‘We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.’ So goes the Springsteen song. True as ever, Boss.
Furthermore, some of us also learned a lot from the single’s big sister, the LP, and in particular from the notes on the record sleeve, which is what the cover encasing the vinyl was called.
Sleeve notes, or liner notes as they are also called when they’re printed on the inside cover which held the record, gave you knowledge, a precious commodity in an age when it was harder to come by than it is now.
Album notes offered scraps of information, bits and pieces that began to make sense as you read the list of musicians who played on the records, and took in the names of the people who wrote the songs. And often, the precious lyrics were printed on the sleeve, words to pore over and discuss, words to read as you listened.
Of course, those were the days when going round to your mates’ houses to play records was a highly-focused social event.
It was a ritual up there with the most addictive — the crouch over the Bush or Dansette (record players of the time), the intake of breath as the needle was carefully lowered, the relief at the initial hiss before sitting down with the sleeve notes propped up in front of you…
It probably sounds as quaint as getting together to do some needlepoint, but the resurgence of interest in vinyl is illustrated by these questions posted online:
- What is the sleeve of a vinyl record?
- What does gatefold vinyl mean?
- What is meant by liner notes?
Maybe a new generation will come to appreciate the whole experience, the look and feel of the record and the accompanying pleasure and excitement of easily-read, stimulating background material.
Sleeve notes weren’t always an easy read. The writers of album notes for folk music in particular assumed a scholarly audience.
The notes of Joan Baez’s 1968 LP Baptism consist of informative paragraphs about figures such as William Blake, John Donne, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frederico Garcia Lorca and Walt Whitman.
On her 1960 record — titled simply Joan Baez — we have over 2,000 words devoted to historical and musical context, including the words of an 18-line Mexican song in Spanish, with the translation. Who needs school, eh?
The notes for the The Freewhweelin’ Bob Dylan album are written by the historian and music critic Nat Hentoff, who died on January 7, 2017.
There are history lessons here — we learn that Hard Rain was written during the Cuban missile crisis when the world hinged on the Kennedy-Krushchev confrontation. We’re informed that Oxford Town is about James Meredith, the first African-American to enter the University of Mississippi, to the accompaniment of protests and riots.
There is musical heft. Dylan says: ‘What’s depressing today is that many young singers are trying to get inside the blues, forgetting that those older singers used them to get outside their troubles.’
He pays homage to Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins, acknowledging their experience and seniority. He references Martin Carthy, influential folk musician who inspired him. Read and learn, talent contest kids.
The Freewheelin’ sleeve notes present songs as literature. Nat Hentoff comments and interprets. The songs, he says, can be poignant and mocking, angry and exultant.
About the Girl From the North Country, Nat says, ‘He’s not about to go begging anything from this girl up north,’ an interpretation that was to spark many conversations for many years among these girls about the male/female dynamic in Dylan’s lyrics and countless others.
Dylan’s words are quoted: ‘Anything I can sing I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem. Anything I can’t sing or anything that’s too long to be a poem, I call a novel.’ So spake the future Nobel prizewinner.
Reading old sleeve notes gives you a sense of history in the making. On the back cover of Raw Blues, a 1967 Ace of Clubs’ compilation, producer Mike Vernon observes that ‘Eric Clapton has become an idol in such a short time, it’s difficult now to see how it all happened.’
We read how ‘Peter Green, the new lead guitarist with the Bluesbreakers, is fast earning himself acclaim.’ Stars in the making, names that resonate, different paths, different fates. Eric read a few sleeve notes in his time, as he says in his autobiography. Heck, everyone did. LPs were all we had.
And on Dartford railway station in 1961, a boy holding a Chuck Berry record was approached by a boy he used to know at primary school, who said that he had every record Chuck Berry ever made.
In more recent times, the lads would perhaps have been plugged in to their own music systems, unaware of each other’s taste, inclinations or even presence, and the Rolling Stones may never have been born.
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