It wasn't always so idyllic — sometimes the manager had Photoshop. In those instances, your blood ran cold and you began fantasizing about designing styleguides for petroleum conglomerates. But this happened rarely, and on the whole, the good old days really were pretty good.
Nostalgia—or as it's called now, Instagram—gives the past a rosy hue which makes it all too easy to look at today and find it lacking. I'm forever moaning about the degradation of design for music, how once people discovered 12-inch artifacts of great beauty and cultural significance while exploring vast record store bins, and now we scan iTunes, barely glancing at the 100 pixel covers strung together. And while this is true, it's not the full story. Because while there have been many fantastic record stores in my past—Sound Exchange in Wayne, NJ or the shambolic House of Guitars in Rochester, NY, to name but two—many of my early discoveries came from thumbnails not significantly larger than the jpegs I'm gnashing my teeth over.
I came across Roger Dean and Storm Thorgerson's Album Cover Album in a Sam Goody. It would be infinitely better for my origin story to have found them at Rough Trade in London, but there it is. Sam Goody—a name that, to me, always conjured up images of a smooth-talking, cassette-pushing pimp—was not a store renowned for its broad selection. I can only imagine this was one of those distribution mishaps that occasionally dropped an obscure import amid the Foghat and Linda Ronstadt, a la The Gods Must Be Crazy. Dean (Yes, Asia) and Thorgerson (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin) published 5 of these books between 1977 and 1989, with help from other luminaries in the field. Besides the occasional and somewhat negligible essay, the books are essentially row upon row of cover images, sometimes one large image to a page, sometimes four smaller ones.
The editorial choices made by the authors still delight me; grouping sleeves together by photographic style or color palette create some strange bedfellows, or, depending on your point of view, the best festival lineup ever. Joni Mitchell, meet Gaye Bikers on Acid—you'll be sharing a dressing room.
Is 4 inches high the optimum size to view a 12-inch piece of art? Of course not. These books are still responsible for setting me off on a number of musical tangents; I'm eternally grateful to Dean and Thorgerson for sending me in search of Felt, Sonic Youth and Throwing Muses (and have almost forgiven them for Enya.)
It's hard to believe, but I've never actually seen some of my favorite album covers, except in these books. I always mean to track them down online, but I rarely get around to it. Mainly, the intention gets lost among the swirl of daily life. But there's also the hesitation to meet your heroes for fear of being disappointed. Besides, I seethe with enough jealousy just seeing them in a book (I'm looking at you, Luxuria Public Highway 12")—actually owning these records could very well kill me.