Survey: Robert Crumb & 78 rpm records

17.04.25

Dissertations

Robert Crumb & 78 rpm records

R. Crumb and his Keep-On-Truckin' Orchestra "River Blues / Wisconsin Wiggles" (Krupp Comic Works)

『R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country』 (Harry N. Abrams)

Loved by a legendary underground cartoonist : Records made from Shellac

Cartoonist Robert Crumb is responsible for one of the greatest album covers of all time, Cheap Thrills, the debut album of 1960s musical icon Janis Joplin with her rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
In 1967, Crumb founded the first successful underground comix publication, Zap Comix (which Janis Joplin herself was an avid reader of) in San Francisco, during the rise of the counterculture movement, the 'Summer of Love', and was considered a cult hero among the hippy community.

Crumb himself actually had no interest in rock music at the time. His great love was towards music from the Jazz Age during the 1920s, including genres such as country, blues, jazz, jive, ragtime, and hillbilly. Crumb, who admired this style of music from a young age, is also known for being one of the world's leading collectors of "SP records", which existed before the introduction of vinyl records (LP, EP).

『R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection』 (W. W. Norton & Company)

After the appearance of LPs (Long Playing), which were made with a light and chip-proof PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in 1948, the older format records were given the name SP (Standard Playing) to differentiate them.

By contrast to the LP, a vinyl record format characterized by a speed of 33 1/3 rpm, SPs were played at a speed of 78 rpm and the 10-inch (25 cm) diameter of the record meant that the duration of the records was about three minutes per side.

The materials used to make SP records, which was the standardized format for vinyl albums throughout the world before World War II, came from insects. Shellac is an animal product that comes from the Coccus lacca, which is also used as a red natural dye in some regions of the world. After feeding, the insect produces a gummy substance through its pores that hardens into a protective covering called lac. This lac is combined with powders such as barium sulfate and aluminum oxide to harden before being used to manufacture records. Because these "shellac records" were made with this sort of brittle material they were more fragile and prone to breaking compared to LPs.

Instead of recording via magnetic tape, the current industry standard, SP records utilized a "direct cutting" method where the artist's voices and sounds were directly recorded onto the records. Because each recording was a "live one-shot-recording" and could not be edited, the skills required by each member of any musical act had to be very high, along with an immense level of focus required to complete a record. For this reason, SP records from this era contain a sense of fiery passion compared to more modern formats.
Crumb was deeply in love with the world of SP records, which provided "a few minutes of dream-like sounds" with each listen. In search of SP records (many of the record jackets did not have any artist names or song titles printed onto them), Crumb would knock the doors of his neighbors and ask for old blues and jazz records that were collecting dust in the corner of their houses. Today, Crumb has a collection of over 5,000 records in his home in the south of France.

In addition to being an avid record collector, Crumb is also a musician. In 1974 he formed a string band called "R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders" with fellow SP record collector friends.

Crumb was the frontman and banjo player, and recorded three albums with the band. Even though it was a side project, the sounds created by him and his friends, who performed in their iconic "cheap suits", were passionate and enjoyable.

『R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders』LP (Blue Goose)

For many years, Crumb has provided a wide range of album jacket artwork to record label Blue Goose Records and sister label Yazoo Records, the latter of which released his band's 78 rpm recordings. Skip James, Charley Patton, Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rogers... The illustrations of musicians from good old days drawn by Crumb are filled with his enthusiasm and admiration for the music of that era.

To Crumb, this analog era was the ultimate golden age of music. Crumb explains that, "listening to three minutes of music, getting up, and resetting the record. This is one of the joys of listening to 78 rpm records." When viewing his illustrations, one can clearly sense his unwavering passion for music.

『Les As du Musette』boxed card set (Oog & Blik)

Survey, defined as: to examine or inspect. In these features, we will be reporting on things, people, places, or cultures that inspire us in our daily work of making products.

edit & text: Kosuke Ide

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