This weekend The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl opened at the Miami Art Museum. And since the show's catalogue includes my Frieze essay "New Feeling" on the Rauschenberg and the Talking Heads, I decided to stick the original here.
The show is up until June 10 and the catalogue includes Luc Sante and Mac McCaughan, and if you're in Miami the actual exhibit has some amazing Dario Robleto work. Read on:
It took the Talking Heads half a year to find a company that could make Robert Rauschenberg’s Speaking in Tongues cover for them. Keyboard player Jerry Harrison finally turned to a firm that made Oscar Meyer hot dog packaging. Apparently it’s not that easy to find a company to vacu-form a clear vinyl record.
If you grew up in the US in my generation, Oscar Meyer is painfully Proustian thanks to their ad jingle – a whole group of American kids grew up thinking ‘baloney’ was spelled ‘O-S-C-A-R’. Also growing up in the US, I remember the very day I went to the record store to buy Speaking in Tongues. It was a big deal. Rauschenberg himself, a big old famous artist (at a time when I dreamed of being one too) had done the cover. It was important to be the first to buy it. Only 50,000 would be produced because they were so expensive, and we all knew that soon a new version would be out with a painting by David Byrne. In an era before limited editions were big, that first cover was a fan’s chance to own something akin to real art.
Complete with spinning plexi-discs and layers of images, it was the perfect foil for Rauschenberg’s interest in collaged objects. Red, yellow and blue discs were layered with photographs of number plates, car bumpers and suburban bedrooms. The cover looks almost exactly like his 1967 piece Revolver, with similar plexi-discs set in a concrete base with a motor to spin the prints. Only with the Talking Heads’ artwork we got to control them ourselves – on a record, no less. Something that’s accessible and affordable. It was the ideal medium for an artist who’d been known to say that he wanted to ‘work in the gap between art and life.’
Byrne’s replacement was a bold painting but not nearly as inspiring as the first cover. (Then again, he’d been kicked out of the Rhode Island School of Design in the early ‘70s; tutors were none too impressed by his shaving his head onstage, accompanied by an accordion and a showgirl.) Rauschenberg won a Grammy for Speaking in Tongues in 1983, the first of two the band would get over the years for their album art. The second was for the Once in a Lifetime box set, with paintings by Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov. The second time round the band was hardly as involved in the cover – then again, the second time around it didn’t take six months to source.
Now a quarter century on, I still have a copy of Speaking in Tongues, though the plastic is crumbling. It’s all been carefully wrapped to protect the fragile pieces. Nine years ago when I was interviewing David Byrne, I presented the tissue-clad bundle to him to sign, and today after a couple transcontinental moves, the album is the only piece of vinyl I still own.