Caedmon (pronounced Cadmon) Records is a label which sooner or later anyone with an interest in album art will come across. Caedmon was the world’s first dedicated spoken word label, and their remarkable covers really catch the eye.
About five years ago I picked a few up quite cheap and, struck by the quality of the designs, began to research the label. I was surprised to discover how early the records were. Covers which I’d estimated to date from the early sixties often turned out to be a decade older, which put them right back to the start of album sleeve development.
The label was begun in 1952. Two young women, Barbara and Marianne, who had been to college together and just started work in New York, discovered that the poet Dylan Thomas was in town to deliver a couple of recitals. They wondered if it would be possible to get him to record a reading for them with a view to releasing it. Despite Thomas’s wayward nature, they succeeded. Lawrence Olivier was also in New York, and they also persuaded him to make a recording the same day. The first two Caedmon albums were in the can.
The packaging of the early Caedmon releases used a repeated decorative pattern, with a panel inset for the titles and other text. The design was a clear reference to that used on many older book jackets. The pattern and colours varied but essentially the sleeves had little individuality (or visual impact) and after about 20 releases Barbara and Marianne decided to take over the sleeve designs themselves. Taking a cue perhaps from contemporary dust jacket designs (Barbara had been working at a publishers) they commissioned new covers for their existing titles, briefing artists and illustrators.
Based in New York, over the next couple of years they built up a small but distinct roster of people whose work they liked (including a young Andy Warhol) and used, sometimes once, often repeatedly. In turn the artists had the freedom to come up with pieces which interpreted subjects from literature, poetry, drama and history in whatever technique they wanted. The label was amongst the first to work this way.
Caedmon brought out many unique recordings, nearly all in fabulous covers. Barbara and Marianne remained in charge until 1970 when they sold the label and catalogue, although they continued to run it for another five years before leaving. The label began to seek more commercial releases and the sleeves began to lose their edge. The move to cassettes for spoken word releases largely ended the covers. The catalogue rights are today owned by a publishing company.
A book on classic Caedmon sleeves is due soon (from easy on the eye books). The compilers are still looking to fill some gaps and would appreciate hearing from anyone with printed catalogues or other memorabilia, and any UK based collectors of the albums.
The sleeve gallery shows seven of the illustrated sleeves, along with one of the original pattern covers. Please link back to this site if borrowing these images.