Spring 2010

Bachelor Pad Revolution

Josef Albers and the Command Records look

Eva Díaz

From 1959 to 1961, the artist Josef Albers designed seven LP album covers for Command Records. The first, Persuasive Percussion, with music by drummer-bandleader Terry Snyder, was a number one hit on the charts for thirteen weeks and stayed in the top forty for over two years. Its cover design is starkly graphic: a ten by twenty-two grid of black dots, each one centimeter in diameter, fills its bottom half. By the eleventh row, some of the dots have levitated out of their pre-determined berths, lending the composition a spacey-staccato quality.

Persuasive Percussion, 1959.

I collect these Command albums; it’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to owning an Albers. Ironically, I’ve never listened to them; my record player has been out of commission for years. So until recently, I didn’t get a chance to experience how the graphic designs of one of the twentieth century’s most respected artists, and its preeminent color theorist, enhanced what I took to be the light elevator-music fare of albums promising “persuasive” percussion.

Finally, I heard some of the tracks on Youtube, on which there is a surprising amount of amateur footage employing the recordings. Many depict the record revolving on a turntable, some with the Albers album sleeve propped up behind the player. At first, these watching-paint-dry visuals puzzled me, but I came to understand that the high-fidelity sound of the pioneering stereo effects employed by Command Records founder Enoch Light attracts serious audiophiles who use the albums as test records for the main event: their expensive hi-fi setups, which they were showing off on the decidedly lo-fi website. Yet for all its technical virtuosity, the Light sound is itself muzak-y lite, an uninspired selection of recent pop hits covered as instrumental Latin jazzy confections. A reissue of Persuasive Percussion ran the phrase “BACHELOR PAD MUSIC” in a banner across its cover. In short, Enoch Light provided “sophisticated” lounge music for the Playboy man.

This was not what I associated with Albers, the Bauhaus master hired by Black Mountain College and later a professor at Yale University. Was this the case of the mandarin following the lure of mainstream success but instead veering headfirst toward the insipid? Not so: Albers’ output was, in fact, tremendously catholic, which may explain why Enoch Light’s daughter Julie, a student of Albers’s at Black Mountain College, recommended him to her father. Albers began his career at the Bauhaus as a glass artist, became the teaching master of the furniture workshop, and later led the wallpaper design workshop. At Black Mountain, he pursued a diverse sensibility, producing photographs, photomontages, furniture, lithographs, wood- and linoleum cuts, pen-and-ink drawings, and oil paintings, as well as a great deal of the college’s design output, including its dramatic concentric circle logo.

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