For an entire generation, LP record sleeves weren't just packaging — they were windows into another world. Before today's try-it-before-you-illegally-download-it-anyway album promotional model of embeddable streaming widgets and YouTube videos, the only glimpse as to what sort of music a record actually contained was its album artwork. You might not be able to judge a book by its cover, but many music fans did just that with the large canvases afforded by 12-inch record sleeves.
For The Last Record Shop, a new art show opening on Saturday, Hamtramck's Public Pool gallery attempts to re-create that experience of taking in art at a record store. Imaginary album covers for imaginary bands, complete with track lists, liner notes, and as many other details as the artists wanted to include will be on display for visitors to flip through and examine — just like a real record store.
The show was dreamed up by Toby Barlow, top ad man at the Dearborn-based creative agency Team Detroit, who is also one of the gallery's founding members. Barlow says he was trying to re-create a lost cultural moment from his adolescence.
"Today, the way that people buy a record a lot of times, it's because they're collectors or they're fans, and that's [why] they're buying the vinyl. They kind of know what they're going to hear," he says. "We live in a ubiquity of sound that we didn't used to have. When I bought the English Beat's Wha'ppen? and I took it home, I had no idea what I was going to hear. When I bought Lou Reed's Transformer, I didn't know what each song was going to bring. Now, you've heard it all online before you've played it. A lot of that mystery and discovery is gone. So we're kind of re-creating that feeling."
To add insult to injury, most people only experience album art these days as a tiny thumbnail on their computer screen. "A lot of people, they defend the record album because of the sound of vinyl, which I think is great. It does have that great, big sound that's completely different than something that's been compressed to mp3," Barlow says. "But that's only part of the experience that the record album used to be. You had the whole gatefold, and you'd open it up and there'd be the lyrics and the liner notes. You extracted as much from that as you would a 1,000 page book."
Barlow says for him and a lot of his friends, album art was the first way they interacted with artwork at all. "We all went on school field trips to museums as kids, but it's not the same as when you're actually holding on to art and thinking about it and even interpreting it with friends," he says. "We did it over the cover of Diamond Dogs, and Dark Side of the Moon, and everyone had their different album covers they stared at and contemplated." Barlow says he hasn't decided on how the artwork will be presented, but he wants people to actually be able to pick them up and hold them in their hands.
Part of the fun of the show, Barlow says, is that they're not just making fake record covers, but they're going to have fake record labels fixed onto real used LPs, so that each work of art will also contain a sort of mystery record. "Maybe the music will line up, maybe it will be a little left field, I don't know. We'll have to see," he says, but hopes that people will be excited to buy the albums to take home just to hear the music on it.
The unexpected nature of it all is another big part of the show. "We made a conscious decision not to curate this stuff," Barlow says. "When I was growing up, my record store didn't seem to curate it very much at all. He was just selling what was coming in. We wanted that same spirit of democracy that exists in a record store."
Barlow says he hasn't taken full stock of the artwork yet, but submissions have come from as far away as England and New Zealand. "That's the other thing that a record shop used to be, this sort of amazing global crossroads," he says. "Before the Internet, that's where you experienced it, without being assigned to it in your geography class. You actually wanted to go and get into all these different cultures."
Barlow's excited to finally lay everything out and see what surprises came in. "I think it will be a lot like unwrapping stuff for Christmas," he says, noting that he's expecting submissions from local luminaries, as well as amateur artists, from professionally designed sleeves to ones that are sloppily hand-made.
"We're not being too precious about it," he says. "That's what rock 'n' roll is all about." — mt
The Last Record Shop opens from 7 p.m.-11 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 6, at Public Pool, 3309 Caniff Ave, Hamtramck; 313-405-7665; apublicpool.com. The show runs until Oct. 18.