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Consuming Passions: The Record As An Art Object

When photographs of current rock & roll stars appeared on long playing disc in the 1970's, it was considered by collectors of these artists a brilliant new merchandising gimmick - The Picture Disc. But collectors of vintage discs recognized an old idea being re-played, one that went back 50 years or more, depending on definition.

The definition of a picture is a design, pattern or photograph stamped into, printed on or laminated to the major portion of a gramophone disc - as opposed to on just the usual label area. Using this criteria the first picture discs were issued circa 1900!

Most Canadians are familiar with the brown 7" discs Emile Berliner produced after moving his operation to Montreal in 1899. Many of these featured the famous His Master's Voice logo with Berliner Gram-o-phone around the perimeter embossed into the reverse. This technique would soon be seen on European records during the single-sided period. Odeon used its Tower design, Pathe the crowing cock perched on a Pathe disc and English Columbia effectively displayed their Magic Notes trademark against a hatched background. Also some North American Red Seal pressings had simply Victor Records in large type face stamped on the reverse.

The general demise of single face records did not mean the end of this practise. Often the unused 4th, 6th 8th side of an early orchestral or operatic album set was embellished by RCA Victor. Later, during the thirties & forties, various sized radio transcriptions had a blank side to decorate. Victor showed both its Lightning RCA and His Master's Voice designs combined with a large RCA Victor against a spider web background. This, and the Tower of London on BBC Transcriptions being two of the most attractive examples.

The first discs to have photographs (in black & white) printed on their reverse were produced by the New York based Talk-0-Photo circa 1920. The fourteen known examples of these exceptionally rare six-inch diameter discs featured the voices and photos of silent film stars H.B. Warner, Gloria Swanson and others. During the early thirties the single face 10 paper record Hit of the Week sometimes printed portraits of the artist - Rudy Vallee & Eddie Cantor being two examples.

A serious slump in record sales in the early depression years compelled some new merchandising ideas, and the picture disc was one of them. To promote the signing of the Casa Loma Orchestra in 1933, Brunswick issued a pair of 7" picture discs. One displayed a photograph of the orchestra laminated under clear plastic or vinyl. This was certainly one of the first pictures cover the actual playing surface of a disc.

RCA Victor also started issuing double-sided laminated picture discs during this period in both 10" and 12" sizes. But rather than just depicting the company logo or a photo of the performer, RCA had artists produce some striking monochromatic designs in the contemporary Art Deco style. Only about a dozen were issued. The famous tenor Enrico Caruso, country star Jimmie Rodgers and conductor Leopold Stokowski appeared on 10" discs while composer Noel Coward and band leader Paul Whiteman graced 12" versions. Whiteman also had a 7" disc issued to commemorate the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Picture records were also pressed in Europe with the infamous Adolf Hitler 1935 7" issue sought after by both collectors of records and military memorabilia.

Around 1940 RCA and The Talking Book Corp. collaborated to produce the Famous label. These 8" flexible laminated discs had photos of film stars Joe E. Brown, John Barrymore, Franchot Tone and Luise Rainer on four of five issued. An obscurity from this period is the disc showing Canadian born evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson rising to heaven after her death! (label unknown)

During most of the 1940's picture discs were made primarily for children. Now in full color, these were usually small records of five, six, seven or occasionally 10" diameter of paper or cardboard under clear vinyl. The Record Guild of America product is typical of the genre.

Probably the most well known and most abundant example of vintage picture records is the Vogue. Although Vogue was extant only from spring 1946 to spring 1947, about 75 discs have been catalogued, exclusive of promotional items. But examples of all have not yet been found. Perhaps the fact that most Vogue artists were at or near the beginning or end or their recording careers did not help sales. The discs were primarily 10" diameter with the art work laminated to an aluminium core under clear vinyl. The full color illustrations are in the naive but delightful comic strip and advertising style typical of the 1940's. An obscure disc of Pope Plus XII issued around this time is very similar to a Vogue pressing. Intrepid collectors I'm confident, have and will uncover many other rarities that fit the definition of picture disc.