A Picture Disc is Worth a Thousand Wows

Picture discs are often the greatest treasures in a record collector's set. They sometimes give a little more than just your typical liner notes, and something to hypnotically watch rotate besides a slab of black wax. Most are pretty plain, but there are quite a number that are such eye candy, you'd have to stop yourself not to take a bite of them.

I'd like to showcase 20 beauties that I think are great examples of what many would want when they get their hands on one. I hold no one particular record higher than another, so I'll just go about it alphabetically...

Speaking of beauties, I'm starting it all off with Bananarama, which began as a punk-y female trio of friends who got into the industry by performing as backup singers for acts like The Jam, Iggy Pop, and The Monochrome Set. They forged off on their own in 1981 with their debut single, "Aie a Mwana," and scored a Top 10 in the U.K. the following year with "It Ain't What You Do." Lots of folks couldn't resist the charms of three amazing babes, so you can't blame London Records for releasing their 1985 single, "Do Not Disturb," in three separate versions, each with a photo of one of the pop bombshells.

Interestingly enough, Bananarama is currently listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as having the most entries, for an all-female group, in music charts worldwide.

In 1987, CBS produced a picture disc for NYC's Beastie Boys that probably wouldn't fly well today, but is still a pretty awesome looker, taking the artwork of the cover of their Licensed to Ill LP and turning it into a wonderfully odd-shaped 7" player for "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn."

The year before the Bananarama threesome, London Records put out a beautiful 7" picture disc for British synth-pop trio Bronski Beat's debut "Smalltown Boy."

The label signed the boys after only nine live shows, but it turned out they knew what they were doing, as Bronski Beat's first single was a hit, reaching #3 on the U.K. Singles Chart, and later reaching #48 in the U.S. and #7 in Australia (even though the song is about a gay man leaving his home due to homophobia).

The Illinois rock band Cheap Trick had been around since the early-'70s, and scored hits with "Surrender," "Voices," and "Dream Police" for Epic Records, but it wasn't until 1988 that the label gave the band a picture disc (only released in the U.K.) for their cover of Elvis Presley and Otis Blackwell's 1956 hit, "Don't be Cruel."

The artwork was designed by Tomcat Productions, under the direction of Sue Rush, who also did 7" art for Blue Öyster Cult, Billy Joel, and the hilariously-named The Flaming Mussolinis.

While most care for Corrosion of Conformity's early career in hardcore punk, many still enjoy this North Carolina band's trudge into the world of metal. Though I gave up on them after Animosity (1985), Columbia Records found them to be good enough to sign in 1993, and it paid off with Deliverance hitting the Billboard 200 at #155. After a decent return on their investment, their label thought to hook a few more fans with a sweet cut-out 7" for "King of the Rotten" in 1996.

Again, it served Columbia well, as the new album, Wiseblood, charted at #104, and was even nominated for "Best Metal Performance" at the 40th Grammy Awards (though Tool 's "Ænema" won).

Besides kick-ass psychobilly, Enigma Records knew The Cramps had two more things going for them: a built-in audience, and they are a record collector's dream. While they released 1989's Stay Sick album and the "All Women are Bad" single in picture disc, neither compare to the "Bikini Girls With Machine Guns" 7", if not just to watch Kristy Wallace (a.k.a. Poison Ivy/Ivy Rorschach) twirl on your turntable in a shiny and tiny two-piece.

Some of the records came in uncut 12" discs, so happy hunting for those!

While Danzig's "Mother" is a highly parodied number (and music video), it's still a great song, and its picture disc American Recordings put out in 1994 isn't bad either.

I love everything Divine has ever done, be it movies or music. Divine has the honor of being one of the first records put out by Chicago's infamous Wax Trax! Records ("Born to be Cheap" single, 1981). In 1982 he was asked by one of the founding fathers of Hi-NRG dance music, Bobby Orlando, to sing a few numbers he didn't want to pass onto his other project, The Flirts. In 1984, Divine sued Orlando and split for Barry Evangeli's Proto Records, who got Pete Ware to arrange a few songs. Though I love the work Harris Glenn Milstead did with Bobby Orlando much more, I certainly enjoy his later years with Ware. One such track was the pair's 1985 cover version of the 1963 The Four Seasons hit, "Walk Like a Man," which Proto released as a picture disc.

The Dream Academy is a band rarely remembered. Most have to be reminded that they once charted with their third single, "Life in a Northern Town" (1986), and no one recalls their amazingly bright picture disc first single on Blanco y Negro for "The Love Parade."

It's hard to stay in the limelight for many bands after their first chart-topper, and even though they had several TV appearances (including Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, American Bandstand , and Top of the Pops), members went their separate ways in 1991 to work on solo careers. Can anyone cite those? I doubt it, so they should have kept well-enough going.

One of my favorite record store purchases as a young punk was Gang Green's skateboard-shaped 7" for "We'll Give it to You," which I bought for its awesome novelty, but almost as much for the B-side, "Skate to Hell."

Not sure why Roadrunner Records had to make a sub-label to release many acts that they put out (possibly for European distro, I guess), but this picture disc was released on Roadracer Records in 1989, and the Budweiser parody sticker reads: "Skate all day, drink all night, drunk and disorderly in Boston, MA."

German record label Nuclear Blast is known for some mind-blowing releases, but sonic output aside, their HammerFall picture disc must have been a pressing plant's nightmare.

Pressed for the Swedish power metal band's "Heeding the Call" EP in 1998, side one featured the first track off the Legacy of Kings album, plus one song ("Eternal Dark") only released for the Russian version of the Legacy LP, along with two live tracks on the other side.

British metal giants Iron Maiden have over two dozen picture discs, but none compare to the beauty that is "The Trooper" 7" from 1983.

Featuring the Derek Riggs artwork of the original 7" on side A, EMI Records made two versions of this disc: one with a "U" cut in the upper-right corner, and another with a "V" cut.

Motörhead is another band that has a nice handful of pic discs out, but in late-1990, Epic Records did a wonderful 7" run of "The One to Sing the Blues" to promote the opener off their then-upcoming 1991 LP, 1916.

My favorite band of all time, The Police, is an act that sometimes releases limited records for fans to go along with the usual fare A&M Records produced for the masses. Along with the double 10" version of Reggatta de Blanc (1979), their blue vinyl 7" six-pack (1980), and the half-speed mastered audiophile pressing of Ghost in the Machine (1981), they have a number of picture discs. The one I believe to be the best of them all is the 10" for "Don't Stand So Close to Me," whose artwork was later used for the 1993 Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings boxset.

A few would say I'm wrong, and believe "Roxanne/Can't Stand Losing You" is a better work of art, but that didn't make the cover of what represented their life's work, did it?

Canadian prog rock gods Rush had a beauty of a disc in 1982, when Mercury Records release the double A-side 7" for "Countdown/New World Man."

While the disc was used to promote Rush's Signals LP, the track "New World Man" was originally written as filler to even out the record's sides. It made it into the #1 slot for three weeks in Canada's RPM singles survey chart, and remains Rush's only Top 40 hit in the U.S., though that album's song "Subdivisions" got plenty of airplay on MTV at the time. In '83, "Countdown" reached #36 in the U.K.

BBC Recordings imprint Strange Fruit is best known for the early-1990s pressings of The Peel Sessions series, which were live recordings broadcast on DJ John Peel's famous BBC Radio 1 show. Normally consisting of four songs, many of the EPs were published with bland covers, but a few were spectacular items worthy of any collection. One such was the 1991 repressing of British alt-rock and goth-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees' The Peel Sessions 1977-1978.

The awesomely pagan-looking EP had two tracks recorded in February 1978 on side one ("Hong Kong Garden" and "Suburban Relapse"), and two from November of '77 ("Carcass" and "Love in a Void") on side two. It was pressed in a limited quantity of 2,500 copies, and remains one of The Peel Sessions' most sought after releases.

The Stranglers are not only one of the longest-running bands to come out of the U.K.'s punk scene, but they have one of the most gorgeous picture discs around. Forming in 1974, and originally called The Guildford Stranglers, they hit the scene running with their 1977 debut, Rattus Norvegicus, followed by two more albums (No More Heroes and Black and White)—all within two years. They have 23 Top 40 singles in the U.K., along with 17 U.K. Top 40 LPs. Their picture 10" single for "Always the Sun" was released in 1986, and while it keeps the Mayan-styled pop art (by an uncredited artist) from the 12", it does not contain the live track, "Souls," found on that version.

The Untouchables (not the D.C. punk band fronted by Ian MacKaye's brother, Alec) is credited as the United States' first ska band. They began in 1981 as part of the U.S. mod revival, thanks to a stable rotation of Madness, The Specials, and The Jam on early MTV. In 1983, their second single's B-side, "The General," became a minor hit around L.A. Soon, the band was asked to play it live in the 1984 comedy, The Party Animal. Later that year, the band appeared as a scooter gang in Alex Cox's cult flick Repo Man, and the exposure got them noticed by Stiff Records, who signed them. Strangely, I'm not sure when the label released the band's first single for them if Stiff understood the bizarre double entendre produced by their choice of pictures for the "Free Yourself" pic disc.

The Newcastle, England label Neat Records is best known for releasing a lot of what became known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the early-'80s. They also have the dubious honor of picking up the thrash metal band Venom, who coined the term "black metal." Just before the release of the band's At War With Satan LP (1984) came the Manitou EP. Originally containing three songs on a 12", the label put out a neat two-song picture disc 7" for the title track, "Manitou," featuring the band's goat-faced logo.

Earlier, I mentioned the oft-forgotten The Dream Academy, but even fewer can recall Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction, so I leave things off on a trip down memory lane for club-goers of the late-'80s. Zodiac Mindwarp was the brainchild of the graphic artist and art editor of Flexipop magazine (1980 - 1983), Mark Manning. The Love Reaction consisted of pseudonymed players in over-the-top biker dress, playing up a hedonistic lifestyle to dance-rock rhythms—sort of like an early version of White Zombie. The band got a bit of notice in industrial dance clubs in the summer of '87 with their song "Prime Mover," which gained them a bit of indie press. However late, Mercury Records finally saw they had something, and released the album, Tattooed Beat Messiah, in 1988. They kept things going with single releases off the LP, such as the sweet picture disc for "Planet Girl."

Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction never recovered the momentum of their dancefloor hit, and almost went the way of the dodo. They released two more records (Hoodlum Thunder and One More Knife), but no one really noticed. In 2002, the band tried to make a comeback with I am Rock—and again in 2005 releasing Rock Savage—to even fewer giving a damn. In 2010, they tried one last time, picking up a heavy dose of Norse mythology on We are Volsung, but failed to gain many new fans.

The love of a good record often goes beyond just sound, and the tangibility of a record can lend to the experience. Whether it's reading the liner notes or just looking at pretty pictures while listening, the picture disc is an artifact that could never be replaced by downloading, and is an object that—hopefully—will never disappear.

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