“TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS”
A Taxonomy of Liner Notes
by John Adamian
Liner notes, perhaps the first form of rock journalism, were born of hyperbolic ad copy and fan-boy love cry. Someone had to explain the songs, the funny haircuts, the silly trends. The writers could get a little gaseous. Reading some specimens from the early ’60s is like having the Glengarry Glen Ross guys hit you with the hard sell. When I say liner notes, for the most part I’m not talking about the stuff found inside the gatefold, or printed on booklets inserted with the vinyl, or the text on the paper sleeves. I’m talking about the writing on the cover’s flip side, words visible to anyone browsing at the record shop: bloated praise, biographical blurbs, explanatory nuggets, pseudo-musicological jargon, and general pop-culture jib-jabbing. At their worst, they read like a fundamentally phony litany of superlatives or tone-deaf drivel. But even the bad ones are kind of endearing. Despite the endless styles and sub-genres of the music itself, and the wide variety of cover art, it turns out there were really only ten types of liner notes.
1. The conversion narrative usually includes local color and a first-person account by a music biz insider, a fellow musician, DJ, or record exec. “One rainy night a few weeks back while driving somewhere along the Long Island Expressway, I first heard Sammi Smith,” writes someone named Juan Conadoy on the back of The World of Sammi Smith. His “immediate reaction was to pull over to the side of the road.” Reading these notes, you get the feeling that America’s breakdown lanes were clogged with people pulled over, having their minds blown by each new record. “I felt intoxicated,” he continues. “[She] was tearing my head and heart apart.” Every music fan was Saul waiting to be struck blind on the road to Damascus.
2. The product testimonial: Dick Clark sounds like a shellac-haired board chairman on the back of 1965’s The Beach Boys Today!: “Fame is still important to them, but not as important as their music and their teen fans, toward whom they feel a true allegiance.” The liner notes on the first Beatles records are just as embarrassing. Here’s some text from the back of Meet the Beatles (1964): “They wear ‘pudding basin’ haircuts that date back to ancient England, and suits with collarless jackets which they’ve made the newest rage…. The foursome… write, play and sing a powerhouse music filled with zest and uninhibited good humor that make listening a sensation-filled joy.”
A winking self-awareness soon crept in. By the end of that same year, on the back of Beatles for Sale, Derek Taylor writes, “The young men themselves aren’t for sale…. But you can buy this album—you probably have, unless you’re just browsing, in which case don’t leave any dirty thumbprints on the sleeve.” Liner notes had gone meta.
In the more humorless folk world, the same movement was underway. Liner-note writers employed a self-serious faux-academic tone—extra points for big words and convoluted syntax. Here’s Nat Hentoff in 1963 on the back of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: “Of all the precipitously emergent singers of folk songs in the continuing renascence of that self-assertive tradition, none has equalled Bob Dylan in singularity of impact.” True enough, but talk like that stinks up the place, as Duke Ellington used to say.
Marshall McLuhan noted that words and writing were “hot,” meaning they didn’t allow much creative interaction on the reader’s part, while images and music were “cool,” begging for an act of collaborative understanding by the listener. With guitars wailing on the stereo and eyes bugged out by album art, you didn’t want someone to explain this stuff to you. Record covers were valuable real estate. The LP embodied the pop equivalent of Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, the complete work of art—sounds, words, and images. And fans sought oracular riddles.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.