When it first hit the market in 1982, the compact disc famously promised “perfect sound that lasts forever.” But innovation has a way of marching continually on, and naturally the innovators soon started wondering: what if perfect sound isn’t enough? What if consumers want something to go with it, something to look at? And so, when compact disc co-developers Sony and Philips updated its standards, they included documentation on the use of the format’s channels not occupied by audio data. So was born the CD+G, which boasted “not only the CD’s full, digital sound, but also video information — graphics — viewable on any television set or video monitor.”
That text comes from a package scan posted by the online CD+G Museum, whose Youtube channel features rips of nearly every record released on the format, beginning with the first, the Firesign Theatre’s Eat or Be Eaten.
When it came out, listeners who happened to own a CD+G‑compatible player (or a CD+G‑compatible video game console, my own choice at the time having been the Turbografx-16) could see that beloved “head comedy” troupe’s densely layered studio production and even more densely layered humor accompanied by images rendered in psychedelic color — or as psychedelic as images can get with only sixteen colors available on the palette, not to mention a resolution of 288 pixels by 192 pixels, not much larger than a icon on the home screen of a modern smartphone. Those limitations may make CD+G graphics look unimpressive today, but just imagine what a cutting-edge novelty they must have seemed in the late 1980s when they first appeared.
Displaying lyrics for karaoke singers was the most obvious use of CD+G technology, but its short lifespan also saw a fair few experiments on such other major-label releases, all viewable at the CD+G Museum, as Lou Reed’s New York, which combines lyrics with digitized photography of the eponymous city; Talking Heads’ Naked, which provides musical information such as the chord changes and instruments playing on each phrase; Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which translates the libretto alongside works of art; and Devo’s single “Disco Dancer,” which tells the origin story of those “five Spudboys from Ohio.” With these and almost every other CD+G release available at the CD+G museum, you’ll have no shortage of not just background music but background visuals for your next late-80s-early-90s-themed party.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.