Phonographics: New Zealand Record Cover Design

These images forgotten by many, unseen by more. Wrapping paper around the plastic that protects the delicate grooves which carry the vital information..the SOUND.

What is this? In itself it is vital information. A series of signposts giving directions, signalling limits, new routes, dead ends. Sometimes carrying misinformation, intentionally confusing or reflecting confusion. An expression of something local, something indigenous, even when the signals are corrupted by interference, the buzz of world noise, always getting louder. Nothing exists in isolation.

What is this? A packet printed with ingredients and 'serving suggestions'... play loud! These images are designs. Maybe art but firstly designs. Record sleeves is what they are, but what are they?

This archive is young and therefore expected to grow. Initially collected together are record sleeves in no particular order, no particular genre, no particular designers. That comes later. First comes looking and thinking 'what is this?' New Zealand is young and therefore expected to grow. Collected together, in no particular order, are people who respond to many creative forms one of these being music. When its popular we call it 'Pop' music. Some of the record sleeves here contained popular recordings, some did not, but all of them are 'Pop'. Forget the soup cans and the blown up comic books. Warhol is more popular now than at any time in his own life yet this popular posthumous fame diminishes the pictures he left behind. The galleries and private collections that house examples of his 'Pop' art are frigid, sub zero environments. You can't deep freeze 'Pop', it's like frozen strawberries, take them out of the ice box and they tum to slush.

Artists like Warhol looked at designs such as the Campbell soup tin and asked the question 'what is this?'. He knew it was 'Pop' but what was 'Pop'?. It is this dilemma which sometimes spoils'Pop Art'. The process which takes something from the shop and installs it in the gallery strips out all the goodness, all the fizz, and replaces it with a pale pomposity and a very limited shelf life. A can of soup is 'Pop' and a screen printed painting of that same can is called 'Pop Art' but the result of that process is 'Pop' minus one. A clone that is genetically weakened. What this collection of images auempts to do is to present designs that utilise photography, illustration, typography in interesting and auractive ways because they had to that was their function. Sleeves that are unashamedly swayed by the design trends of the day, crude in some cases but also often innocent and fresh. Innocence and freshness revolve at that most poptastic of speeds...45 revolutions per minute. The party never really gets going till someone starts slapping on the old 7"s. This is 'Pop'.

The Radio Company of America launched the 45 r.p.m 7" single in 1949. The cutting edge technology of ferric oxide tape [literally cutting was an easily editable format that could be sliced and re-stuck with blade and sticky paper] brought new levels of fidelity to recorded sound. Also improved was the machinery that cut the metal masters from which the record discs were stamped. This allowed for smaller, deeper grooves that carried more information. The new 'hi-fi' sound that came from the tape meant that the speed the discs spun at could be lowered from 78 r.p.m to 45, and in the case of long playing 10" records 33 r.p.m. These L.Ps were usually multiple collections or albums. The smaller 45's became 'singles'. From the beginning record companies placed them in card or paper bags for protection and the opportunity for sleeve designs was born. The single was all about the song. It was instant, it was portable, it was cheap. It was the carrier of the 'hit' that all performers crave. In reality the 45 is what truly shaped post war popular music of the 20th century. Albums made the money, singles made the myths. Magic moments, ephemeral, true 'Pop'.

Lets look at a couple of the things we have here. Before post-modernism there was just modernism. 'Peter Posa Plays' is a lovely example of crisp optimistic 1960's design. Peter strikes the classic guitar man pose. Typography and hard edged flat colour place it firmly in the design style that was so influenced by the jazz sleeves of the 1950's and that carried over into early rock and roll. This record probably sounded best kneeling beside the dansette, the laminated covers spilling across the bedroom floor, and the twanging sound trilling from the mighty 2 watt speaker.

Zap forward thirty years and look at the guitar man on the the cover the 'Whats that noise' E.P.(designer Bruce Russell). Post -modern most definitely, found or hijacked imagery, selected visuals in the age of sampling. Pictures of people dancing? We are living through a supposed era of 'Dance Culture' yet is the frantic jogging on the spot, bottle of water in the hand and a nervous system hot wired by M.D.M.A anywhere near as defined as the'Twist'? Other than the 'Bogle' or the 'Macerena' can you name one dance from the last ten years? Check out 'Twisters Twist' presented by 'Knights footwear' a delighful bit of 60's graphics the record was actually pressed on clear acetate laminated to a square cardboard sheet glued into the sleeve. Presumably given away with 'Knights shoes'...

The girl in 'Yodelling out West' looks set to do some series twistin'. Kitted out in her best turn-up blue jeans she's the archytypal country chick as personified by Elly May Clampett from the 'Beverly Hillbillies'. A colour photograph by George Kohlap, was this taken in N.Z or Australia?

We are placing these images here not because we believe them to be 'Art' but because they are still fizzing, still active, revealing things that can inform our views of this country and how it sees itself, and how we see the world. Hopefully as it grows, and the associated graphic images found in other areas of the archive build up, pathways will form that connect and combine to reveal new perspectives about New Zealands visual history. For this to be succesful we need your input. Tell us if you know, who designed uncredited sleeves, views about content and meaning, backgrounds on long forgotten bands.

This is just the beginning, and in reality the first time anyone has attempted such an archive in New Zealand. We want to present something that people can use, can look at, can ask 'what is this'?

By Chris Mousdale (email: )

Collection of
Record Covers

Sound Design

Flying Nun





Split Enz