it’s just a delicious peach; and all those Yes covers by Roger Dean, especially Close To the Edge, which is their best musically, too (even if you hate Yes you should own a Yes/Roger Dean gatefold, it’s an obligation of the hobby). There are so many.

            And if a gatefold isn’t enough, there are double gatefolds, too, and gatefolds with inserts, booklets, and records that aren’t even gatefolds, they just have odd shapes, like The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory by Traffic, which have two corners cut out and the art is an optical illusion of a 3D box that looks very real if you stare at it long enough. This kind of super packaging is generally the domain of superstars like Elton John, Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, Joni Mitchell, artists with big budgets and a fondness for excess. After Nilsson Schmilsson, Nilsson was all gatefold for the rest of the 70s. Pussy Cats and Duit On Mon Dei are both triple folds with lyrics on one spread and on the other, collages of snapshots taken during the making of the album, both of which appear to have been outrageous parties. Mitchell uses the double gatefold for her underrated tour de force Mingus to give it more of an art book feel, with her paintings of Charles in fields of white with delicate lines of text here and there. But few can top Elton and the Airplane (and still qualify as low-hanging fruit). Their more elaborately packaged albums are like mixed-media happenings you can hold in your very hands. Elton’s albums have a Hollywood flair. Tumbleweed Connection comes with a twelve-page sepia-tone booklet full of 19th Century old West etchings - trains and riverboats and guns, shots of Elton and his band and lyricist brooding dramatically. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road folds out three ways like one of those reflective things people used to hold up across their chests to get a darker tan. All the lyrics are splayed across in all different colors and each one has its own little illustration, like those old time movie posters with drawings of the actors and the most dramatic scenes. And the whole concept of Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player is a night at the picture show. The cover shows a couple buying tickets at a theater with album’s title across the marquee. Inside, on the left panel, the song titles and album credits are laid out just like a movie poster, and on the right is a big picture of Elton holding his hand out like a stop sign. It’s all colorized and cool looking, and so are all the other photos in the booklet it opens up to. Page after page of groovy cool-colored pictures. It’s just a wonderful artifact. I think mine cost $4. And Jefferson Airplane. Volunteers and Bark: two of the best covers ever made, and both relatively inexpensive. Bark comes in a paper bag with JA printed on the front, just like the old A&P logo. Open it up and on the other side are freak-comic portraits of the band in thick-black ink. The bag is folded over a standard record cover with picture of a dead fish wrapped in paper and tied in string with a bow. And inside is a fold-open lyric sheet printed in red and black, and on the back is a list of things you can do with the bag. A long list and, as you might imagine, some of the suggestions are quite unusual. I love this record, even though it’s not the record I reach for when I want to really listen to the Jefferson Airplane (I play it when I want to hear early, very well done hard rock). When I want the Airplane in its fullest revolutionary glory, it’s gotta be Volunteers, a Woodstock-era masterpiece with the freakiest and coolest mega-gatefold of all times. It’s done up like a newspaper published in Mescaline Land, with phony stories and lots of pictures. It has so much going on, you can stare it for hours. And that’s really what the gatefold is all about – sitting and staring and listening, slowing down, paying attention, making an event out of a collection of music. And isn’t that precisely what we celebrate when we celebrate RSD?

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