Bend Me, Shape Me: Collecting Flexi Discs

Bend Me, Shape Me: Collecting Flexi Discs

Written by Ray Chelstowski

When I was working at Goldmine magazine we tried again and again to get a record label to sponsor a flexi disc in the magazine. We first became interested in pitching the idea to labels when Jack White’s Third Man Records had pressed about 1,000 flexi discs to promote his 2012 solo debut record Blunderbuss. That promotional stunt got our creative juices flowing and also brought back a whole bunch of great memories. When I was a kid, flexi discs, 45 RPM records that were produced on incredibly thin vinyl, were freebies found everywhere. They were often bound into magazines. They were usually squared off at the edges and there would be a perforated line where you could tear them out of the magazine, although my first flexi might have been cut off the back of a cereal box. I can’t quite remember but I think it was a song by the Jackson 5.

At one point I had acquired a small informal collection of flexis. I’m not sure that they ever received more than one or two plays, but the novelty of format was so powerful that whenever I’d come across one in a magazine it was like I had hit the motherlode. The ones I favored offered pre-recorded music. The sound quality was always horrible (but free was free). Because of their poor fidelity, the format was much more conducive to spoken word than music. And because the discs were literally so thin, when you would play them on your turntable the weight of the stylus could bring the record to a screeching halt. That’s why so many so them included markings for where to place a coin to hold them down.

Flexis were never going to become an audiophile’s obsession. But they were great gimmicks. In fact, the Beatles used them every holiday season to promote special Christmas recordings for their fan clubs.

The predecessor to the flexis were intended to be “talking postcards.” In the early 1900s, Europeans came up with the idea that you could record a message onto a resin-covered postcard. That message could then be mailed to a friend who could play it back on a turntable. From there they quickly became a promotional tool largely used by big brands like General Electric. The formats varied, some being distributed in self-playing packaging. These would come with a pre-packaged needle and a cardboard pop-up speaker. The design was akin to a Victrola, only made out of cardboard. You would hold the unit in your lap and spin the flexi with your hand.

The first flexi discs as we know them were introduced by the Eva-Tone company in 1962. In the Soviet Union, in addition to commercially available flexi discs that were produced by the Soviet government from 1964 to 1991, people used the flexi format to secretly share music from the West. They created records that, rather than being pressed on postcards or other kinds of flexi discs, were often put on old X-rays. The resulting records were called “roentgenizdat,” or “bone music.” This pairing of body parts and songs developed a cult-like following and these discs were shared through underground channels.

In the 1980s the idea of promoting music via flexis peaked with the arrival of the British publication Flexipop!. In a 2007 interview with Stylus, one of the magazine’s writers, Huw Collingbourne, said, “Other music mags may have dabbled in flexis, but Flexipop! made a career of it. We had singles by the top bands of the day – everyone from the Jam to Depeche Mode.” The magazine would shutter within two years as major labels began to put their focus on CDs and vinyl record sales began to slide.

To get an expert’s point of view on the history of the flexi, we spoke with flexi disc enthusiast Michael Cumella. The Brooklyn resident’s collection numbers in the thousands, and some of the flexis he owns are truly rare finds. For years he has been trying to get a book deal done on the subject of flexi discs, because, as he says, “this is a totally hidden history of our recorded sounds.” As he shared some rarities from his collection (and even played a few, including some of the self-playing variety) we learned how rich a history the flexi has really had.

Ray Chelstowski: So how did you first get into collecting flexis?

Michael Cumella: I’m old enough that I actually cut a record off of the back of a cereal box when I was a child. I remember being completely fascinated by that idea. I’m the youngest of four children so I grew up with records my whole life.

I remember that moment of [seeing] The Archies on the back of a cereal box and saying to myself, “What?!” I’ve always had a wide interest in records and as I’d buy the them I’d find these weird things. Like, why is there a record [from 1958] that is advertising Christmas wrapping paper…and here’s Bob Hope talking about it? It only got weirder, and these records were almost free.

Wrapper’s delight, featuring Bob Hope.

Over time I just became fascinated by what I call the history of ephemeral records, records that were not meant to last, that were meant to be of the moment. We will listen to a Neil Young record forever. But a campaign record from 1932 of a candidate running for Senate, that was of the moment. It was meant to be thrown away. And there are so many areas that are touched on by this [phenomenon] where the records were not meant to be remembered. So it’s a fascinating area of using recorded technology to disseminate messages, often other than music. Sometimes it is just music; sure, there’s some of that. I can trace flexis back 100 years and at this point they just find me.

RC: Which flexi in your collection is the oddest/coolest?

MC: Here’s one: An Important Message for TV Service Dealers. It’s basically about where to buy the best radio and television tubes, and Dave Garroway, [who] was the host of the first Today show, [was] the spokesman for this company. Or how about this? Music to Install Gas Vents By! Another cool one is a promo for Alfred Hitchcock’s [TV] show [Alfred Hitchcock Presents], which was coming out in 1955. I’ve never seen another one of these. It contains a short message from him saying, “My new show is coming out. And I hope you do tune in.”

RC: Is there any flexi with a great back story?

MC: Nixon’s The One. Millions of these were sent out. They say that this flexi disc may have been responsible for him being elected. He flooded peoples’ mailboxes with these and I have some that still have the addresses on them. The thinking is that it could have actually swayed the election because it was a direct message to people.

RC: Were any of these known for their fidelity?

MC: There was always a low expectation in terms of fidelity. The message would always transcend the fidelity. It was about getting you to do something. That’s what I like most.

RC: Which flexi in your collection is the rarest?

MC: It’s hard to say. Because a lot of these things I can’t even find a reference on. I have only a few people that I can discuss rarity with [who are knowledgeable about the subject]. There’s a super rare set from the 1920s called “”. One side is a picture of a silent movie star and the back side [has] a few words from them. It was a really short-lived series. If you found the Greta Garbo one it would sell for about $500. Silent film fans would love to hear the voices of these stars. In most cases their voices had never been heard [before]. These flexis are the only known recordings of their voices. [They’re] also really good documents of the promotion of early movies. And again, they were disposable. When a new one came out you weren’t expected to keep [the old one]. You threw it away because it had served its purpose.

These days, the flexis seem to find Michael. The website he developed over 20 years ago to showcase his collection is one of the few reference points for anyone who wants to understand what they own. In some cases people just send the flexi discs they have to him, understanding that the discs will be in good hands.

I’m not sure whether we will ever see the flexi disc format make the kind of comeback that has happened with vinyl records. But there are companies like Pirates Press in California that are using the format to help independent bands get their music into the hands of would-be fans. They are pressing millions of flexis each year. Some labels are bundling flexi discs with new LPs. I don’t know if flexis will ever make their way back to cereal boxes, but if you like to buy new vinyl, keep your eyes out and you might find a special surprise in the record sleeve. It just might turn you on to your next favorite band and a new collecting hobby.

A “talking” birthday card.

All the flexi discs pictured are courtesy of Michael Cumella.

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