lexi discs? Ah yes, the things that put the snap and crackle into pop...except they didn’t snap, obviously...that was the whole point...they bent...” -- Matt Haynes, founder of Sarah Records
For over 40 years now, the Nihilist Spasm Band has painted over naivete’s pastels with anarchic black. Inspired by the riotous Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913 and Luigi Russolo’s intonorumori performances in London one year later, they are regarded as the world’s longest running noise act, a categorization they frequently eschew, mainly because they disregard categories in general. In 1967, Arts Canada magazine devoted countless column inches to the Ontario band’s “proto-dada assault,” a sound haphazardly assembled and meticulously scattered from instruments such as a guitar without fingerboards, a bass outfitted with piano strings, and a kazoo played with a cornet mouthpiece. Likely owing to words-can’t-do-this-justice thinking, Arts Canada included a flexi disc of the song “The Sweetest Country This Side of Heaven” with the article.
Four decades later, the same flimsy sheet of cheap plastic, featuring music akin to a clutch of femur-rattling Neanderthals first discovering the orgasmic pleasures of pure noise, fetches $100 on eBay. “I’m amazed,” said Huw Collingbourne, a former writer for Flexipop!, an ’80s U.K. magazine that included flexis in its pages. “I never guessed at the time that anyone would ever want to collect stuff that we regarded as cheap throwaways.”
The pop music / disposability double helix stretches from the 1950s (joint-jumpers shimmying to that week’s jukebox heroes) right up to the present (fad pop uploaded to MySpace pages and cellphones). Flexi discs are the crystallization of this good-for-the-moment aesthetic, a format distinctly synonymous with the expendable, two-minute pop gem. Brian Eno, expounding upon his desire to make “disposable albums,” told Sounds, “They’d be like ordinary records physically, they’d just not come with the aura of art, so one wouldn’t be frightened of having the things for a couple of weeks and then getting rid of them.” Eno could have been describing flexi discs.
The consecration of the trashy, disposable, and mass-produced constructs of capitalist culture has put flexis in a new light: once regarded as throwaway, they’re now venerated pop antiquity. And as a result, there exists a rather healthy market for selling and purchasing flexis. Peruse internet auction sites and one finds a selection both large and varied, examples of how just about anything was committed to the format: a chortle-inducing MAD Magazine flexi disc with the song “She Lets Me Watch Her Mom and Pop Fight,” which features multiple grooves, so listeners can hear one of eight different versions depending on where the needle is dropped; punk anarchists Crass duping Bride magazine into carrying one of their flexis (by passing themselves off as Creative Recording and Sound Services), which detailed all the reasons couples should not get hitched; Flexi-Sex, carried in late-’70s British porn magazines, which featured the moans and groans of the era’s top adult stars; and a Village Voice flexi disc that was a montage of off-the-cuff interview moments recorded by celebrity gossip columnist Stephen Saban.
Michael Cumella, who runs an online museum of oddball and rare flexis, said the idea of consumers becoming curators is a recent phenomenon, owing much to the fact that the format died out in the 1990s. “I didn’t know many who were collecting flexis when I first started. That’s definitely changed, though. Today there’s definitely more of a market for the format. I’m amazed at the rare and unusual flexis you’ll find being sold. And the prices they go for—it just shows how much of a demand there is for this stuff.”
The flexi-disc market is largely predicated upon artist collectability, said Randy Johnston, who owns the Toronto-based record shop Molten Core. The most expensive flexis are from artists that attract completists—super-fans looking to pluck every release from their favorite performer. Prime examples are flexis of Beatles material: a 1964 magazine insert featuring “Roll Over Beethoven” (along with tracks from the Beach Boys and the Kingston Trio) typically fetches several hundred dollars.
Johnston, who’s been in the business of selling records since the ’70s, initially heard of the flexi disc thanks to a pair of much sought-after artifacts: a Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St. Blues” promo included with a 1972 issue of NME (it was a talking blues synopsis / introduction to the band’s post-Brian Jones work), and the Velvet Underground’s “White Wind (by Peter Walker)” / “Loop,” a flexi issued with a 1966 issue of Aspen. Initially dismissive of the format, Johnston has gradually become a fan. “I used to consider flexis to be a cheap throwaway, but...[now] I can see flexis as a perfect piece of pop art. We’re living at the end of a cheap, throwaway culture, after all.”
The flexi disc’s disposability is another reason the format has become so precious, as inevitably, countless ended up in the rubbish bin. “Most people buying a magazine would have no particular use for a flexi disc,” Johnston explained. “Someone buying Flexipop! for a Wham! photo wouldn’t care about a Boomtown Rats flexi.”
Now the pendulum has swung the other way: individuals seem to be collecting what they once chucked. Rob Jenkins, who runs Kangoo Music, based in Wrexham, U.K., estimated most flexi buyers are between the ages of 35 and 45—pop fans finding delight in a format once ubiquitous during their youth. “There’s more interest than in ordinary singles,” Jenkins said. “There’s a novelty value to them. I think people tend to like anything that’s a bit different. I wouldn’t say flexis have an inherently greater value than regular releases, but they may tend to achieve a slightly higher price on eBay as the novelty factor may attract another bidder or two.”
The flexi disc traces its origins to the early parts of the 20th century, but didn't rise to prominence until the 1950s. Their very existence at such a time is quite notable, as the day’s 78 rpm players utilized heavy needles, which would have carved up a flexi after just a few listens. Companies such as London’s Lynton and the U.S. plant Evatone, which dubbed the format “soundsheets,” produced the discs during this era. They were made of vinyl or plastic, and were quite lithe (hence the name). Many featured a space for taping a penny, which added extra weight to the disc and prevented skipping while it played. Sound quality was a complaint: Most flexi discs were recorded in mono, the left and right stereo channels combined into one poor-sounding mix. The flexibility was an issue as well—bends and creases were often too severe to allow the disc another play. (Allegedly, one could repair a bent flexi by placing it under a damp cloth and ironing it.)
During the 1960s, much was made of its portability (and indestructibility), with promotional material often touting a flexi’s ability to be folded and mailed in a greeting card or carried in a purse—and publications could include stapled or glued flexi discs inside their covers. During this time, the weekly paper Disc and Music Echo produced a famous flexi compiling interviews with the most feted pop stars of the day. Aspen, touted as the world’s first “three-dimensional magazine,” also made flexis a regular feature of its content. Featuring contributions from cultural icons like Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan, and Andy Warhol, and distributed in a notebook-sized box, Aspen issued over a dozen flexi discs during its six-year run, with material running the gamut from psychedelic to spoken word.
In 1967, Americom and Philco (the electronics division of Ford Motor Company) began mass-marketing flexi discs of the era’s top 40 hits. Dubbed Hip-Pocket Records by Philco and Pocket-Discs by Americom, the releases cost anywhere from 50 to 69 cents, measured nearly four inches in diameter, were packaged in picture-embossed paper envelopes, and typically featured two songs. Over a two-year span, both companies released over 60 titles. In fact, the format became popular enough that high-end accessories were conceptualized: Philco’s Miniature Radio / Phonograph, which was battery-operated, portable, and capable of playing that company’s Hip Pockets; and Americom’s flexi vending machine, with titles coming in generic cardboard sleeves and retailing for 50 cents each.
Flexi discs didn’t vanish in the 1970s—notable releases included Human League’s meta-flexi packaged with the Dignity of Labour EP and Suicide’s “official bootleg” 23 Minutes over Brussels, which captured a catcall-filled opening set for Elvis Costello—but the format was hard-pressed to top its popularity from the previous decade. Then came Flexipop! Huw Collingbourne recalled that the magazine had two mottoes: “One was ‘Pure pulp for pinheads.’ The other was ‘Cheap sleaze for retards.’ That’s what flexi discs were all about.”
Launched in November of 1980, the short-lived monthly magazine (lifespan was just two years) came packaged with a brilliantly colored flexi disc of previously unreleased material. “Other music mags may have dabbled in flexis, but Flexipop! made a career of it,” Collingbourne said. “We had singles by the top bands of the day—everyone from the Jam to Depeche Mode.”
Besides its free flexi disc, the magazine—founded by a pair of ex-Record Mirror scribes, Barry Cain and Tim Lott—was notable for its rather impetuous approach to journalism. Collingbourne remembered a while-the-cats-are-away-type incident in 1982, where he and art editor Mark Manning (later to embark on a music career under the pseudonym Zodiac Mindwarp) turned a feature-and-photo spread on the Meteors into a Mad Max-style cannibal holocaust. “The trouble was, the cover of the magazine showed clean-living kids Haircut 100,” Collingbourne said, “while the flexi disc was supposed to be mums’ favorites, Bucks Fizz. When the editors got back from holiday, they quickly realized the problems Mark and I had got them into, and replaced the Bucks Fizz disc with a Marc Almond one in the hope that would stop young kids or their mums from buying it.” The ensuing backlash garnered even more attention for the publication: a grandmother claimed the spread encouraged cannibalism among readers, which led to the issue being seized by police, and Flexipop! being banned by British newspaper and stationery distributor W H Smith.
Shit-stirring ledes and provocative layouts were all certainly bewitching, but it was the flexi discs that kept readers returning. “A really good flexi would make the magazine fly off the newsstands,” Collingbourne said, citing the popularity of the February of 1981 issue, which included a flexi of Adam and the Ants cutting a version of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A” named “A.N.T.S.”
Flexipop! ushered in the format’s renaissance, as the 1980s saw the flexi disc become more popular than ever. In 1982, The Bob and Trouser Press began attaching flexis inside the pages of their issues. Other magazines followed suit: Reflex, Sassy, Kerrang!, and Smash Hits (the latter releasing one of the more notable of the era, a “Happy Christmas From The Stars” flexi featuring hokey holiday greetings from popular artists such as ABBA).
Fanzines also took up the practice. Since the punk explosion in the late 1970s, ’zines had become ever pervasive within the independent music scene, writer Jon Savage once describing the idea of fanzine-editor-as-star being very much in currency: “The way to get yourself around, lig, pose, rock on. A seductive dream.” Two punk fanzines are credited with starting the practice of carrying flexis: Chainsaw (with claims to being the first) and the legendary Sniffin’ Glue (the final August / September of ’77 issue included a flexi of founder Mark Perry’s band Alternative TV playing “Love Lies Limp”).
By the end of the ’80s, fanzines and flexis were intricately linked, thanks largely to the efforts of Sha-La-La, the brainchild of Are You Scared to Get Happy? founder (and later, Sarah Records head) Matt Haynes. Sha-La-La was a kinship of like-minded fanzines herded together for one purpose: to release flexis. With fellow ’zine writers Jim Kavanagh (founder of Simply Thrilled), Pete Williams (Baby Honey), and David Payne (Trout Fishing in Leytonstone) joining Haynes, the first of eight Sha-La-La flexis was released in 1987: a double single from the Clouds (“Jenny Nowhere”) and Mighty Mighty (“Throwaway”). Others members of the scissors-typewriters-and-pritstick denizens joined the flexi fray, issuing their own releases: It All Sounded the Same, Turn!, What’s it Like to Be Scottish?, and Pure Popcorn, to name a few.
According to Haynes, everything from Sha-La-La’s name to the catalog numbers (listed as Ba Ba Ba-Ba Ba 001, for example; taken from the coda to Hurrah’s “Hip Hip”) was meant to elicit a reaction. “It was an attack on pretentiousness, self-indulgence, capitalism,” Haynes said. “But it was also simply a way for people without too much money to put out records. Rather than just criticize what others were doing, we’d do it properly ourselves.” The key, though, was maintaining the sense that Sha-La-La was a label more than anything else. And it was this approach that gave the format a prepotency it never previously enjoyed. “The general idea with choosing the bands was that the four of us should be in agreement on each release,” Haynes explained, “rather than anyone going it alone, even if the flexi wasn’t coming out with our own fanzine. They were basically all bands we’d come across through gigs or through being sent demos—same as with a real label.”
“Having a flexi with a fanzine was nothing new,” Kavanagh said. “However, the idea of a flexi label and treating the releases almost like singles gave the whole thing more prominence.”
Fanzine-issued flexis were also regarded as rightful and seditious acts against the tools of a gluttonous music industry: the 12-inch vinyl single, the staple of the time; and to a lesser extent, compact discs, which began infiltrating the U.S. and U.K. marketplaces as early as 1983. “It may seem daft now, but to us, the 12-inch singles represented the music business, the exploitation,” Kavanagh said. “To us it was all about DIY, the fanzines, the loose arrangements of clubs and gigs. We felt we were as punk rock as anyone—but in a colorful, non-threatening, not-too-serious way. The politics were very subtle, but there.” Fitchett remembers the flexi as ‘a very conscious way of saying, ‘Hey, don’t you think that things like passion and great songs are more important that audio fidelity?’ It wasn’t really a Luddite reaction, as many critics suggested, it was a way of making a cultural statement.” When a three-track twelve-inch single was costing four quid, Sha-La-La was putting four songs on a flexi disc and selling it for 50 pence, fanzine included.
Aside from having legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel in their corner, as well as some positive press from Melody Maker, which made Baby Lemonade’s “Jiffy Neckwear Creation” Single of the Week (though Haynes admits it was just as much for the label’s novel approach as it was for the music), Sha-La-La took flak from all sides, scribes labeling the approach as too dilettantish and immature. “Generally we were ignored by the mainstream press or mocked if mentioned,” Haynes remembered. “The mainstream world failed to get the point of the politics and aesthetics of what we were trying to do—as it did later with Sarah Records—and poked fun at things that were intended as ironic jokes. Fanzines and the underground were much more in tune with our ideas and hence, more supportive.”
Being involved with Sha-La-La certainly was a labor of love. As many as 2,500 flexis were pressed at plants like Lyntone, while the wrap-around sleeves were printed at a second location. After creating the fanzine and procuring copies, flexis were typically inserted into the middle of the ’zine and then dropped into a seven-inch polythene bag. From conception to conclusion, it was a long process that inevitably led to its share of mishaps. Kavanagh talked of printing slip-ups with Simply Thrilled No. 3, which came with a Baby Lemonade / The Bachelor Pad flexi. Haynes is still miffed over mistakes surrounding Sha-La-La’s debut, a split single from the Clouds and Mighty Mighty.
“We deliberately made them 6.5 inches, not seven inches, to make them more interesting,” he said. “Though sadly, the pressing-plant screwed up with the first one and did it seven inches. That still annoys me.”
Compact discs—and later, digital formats and the internet—gradually made flexi discs obsolete. Periodically one is issued, the format now reduced to mere gimmick status (Amelia’s included a one-sided Babyshambles flexi in a recent issue; they were pressed by Modo Productions in London), but for the most part, flexi discs are dead. Some say, good riddance.
“They were terrible things,” Collingbourne said. “You were lucky if they didn’t have a fold or two in them even when they were brand new. There was the problem of getting the Sellotape off them. The sound quality wasn’t exactly super hi-fi and the bloody things wore out if you played them too many times. No, on the whole, I’d prefer an mp3 any day.”
“I don’t even know if anyone still has the machinery to press them,” said Fitchett. “Why would they? I don’t see them making a comeback. On the whole, they sounded bloody awful.”
Many see connections between the flexi’s zenith in the 1980s and today’s music landscape: oversaturation thanks to mp3 blogs, peer-to-peer sharing networks, and electronic music stories—disposable pop always a mouse-click away. “There were so many dreadful flexi discs, just as there are so many dreadful downloads around today,” Fitchett said. “Finding the gems in the grime has always been a difficult process. So that’s cool, because while the context changes and the method of delivery changes with it, the core idea of what makes pop so precious stays the same. My guess is it always will.”
Haynes, who now co-edits a zine called Smoke, still believes in the principles that inspired him to establish flexi discs as something more than just an immediate, disposable format. However, he frowns upon those who have turned flexis into nothing more than a collector’s item to be haggled over. “There will always be people who own records for the wrong reasons: the collectability, rather than the music.”
Kavanagh, who recently resurrected Egg Records, is more nostalgic. “I love the idea of throwaway pop. I feel there is an inherent punk attraction to that. The Buzzcocks coined or maybe reused a phrase: ‘Nostalgia for an age yet to come.’ I remember that being bandied about at the time and honestly thought that someday it would be true.”
And it is. Can you spare $100 for a Nihilist Spasm Band flexi?
For more information, check out WFMU’s Internet Museum of Flexi / Cardboard / Oddity Records, whose site is responsible for many of the pictures seen above.