There are plenty of books on album cover art on the Vinyl Connection bookshelves, but none of them could tell me which record had the glory of being the first gatefold pop/rock album. Everyone knows Sgt Pepper was the first LP to have the song lyrics on the cover—the back, incidentally, not inside in the way that became commonplace—but what was the first book-opening sleeve in popular music?
The library having failed me, I resorted to the internet where you can find out everything, right? Well, maybe. There are strong indications that Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde takes the gong. Released in May of 1966, Dylan’s seventh studio album also has the honour of being one of the very first double albums of studio recorded material. It makes sense, really; two records and two sleeve pockets for them to live in.
If that isn’t enough, what about rounding out the ground-breaking trifecta by suggesting Blonde On Blonde was also the first gatefold album printed to be viewed vertically. Most open horizontally like a book, you see, but this album was not landscape format, it was portrait.
Now this is fascinating, as it means B on B was probably the first pop album whose packaging annoyed the shit out of the record-buying public and took numerous mid-60s flower children to the Emergency room of their local hospital.
Being a double LP, you’d take disc one out of Bob’s head area and pop it on the turntable. Wanting to enjoy the full length Dylanorama, you then opened up the cover to be face-to-face with His Bobness, thus allowing Record Two to slip out below his thighs and sever several toes (because it’s northern hemisphere summer and you have bare feet).
As I was recovering from some completely unrelated foot wounds earlier this year (southern hemisphere summer) I began pondering how many other vertical gatefold covers were produced in the first vinyl era.
The books were once again no help at all, as they rarely show anything other than horizontal opening album covers, unless it’s a record by the Ohio Players (more on them subsequently. Perhaps.). Even the extraordinary cover of Jimi Hendrix second album, Axis: Bold As Love is often presented above the waist, not the whole psychedelic 12” x 24” head-blast.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience album was released in December 1967 (you can read all about it here) and is the only other sixties album in the VC collection to have a vertical gatefold. (Well, I think it is. The catalogue does not provide that level of information, dammit). If you know of others from the sixties, I’d love to hear.
In the meantime, here are two more in the category—both from 1970—for your enjoyment.
First off, we have the debut LP from Britain’s knights of heavy rock, the very heavy, very humble Uriah Heep. If the image is meant to represent Charles Dickens’ immortal sleaze bag, old Uriah has not aged at all well.
Whether the music has aged any better depends entirely about how you feel about the genesis of British heavy rock. Here are soaring vocals from David Byron and the crunching rhythms that Heep traded off for decades, mortared by the proggy bluesy cement of Ken Hensley’s organ.
Opener “Gypsy” is probably the pick of the songs… great Byron vocal, organ break, riff, dramatic story… but there is much to enjoy here. A personal fave is the churning ‘eavy psychedelia of “I’ll keep on trying”. Another is “Dreammare”, the raw material of which sounds like a sweet late psychedelic ballad processed in a dark satanic mill. It’s catchy, too.
Although more heavy prog than metal, Uriah Heep’s first outing sets out the template for their enduring sound and is a very enjoyable listen if the genre is your hard-rockin’ thing.
The next vertical cover contrasts nicely with the Uriah Heep, and is also from that pivotal music year, 1970.
Formed by brothers Phil, Derek and Ray Shulman, Gentle Giant came together after the demise of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound who’d had a Top 10 hit with psychedelic gem “Kites” in 1967. But there is nothing acid fried about the Giant sound.
A strange and beguiling combination of King Crimson chops, baroque flourishes and elastic melodies sung in a throaty tenor, the self-titled Gentle Giant debut still makes for an adventurous listen almost five decades on.
Although a trifle inconsistent compared with subsequent offerings, from the opening organ chord of “Giant” you know you are in the presence of a huge vision and a big (yet nuanced) sound.
He is coming,
Hear him coming,
Are you ready
For his being?
One of the things I love about Gentle Giant is their capacity to write riffs that involve more than three chords yet manage to get your head bobbing energetically. “Giant” has one of these, as does the album’s stand-out track, “Alucard”.
A real tension builds as you dance to the arpeggios and vocal gymnastics, awaiting the crunching return of what is a gloriously solid riff. (If you listen, try to get decent sound – the instrumental arrangement is very well done).
It’s not all gargantuan playing. ‘Funny ways’ is a clever, attractive ballad that follows it’s own idiosyncratic path (successfully) while “Isn’t it quiet and cold” evokes Paul McCartney’s music-hall influenced songs such as “When I’m Sixty-Four” and is pretty forgettable.
Yet overall, this LP is a worthwhile investment of 37 minutes of your time, and sounds unlike anything else (unless it’s another Gentle Giant record, of course). It even has a version of “God save the queen” as a coda.
Next: More 12” x 24” album covers for your visual titillation.