Picture discs bring together two of a record collector’s favorite things—12-inch vinyl and gorgeous album art. As such, picture discs would appear to be the perfect marriage of sound and vision. Who wouldn’t want a disc featuring the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles or “Thriller” by Michael Jackson on it’s grooved surface?
The answer is an audiophile, a breed of collector that tends to be very unforgiving of anything that compromises a record’s sound quality, even slightly. Picture discs made during the last several decades sound radically better than their predecessors from the 1920s and ’30s, when the eye-catching format was first introduced. But contemporary picture discs still feature a thin layer of clear PVC between the phonograph needle and the artwork on the disc. This protects the picture but degrades the audio compared to traditional black or solid-colored vinyl discs.
One of the first series of picture discs to make a name for themselves among listeners were the Vogue picture discs from the late 1940s. Manufactured by Sav-Way Industries in Detroit, the catalog of 74, 10-inch, 78 rpm discs produced between the spring of 1946 and ’47 had aluminum cores, with “vinylite” on the surface. Discs sold for as little as 50 cents, and artists included Art Mooney and his Orchestra (“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”), The Charlie Shavers Quintet (“Serenade to a Pair of Nylons”), and Judy Garland (“Trolley Song”).
Some of the images on Vogue discs appear downright creepy to 21st-century eyes. For example, “I Surrender Dear” by The King’s Jesters and Louise depicts a woman on her knees, wearing a low-cut strapless dress and heels, as she presents a plate of food to a man, whose stern film-noir profile fills the rest of the disc. But most were just fun—“Rhumba Lesson No. 1” by Paul Shahin was one of several discs that came with dance steps.
Production of picture discs and colored vinyl continued throughout the 1950s and ’60s, but picture discs enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s when record companies realized the promotional potential of picture discs to grab the attention of DJs and fans alike. In some cases the runs were extremely small—only 100 copies of Toto’s 1979 release, “Hydra,” were pressed, making it a rare catch for a picture-disc collector. “Sgt. Pepper’s,” on the other hand enjoyed a pressing of 150,000 copies—Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” and Boston’s “Boston” were also produced in relatively large numbers.
Other picture discs from the 1980s, ’90s, and beyond include “Let's Dance” by David Bowie, the “Baby Snakes” soundtrack by Frank Zappa, “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and “Feel Good Inc” by Gorillaz, which was released in 2005 as a 7-inch picture disc.