On 11 November 1978, an unprecedented occurrence took place in the UK Top 75 – an unknown act went Top Ten with a bullet. Despite the band in question, The Cars, going on to sell in droves – and the debut hit, ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ (EMI, 1978: US #35; UK #3) becoming an oldie staple – in the seventies, this particular feat was unheard of. However, it was neither catchy melody nor nifty middle-eight that initially sold this record to the masses…
In Britain, the new wave had rolled in sporting multi-coloured hairdos and an assortment of dayglo clothing, so it made some kind of anarchic sense that the music itself might be packaged similarly. Punk and post-punk acts jumped onto this enticing bandwagon, dressing and promoting their product – whether good, bad or ugly – in a variety of styles and hues.
Picture sleeves had been a popular adornment for singles on the continent since the early sixties, though took longer to catch on in the UK: the familiar white paper dust-cover (usually embellished solely with the owner’s name in ballpoint) was by and large the rule in Britain until the new movement added ‘art’ to its sound and style around 1977. In addition to a plethora of lurid sleeve photos suddenly appearing in the singles racks, edgy illustrators such as Barney Bubbles (designer for Elvis Costello and Ian Dury), Jamie Reid (The Sex Pistols) and Malcolm Garrett (Buzzcocks, Magazine, Simple Minds) found their work now had a whole new spectatorship. Perhaps the ultimate sleeve design of this era was PiL’s ‘Public Image’ (Virgin, 1978: UK #9) – an entire red-top newspaper produced by the band and photographer Dennis Morris folded to house their debut 7-inch.
It was only a matter of time until the design element extended to the vinyl itself – and suitably punky-coloured singles created a brief fad. A&M – who had, of course, allowed The Pistols to squirm from their grasp – were fast to lasso this particular vogue: early Squeeze single ‘Bang Bang’ (A&M, 1978: UK #49) was publicised as being pressed on ‘puke-green’ vinyl, The Dickies’ ‘Banana Splits’ (A&M, 1979: UK #7) came etched into sickly yellow vinyl – while their fabulous trashing of ‘Nights in White Satin’ (A&M, 1979: UK #39) and The Tubes’ ‘Prime Time’ (A&M, 1979: UK #34) were among many to emerge on white vinyl.
And so to The Cars. Coloured plastic was not sufficient for these young American sharp-shooters. Given the band’s decidedly new-wave look, their label elected that ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ be given a British release ahead of the US-placed ‘Just What I Needed’ (Elektra, 1978: US #27; 1979, UK #17) – and a limited-edition picture disc (ie, the first-ever single with an image pressed between two vinyl plates) would give The Cars just the push-start they needed in Europe. Despite the reduced sound quality this process created, the ruse worked a treat: ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ shifted 150,000 copies in three weeks. (NB The first ‘picture’ album release had been the very limited Airconditioning by Curved Air (Warners, 1970: UK #8).)
Thus, the gimmick floodgates opened up good and proper – and not purely with singles. The Ramones issued their Road To Ruin long-player (Sire, 1978: US #103; UK #32) on transparent yellow vinyl, Devo put out their Q Are We Not Men? debut (Warners, 1978: US #78; UK #12) on mottled plastic, whereas Penetration and Kraftwerk preferred glow-in-the-dark technology for their 1978 releases. The vogue extended beyond the new wave, too: experimental/prog rock act Tangerine Dream promoted Cyclone (Virgin, 1978: UK #37) on clear or tangerine-coloured vinyl.
Record promotion during this era reached a zenith – or nadir – with R&B outfit The Brothers Johnson’s ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ single (A&M, 1977: US #5; UK #35) arriving on pink, fruit-impregnated plastic. In all this gimmick mayhem, however, one must spare a thought for Stevie Wonder. His Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Tamla, 1979: US #4; UK #8) not only featured a Braille label, but also contained cultivatable alfalfa seedlings embedded within its vinyl. Because of the inherent dangers perceived in shipping plant life, it became the first, and thus far, only record to receive a ban from the US Department of Agriculture…