It’s the 1960s, and your company is keen to tap into the growing, groovy teenage market. Perhaps you’re trying to advertise washing machines, scouring pads, bank accounts, mattresses, a shopping centre, even porn films. Then it hits you: You’ll post them a catchy jingle and get them to listen to it at home. Today, flexi discs—the thin, cheap, flexible counterparts of vinyl records—are an all but forgotten artefact of musical history. But from the 1960s to the late ’90s they were a craze that contemporary marketers could only dream of: an audio format that could be slipped into magazines or mailed like postcards, and one that people actually listened to.
Wobbly Sounds, A Collection of British Flexi Discs, by Trunk Records founder, record collector, and radio presenter Jonny Trunk, and published by Four Corners Books, takes a look back at the history and design of flexi discs to show what happened when staid brands tried to reinvent themselves by jumping on the bandwagon of corporate jingles and gimmicks.
The first thing to know, and which Trunk keeps emphasizing, is that flexi discs sound awful: “You really have to work hard to get a good sound.” Their attributes are also their detriments–they are so small, thin, and light that they can only hold a few minutes of audio; they warp easily; and turntable needles can drag and scratch the discs. One solution, often written on the discs themselves, is to weigh them down with a few coins. Despite their flaws they were absurdly popular, and produced in their hundreds of millions.
“I probably found my first one when I was sixteen,” Trunk says. ”You just find them one at a time and they just appear in weird ways. They turn up inside different record sleeves, they turn up inside magazines, they turn up in junk shops. There was no cataloguing of what’s been made, and because a lot of it’s not music-based a lot of traditional music collectors aren’t interested.”
Trunk notes that some musicians did make use of the format: Early flexi releases included experimental tracks by electronic pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Tristram Carey. The Beatles were early adopters, as was David Bowie; and later the Human League and The Durutti Column put out their own discs. But these were always understood as novelties.
Flexi discs came into their own as promotional material when combined with magazines. In the UK, the New Musical Express, Record Mirror, and Melody Maker used exclusive releases in their competition for readers. Private Eye recorded satirical songs while Rustler enticed with audio erotica. In 1979, National Geographic claimed the then-largest record release in history with 10 million whale song discs. By the late 1980s, home computing magazines were even distributing games encoded on flexi discs. Trunk’s copy of Othello is a highlight of his collection.
Taking a look through Wobbly Sounds, it feels easier to name the products that weren’t promoted. “The USA had a huge market for them, and if you think of that whole Madison Avenue advertising scene, they jumped on that and they were masters, particularly in the 1960s, of pairing up a brand with a novelty,” says Trunk. “So you have masses of breakfast cereal flexi discs, TV discs, and cartoon discs.” Amongst these I find Pleetway pyjamas offering “sweet dreams for swinging sleepers,” Steiner wigs presenting care tips for hairpieces, and Capern’s bird seed promising to teach your budgie to speak, while Trunk picks out a mournful jazz b-side from Strand cigarettes’ infamously disastrous “You’re Never Alone with a Strand” ad campaign.
The variety of brands represented is matched by the stylistic eclecticism of the graphic design. Despite the ephemeral, disposable nature of these diminutive records their anonymous designers still put the same creativity and attention into their art as that of their larger vinyl relatives. In one sense they had a freer hand: “you’re not dealing with usual pop law; an artist who wants their name on the front,” Trunk says, “so it’s always going to be different.” But the seriousness with which brands took this opportunity to both speak directly to people about their products and simultaneously reinvent themselves is represented by the attractive bold, bright translucent plastics, expressive typography, and liberal use of expensive color photography.
The same can’t be said for the quality of the songs. One of Trunk’s favourite’s was made to advertise the CMK shopping centre in the post-war planned new town of Milton Keynes: “It’s brilliantly crap. It’s got a line in it which goes, ‘CMK, wouldn’t mind shopping all day.’ You’ve just gotta hear it and think, someone’s commissioned a song about shopping in Milton Keynes. It’s pretty out there.” I find it hard to comprehend the fact people actively chose to listen to these records, “But back at the time that was pretty normal,” Trunk reminds me. “Most houses had a record player, it wasn’t an issue to slip this little thing out of its paper bag and stick it on. It was a really simple thing to do.”
Ultimately, flexi discs were a victim of what Trunk describes as the “collapse” of vinyl with the advent of affordable CDs. But mainly, and he’s is keen to emphasise that “it was because they sounded crap.”
But given the renewed interest in analog records, print magazines, and an increasingly environmentally conscious emphasis on reducing plastic use, could we see a return of the flexi disc? “No, absolutely no,” he laughs. “I mean, every now and then with this vinyl revival people remake them, but they just sound so bad. Now it’d probably cost you more money than you would benefit. They’re really just a sonic curiosity of the ’70s and ’80s.” So, long live the flexi disc. At least they’re interesting to look at.