I wanted to hear “Song to Jutta,” so I bought a copy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s first album. I was surprised to find that the liner notes were written by my friend Ann Moses.
I called Ann. “Did someone tell you what to write?” I asked. “How did that work?”
“No one told me what to write,” said Ann, who was the editor of Tiger Beat magazine at the time and would go on to work as a correspondent for New Musical Express. “The guys in that band were friends of mine; they got a record deal and they asked me to write the notes. In 1967, you knew if you were writing liners, your job was to sell the band.”
Ann could still quote her Nitty Gritty essay about how the band defied easy description. “I’m not proud that I stole that part about how they were like your first taste of sauteed snails or a psychedelic trip,” she confided to me. “That was from a review of Mrs. Miller that I heard Ralph Story do on the evening news.” Ann called the station and requested Story’s teleprompter script, from which she lifted a couple of sentences. I assured her that Story was dead and likely no one had noticed her theft.
I’m old enough to remember when liner notes — the essays and exclamations printed on the back of or inside an album cover — were a thing. And I’m fussy enough to point out that what we usually call liner notes aren’t, really, because the liner of an LP is the inner sleeve, and not the jacket, where liner notes typically appeared. Liner notes take their name from that paper sleeve, which in the '60s began to swap ad copy (“Enjoy these other hits from Dot Records!”) for material specific to the recording. Ann’s Nitty Gritty Dirt Band essay appeared right around the time the LP jacket shill was going the way of the mesh mini-skirt.
“In the early days, album text was all about hype,” Lisa Sutton told me when I called to talk liner notes. “So you’d pick up a Frank DeVol record and it’d say, ‘You’ve heard his TV show themes, now hear his new symphony!’ or whatever.” It was propaganda, according to Lisa, meant to pique interest in product. The 12-inch LP, popularized in the late '40s, was targeted to Mom and Dad. In the late '60s, as the market shifted to younger buyers, liners became more sophisticated and less pushy.
“Teenagers didn’t want to be sold something,” said Lisa, whose history-of-the-1970s essay for Rhino’s Have a Nice Decade package was nominated for a Grammy. “Hippies were the new record-buying audience, and hippies were anti-hype. A record cover that told them ‘Buy this, it’ll give you the greatest album experience ever!’ was really uncool, and the artists knew it.”
By the late 60s, the prime real estate of album sleeves — 144 square inches! — was given over to lyrics, production credits, and photos of the artists and their colleagues. Liners mostly vanished until the advent of CD compilations and back-catalog reissues.
Lisa made a career of writing liner notes and designing those packages, working first at Rhino Records in the mid-'80s and then freelancing for pretty much every record label, large and small. “CDs were new, and everyone was doing reissues and compilations,” she remembered. “We’d put a ton of research into the little booklets you got with the CD, and I’d dig up rare pictures of the artists, and that booklet was the added value. It was like liner notes gone berserk, with every detail of how the album had been made, 30 years ago.”
Liner notes died a second death after music went digital, said Lisa, who left the record business for a job in television production. “Once people stopped buying CDs, there was less need for compilations or reissued back catalog,” she explained. “So there went that neat little booklet explaining the history of the music you just bought.”
Lisa doesn’t think young music consumers noticed. “A 22-year-old isn’t sad that he doesn’t own a rotary telephone,” she reminded me. “They don’t need a CD booklet because if they like what they’re hearing, they go online and read about it.”
I need neither a booklet nor the internet; I have my record collection. Here are Johnny Cash’s Grammy-winning notes on the back of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, gorgeous and relevant: “So where are your mountains/To match some men?/This man can rhyme the tick of time/The edge of pain, the what of sane?” And Ralph J. Gleason’s surrealist, lower-case tone poem inside the gatefold of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew: “it's not just the horn. it's a concept. it's a life support system for a whole world.”
My favorites are still those tacky liner notes designed to sell a record. “Never before has show business seen and heard anything like them!” enthuses the back-cover copy on The Beatles’ Second Album in a masterpiece of understatement. And the long, long essay adorning Those Fantabulous Strings Play the Sonny and Cher Hits commences by warning, “One of the wonders of what one day may be called ‘The Startling Sixties’ is the vitality and ever-changing quality of our popular music.”
Perhaps my favorite cheeseball liner notes were penned by Tinseltown legend Gene Kelly, who never worked with Patty Duke but wrote back-cover hype for her unlistenable Sings Songs from The Valley of the Dolls and Other Selections LP of 1967. Someone must’ve played this stink bomb for Kelly, because his tedious essay is a master class in opinion-dodging politesse: “Patty is an exciting singer, but precisely because her voice is excited and emotional and full of action.” (Yes, Gene. But can she sing?)
Lisa likes the sleeve notes on the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack because they give context to the oddball score and are written in the voice of one of the movie’s characters. And she has a soft spot for the liners on the Monkees’ Headquarters album, which make a point of explaining that, yes, the guys really did play their own instruments — on that record, at least.
Sometimes, really good liner notes can change you. “It helps if you’re really young,” Arizona Republic music critic Ed Masley told me. “I spent half my teen years lying on my bed listening to records and reading whatever came with them and, yeah, then there was The Kink Kronikles.”
The 1972 compilation of the British band’s early tracks featured an essay by music writer John Mendelssohn; these were “liner notes that changed my life and left me ruined for all else,” Ed wrote on Facebook last week. “He really captured the essence of what made the Kinks what would eventually become my favorite band. And I'm not even sure that would've happened if I hadn't filtered all the things my teenage mind was hearing in those songs through what John had to say about them.”
Ed’s story makes me want a liner notes revival. While boutique labels like Cherry Red and Second Disc and Real Gone continue to package reissues and compilations with excellent essays by talented writers, I still long for those crappy shills on the back of mid-'60s pop albums. Or, as Bernie Solomon wrote in the liners for Troy Shondell’s This Time long-player, “Wrap your head around these words, but don’t miss out on the grooves inside this cardboard sleeve!”