Mention the words "liner notes" to anyone under the age of 40 and the response would be about the same as saying "curb feelers" or "slide rule." Except for the "seasoned" music enthusiast, liner notes have faded from the collective consciousness, replaced by iTunes, ear buds, and smart-phone screens. The hands that used to hold an album cover are now tapping out typos and bad grammar every 60 seconds.
As the Compact Disc ascended in the 1980s (you remember the 80s: big hair, bad music), what passed for liner notes just weren't the same anymore. They were no longer accessible, and in most cases, not worth accessing. You had to dig them out of those jewel cases, then squint at the teensy font. They didn't make it easy on the writer or the reader.
Even in the LP's heyday, the A-side album art, like the over-achieving sibling, got the attention. The moody portraits, the groovy graphics, the sexy poses, all decorated the walls of many a pad. I'm pretty sure no one ever said: "Come see my framed collection of liner notes," or "Look at the cool font on that Nancy Wilson album."
As a dabbler in graphic arts, I appreciated the cover art, and still try to cover as much wall space as my wife will allow. But while the art was the teaser, the main show for me (after the music, of course) was the information from so many musicians, authors, columnists, disc jockeys, and others far more informed than I. And I soaked it all up.
Without even trying, I learned to write essays from liner notes. The importance of catching a reader's attention with the first sentence was drilled into me in high school, but liner notes made the lesson real and usable. Two prime examples have stuck in my head. One is the first sentence of Steve Race's notes for Brubeck's Time Out album: "Should some cool-minded Martian come to earth and check on the state of our music, he might play through 10,000 jazz records before he found one that wasn't in common 4/4 time." Another is Leonard Feather's opening for In Person at El Matador by Sergio Mendes: "Chauvinism is as reprehensible and as expendable in music as it is in politics, painting, or plumbing." So I'm holding a Bossa Nova album and the first word is "chauvinism." How do you not read further?
As an amateur musician, I craved information about songs, composers, arrangements, personnel who took solos, and anything else the liner-note writers cared to mention. I learned about rhythms, time signatures, and instruments I never heard of. More than once, jazz album notes have explained a particularly tricky rhythm pattern by showing the actual musical notation. And I would have missed the mystique of a single note, like that recurring E-natural that showed up at Brubeck's Carnegie Hall Concert, without the artist's insight. The sum total of all the jazz album notes just in my limited collection gives a fairly complete history of jazz in America — from the guys who lived it. I even have a recipe for "Kid Ory's red beans and rice" from album notes. Not everything can be found on the Internet!
Just about the time I began to notice liner notes, so too did the Grammy Association. Not satisfied with only 40-something categories of awards, they started "Best Album Notes" in 1964, the first awarded to Leonard Feather and Stanley Dance for The Ellington Era. (Mr. Feather did a lot of writing.) Looking at the winner list, there is a good mix of all musical styles, although I see far fewer classical winners than I would have thought. Classical notes are really the biggest bargains. Not only do you get scholarly observations on the composer and the music, but often capsules of the history and politics of the time period, and you get to brush up on your French and German.
There is a scholarly work by Dean L. Biron on "Writing and Music: Album Liner Notes," which describes different types of album notes. My not-so-scholarly analysis is that there are two types, the good and the bad, or the informative and the waste of space. Everyone who reads album notes probably has their favorite worst, and mine is Peter Sellers' notes for Pink Panther, which consists of dumb jokes and puns and no interesting or helpful information. I'm sure he didn't listen to the album. Another huge lost opportunity are the notes for the Warner Brothers album for Music from the TV Series I Spy by Earle Hagen, one of my favorite big-band jazz albums. To set things straight, I wrote my own notes for that album, the way I thought they should have been written. The original sketchy notes were by Bill Cosby, but in his defense, he was probably distracted.
When notes became shrunken and hidden in the jewel cases of CDs, it was easier to hide schlocky writing. There was more than one time I wanted to fling a case into the trash when I discovered the "notes" were nothing but dozens of thank-you's from the artists to apparently everyone they ever knew. I suppose that guaranteed at least that number of sales, but it's still a pizza with no topping.
I was at Barnes and Noble recently and saw quite a few LPs for sale, mostly reissues of classics by The Beatles, Chicago, Sinatra, but new recordings also. And I saw people turning the jackets over and looking at the back. Their lips weren't moving, but I'm pretty sure they were reading. Reading liner notes! Did they know they were reading "liner notes"? Not sure, but this is a good sign. Good for music, for literacy, and for me, a music and liner notes lover.