Tales from synaesthetic oceans: shampoo, Rimbaud and the cult of the LP sleeve

What do you think about this?

[Product name] has fresh notes of bergamot and lime, a spicy sensual heart of poivre, beechwood and oakmoss, enhanced with base notes of sandalwood, amber and vetiver.

It’s on a bottle of shampoo. For me, the incantation of wild and mystical-sounding ingredients (vetiver, aka Chrysopogon zizanioides, is a type of fragrant grass) is primal and sybaritic. Notice the synaesthetic trebly ‘fresh notes’ of bergamot and lime, and the base/bass of sandalwood et al. – as if smell is a sound. The mid-range ‘spicy sensual heart of poivre’, as well as being delicious mouth music, has the same nuance of anthropophagism that shocks us (doesn’t it?) in the Christian rite of Holy Communion.

And this is ‘only’ a commercial product. My point here (and throughout all of this blog) is that commercial culture (publishing, design, advertising, marketing) communicates with us in the same way as art or, in this case, religion. I am not being disrespectful: each one helps us understand the other, and ourselves.

Unfortunately for this minor masterpiece of copywriting the lettering on the pack is tiny, and the product name is boring. Oh well. Such are the managerial politics of creativity. No wonder artists don’t usually go for corporate-style decision-making structures.

Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’ (‘Vowels’, written 1870 or 1871) is in the same incantatory/synaesthetic tonality but from ‘high’ culture. Click on the link for the full hit – the original French is even more euphoric than this short extract: ‘A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins: A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies which buzz around cruel smells …’

An obligingly literalistic representation of Rimbaud and poem, from just after its publication date – some 17 years after being written. Image from http://abardel.free.fr/iconographie/illustrateurs/luque.htm

As Rimbaud said in his letter to Paul Demeny (15 May 1871), ‘Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ (The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses). The emphasis is Rimbaud’s, but note the metaphor of seeing is all the more palpable for the multimodality and synaesthesia of his poetry.

The provocations of the Rimbaud-influenced Aesthetic Movement of the 1890s, similar to the positions of guerrilla and terrorist movements in politics, were a desperate and fearful non-negotiation with what they considered to be an unbearably powerful opponent. The Aesthetes and related avant-gardist groups at the time were fighting (within the domain of culture) the forces of anaesthesia, the deadening of human perception associated with industrial ugliness and the homogenization of the texture of human experience by machine production.

This ecstatic and primitivistic oppositionism resonated with and was influential on the counterculture of the late 1950s onwards. In a world of technological/scientific instrumentality (including the shadow of ‘The Bomb’), the hegemony of anti-Communism and the universal (in the West) opiate of broadcast TV, the Beats, hippies and freakz generally sought to find through varieties of drugs, sex and music a spoonful of truth and a heightened feeling of life.

Gentle reader, I will spare you further historical speculations, both those speeded-up or at Test-match-cricket kinds of length – I hope the ones so far at least set the scene. I will as promised try to say something relevant about the magnificent genre of the sleeve of a 12-inch vinyl record.

My very simple premise is that a medium of expression, like the medium of a work of art, in-forms the ‘content’ (I am speaking crudely). ‘The medium is the message’ is a good slogan but its simple meaning continually needs to be refreshed and made complex. A 12-inch stereo long-playing record (an ‘LP’) was in its time an ear-dazzlingly wondrous innovation. Instead of sound being a place in a space, sound was now the space itself. And compared with ‘the single’ the LP was a generous but still boundaried helping of music (25 minutes or so per side) that gave the artist both safety and creative freedom. The LP format became a classical artistic form, similar to the sonnet, haiku, sonata, blues and symphony. The conventions of pacing and length were there to keep or – daringly – break.

Cover image by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth. The final cover bill, £3,000 (say, over £40,000 in contemporary terms), should be compared with a typical (then) cost of £50. The designers got £200 flat fee and no copyright; the rest was the cost of using the images of famous people. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein apparently found it so stressful to negotiate (and pay for) permissions that the only viable next step was the drastic minimalism of the Double White album. Again, in this follow-up to Sgt. Pepper the graphic idiom sets the tone for the change in musical style. Incidentally, Sgt. Pepper was the first album to print out the lyrics on the cover – a further interpenetration of media modalities.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (1966) has been thoroughly worked over by critics; my only point here is that the baroque profusion and storytelling of Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s cover is a superb visual counterpoint to the richness of the sound palette. Unprecedented numbers of overdubs, sound effects, musique concrète, referencing of twentieth-century vernacular musical styles and Fluxus-style creative subversion of the physical form (the UK pressing used the leadout – the usually silent innermost groove of the spiral that activated the auto-changer to lift the needle off – for a reverse-tape freakout): all these seem to find permission and corroboration in the magnificent cover artwork. I suggest the continuing grip of this album on all of us, old and young, is at least something to do with the cover’s outstandingly successful visual translation of the texture of the music.

The best tracks of Jimi Hendrix’s fractured masterpiece Electric Ladyland (1968) are an all-too rare use by Hendrix himself of the resources of the recording studio as a means of artistic expression in the medium of stereo sound. They include the astonishingly widescreen/filmic ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and the swirling abstract and angry vortices of ‘Voodoo Chile: Slight Return’. And all of this came (in the UK) in a beautiful cover. These images below are the two sumptuous LPs belonging to my brother (yes, he’s my elder bro and officially cooler than me):

These are two separate albums, not a gatefold – apparently intended to make an expensive double album easier to buy in two stages. This UK version comes complete with quirky references to English comic-book space hero Dan Dare’s nemesis The Mekon and the US anti-Russian Early Warning domes at Fylingdales, on the Yorkshire moors. The US album covers were either crass (dozens of naked women) or just boring (a ‘psychedelic’ picture of Hendrix’s face). Hendrix (unlike The Beatles) usually seems to have been badly served by record companies. (Mae West – here as Statue of Liberty – is third from the left, top row of the Sgt. Pepper cover.) Image from http://www.soundstation.dk/data/products/128855.aspx

I use to listen and wonder what was the connection between the sound of the music and the look of the sleeve. Answer: only the designer knows, but there was a panorama of a new and strange imaginary place, a counterpoint to the soundscapes in the music.

Here is the full gatefold cover (front and back) of the Pink Floyd album Meddle (1971):

The image is more allusive if you remember you only see the right-hand side first. I see a weird nostril or some sort of dolphin or whale. N.b. too the watery and synaesthetic metaphor of ‘waves’ or ‘ripples’ of sound. Gatefold covers, with their reference to left/right space, clearly play both on the medium of stereo sound and the structure of the brain. Confusion heightens the intensity of our responses – where is the title, or name of the band? Image from http://floydian615.deviantart.com/art/Meddle-HQ-286682717

The Pink Floyd brand-story is partly the management/curation of the innovative/quirky synaesthetic legacy of their subsequently mentally ill founding guitarist Roger (‘Syd’) Barrett. This story seems delicately poised on the issue of psychotropic substances: the loss of Barrett is deeply mourned, but the band’s admiration for the brilliance of his drug-assisted/damaged creativity (‘Shine on, you crazy diamond’) still infuses their later output. They become self-avowedly ‘comfortably numb’, professional depressives whose commercial self-exhibition of guilt and grief is – at least for me – difficult to swallow.

Meddle is from a more innocent time. The fine cover (by Storm Thorgerson, member of the enviably titled design group Hipgnosis) is evocative but not as iconic as the designer’s later Dark Side of the Moon artwork. Thorgerson has generously said the album was better than the cover, and that the band phoned him with the cover idea (‘an ear under water’) after unsurprisingly rejecting his preference, namely a photograph of a baboon’s anus.

Even so, what is particularly enjoyable about this cover is the completely ingenuous but still effective visual representation of the musical soundscape of the standout track that takes up all of side 2, namely ‘Echoes’. A line from it, with its Barrett-influenced internal rhyme, runs ‘And everything is green and submarine’: reverb guitar seagull/whale shrieks and keyboard sonar ‘plinks’ call clearly to mind the cool greenness of an undersea world. Can music be a colour or a temperature? Can a silent underwater landscape be described with sound? Yes and yes; furthermore, the cover artwork – not a tiny CD booklet or iPod image – can help us hear it.

LPs were so delicate – one scratch would spoil them for ever – everyone used to handle them with the utmost reverence, always sliding or rolling them gently back into their inner sleeve. So the outer sleeve (‘cover’) was a welcome protection. It worked hard for marketing too, because it was a promise of the kind of music inside without us needing to hear it. If synaesthesia is really so rare (see my previous post), how come mean-minded record companies spent so much money and creative energy on these fascinating sound/image combinations? It was the spirit of the age that the music and the impressively large canvas (so to speak) were complementary to each other, in the same multimodal way that I have argued elsewhere is the intention of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and is implicit in the conception of the iPad.

Clearly the golden age of the LP cover has now gone, but can I point out that a book cover works very much the same way? How much synaesthetic hit do we get off the greyness of what the Kindle says is a cover?

Coda

Within the 1960s’ counterculture it helped the veneration of the album cover that the shiny and expansive flat surface was both a practical and symbolically rich place to roll your spliffs. Each of the three modes of experience (music, artwork, getting high) ‘primed’ (in the language of Daniel Kahneman) our response to the others. It is both notorious and true that cannabis enhances the enjoyment of music and colours – I do not know about other substances. Steve Jobs once famously claimed Windows OS would have been better if Bill Gates had dropped acid – the shock of the true. Of course it is tragically passive for anyone to expect that pharmacology by itself can substitute for the fullness of a life well lived, but I think Jobs was in fact arguing for something more interesting, namely openness to reality and truth. Note the metaphor of ‘window’ – Windows XP was apparently a rather desperate-sounding allusion to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Microsoft didn’t call it Doors but there’s surely a pop culture reference in there somewhere I’ll get to in a minute …

The late Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) apparently used to tell a story of his early days when he sold vacuum cleaners to make a living, finding (and impressively recognizing) he was making a house call on the elderly Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) on the edge of the Mojave Desert. ‘This vacuum … sucks’ was his quick and embarrassed if not exactly Wildean aperçu. The author of Brave New World had immigrated to the States before the Second World War and had subsequently investigated psychoactive drugs, particularly mescaline/pejote. He wrote an account of a mescaline trip for his short but elegant and thoughtful book, The Doors of Perception (London: Chatto and Windus, 1954). In it he observes, for example, that flowers were ‘so passionately alive that they seemed to be standing on the very brink of utterance’ (p. 59). It seems this book had permeated far enough into 1960s’ West Coast consciousness that Don Van Vliet knew its author by sight and the young Jim Morrison should refer to it when looking for an edgy name for his band. Revealingly, according to Wikipedia, Huxley’s book was the source, not the original William Blake quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.’ For his inner visions Blake never needed anything more than his imagination.

From the inside cover artwork for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (1969), synaesthetically described on the album sleeve as ‘A movie for your ears’. I used to think this image was just weirdness, but here Captain Beefheart is holding – I presume – the vacuum cleaner he once proffered to Aldous Huxley. (Huxley is third from left on the second row of the Sgt. Pepper sleeve.)

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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5 Responses to Tales from synaesthetic oceans: shampoo, Rimbaud and the cult of the LP sleeve

  1. paullonden says:

    It was just a picture of David Gilmour’s ear laid under a water filled glass bowl.

  2. We’ve just digitised several of our LPs but I can’t bring myself to throw out the covers. In part, that is because of their own aesthetic appeal (all those Brucknerian landcsapes). But it’s also because in my imagination they’re tied up with the music. Which means I agree.My only quibble is, is the verb ‘modifies’ the right one? I’d prefer a stronger, more Hopkins-esque, verb but can’t think of one.

    • Propagandum says:

      Synaesthesia is such a physical translation of one kind of sense-experience to another that, as you say, Hopkins-esque language would be perfect. Do covers amplify the music? (Probably too straightforwardly musical.) translate? (Probably not physical enough.) Will keep thinking, suggestions welcome …

      Last month I was at a wonderful performance by Florilegium of three Bach Brandenburg concertos in the richly classical Trinity College Chapel – I am convinced the style of architecture added to my enjoyment of the music …

      I am anxious lest book publishers diminish the outreach (width and depth) of their new digital products by being oblivious to the power of the traditional medium.

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