ROCK 'N' ROLL fans who think picture discs were invented just for them might be surprised to know that the first picture disc came out 49 years ago (June 24, 1933, to be exact) and featured the singing brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers. "Cowhand's Last Ride/Blue Yodel No.12" showed Rodgers sitting in a dapper suit, wearing a straw hat and casually cradling his guitar; the 10-inch disc also featured his autograph. Unfortunately, the sound quality on this and other early picture discs was abysmal and the idea was dropped five years after being developed by David Sarnoff.
Yes, the same David Sarnoff whose initial brush with fame was as the first person in America to receive a frantic S.O.S. from the sinking Titanic in 1912. He'd been a teen-age amateur radio operator then and relaying the distress signal brought Sarnoff a great deal of attention, including a job at RCA. The hard-working Sarnoff eventually wound up as director of RCA's technical department and in 1928 personally applied for a patent on the picture disc.
Soon after the Rodgers disc came out, Hitler's propaganda machine stepped into the picture, sensing a powerful potential in a marriage between radio and records. The first German picture discs, given as bonuses to loyal and trustworthy party members, contained innocuous "Wanderlieds," or hiking songs, with a different picture on each side, Leni Reifensthal-style montages of soldiers and parades, or a charismatic Adolf Hitler superimposed over the masses. The German discs, unfortunately, sounded as bad as the American ones and were soon discontinued.
Between the '40s and the renaissance of picture discs in the '70s, various attempts to revive the genre were made. There were a fair number of children's records and sentimental songs, but the major problem of weak sound remained. Some breakthroughs were made during the '50s with picture postcards (actually thin cardboard or thick paper with a thin plastic layer added on.) They were generally used for promotions.
In 1957, a German patent was given to Luise Bardwicks and Konrad Haseloff for a picture disc using flexible material and covered on both sides by a sheet of illustrated paper; a transluscent film of material able to be used for record grooves then covered the picture. The quality of the sound improved a bit, but the resulting records still seemed geared to advertising and promotion only and the patent drifted from owner to owner. In the early '70s, a few picture discs came out, notably "Air Conditioning" by progressive British rockers Curved Air, but no one seemed impressed . . . and the sound still lagged behind the picture.
Everything changed in 1977 and the picture disc suddenly became a two-edged tool. There were several reasons: consumers finally embraced collector qualities on their records--colored vinyl, limited edition pressings, and, finally, picture discs. Record companies responded quickly, using these discs to promote new artists and trends (punk and disco records account for two-thirds of all picture discs pressed between 1977 and 1979).
More importantly, sound quality improved dramatically as the result of a well-kept secret patent by Californian Harold Bague that allowed for quality sound and economically feasible mass production of picture discs (which cost about 50 percent more than conventional black vinyl.) Pic-Disc, a division of Fitzgerald-Hartley, now manufactures more than half of all U.S. picture discs, including products for Pink Floyd, Donna Summer, Kiss and Elton John. Their best seller on the rock side: The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," now over 100,000 copies. Pic-Disc also manufactures products for Disneyland, which sell by tonnage, according to one employe there. People who used to buy picture discs with little thought of ever playing them, now had that option as well.
Much of this basic history is sketched out in a wonderful new illustrated collection, "The Gimmix Book of Records," by Frank Goldman and Klaus Hiltscher (Virgin Books, an import available at Record and Tape Ltd. in Georgetown). Subtitled "an almanac of unusual records, sleeves and picture discs," it contains more than 600 crisp color pictures, from the Rodgers and Hitler discs to sound postcards and playable stamps (2-inch long, from Bhutan), shaped and scratch-and-sniff records, backwards-playing and laser-etched albums, unusual sleeves and jackets. Many of the designs are beautiful, and almost all are fascinating in their sales methodology. There's even a mechanical single that requires no record player; it plays itself.
As for Washington musicians on picture discs, we have to settle for Rockville's Joan Jett, who is on several Runaways compilations and on her own smash hit, "I Love Rock and Roll." But in the fall, Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville will issue a 7-inch Slickee Boys LP in celebration of the store's fifth anniversary.