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“Too Marvelous For Words”: A Taxonomy of Liner Notes

by John Adamian
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

“Too Marvelous For Words”: A Taxonomy of Liner Notes

John Adamian
15 Snaps

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.

3. Earnest endorsements gave way to far-out free verse, and eventually to gag encomia designed to call bullshit on the whole concept of liner-note praise. On his 1965 masterpiece Bringing It All Back Home (two years after the Hentoff notes), Dylan penned long psychedelic beat picaresque liner notes, possibly the best jacket copy ever. It begins: “I’m standin there watching the parade/feeling combination of sleepy john estes, jayne mansfield, humphrey bogart/mortimer snerd, murph the surf and so forth/erotic hitchhiker wearing japanese blanket, gets my attention by asking didn’t he see me at this hootenannay down in puerto vallarta, mexico/I say no you must be mistaken. I happen to be one of the Supremes/then he rips off his blanket an suddenly becomes a middle-aged druggist.” This gives as good an idea of the record as any stuffy folkscribe breakdown of Dylan’s musical antecedents would: the absurd character-stuffed incidents, the jumpy rhythm, the almost spiteful embrace of popular entertainment, the contempt for the status quo of the counterculture.

4. The no-note note. When we reach the Beatles’ Revolver and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (both 1966)—the pinnacle of the album as art form—there are no liner notes. The audience didn’t require a spiel. The absence upped the mystery quotient. Soon enough, with albums like King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Led Zeppelin IV, and Santana’s third album, record ­covers didn’t even need a band name or a title, much less liner notes. Even a track listing was considered extraneous. Rock and roll had become a language beyond language.

5. But before fans took the leap into verbal nothingness, rock album covers morphed into pictographic musical bibliographies. This tactic became an album cliché itself. With the oft-mimicked cover of Sgt. Pepper’s filled with arcane visual allusions, musicians began tucking clues onto record jackets. The Beatles pointed fans toward Karlheinz Stockhausen, Carl Jung, and other hard-to-identify figures on the cover. You no longer needed words, because the albums operated on aura and image. Album art, like the signaling of a third-base coach, was important information that remained inscrutable to everyone who wasn’t on the team.

6. Not surprisingly, Frank Zappa embraced the mock liner note. The Mothers of Invention’s 1966 debut, Freak Out!, ridiculed album convention. Turning the familiar endorsements on their head inside the gatefold, the words “No commercial potential” are attributed to “a very important man at Columbia Records.”

7. Not everyone could rise to Zappa’s advanced ­mockery, or to the word-defying artistic heights of Pet Sounds. Liner notes persisted. The PR hacks assigned with writing them relied on another semi-acceptable trope: the these-songs-are-too-intense-for-mere-words approach. Music is a mystery. Its pleasures begin where words leave off. To sum it up is like pinning butterflies to the specimen book. It’s a life-sucking enterprise. ­Writers of liner notes often took the tone of Dante glimpsing heaven in the Paradiso. Words fail him. He strains to depict the divine in earthly language. “Trying to say something serious or meaningful about this man’s music is nigh on impossible,” wrote someone who went by the nom de sleeve Vinyl Demon, on the back of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s Frenzy.

8. For those who didn’t opt out of the liner note business altogether, the terse, staccato verbal slideshow offered another solution to the problem. Usually penned by the songwriter, these beat-influenced, often verb-free guided tours provided an insider’s glimpse into the writing process or a song’s elusive inspiration. It was a hip flourish. Here’s Donovan in 1966 on the back of Sunshine Superman, riffing in full Gerard Manley Hopkins mode: “sunshine super-duper man: a collapsed love affair no less. The legend of the girl-child linda: a tale for ageing children. Twelve kingfishers: dive—a flash of turquoise-brilliants into the pool.” This kind of poetry-in-air-quotes became the default mode of some entertaining liner notes. In 1969 Johnny Cash wrote on the back of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline: “This man can rhyme the tick of time / The edge of pain, the what of sane… The pain of dawn, the gone of gone / The end of friend, the end of end.” Cash practically had a second career writing rhymed liner notes about the poetic qualities of his friends’ songwriting. Here he is on Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee: “Kris, he took slices of life / And salted it down into rhyme / He picked his own days and his ways / He arranged his own meter and time.”
The producer/singer/songwriter Lee Hazlewood almost rivaled the Man in Black in the back-patting department. He could work wonders in a tone that mixed haiku brevity with hungover hobo nonsense.
An album by an artist called Arthur is enhanced by Hazlewood’s production and his liner notes of stoned synesthesia. “Arthur… a tear looking for a thirsty eye… a mind that listens to pictures… a man who will someday be a child again… a week of musical Sundays… a reason to cry and be unafraid… a bird with eighth-notes for wings… a look at velvet sand… one thought… this is Arthur.” (Ellipses his.)

9. But some liner notes were genuinely moving. Occasionally you’ll find sober, reportorial prose, something that reads like Studs Terkel or NPR’s StoryCorps project. Freddy Fender wrote the notes on the back of his 1974 Before the Next Teardrop Falls: “My real name is Baldemar G. Huerta. I was born in the south Texas valley border town of San Benito. I’m a Mexican-American, better yet, a Tex-Mex. I just picked up my stage name, Freddy Fender, in the late fifties as a name that would help my music sell better with ‘gringos.’ Now I like the name…. We began migrating up north as farm workers when I was about ten. We worked beets in Michigan, pickles in Ohio, baled hay and picked tomatoes in Indiana. When that was over came cotton picking time in Arkansas.” Great notes for a great record.

Elsewhere, rock liner notes disappeared, except on greatest hits collections, anthologies, and reissues, records which generally asked for a little contextualizing. Later, particularly with career-spanning boxed CD sets, the music received the grad-school treatment, with ­multiple essays and notes, historical timelines, and first-person recollections.

But even if the windbaggery was often bogus, liner notes still provided a pleasant distraction, something to read while you were engrossed in an album. Depending on the era and the musical genre, they gave you a taste of insider gossip, the low-down on confusing recording techniques, the name of the session guy on harpsichord, glory-days reminiscing about the early gigs in crappy clubs, a helpful kernel on the theme from a Bach prelude, actual biographical facts, puffy-eyed gusts of praise, absurd claims to artistic and intellectual significance, wild speculation about the origins of the blues, curious insights into the court composers of Queen Elizabeth, quotes from obscure French mystics, faux fan letters printed with ironic typos and deliberate misspellings, silly lists of band members’ astrological signs or favorite foods, the mixed lineage of a ballad.

10. The out-of-whack hyperbole on the back of Joe South’s 1969 Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home? is a superb example of the final liner note genus, the you-may-not-have-heard-of-him-yet-but-oh-will-you attack, which works on multiple levels, exploiting both the music fan’s fear of missing something great and also the more rodent-like dread of just being a dumbass. Brace yourself:

You probably know as much about Joe South as you know about Teddy Roosevelt, Billie Holiday or John Lennon. Or you should. But in case you don’t, he’s a very heavy talent; original, articulate, influential, important…. His sound is down-home, Deep South, gospelly, hip; with a touch of Dylanesque, off-center, on-target, mind-blowing storytelling to the lyrics. He picks a series of exposed nerve endings and puts an electric finger on them… He makes you feel, think and blink…. If you don’t yet know Joe South—it’s time. If you do—you don’t need anyone to tell you.

And the truth is, Joe South was a heavy talent, sort of a swamp-pop Brian Wilson. South wrote several famous songs, and he played on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, in addition to a lot of other noteworthy stuff. He should be better known. But seriously: Teddy Roosevelt?

Still, the straining attempts to justify the music was more charming than the frosty silences that have ruled over the backs of most rock records ever since the ’70s. We never got to flip over a Bad Company album and get the simple low-down about Paul Rodgers and the boys. R.E.M.—a band that initially didn’t even really want listeners to understand the lyrics—wasn’t about to fill us in on their motives and ambitions on the back of Murmur. (To be fair, guitarist Pete Buck penned a set of wonderfully funny, humble, and insightful notes on Dead Letter Office, the band’s mid-career collection of odds and ends. One reviewer on Amazon said the record was worth buying for Buck’s notes alone.) The fear of seeming pretentious engendered a cool detached distance, which was in itself a whole new level of pretense.

In the age of iTunes, file-sharing, and MP3 blogs, many of us have songs we don’t know bouncing around our iPods. Not only do we not know them, our machines don’t know them—unknown track by unknown artist from unknown album. And, of course, no liner notes. Perhaps no one misses them. But if new technologies obliterated the format that spawned the liner note, it’s possible that those same changes may bring about a new iteration of the concept. Earlier this year the neo-soul artist Erykah Badu announced plans to release a USB stick including her own audio commentary to “explain her references and inspiration” for an upcoming batch of recordings. Sort of a liner-note podcast—just what we need.

Despite all the excess, some liner notes actually do everything you want them to, mirroring the diamond-hard compression, the almost religious mystery of music itself, and doing it according to the leave-’em-wanting-more code of the entertainer. Leonard Cohen’s notes from his 1975 The Best of Leonard Cohen album read like bare-bones entries in a captain’s logbook from some spiritual journey that was somehow filled with both bracing solitude and loads of crazy free-love-era sex. ­Cohen conveys the dizzying rootlessness of travel (roughly half of the dozen songs on the record seem to have been composed in hotel rooms). His notes, like his songs, are sui generis. Here’s all he has to say about his haunting “Sisters of Mercy”: “This was written in a few hours one winter night in a hotel room in Edmonton, Alberta. Barbara and Lorraine were sleeping on the couch. The room was filled with moonlight reflected off the ice of the North Saskatchewan River. I had it ready for them when they woke up.” Without being grandiose or silly, he tells us what most anyone who loves music already suspects: beautiful songs are an unfathomable gift. 

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