Vinyl Tap

During the heyday of the LP, commercial record labels created both fantastic—and fantastically bad—album covers, but the experienced hands of a few and the watchful eyes of the many kept most record cover art more or less within the boundaries of professionalism. The private-press LPs documented in this spectacularly fun coffee-table book routinely cross those boundaries—sometimes with an eye toward the slick, other times toward the sick, but rarely with hopes for anything like popular approval. Although many of the elements found here—stock images, clichéd photo ops, idiosyncratic philosophies, and a distorted sense of self—played their role in commercial album art, the homemade versions extend these strategies into the realm of outsider art.

A private-press LP at the thrift store is a curio, a personal find, but the same LP featured in a coffee-table book is a collector’s item. Whatever you might have made of the original, it wasn’t—by definition—salable. After being included in this stylish art book, though, that scarcity becomes value. And it’s unmistakable that many of the album covers in Enjoy the Experience have the novelty, mystery, and visual appeal that translate into consumer desirability. Indeed, that desirability underlies much of the book’s raison d’être. Like gallerists or fine-art collectors, the editors of Enjoy the Experience have, in cataloguing their passion, marketed it as well, and the texts in the book underscore this transformation of dross into gold. A long interview by editor Johan Kugelberg with musician and record dealer Paul Major (also one of the book’s editors) details the process of locating and evaluating the gems in Major’s collection. Two other collectors—Mike Ascherman and Jack Streitman—list their favorites as well. And a series of biographical essays, by multiple contributors, presents what is known about some of the artists behind the albums included in this volume. Many of these biographies, especially those written by editor Michael P. Daley, are dazzling in their detail, gathering a wealth of facts and dates and anecdotes about musicians whose public careers hardly happened, if at all. The distinction between private and public becomes increasingly meaningless as the homemade-record canon takes shape over the course of the book. Inclusion is tantamount to a public career—too little and too late, perhaps, for what many of these musicians desired, but that kind of disappointment is, too, more familiar than not from the world of commercial music.

This is the paradox of Enjoy the Experience: By publicizing private-press LPs, it minimizes the difference between them and their commercial counterparts. Nevertheless, Kugelberg takes pains to dramatize the distinction both in his title essay and in the interview with Major. “The biz of the rec biz,” Kugelberg writes, makes for “creative commodification prior to actual commodification.” Chasing hits results in self-censorship of the “spontaneous, idiosyncratic, off-beat and amateurish,” in favor of “that which shows similarities to what the marketplace has previously dictated.” Homemade LPs, Kugelberg asserts, “are the very opposite of that.”

But Kugelberg’s description of both sides of this divide seems overly binary. The music business is drawn to novelty as much as to formula, and many of the records included here are remarkable precisely for their formulaic qualities, with artists imitating successful albums without regard to how the hit formula fit their particularities. Major’s coinage for a genre of private-press records—“real people” music—also highlights connections with commercial recordings. Artists are real people whether or not they achieve commercial success, fail, or miss the opportunity to experience either. And it’s often the absurd artifice of the private-press efforts that makes them stand out in the thrift-store bin.

What is the difference, then, between these LP covers and those we already know? Once they, too, are known, perhaps none. The cover of David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name would, I think, slide effortlessly into the sequence of LP art in this collection (it seems to use the same stock photo that one of the private-press records does). And even the Beatles produced a record cover that would not look out of place here—the original, so-called “butcher” cover for the album of singles Capitol released in the United States, Yesterday and Today, which was quickly recalled, but not before more copies had rolled off the press, I would guess, than for all the LPs in Enjoy the Experience combined.

The album art in this volume stretches the genre because we haven’t seen it before. But once we have, the real surprise may be how comfortably it fits inside.

Damon Krukowski is a musician, writer, and the copublisher of Exact Change books.