Interview with author Matthew Chojnacki about his book Put The Needle On The Record by Michael Goldstein – January, 2013
Greetings from your Curator. I was introduced to Matthew and his book late in 2012 via a mutual friend, Fritz at the AlbumArtExchange.com web site. While I tend to cover more of the historical aspects of album cover art, design and photography, Fritz presents new album cover artwork every day, presenting info and commentary on both the artwork and how it reflects on today’s best (or worst) efforts in the field, but it only makes sense that we’re both interested in, and passionate about, the stories and the people behind the work, so his introduction of Matthew and his book was bound to tweak my interest to find out more about him and the inspirations behind his writing it.
When it was released in September, 2011, Put The Needle On The Record was the immediate recipient of much critical praise, ending up on many a “Best Of” list of 2011’s most-important books about music, art and Pop Culture. Containing info on hundreds of record sleeves and interviews with a wide range of people involved in the creation of these works – from Annie Lennox to Gary Numan to Yoko Ono – and with a foreword by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters and an afterword by Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, this book has been awarded with a whole host of prestigious book awards, including those from the New York Book Festival, London Book Festival, Paris Book Festival, San Francisco Book Festival and many, many others.
As I child of the 1960’s who has deep-seated feelings about the influences – both good and bad – that the 1980’s had on music, art and Pop Culture, I thought that, in an effort to expand my understanding of this era (and, perhaps, appreciate it a bit more), it would be important to take in the views of someone who grew up during those times and could present a more open-minded overview of the period to both me and my readers, so it is with this hope to build an inter-generational bridge that I posed these questions to our distinguished interviewee….
Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com: Matthew – thanks for your time today. Let’s start with an overview question – why do a book on this topic now?
Matthew Chojnacki, author: I started the book about seven years ago and, at the time, I was in a rush to get it out. 1980’s music and style was in full nostalgia mode, and I thought it was a fleeting period. Cut to today, and ten years from now. The 1980’s is the decade that just never leaves, in terms of influence….not only in terms of style, but also music – consider acts like LCD Soundsystem, La Roux, and others.
So, why not now, or five years from now? To my surprise, it’s the decade that continues to influence.
MG: What was the inspiration for your decision to cover single covers from the 1980’s, versus LP covers from the 1970’s, for example?. Was there something about 80’s cover design that impressed you more than any other era?
MC: In the 1980’s, MTV really exploded the idea of imagery combined with music. It was also the decade where certain genres of music really pushed the boundaries of personal imagery. Certain artists, like David Bowie, had already blazed some of the trail in the 1970’s but. in the 1980’s, everyone wanted to have individual style. It was the decade of five hundred Lady Gagas.
Along with that that also came an intense focus – not only from the record labels, but also the musicians – on proper cover art for not only their LPs, but also with every 7-inch and 12-inch single that they released.
MG: Did you find that the artists and designers of the record’s packaging would provide the principal style cues for related graphics – the music videos, the merch, the stage sets, etc. – or would the cover art more often be derived from the video’s style guides? I suppose that what I’m really asking you is whether you think that there was there one main art direction for a new release, or did each specific related item have its own special art direction?
MC: Normally, the design was a collaboration between the musicians and the designers. Sometimes the musicians had the upper hand and had artistic control over their projects – good examples of that include Madonna and Annie Lennox – but at other times the record labels ruled and, in rare cases, sometimes the musician was completely shut out of the picture. This often happened in the early days of hip-hop, when the music was viewed as novelty by the labels. I think that, in almost all cases, there was one main artistic direction for the entire project.
For example, at the outset of Def Leppard’s Hysteria project, the promo team at Mercury Records had planned to release five singles from the album. Each single cover was a puzzle piece and, if you collected them all, it formed a complete image. I’ve included the whole story about that project is in the book. That level of upfront planning is unheard of in today’s music environment. Five planned singles, with related artwork, in the bag as the LP is dropping? I’m not sure if we’ll ever see this again, even for megastars like Lady Gaga and Adele. That level of commitment to the artist, let alone the artwork, just doesn’t exist anymore.
MG: Growing up as a music fan, what was the effect of the cover art on your decision to purchase certain music?
MC: Hmmmm….I never bought an album or single purely based on cover design – that is, without hearing the music – but certainly I purchased some – make that many – singles and albums over the years where the cover art tipped the scales for me.
Many are in the book. If you’ll go to page 214, you’ll find a good example. I’m a big horror fan, and I can’t say that DJ Jazzy Jeff’s song “A Nightmare On My Street” has a high replay value but, I loved Freddy Krueger as a kid, so I just had to have this one.
MG: What do you think the relationships are, or have been, between the visual side of the music business – album covers, packaging, merch, etc., the musical acts and the money/business side of the business? Why have some labels/acts been so supportive, while others look at it as simply overhead?
MC: I think that musicians have always been a bit ahead of the record labels in knowing trends and selling points. When a strong image is intrinsic, and real, the public really grabs it. Queen, Madonna, Grace Jones, Prince, Deborah Harry, Run-DMC, Culture Club, Duran Duran – these weren’t label-manufactured images. The role of most labels in the 1980’s was to let an artist bring their own style to the label….their responsibility was then to more or less to shoot that existing image out of a canon.
Nowadays major labels take less risks. Since artists these days can really make it on their own without major label support – take Robyn or Macklemore, for example – the budgets at WB, Sony, etc. are quite tight. And, therefore, they take less risks with artists and their image and cover art.
Once an artist hits big, it’s all about jumping on the same trends, versus trying to find that inventive artist. Someone like Alanis Morissette comes out of nowhere in the 1990’s and creates a sensation, and then there are a hundred releases in the same exact vein. That’s safer from a financial standpoint than finding the next big thing. It’s good for business, but bad for music fans.
MG: Did you also find that repetitiveness in the record sleeve design of the copycats, or would any of them go out on a limb visually?
MC: There was a lot of repetition in design throughout the 1980’s, but it also seemed like many more styles were happening. The creative team behind bands like the Scorpions, for example, went to great lengths to create very unique, original pieces. However, certainly those images were ripped off quite a bit – I mean, they obviously “influenced” other artists. This happens a lot in the art world.
However, the 1980’s brought to the mainstream a flurry of emerging genres and styles at a very quick pace. To think that the decade cemented hip-hop, mainstream metal, new wave, arena rock, etc., and all the associated images and styles, is impressive. Now, not all of the music and styles held up very well – consider Spandex, for example – but that was a ton of change for just one decade.
In spite of all the snickering about the 1980’s, the influence is currently everywhere – there are even heavy metal bands covering the likes of George Michael and Wham! Remove the leg warmers and “Choose Life!” tees, change up the tone of the song, and suddenly it’s like, “hey – those lyrics were actually pretty good.”
MG: Is cover art something that reflects the times it is created in, or does it help – along with the music it packages – push the music industry and music fans into new directions culturally? Put another way, how does cover art help document human history?
MC: I think that it works both ways. Certainly Put the Needle on the Record is a time capsule of sorts…it seems to reflect that decade fairly well from a visual standpoint. However, certain artists in the book broke visual ground. Grace Jones experimented with androgyny and nailed it, and then Annie Lennox took it to the mainstream. Ditto for someone like Divine, with artists like Visage and Dead or Alive taking it further.
MG: I’ve been fighting to establish the notion that cover art – and the artists that make it – can be great examples of “fine art”. Iconic images are well-known by millions of people – for example, over 40 million people own a copy of Hipgnosis’s Dark Side of the Moon cover image – so why aren’t 99% of the artists well-known and treated with respect by the traditional art establishment?
MC: I think that, in general, anything that goes mainstream gets some eye rolling from the hardcore fine art crowd. Whether it be Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Banksy, etc. But this also happen in music and fashion. It’s feels great when you are the only one with that piece….but as soon as mom knows about it, it’s trash.
However, just because Madonna’s True Blue LP cover sold 20 million-plus copies worldwide doesn’t mean that it’s not a stunning photograph that’s absolutely framable. In my opinion popularity and fine art are not mutually exclusive.
Now, mind you, after someone becomes “popular”, this has the ability to decrease artistic quality with subsequent project. Which is why most band’s second albums are fairly bad.
MG: You seem to agree with the premise – that is, that artists like Storm Thorgerson, who did the artwork for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Sir Peter Blake, who created the covers of Sgt. Peppers for The Beatles and for Live Aid and Roger Dean, who is credited with covers for YES, Uriah Heep and ASIA, have all created great examples of memorable Pop art, but why is it that prints by Warhol, Haring and Damien Hirst sell for millions, while prints by Thorgerson, Blake and Dean sell for $1000? Does the association with pop music devalue these artists’ works?
MC: I personally don’t feel that association with music inherently devalues the impression of an artist. After all, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat all did record cover art, too – you can read about them all in the book. In fact, a copy of Jean-Michel’s 12” for “Beat Bop” – which was the theme to the film Style Wars – fetches in the thousands. This is just for an original pressing of the 12”. Find the original piece and you’d probably grab a million. Another example are original pieces from James Rizzi, who designed all the jackets for Tom Tom Club.
So, certainly, mass-produced LPs and singles might decrease their value as individual pieces, but I personally don’t think that this connection takes away from their status as a fine artist. Anyone who ever touched Grace Jones, for example, are now all considered art legends. Ditto for all the early designers who surrounded Deborah Harry and Madonna.
MG: What are your views regarding the future of graphic/visual design in the music industry as it moves on to the many new distribution platforms? Are you seeing new opportunities for talent already established in the area and for new talent who might be looking to get into this field?
MC: The indie music scene’s releases are flourishing right now. There’s a whole scene right now that’s generating stunning LP and single covers by incredible underground photographers and cover artists….most of them just helping the other out as traded favors. For example, I’m staring right now, as I talk to you, at Aimee Mann’s Charmer LP, which was nominated for a Grammy Award this year for “Best Recording Package”. And, most are releasing vinyl. It’s become a fairly strong niche.
However, I will say that if artists only focus on their digital releases and, therefore, their LP and single covers are shrunk to 1″ x 1″ squares on iTunes, there’s a real depletion in their quality of cover artwork. This is a shame, because I always consider the music listening experience as incorporating multiple senses. For me, it’s not just listening to the music, but also reading the liner notes, looking at the cover art, watching music videos, and seeing live shows. It’s much less exciting when music is relegated to working out at the gym, or listening to on the way to work.
MG: As people bring their music collections on to hard disks and watch/listen to them via “Smart TV” interfaces, some musical acts and labels – and those that promote them – seem to be working to re-create “the album cover experience” digitally. I just saw a sample from Pitchfork Media called Pitchfork Advance Base that lets you page through the album package while listening to the music. Do you think that this is the beginning of a trend?
MC: I just read that same article and was about to post it on the book’s Facebook page – www.Facebook.com/RecordNeedle. Theoretically, I think it’s a good idea. It’s good to have – I mean, why not?
However, for me personally, it kind of reminds of when “CDPlus” releases came out in the 1990’s. Remember those? They were CDs that came with a bonus CD that contained videos, liner notes, photos, etc. I bought a few, but they never really took off.
Ditto when iTunes releases liner notes with albums, or even when DVDs contain “press photos,” scripts, etc. They’re kind of nice to have, but I haven’t heard anyone get too excited about the concept.
I think the purists will keep buying their vinyl because they want and appreciate the tangible experience. It’s part nostalgia, too. But for kids raised totally on digital, I’m not sure yet if they has a similar need to read liner notes, lyrics, and look at the art. At least not in a static form.
If it’s truly an interactive experience, where a fan can watch videos, make their own remixes, communicate with the artist, choose cover artwork, or even play games that incorporate in the related music…that sounds a bit more like today’s generation. Basically, an iPad app per album. Bjork already tested this out.
MG: Let’s talk a minute about the prep you did for your book. Regarding your interviewees – you talked to both folks on the design side and folks on the artist/artist management/record label side. Can we discuss examples of who were the most insightful, who were the most-involved in the process, who were the most bizarre, etc.?
MC: My original idea was just to interview a handful or artists, more or less to give the book a bit more clout and to sell the title to a publisher. But surprisingly – at least to me – artists really jumped in an got involved. Annie Lennox, Gary Numan, The B-52’s, Yoko Ono….these were four of the first artists that I interviewed, and this opened up the floodgates to others.
But, I have to say, the book was also a great excuse to simply speak with artists that I long-admired. So, interviewing became an integral part of the book for me. What a great journey, too. I ended up speaking with over 125 musicians and cover artists.
However, as it turned out, it was the cover artists, photographers and designers themselves that provided the best stories. See the pages for Rockwell, Van Halen, Prince, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna and more for some pretty fascinating examples. Their works have become iconic images over the years, yet nobody had ever contacted them about their pieces. This caught me off guard, and certainly most were pleased to finally let loose.
It’s about time they got their due.
About the author, Matthew Chojnacki –
When not working at his day job as an executive at a high-profile clothing company, Matthew Chojnacki is a freelance writer and music/pop culture historian living in the Rock ‘n Roll Capital of the world, Cleveland, Ohio. In addition to an extensive music collection, he also invests in the music itself, owning a stake in five hits from the 1980’s. This was Chojnacki’s first book and, based on the positive feedback he’s received from his freshman effort, he’s now working on a new book on underground film art that is due out in the Fall of 2013.
More details here: http://www.matthewchojnacki.com
More about his book – Put The Needle On The Record –
The book was published in September, 2011, by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. Hardcover: 272 pages ISBN-13: 978-0764338311
This book goes “behind the covers” of 250 7″ and 12″ single sleeves from the 1980’s, containing new interviews with 125+ musicians and cover artists. In addition to the wide range of images presented, it includes some amazing interviews containing never-before-heard stories and “making of” images.
Here is a link to the book’s page on Amazon (US):
There’s also a very entertaining promo video for book – take a look!
Press Quotes –
“Put the Needle on the Record proves that the ’80s wasn’t the decade that taste forgot – but rather the era where single artwork came of age and caught up with its LP predecessor… before CDs changed the landscape for good.”- Jason Draper, Record Collector Magazine
“As a dyed in the wool, long-term record collector, I loved this survey of picture sleeves from the 1980’s. This decade was really the end of the vinyl singles period as we know it, and these images were ephemeral icons that would be lost in the mist of time without this kind of labor of love.” – Terry Stewart, former President & CEO, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
“The 1980’s. The spin point of a time where the collision of art, culture, class, nation, and government was fueled by the steroids of technology. Put the Needle on the Record is a great read on an era that many consider the new ’60s.” – Chuck D, Public Enemy
Notable Awards –
London Book Festival Award (2012: Music, 1st Place); Paris Book Festival Award (2012: Anthologies, 1st Place); San Francisco Book Festival Award (2012: Anthologies, 1st Place); New England Book Festival Award (2012: Anthologies, 1st Place) ; DIY Book Festival Award (2012: Art/Photography, 2nd Place); New York Book Festival, (2012: Art/Photography, Honorable Mention); Hollywood Book Festival (2012: Wild Card, Honorable Mention); International Book Awards (2012: Popular Culture, 1st Place); International Book Awards (2012: History – Media/Entertainment, 1st Place)
Next Generation Indie Book Award (2012: Overall Non-Fiction, 2nd Place; 2012: Coffee Table Books, 1st Place; Next Generation Indie Book Award (2012: Best Overall Design, Finalist); Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) (2012: Art/Music, 2nd Place; 2012: Book Marketing, 2nd Place); ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award (2012: Performing Arts, Finalist); Eric Hoffer Book Award (2012: Art, Finalist)
National Indie Excellence Book Award (2012: Music, Finalist; 2012: Art, Finalist; 2012: Coffee Table Book, Finalist; 2012: Interior Design Non-Fiction, Finalist); Midwest Independent Pub. Award (MIPA) (2012: Art Book, Finalist; 2012: Coffee Table Book, Finalist; 2012: Book Design, Finalist; 2012: Interior Layout, Finalist; 2012: Cover Design, Finalist; 2012: Book Marketing, Finalist)
All images featured in this story are Copyright 2011 – 2013 Matthew Chojnacki (except as noted) – All rights reserved – and are used in this article by permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2012-13 – Michael Goldstein & AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – All rights reserved.