The infancy of both music video and gaming culture produced this stepchild
If you’re into karaoke then you probably know what CD + G (CDG) is: an extra track of data on a CD Audio disc that can contain low-resolution graphics, used to provide the lyrics to songs for karaoke singers. The format, developed by Phillips and Sony in 1985 (the audio CD became available in 1982) is the de facto standard for karaoke to this day.
But, of course, when you’re talking about music people, there’s more than one way to use any piece of technology that comes along. Warner Brothers, under its Warner New Media banner, used CDG to release a number of graphics enhanced music CDs by major artists as well as a number of classical releases.
If you were buying new CD releases between 1985 and the mid-90s you might have an example of CDG in your collection without even realizing it. That’s because most regular CD drives didn’t play the graphics track. There were limited players you could use at the time, with the biggest being the Philips CD-i, Sega Saturn, Amiga CD32, and Atari Jaguar CD. Some CD-ROM drives would also access this data, and since the early 2000s some DVD players support the format, but it’s pretty random.
This is what the CD + G logo would look like on these CDs, which would be helpful except for one thing: it was occasionally reprinted onto later issues of the disc that did NOT contain the graphics files.
So, what’s a collector to do? And how can you see these videos if you’re not planning on getting a CDG-compatible player anytime soon, not to mention hunting down some of the discs?
That’s where the Museum of CD + G comes in. Created by Steve Martin (not that one) and Orlando Arroyo, the museum features a list of the albums released with extended graphics as well as help identifying the original releases that actually contain the graphics data. The duo has also launched the Museum of CD + G channel on YouTube featuring the videos themselves, both individually and as playlists.
What kind of CDs received the +G treatment, and what type of graphics were included? Albums include Lou Reed’s classic New York, Anita Baker’s Rapture, Jimi Hendrix/Smash Hits, Ella Fitzgerald/Things Aren’t What They Used to Be, as well as releases from Van Dyke Parks, Emmylou Harris, Talking Heads, a series of classical music titles, and the first CDG release, Firesign Theatre’s Eat or Be Eaten.
So what do these graphics look like? A few of the CDG rips are included here for your review, but overall they’re like video games at the time. Many of the CDG releases include lyrics, which is pretty natural, some use photographic images, others use transitional effects (think fade, swipe, or erase). Others show the chord progressions for popular songs and still others use the graphics area to tell a story or give info about the band.
Some, like the Jimi Hendrix (only graphics available) or the compilation Psychedelia: Preview of an Album are like an early Grateful Dead light show or a Peter Max animation, which is pretty cool considering programmers were working with sixteen colors and a resolution of 288 by 192 pixels.
Of course, the graphics look primitive and dorky today, but they were a cool thing back then. MTV went on the air in August of 1981, too, so people were hungry for visual images to pair with their music. Video games were becoming a bigger business, and the folks at Warner New Media were surely looking at developing this aspect of the technology as well.