RECORD STORE TALES #969: Picture Discs
Picture discs – in this case, vinyl records – will be the subject of tomorrow’s episode of the LeBrain Train (don’t miss it). If you have ever seen a playable record with an image on one or both sides, then you have seen a picture disc. If you’ve played one, you know the quality of the audio can be dicey. Today picture discs are quite common on store shelves, but they used to be much rarer. What is the history of the picture disc, exactly?
The very first modern picture disc was 1969’s Off II – Hallucinations. This German compilation disc from Metronome featured the Doors and MC5 among other current artists. In the 1970s, Elektra records experimented with a five-layer disc consisting of vinyl film over a paper image over a core of traditional black vinyl. Difficulties with the materials (particularly the paper) and manufacturing led to inconsistent audio quality. Eventually the process was refined and picture discs today can deliver acceptable audio over cool artwork. But the roots go further back. Etched discs aside, the first true picture disc recordings were actually picture postcards!
We begin in the early 1900s. Rectangular pieces of cardboard, with a transparent celluloid record glued to one side, were the first “discs” that you could play with a needle on a gramophone. Later versions had the recordings etched into special transparent coatings. These kinds of records could be mailed or even included in magazines and cereal boxes. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, regular circular picture discs began to emerge. Some were used to spread political propaganda. And yes, that means there is such a thing as an Adolf Hitler picture disc.
Picture discs disappeared for a while during the war era. Vogue Records attempted a revival in 1946 but released only around 100 records before folding due to lack of interest. From that point on, picture discs were dominated by children’s records. One unique variety even included crude animation on the record as it spun, if you looked at it through a special mirrored eyepiece.
When picture discs re-emerged in the 70s, popular music and soundtracks took over. The standard cover art would traditionally be on side one, with the back art and track listing on side two. There were variations but generally this is what you’d find on a normal everyday picture disc.
And they are normal, and everyday items now. Most record collections have at least one. What are your favourite picture discs? Tomorrow, John Snow from 2Loud2OldMusic will join me as we show off our records. They are always eye-catchers, and some occupy some real points of pride in our collections.