The History of Picture Discs

The History of Picture Discs
Authored By John Nicholson

Although in the late 70s and 80s picture discs became commonplace, it’s not often known that they had been around since the 1920s. Their first wave of significant popularity did not arrive until the start of the 1930s, when several companies in several countries began issuing them. 

Some were illustrated with photographs or artwork simply designed to be appropriate to the musical contents, but some graphics also promoted films in which the recorded songs had been introduced, and a few were blatant advertising that had little or no connection with the recording. 

Some politicians and demagogues explored the potential of the discs as a medium for propaganda. Adolf Hitler and British fascist Oswald Mosley were each featured on their own special picture discs. I wonder if anyone still has these? I’ve never ever seen a copy. 

Most of these records were made of a simple sheet of fairly thin printed cardboard with a very thin plastic coating and their audio quality was substandard. I’d also imagine they were hardly robust. 

However, some were more sturdy and well-made and they equaled or actually surpassed the audio quality of regular  records, which were still made of a gritty shellac compound that introduced a lot of background noise. 

In 1933, RCA Victor in the U.S. issued a few typical cardboard-based picture records but was unhappy with their quality and soon began making an improved type. A rigid blank shellac core disc was sandwiched between two illustrated sheets and each side was then topped with a substantial layer of high-quality clear plastic into which the recording was pressed. 

Like nearly all records being made for the general public, they were recorded at 78 rpm, but one issue was recorded at 33⅓ rpm, a speed already in use for special purposes which Victor was then unsuccessfully attempting to introduce into home use. It was the first 33⅓ rpm picture disc and the only one made until many years later.

These were deluxe picture discs, priced much higher than ordinary records, and they sold in very small numbers. In the early 1930s the entire record industry was being devastated by a worldwide economic depression and the proliferation of the new medium of radio, which made a wide variety of music available free of charge. Picture discs fell by the wayside until 1946 when Tom Saffardy's Sav-Way Industries began issuing Vogue Records in USA. 

Vogues were a well-made product physically similar to RCA Victor's improved 1933 issues except that their core discs were aluminum instead of shellac. Vogue's discs featured artwork done in the styles typical of 1940s commercial illustration and poster art. The audio quality was excellent by contemporary standards and they featured professional talent, most with names known to the general public, but Vogue was handicapped by the lack of any big "hit" names. 

Top-tier talent was usually under exclusive contract to companies such as Mercury Records, for whom Sav-Way manufactured special attention-grabbing, quiet-surfaced picture discs that Mercury distributed only to radio disc jockeys. These must be amongst some of the most rare record collectables. Vogue records retailed for US$1.05, about fifty percent more than ordinary ten-inch 78 rpm records at the time. The novelty of the colourful discs attracted interest and sales at first, but success proved elusive and Vogue went out of business in 1947 after fewer than 100 catalogue items bearing the Vogue logo had been issued.

More commercially successful and long-lived were some of the children's picture discs marketed by the Record Guild of America from the late 1940s through the 1950s. Their most popular and well-known issues resembled Vogue records in their general style of illustration and use of high-quality materials, but they were only 7 inches in diameter, had no reinforcing core disc, and sold for a much lower price. Other companies such as Voco also made picture discs for children.

Red Raven Movie Records, introduced in 1956, were a very unusual type of children's picture disc. They featured a sequence of sixteen interwoven animation frames arrayed around the centre and were to be played at 78 rpm on a turntable with a short spindle, on which a small sixteen-mirrored device, a variety of the praxinoscope (great word!) was placed. Gazing into this as the record played, the user saw an endlessly repeating high-quality animated cartoon scene appropriate to the song. 

Only the earliest Red Raven discs, which were of the coated cardboard type but reinforced with a metal rim and spindle hole grommet, were true picture discs. The more common later issues were larger "picture label discs" made of solid coloured opaque, translucent or transparent plastic, with the recording in a band surrounding a very large label that carried the animation graphics. In the 1960s similar products were introduced in several countries under various brand names—Teddy in France and the Netherlands, Mamil Moviton in Italy, etc.

Picture discs of the large and solid Victor-Vogue type were very rarely issued in the U.S. between the demise of Vogue in 1947 and the end of the 1960s, but several lines of picture discs, such as the French Saturnes, were produced in Europe and Japan during these years.

A new generation of picture discs appeared in the 1970s. The first serious pictures discs, with acceptable but still inferior sound quality, were developed by Metronome Records GmbH, a subsidiary of Elektra Records. 

These new picture discs were made by creating a five-layer lamination consisting of a core of black vinyl with kiln-dried paper decals on either side and then outer skins of clear vinyl film, manufactured by 3M, on the outsides. In manufacture, one layer of the clear film was first placed on the bed of the press on top of the stamper, then a "puck" of hot black vinyl from the extruder was placed on top of that. Finally the top print and vinyl film layer was added (held by a retracting pin in the upper profile usually employed to retain the upper paper label) and the press closed. 

Problems with poor vinyl flow caused by the paper texture and air released from the paper (that had not been removed in the kiln drying process) plagued the process. Issues with sound quality would plague picture discs right into the mid 1980s, coloured vinyl likewise was often noisy and sounded like you were playing a sheet of sandpaper. Eventually they got the production process correct but it had taken a full 60 years.

The glory picture disc days were in the mid to late 80s when many bands would routinely release a version of the album as picture disc, as well as black vinyl and coloured vinyl. They would also create collectors items by limited releases as 12” and 7” singles as picture versions. It Bites did this a lot as did the Black Crowes. I love them. The chance to get more records by a band you loved was not one I was going to pass up. 

The First 10 Picture Disc Releases in the Modern Era.

Off II - Hallucinations featuring Various Artists (1969) The first modern picture disc pressed in Germany and released as a promotional disc.

Air Conditioning by Curved Air (1970) One of the first modern picture disc conceived and designed by Mark Hanau. For my money it is still one of the best. Expect to pay up to £70 for one of the first 10,000 with a booklet. The flip side is also lovely

Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield (1973) was released as a picture disc as well as its regular release. I have this picture version and it is almost unplayable in terms of sound quality. 

Farewell Aunty Jack by Rory O'Donoghue and Grahame Bond (1973) was the first Australian picture disc

Magical Love by Saturnalia c.1974. First non-compilation album to be advertised on television in Europe.

Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath (Super Rare - Shows the cover art of their first album) 1974 (re-release of album as picture disc) 

The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (1973) - picture disk edition 1974 or 1975.

Boston by Boston 1976.  I have this one and it plays well. 

Dreamboat Annie by Heart 1976. Shows Dreamboat Annie cover on front and back with text indicating the side number.

Magazine by Heart 1978. Same as Dreamboat Annie except with Magazine's cover. Both were under the Mushroom Records label. Another sandpaper job!

Scroll To Top