A Time When No Budget, Unlimited Time and Resourcefulness Shaped Counter-Culture
DIY Album Art: Paper Bags and Office Supplies
(Mark Batty Publisher, 2009)
During the 1990s, a surge of underground music flooded popular culture. The mainstream success of such bands as Nirvana, Green Day, and Offspring was built outside of corporate influence, on a groundswell of support from the do-it-yourself punk and independent music scenes. In DIY Album Art: Paper Bags and Office Supplies, J. Namdev Hardisty uses his personal collection of 7- and 12-inch record covers to illustrate the ethos of one such yet-to-be-clearly-defined constellation of 1990s grassroots music movements—mostly on the record labels Gravity (San Diego), Ebullition (Goleta), and Repercussion (Oakland). Ultimately, however, Hardisty’s efforts are undermined by his indiscriminate curatorial selection and his failure to offer any critical argument for the scene’s aesthetic sensibility, beyond the use of common, inexpensive materials and processes.
Hardisty explains that these records’ character was created out of economy and necessity more than an intentional design. Nearly everything except the cost of pressing the records could be done for only the cost of time. The search for free or low cost materials inspired creative solutions, such as paper bags cut down to fit record sleeves and rubber stamps or Xerox pages with titles, addresses, and song titles. Some record covers were simply thrift store LPs, whitewashed with interior latex paint and screen-printed. Others simply used photocopied sticker paper over paper bags.
The book’s earnest simulation of the record covers’ graphic design style, the “primitive” cut-and-paste methods of scissors and glue stick, evokes nostalgia for that particular look and time of adolescence. The focus on the reproduction of the aesthetic, however, impedes the book’s overall effectiveness to communicate anything other than the visual appeal. There is an exploitation of the unintentional sloppiness that comes with cutting out text with scissors and the irregular ghost lines of a pasted raised block of text that appears when photocopied. Each page number and title, for example, is individually typed, cut out, and pasted, leaving wavy lines underneath. The essays themselves are delivered in a vintage Smith Corona non-electric typewriter, which were often used to create record inserts. The text is written spontaneously and without any editing—it is also populated with typographical errors, mis-spacings, and misspellings, as well as a pleasing variation of type weight, as if by the pressure-sensitive keys of a typewriter.
But I ask, as both an ardent insider and critical outsider, why should we care about this book? DIY Album Art is inessential because, beyond personal recollections, there’s little insight, aesthetic or otherwise, about the scene and its anti-corporate disposition, about how the bands didn’t care about spending or making money but only about harnessing copious amounts of free time. Using free material wasn’t truly a way to subvert capitalism—the essays acknowledge that the “anarchic” punk countercultures subscribed to the same free market system that many of the bands critiqued, and that the most popular underground record labels had the most consummate salespersons. (Curiously, the author is also a commercial graphic designer for Target’s branding identity.)
This era of record covers has undoubtedly inspired more prominent punk bands’ record art, such as those of Strike Anywhere or Against Me!. Like the DIY music itself, the accompanying record art is spazzy, loosely assembled, and of varying quality. What is most important, in hindsight, is that these efforts represented an unedited energy and expression of angst. There is also something undeniably authentic in these teenagers and young adults creating culture for themselves, and the exchange and discussion of these related ideas, without the need for commercial support or intervention. Hardisty’s reproduction and repackaging of these artifacts is a self-referential homage that doesn’t take the work any further than the surface of its appearances.