Those vinyl Kiss picture discs are great collectors’ items – and not just because of the great memories of when you bought them and showed them off to your friends. While picture discs were mass produced, sometimes 150,000 or more in a pressing, most were still very limited editions. In some cases these discs are only around as prototypes as the record label decided to not go forward with a full release. This was often due to sound quality issues, but in some cases production was too expensive. So what are picture discs?
For Boomers and perhaps the Gen-Xers, picture discs are LPs with a photo visible over the entire playable surface. It is important to note that the picture is only visible over the entire playable surface and is technically not part of the playable surface. This is because the record consists of five layers. The core or inner most layer is a rigid material such as plastic, paper and in higher quality picture discs, metal. The pictures are then fixed to either side of the core for layers two and three. The outer layers are clear vinyl and this is what is actually stamped producing the playable surface. Because these vinyl layers are thinner than standard and heavier weight vinyl, the audio produced is generally of lesser quality. In fact, on a number of sites of companies that currently manufacture picture discs the lesser audio quality is specifically noted – “It should be noted that Picture Discs may offer a lower acoustic quality, especially an increase in the acoustic noise in the initial and final grooves of the record and in the transitions between tracks.”
The picture discs that most of us are familiar with started being manufactured in the 1970’s, but the first picture discs appeared as promotional items in the 1920’s. These were cardboard discs with a vinyl coating that contained the playable grove. Some of the early versions were more akin to postcards with a circular area on them that had clear vinyl with the playable surface. In addition to product and film promotions, these discs were also notably used by Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley, a British fascist. These discs featured images of Hitler and Oswald.
RCA attempted to popularize 33 1/3 picture discs at a premium price in the early 1930’s, but the growing popularity of free music through the radio and the depression resulted in the ultimate failure of this picture discs attempt.
Starting in May 1946 and winding up in April 1947, Vogue picture discs were produced. Sav-Way Industries pressed a total of 74 different titles during this time, but eventually went bankrupt. Some of the Vogue discs can still be found as they were made with an aluminum core making them a bit more durable. I was surprised by the relatively low cost of some of these discs on Ebay. I purchased one for under $12.00. I nice piece of history for my collection.
It was the 70’s that saw picture discs improve in audio quality, but still not matching regular black vinyl. Some of the more notable were those released starting in 1969 by the Doors on the Metronome Records GmbH label which was a subsidiary of Elektra. Air Conditioning by Curved Air was released in 1970 and was one of the first modern picture disc conceived and designed by Mark Hanau. The iconic Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield was released as a picture disc as well as its regular disc in 1973. Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon was released as picture disc edition in 1974. Followed by Boston’s self-title debut in 1976 and a couple of Heart picture disc releases in 1976 (Dreamboat Annie) and 1978 (Magazine). The Beatles, Styx, The Cars and Rush were also notable rock bands that released picture discs.
Throughout the 90’s until the current time, a select number of picture discs have been released and will continue to be released. It appears that much of the decision making to release as a picture disc is the popularity of the performer and the album being released. This accounts for Micheal Jackson’s Thriller which was released as a number of different picture discs, U2’s War by U2, Make It Big by Wham!, Gold Digger by Kanye West, Sam’s Town by The Killers (2006), and Life on Mars? by David Bowie.