moseleymoles on A brief note about the liner note
If the mp3 sounded the death knell for the Liner Note, the era of streaming has well and truly nailed the coffin down and shovelled the earth over. The idea that there might be some writing alongside the track(s) seems a positively antediluvian notion. So, before its gravestone mosses over, let’s offer a brief thought for the humble Liner Note.
The first records had no truck with writing either. Instead the record sleeve was valuable billboard real estate that could be used to shift other catalogue items, the record player to play your new disc on, or other stuff entirely. This notion lived on into the early eighties in the ‘Nice Price’ range, when the inner sleeve showed you how you could add most of the Alan Parsons Project back catalogue to your collection at a speical low price.
The liner note started as an extension of advertising copy – written by the admen at the label to persuade you to take it home as you stood there staring at the back of the album in the record shop. Here’s the note for the first Bob Dylan album:
Columbia records is proud to introduce a major new figure in American folk music — Bob Dylan.
Excitement has been running high since the young man with a guitar ambled into a Columbia recording studio for two sessions in November, 1961. For at only 20, Dylan is the most unusual new talent in American folk music.
As well as the ad copy, there was the critical appreciation. by a weighty critic or fellow musician. This was music so complex you needed a York Notes on the rear of the album just to be able to listen to it. These probably reached their apogee of ambition and pretension in Blue Note’s extensive notes of the fifties and sixties. Here’s Bill Evan’s for Kind Of Blue:
There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see will find something captured that escapes explanation. This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflection, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
This is serious art – do you get it? It’s not Louis Prima. Just having this album raises your IQ by ten points.
A few years later the Liner Note had become part of the album’s message and meaning. Like its more glamorous sibling, the album cover; and sibling the lyric sheet. The artist wasn’t going to let anyone else interpret his (it was usually his) masterpiece. Bob was not backward in coming forwards to set out his take on Highway 61 Revisited:
On the slow train time does not interfere & at the Arabian crossing waits White Heap, the man from the newspaper & behind him the hundred Inevitables made of solid rock & stone – the Cream Judge & the Clown – the doll house where Savage Rose & Fixable live simply in their wild animal luxury …. Autumn, with two zeros above her nose arguing over the sun being dark or Bach is as famous as its commotion & that she herself – not Orpheus – is the logical poet “I am the logical poet!” she screams “Spring? Spring is only the beginning!”
cont. p 94
I’m not going to track the note’s rise and fall from the sixties to the nineties, but just pause to point out two of my favourite late-era Liner Notes. American Springsteen-rockers The Gaslight Anthem got Nick Hornby to write liner notes for one of their albums, and perhaps got a bit more honesty than they bargained for:
It would be stupid to try and tell you that the music you’re listening to is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. The songs on the Gaslight Anthem’s latest album are three or four minutes long, most of them, and they’re played on loud electric guitars, and there are drums, and to be honest, if you haven’t heard anything like this before, then you’re probably listening to the wrong band anyway. What’s great about the Gaslight Anthem is that there’s an assumption you’ll have heard something like this before – on the first Clash album, or on Born To Run, or the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, or maybe on a Little Richard record. That’s what hooked me in. I’ve been listening to rock’n’roll for forty years, and so maybe I’m too old to be writing this stuff, but on the other hand, maybe I know what I’m talking about, too: believe me, I know a lot of stuff sounds tired and derivative, and makes you feel as though rock music is exhausted. It’s hard to find new ways to tell stories and write songs; even clothes made out of meat won’t do you much good if your music is 1980s dance-pop.
So you have two choices. The first is this: you do something nobody’s ever done before. You play the nose-flute underwater, put it through a computer backwards, and get a black Japanese guy to rap over the top. Or you write a novel using only consonants. Or you make a movie which nobody can see. And that’s all cool, but nobody will want to read your second novel written using only consonants, so then you’ll have to write one using only vowels. And the second is this: you think, write, play and sing as though you have a right to stand at the head of a long line of cool people – you recognise that the Clash and Little Richard got here first, but they’re not around any more, so you’re going to carry on the tradition, and you’re going to do it in your own voice, and with as much conviction and authenticity and truth as you can muster. And if you can pull that off, you’ll be amazed at how fresh you can sound.
And the Gaslight Anthem sound fresh. Anyone who has ever been frustrated by anything – a girl, a boy, a job, a self (especially that) – can listen to this music and feel understood and energised. (And if I feel energised, Lord knows what they’re going to do to you.) And I’m beginning to suspect that they, like, read books, too. ‘Great Expectations’ – now there’s a great title for a song. And here,‘Howl’ – there’s another one. Rockers who read. Songwriters who are not scared to go head-to-head with everyone else in rock’s great tradition. The Gaslight Anthem are my kind of people.
And in another author appearance, one of my all-time favourite authors Douglas Coupland pens an appreciation come short-story for Saint Etienne’s Good Humor:
The sun warms up Catherine’s yes, this bring Paris morning. Thrusting traffic and happy pedestrian sounds ring like bicycle bells in her ears. Her legs feel breezy and free and untethered beneath her coral pink dress – she feels that her legs are breathing as surely as if they were lungs. In the right hand Catherine holds a jute bag containing…
I remember once reading the most beautiful words in the English language are chime, lullaby and melody, and this sounds true to me. – both for the sound of the words, and the images they conjure. The words ‘Saint Etienne’ themselves give mea similar feeling – one of a world in which all the women wear pearls and are able to sing in key, and one where the men drive sportscars and never stumble – a world where nostalgia is beside the point because we all live in a bright glorious present.
It’s not going down without a fight. Along with single-handedly saving the recorded music industry Taylor Swift is keeping the art of the cryptic liner note alive, taking the torch from his Bobness and reinventing it for the Tumblr generation. Here’s a dissection of a two-word – yes two word! note that appends her track All Too Well on Red –
5. “All Too Well”
Hidden Message: MAPLE LATTES
As Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan points out in a track-by-track analysis of the Red album, “Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal Share Thanksgiving Maple Lattes” is the third result when you Google “maple lattes.” (The song is also just brutally specific, with references to hanging out at Maggie’s house and plaid days and the trip upstate when they went apple-picking. Advantage Swift.)
So, from the Cream Judge and the Clown to Maple Lattes – let’s have your favourite liner notes, your liner note howlers and . Paul Morley, Robert Ems, more Bob bonkersness – let them rip…for we soon will have no object to turn over. I mean honestly – have you ever opened that itunes ‘Digital Booklet’. Me neither.