This collectible Miles Davis French film soundtrack LP was made in a plethora of cover and label variants in 1958-59. Key attributes for identification of the earliest copies are:
- Front flipback cover with no text about awards.
- Rear cover bears printer’s credit with an 18 printer’s code.
- Labels have pale green background with dark red text in un-condensed typeface.
- Matrix codes stamped in deadwax are “660213 1R 380″ (Side A) and “660213 2R 380″ (Side B).
- Originally issued with plain rice paper inner sleeve.
Many 10-inch jazz LPs have an aura about them but Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud seems to possess an even greater degree of je ne sais quoi. This tiny jewel of a collector’s item combines the hipness of New York’s pre-eminent modern jazz personality with the chic of French New Wave cinema: great music in support of high art with a terrific background story. What more could you ask for?
With the First Great Quintet disbanded for the time being, Davis travelled to Europe in late 1957 to make some guest appearances with local musicians. During this trip he played frequently at the Club St Germain in Paris with the line-up featured on this record. He met Louis Malle through his then lover Juliette Greco and agreed to record a film soundtrack. Davis described his working method in his autobiography:
“I would look at the rushes of the film and get musical ideas to write down. Since it was about murder and was supposed to be a suspense movie, I used this old very gloomy, dark building where I had the musicians play. I thought it would give the music atmosphere, and it did.”
Over a period of just two years (1958-59), the variants of this record have a surprisingly complex and undocumented history. Perhaps this level of obscurity stems partly from the fact that Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud was recorded and released in France and partly from the fact that the better known US release of this music came as one side of 1959’s Jazz Track 12-inch LP (Columbia CL 1268). The analysis presented below is based on my own research and therefore may contain errors and/or omissions. Where possible, I’ve stated my assumptions and flagged areas for further investigation. If you can add missing pieces to the jigsaw, please do so via the comments and I’ll aim to update this Collector’s Field Guide accordingly.
FRONT COVER VARIANTS
At a casual glance, there would appear to be only one front cover design used for this record during the 1958-59 period but closer inspection reveals a number of subtle and not-so-subtle changes that sum up to a total of four front cover variants that I’ve identified to date. All four variants use the same black and white photograph of Jeanne Moreau and are of European “flipback” construction. The card is thin, flimsy even, and if there is lamination it too is very thin. The details of each are:
- Variant 1: the earliest version of the front cover has three text elements: the LP’s title in large orange-red text; below that smaller text reads “MUSIQUE ORIGINALE du film de L. Malle”. The third text area appears in the lower left quadrant and reads “JEANNNE MOREAU – PHOTO N.E.F. FABRIQUE EN FRANCE”.
- Variant 2: this variant includes the same three text elements as Variant 1 but with the addition of a new line above the LP’s title that reads “”PRIX LOUIS DELLUC 1957″”. All four text elements are in a redder shade of ink than Variant 1.
- Variant 3: this variant includes the same four text elements as Variant 2 but with addition of a fifth element that reads “GRAND PRIX DU DISQUE 1958 ACADEMIE CH. GROS”. This new element contains a typographical error – “GROS” should actually read “CROS” but it’s an understandable oversight given the similarity between the capital C and capital G.
- Variant 4: this final variant looks very similar to Variant 3 but there are two small differences. Firstly, the typographical error note above is corrected. Secondly, there is a change to the text element in the bottom left quadrant that modifies the French wording “FABRIQUE EN FRANCE” to “MADE IN FRANCE”. This suggests that copies of the record with this cover were intended for overseas English-speaking markets – this supposition is supported by the fact there there were no releases of this record in the UK and US until the music was included as part of the Jazz Track LP mentioned above.
While not strictly speaking an attribute of the front cover, it is worth at this point describing one other obscure detail for collectors. The difference between Variant 2 and Variant 3 suggests that the record was awarded the Acadamie Charles Cros Grand Prix du Disque between the printings of these two variants. Fontana clearly didn’t want to wait until the Variant 3 cover was in the shops to make the most of this marketing opportunity so they went for a cost-effective tactical solution: they created a 1950s French version of the obi that is commonly seen wrapped about Japanese re-issues. This quaintly named “banderole” was made from brown paper/thin card and advertised the award. Copies of the record complete with this are the rarest (but not earliest) version and I have only ever seen a photograph of a copy from just one eBay auction.
REAR COVER VARIANTS
If you were hoping that the story of rear cover variants would be simpler, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you. There are five variants that I know of with subtle changes that could easily be missed:
- Variant 1: this is the first rear cover and appears exclusively with Variant 1 of the front cover (see picture for details). There is a tiny printer’s credit in the middle of the lower flipback which reads “Imp F. G. RICHER – Paris – Le Perreux” followed by a number (more about that below).
- Variant 2: this is similar to Variant 1 but with three changes. First the wording “PRIX LOUIS DELLUC 1957” now appears below the Fontana logo; secondly, two lines of technical text appear below the sleeve notes in the bottom left quadrant; thirdly, the wording of the printer’s credit changes slightly to “F. Richir – Maitre Imprimeur – Paris – Le Perreux” followed by a number.
- Variant 3: this variant moves the “PRIX LOUIS DELLUC 1957” to above the Fontana logo. The two lines of technical text in the bottom left quadrant are removed and replaced by a paragraph below the Fontana logo. The printer’s credit remains the same as Variant 2.
- Variant 4: this is the same as Variant 3 except that the paragraph of technical text is in a condensed typeface.
- Variant 5: this is also the same as Variant 3 except that the printer’s credit changes to “F. RICHIR – MAITRE IMPRIMEUR – PARIS – LE PERREUX” and is no longer followed by a number.
There is one tiny detail that makes this aspect of original copies of Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud much more complicated yet provides a powerful forensic tool. There are a variety of different numbers after the printer’s credit that can be used to identify when the cover was printed and thus accurately determine the age of individual copies. This number always comprises two or three digits. The first one or two digits identify the month and the last digit identifies the year. So, for example 18 represents the first month of the eighth year (i.e. January 1958) and 99 represents the ninth month of the ninth year (i.e. September 1959). The earliest copies I’ve seen were printed in January 1958 but I suppose it is theoretically possible (but unlikely) that some were printed in December 1957 given that the recording sessions only took place early that month. I would be interested to know if anybody has a copy with the number 127 after the printer’s credit. My assumption is that the last possible number that could have been used is 129 (for December 1959) but it is possible that no copies were printed that month. Extrapolating further, I assume that copies without a number were printed after December 1959.
With four front cover variants and five rear cover variants, it is tempting to suspect that there were 20 different covers. Fear not, many of the possible pairings do not exist – in fact, I have only been able to identify seven combinations in this probable order of production:
- Front cover Variant 1 / rear cover Variant 1 – definitely the earliest.
- Front cover Variant 2 / rear cover Variant 2.
- Front cover Variant 3 / rear cover Variant 2.
- Front cover Variant 3 / rear cover Variant 3.
- Front cover Variant 4 / rear cover Variant 3.
- Front cover Variant 4 / rear cover Variant 4.
- Front cover Variant 4 / rear cover Variant 5 – definitely the latest.
So far I have discovered four different label variants:
- Variant 1: this is the earliest variant and has a pale green background with text and the price code M printed in dark red. There is a light red circle containing the text “33T/M” and the Fontana logo is in cream/white.
- Variant 2: this variant retains the pale green background and cream/white Fontana logo. The text and price code M are now in the same lighter red as the circle that contains the text “33T/M”. There are typographical changes to the text: the LP’s title is now in a serif typeface (possibly Vendome?) and the rest of the text is in a condensed typeface that I haven’t yet successfully identified.
- Variant 3: this variant has a dark green background but the Fontana logo is still in cream/white. The typography is the same as Variant 2 but the text is now printed in silver rather than red. The price code remains M.
- Variant 4: this final variant is the same as Variant 3 except that the price code has changed from M to P.
A brief digression about French price codes is called for at this point. At the time this record was released, the government-imposed code-prix conseillé price coding system was in force and used by all French record companies. There were three standard codes: the most expensive was A (for Artistique), the commonly used middle level was M (for Medium) and the cheapest was S (for Standard). Beyond this some record companies used additional codes. Of relevance here is P (for Populaire). This tells us that by the time the fourth label variant was introduced, the retail price of this record had dropped!
There are potentially three distinguishing features of the vinyl to consider: pressing die variations, flat edge versus beaded edge and matrix numbers stamped in the deadwax.
Over the 1958-59 period a variety of pressing dies appear to have been used – some entirely flat, some with a central dish-shaped depression and some with a shallow 1mm wide ring with inner diameter 22mm. It would require significant extra research effort to identify any pattern and I suspect we’re into the law of diminishing returns. Similarly, I don’t think is much mileage to be had from investigating flat edge versus beaded edge. My copy, which has the earliest front cover, rear cover and labels, comes with a beaded edge. I have seen some sellers on eBay claiming that their copies have a flat edge but it’s impossible for me to verify this. On present evidence, I’m inclined to think that flat edge copies do not exist but let me know if you can prove otherwise.
That leaves us with deadwax markings as the only tangible way to distinguish vinyl variants. I’m fairly certain the earliest variant comes with “660213 1R 380″ stamped on Side A and “660213 2R 380″ stamped on Side B. Beyond that, I’ve seen reports of variations on this theme with other prefixes or suffixes such as “C 660213 1R 380″ and “C 660213 2R 380″, “660213 1R 380 34″ and “660213 2R 380 36″, or “660213 1R 380 L2″ and “660213 2R 380″. At present, I view these variants as unconfirmed until presented with photographic evidence – perhaps you can help there?
- Version 1.0 (20 June 2020): first published version.