Vinyl today in its natural state looks remarkably similar to the first LP introduced by Columbia records in 1948. It’s black, shiny, filled with grooves with a center hole and a label, and it plays best on a turntable with a stylus positioned on a motionless, flat surface.

But this hasn’t prevented artists, engineers, publicists and assorted maniacs from making records for moving vehicles and readable only by computers, manufactured in every color and no color at all, made with Scratch’N’Sniff Porno technology or made out of leaves, urine, hair and even blood. Since 1948, it seems mankind has been obsessed by two objectives:

  1. to find an alien civilization close enough for us to attack, and
  2. creating records out of weird shit and using them for unusual things.

Here are some of the latter – the strangest, most unusual records you might find lurking in the racks and crates and record caches (and God help you if you do).

 

1. Vinyl a Go-Go – Riding the Microgrooves of Highway Hi-Fi (1956)

Peter Carl Goldmark was one of the most important American inventors you’ve never heard of. The Hungarian immigrant, in a very real sense, had an influence on ALL of the records featured here, because Goldmark was a singular force in developing the LP itself – the actual prototype of the microgrooved 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record that enabled massive amounts of sound to be crammed on a 12″ vinyl disc. He also developed one of the early technologies for color TV (used by CBS but eventually superseded by RCA’s compatible color technology).

One of Goldmark’s less successful inventions was Highway Hi-Fi, an early attempt to allow drivers to select music on demand while driving. As the Eisenhower administration built out the US highway system in the 1950s, Americans began driving further and further distances, for the first time regularly traveling through the transmission ranges of radio stations.


Putting a turntable into a car seems like a half-baked and crude attempt at a solution, but it doesn’t really do justice to the serious engineering behind Highway Hi-Fi. Goldmark’s challenge was to use a very small record (the size of a 7″ 45rpm record) and enable it to play for as long as possible, because drivers couldn’t keep pulling over (or worse, not pulling over) to flip records every four and a half minutes. Goldmark approached this problem from every angle possible. The belts on the turntable were driven down to a crawl – just 16 2/3 RPM! Heavy, 135-gram vinyl was developed, and the records were cut with ultra-tight grooves – more than 216 grooves per centimeter. The turntable was fitted with a high pressure stylus (to avoid skips) and then installed in a shock-proof case. Through these advances, Goldmark managed to extend these 7″ records to hold 45 to 60 minutes on each side.


Unfortunately, engineering couldn’t leap ahead 10 years or solve the obvious problems of installing a record player in a car dashboard. It was expensive ($200, or about $1850 adjusted for inflation). The turntables would only come factory installed and most local garage mechanics had no idea what to do when one broke. The heavy stylus wore out those fine grooves faster than anticipated, and “music on demand” didn’t amount to much music at all, because the catalog contained nothing but Columbia Records releases. Most people never tried it, much less experienced the “rich hi-fi tone” in this “proven marvel of electronic engineering for music lovers,” as the promotional material had it.

 

2. Porn & Corn Flakes: The Bizarre Legacy of Cardboard Records (1954)

Imagine a media format aimed almost entirely at a target market of schoolchildren and men buying porno magazines.

That really happened, though not intentionally, and it’s the bizarre legacy of cardboard records.

Like Highway Hi-Fi, cardboard records emerged as a solution to a problem largely beyond the reach of the technology at the time – in this case, the only audio format that could be easily distributed and read had to be played on a turntable. Almost entirely promotional, cardboard were most frequently found on packaging – first, and for most of their existence, on the back of children’s cereal boxes. I haven’t been able to find the first example of cardboard records but as early as the 1950s Wheaties boxes came with Disney cardboard records printed on the back. With their teen-targeted publicity machine behind them, The Monkees became the kings of the “cereal box bands” and had an array of wholesome cardboard records on cereal boxes, which Rhino collected as a “boxed” set in 2016.

Later, cardboard records became associated with pornographic magazines, particularly those produced and distributed by Midwest porn king Reuben Sturman. The discs were printed on square paper and included as either a tear out or pull out (no pun intended). Placing them on the phonograph the listener would hear theatrical moans, dirty talk or actresses reciting scripts.



Intended as a gimmick to push newsstand sales, other forms of “engineering” were employed on cardboard porno records too, such as one which alleged to be a cardboard record on one side and an “all-girl odor” Scratch’N’Sniff sticker on the other.

Debuting just a few years after the first LP was released, cardboard records had an amazingly long shelf life as a medium – nearly 50 years, almost as long as the heyday of vinyl LPs themselves! Despite their longevity, remarkably little is known about individual records, on account of the flimsiness of the material and their primary use as advertising or promotional gimmicks.

 

3. Quadradisc: The (Almost) Original Quadraphonic Sound Spectacular (1972)

With all of the engineering going into playing records, you might be surprised America had any scientific resources left over to throw at the Apollo missions to the Moon. Another high tech fixation that resulted in some strange records was a 1970s-era obsession with quadraphonic sound – the idea of total immersion in sound from all four directions in the comfort of your living room.

Quadraphonic recordings appeared on reel-to-reel tape, 8 tracks and then finally several iterations of vinyl. The most successful vinyl format, the Quadradisc system, required the listener to purchase the specially encoded vinyl itself, a high frequency range stylus for the turntable (commonly known as a “shibata“), a special “demodulator” unit which would decode the music from the specially cut Quadradisc vinyl, plus an amp and four speakers in order to enjoy Quadradiscs like they were meant to be enjoyed. When you see old TV shows mocking guys in leisure suits obsessed by the refined quality of their home hi-fi system, it’s a sideswipe at the kind of people who bought Quadradiscs and quadraphonic sound systems.


Aside from the expense of the sound system required to play them, the Quadradisc was at war with other quadraphonic vinyl variants, similar to the DVD wars of the ’00s. The difference here is that none of them really won. Quadradiscs are still available in the second-hand record market, distinguished by the logo on the label and a bright rainbow sheen when the vinyl is tilted in sunlight (an artifact of the encoding process). They can be played like normal records on a normal turntable, though audio quality varies and a normal stylus reportedly ruins the quadraphonic encoding.

 

4. Steampunk as Fuck: Floppy ROMs: The Records Only a Computer Could Love (1977)

If steampunk were a real thing rather than a costume for Doctor Who nerds, loading computer programs from 45rpm records would be steampunk as FUCK. That was a real thing that happened in the brief window when personal computers began to sprout on people’s desks and adequate storage was still a real (and expensive) concern.

Flexidiscs were the more durable, more respectable and more serious version of cardboard records described above, but nobody really thought they’d one day hold computer programs. Patented in 1962 by a company called Eva-Tone, Flexidiscs appeared in magazines, were handed out like flyers and even made their way across the Iron Curtain to the Soviet Union (the USSR also had bootlegs called roentgenizdat, otherwise known as “ribs” because they were produced on discarded X-ray prints).

Computer magazines in the 1970s and 1980s would devote pages to printing code that programmers and hobbyists would type out on their home computers to run programs. Floppy discs had been introduced in 1971, but the most common format in 1977 were the big 8 inch versions which were obviously too large to fit into a magazine (5.25″ discs had just been introduced in 1976). Aside from floppies, files were commonly stored on audio cassettes which were accessed by plugging a tape recorder into a port in the back of the computer.

Aside from cassette tapes, what else could hold audio? Vinyl. Printed on a Flexidisc with a cassette interface connected directly to the record lathe, the first “Floppy ROM” appeared in the May 1977 issue of Interface Age magazine containing a 4K BASIC interpreter for the 6800 microprocessor. If the code on that one disc had been printed on paper, it would have reputedly required 80 pages to fit it all. The Floppy ROM was a success and was followed by other 45-sized computer program discs, including a notoriously awful Thompson Twins Adventure Game.

While it obviously didn’t have the functionality of a Floppy ROM, a year later Japanese artist Isao Tomita released The Bermuda Triangle, an album which contained embedded signals related to the Tarbell Cassette Interface.

 

5. Autobomb: Kraftwerk’s Neon Lights: The Record that Glowed in the Dark (1978)

Colored and sometimes clear vinyl became trendy in the 1970s, but by this point they’ve become passé and even regarded with suspicion by some collectors. For instance, it’s now common for record labels to reissue back catalog albums as “deluxe” editions with little changed other than the introduction of colored vinyl (90% of the shit records pushed on Record Store Day are like this).

Back in 1978, Kraftwerk naturally one-upped their rivals by introducing a 12″ record that appeared to be gauzy transparent in daylight but glowed like a slice of a radioactive core in the dark. The record in question was, of course Neon Lights. Copies still glow in the dark 30 years later, but the record is otherwise unremarkable. Kraftwerk didn’t just anticipate the future of music, but anticipated the future of “Record Store Day regret” as well.

 

6. Two Minutes of Analog/Digital Ecstasy on the VinylDisc (2010)

This is probably more of a “CD you can play on a turntable” than a record you can play in a CD drive, but is was so odd that it definitely bears inclusion here. Released in 2010, Jeff Mills’ The Occurrence had a special edition release from Japan in which the other half of the CD (which means the top half, since CD players read the bottom) could be placed (carefully) on a turntable to play the track “Markings.” This blend of digital and analog media was something of an engineering puzzle, as the tray in CD players required a disc with a maximum diameter of 4.7 inches, as well as a wide center hole to mount inside the CD player. Each included a kind of “adapter” ring, special for this record only (do you have any other 4.7″ records with a CD-sized spindle hole?)

The vinyl part is actually played right along the edge – there is a huge run out. The label, Third Ear in Japan, released a video of it which has surprisingly few views given Mills’ status and the novelty of a turntable playing a CD.


It’s also interesting how quickly things have changed. Four years before this, Marques Wyatt told me a story about how mortified he was when he was photographed at a party with stacks of CDs parked on top of non-functional turntables. Eight years after The Occurrence, about the only people I know who buy CDs at all are the DJs who still use CDJs.

Eight years from now, will it be more rare to have a CD player in the house than a turntable? Strange times indeed.

 

7. Blood, Pee & Other Shit (Not Literally, or Not Yet)

Records are not bitcoins or Beanie Babies. For the vast majority of the format’s history, people who bought them took care of them to preserve their sound quality, not to maintain re-sale value. And with a few exceptions, most of the weird records on this list are utilitarian: they were made to be used, not mounted on a wall or locked in a vault.

That’s almost quaint compared to our era’s weird vinyl, which is mostly designed from the start to be merch or objets d’art that will increase in value with artificial scarcity and a few gimmicky tricks.

And so we come to the current era of weird vinyl, created in some cases for the sole purpose of being “collectible.” These records are rarely played and sometimes they’re not able to be played at all. The audio quality is less important than their pristine condition; these are “records” in name only, destined to spend their existence inside clear plastic containers.

They’re a lot less fun. They’re also often fucking disgusting.

Putting shit (not literal shit, or at least not yet literal shit) into vinyl dates back to the colored vinyl trend of the ’70s. Today there is almost no end of strange substances put into vinyl, from actual moving liquid to human body fluids. Building upon the ingenuity of engineers like Peter Carl Goldmark, the record industry’s innovations are now reduced to finding new ways to squeeze shit into records that can’t be played.

The Flaming Lips released probably the most famous record of this kind, the 2012 The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends LP. Sold for $2,500 in an edition of 10 copies, the records were filled with human blood donated by Nick Cave, Erykah Badu, Ke$ha and others, locked beneath a medical seal. The proceeds were donated to The Oklahoma Humane Society – because when I think of Nick Cave using syringes to take fluids out of his body rather than put them in, I naturally think of dog neutering.

Several other records have contained human blood. Liquid-filled records in general are proliferating and becoming the big new concept designed as a tax on classic collectors as multiple David Bowie records, an edition of Gorillaz’ Demon Days and several other liquid-filled LPs have all been released since 2016.

Eohippus upped the ante on their 7″, helpfully titled Getting Your Hair Wet With Pee. It’s a single sided vinyl record which allegedly (who would verify this?) contains hair, which was wet with pee.

And then there’s Vinyly, a British company with a twee start-up name. For £3,000, Vinyly promises to pack a special edition vinyl release not with blood, hair or pee but the cremation ashes of your choice – either yours or your loved one. The records then come in a limited edition of only 30 copies of Aunt Edith.

This all might be a bit much for you and me, but imagine the re-sale value if someone pinched just a spoonful of Bowie and dropped his ashes in the pellet mash to be melted down and pressed with an extended mix of “Space Oddity.” Brexit might not matter considering the sums dumb Boomer collectors would drop to own an actual, literal piece of David Bowie that you can put on your turntable. Or under plastic, or on a wall, or whatever you’d do with it.

 


 

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