Sunday, November 8, 2009
below is an article from The Guardian back in March 2009. great article though, so figured it was worth posting here. the top two images are from my 'inheritance wax' project which I will be posting more info on soon. for now you can see more here:
You spin me right round
Bob Stanley explains why he would happily spend £100 on a song he hates - just to get it on the most beautful, tactile format: the 45rpm vinyl single
The 45rpm single, the hard, black centrepiece of the teenage revolution, turns 60 next Tuesday. Few would argue that its rise and fall mirrors pop's golden age. Just the look of a 1957 single on the London label, with gold lettering, or the angles and DIY smudges of a 1979 Rough Trade release can raise the pulse, cause feelings of nostalgia, pride, envy. The 45 is easy to love. There are more of them in the shops than there were 10 years ago, yet it's tough to think of the 21st-century 45 as anything beyond a novelty, a sop to indie kid pop one-upmanship that is irrelevant to most music consumers.
Go back five decades and it was, no question, central to the teenage way of life. You would talk about records before school, between classes, during lunch. After school, the only places you could hear rock'n'roll were the coffee bars. The jukebox in the corner would contain the Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry 45s you craved, the records that you weren't allowed to play on your parents' pricy new radiogram - you were left with the wind-up, 78-playing gramophone if you were lucky. Another few years later and you may have owned a Dansette with a spindle for stacking your 45s, the only way to soundtrack your 16th birthday party.
Come the punk era, 45s were broadsides to the next generation from the suburbs, on a back-to-basics, prog-trashing, R'n'R format, and too fierce for airplay. In the 80s there were the Smiths singles, so perfectly packaged, so aesthetically desirable next to the straights' music of choice - Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms on a compact disc. When Culture Beat's Mr Vain did the dirty and got to No 1 without any 7in means of support in 1993, the golden era of the 45 came to an end. The next few years were a transition period in which the downright ugly CD single and "cassingle" bossed before the dawn of a new century and the internet finally consigned the 45 to cute relic status.
In 1949, RCA Victor had no thoughts of feeding vinyl-hungry kids, or of how Mr Vain would eventually spoil the party. All they were thinking was how to counter the Columbia label's new 33rpm vinyl, launched in mid-1948, with a different format and different machinery. RCA's 45-only record players plugged into the back of your radio, cheaply and cheerfully, but you needed a separate machine to play your albums, a state of affairs that lasted a few years before RCA and Columbia decided to share their technologies.
The first single, ever, was a country record by Eddy Arnold called Texarkana Baby. Arnold was managed by Colonel Tom Parker, who saw another of his charges, Elvis Presley, sign to RCA Victor in 1956. Texarkana Baby was pressed on a slightly odd green vinyl; RCA figured that, in the format wars, they needed a novelty, and so they pressed country music on green vinyl, children's music on yellow, classical on red, and "race" music - rhythm and blues - on "cerise", or what looked like orange to the average Joe. Straightahead pop was released on straightahead black.
RCA described the 45 in their press release as "the finest record ever made" and claimed "more than 150 single records or 18 symphonies fit in one foot of bookshelf space", which seems like an outright fib. In Britain, some way behind the US, the single wasn't introduced until November 1952, when EMI launched a bunch of desirable looking classical 45s on a dark red HMV label. The same month, New Musical Express launched the Hit Parade of best selling singles, all of which were on 78. EMI very quickly realised the three- or four-minute playing time was much better suited to pop than classics and in March 1953 HMV, Columbia, Parlophone and MGM issued, respectively, Eddie Fisher's I'm Yours, Ray Martin's Blue Tango, Humphrey Lyttelton's Out of the Gallion, and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney's A Couple of Swells as their opening shots. By the end of the year, EMI had issued close to 300 titles and the raw materials for a revolution were coming together.
According to their promotional bumph, RCA had discovered "the school set loves 'em" as far back as back as November 1949 - "neat little records they can slip in their pockets, they go for the lowest priced at the new speed, they go for the little disc that fits on the shelf beside their paper-backed novels". The portable 45's disposability was mirrored by the thin paper sleeve and lack of glossy artwork that accompanied the album. The look and feel of the labels therefore became a secret teenage code, and certain labels belonged to certain acts. The Beatles had the black Parlophone label with its pound logo (to signify they were minted?); the Kinks were on the suitably fey pink Pye label; the Rolling Stones were kings of the dark blue Decca label, with its curious giant ear logo, housed in an orange and white candy-striped bag. The red "A" labels on EMI's mid-1960s promotional copies were pieces of true pop art, then and now highly prized by pop snobs.
Led by the rock musician's need to "stretch out", and by the rise of albums-only acts such as Led Zeppelin, the single was rather marginalised in the 70s. Its second coming was inspired by punk, not only because it brought bite-sized music back into fashion and spurned Mellotron-led rock symphonies, but because it revitalised the look of the 45. By 1976 just about everyone in pop had got lazy. Glam was a fading memory, the charts were clogged with novelties (the Wurzels, Demis Roussos) and slick country from the likes of Billie Jo Spears and JJ Barrie. In fact, even record buyers became sloppy - how else to explain a country single by a Dutch band, Pussycat's tedious Mississippi, spending a month at No 1? You could hardly blame record labels for packaging this nonsense with the most basic, ugly, moulded plastic labels and sticking them in plain white bags. Even Anarchy in the UK, issued in December 1976, came in a crappy paper sleeve.
If punk's new independent labels wanted to stand out, then, the solution was simple: Stiff released the Damned's New Rose, New Hormones issued the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP, and both came in picture sleeves. This was previously unheard of. Soon, Beggars Banquet was issuing the Lurkers' 45s on vinyl the colour of which hadn't been seen since Eddy Arnold's day. Countering the indies late in the day, major label Elektra put out the Cars' My Best Friend's Girl on car-shaped vinyl and earned a No 3 hit. The public went 45 crazy, buying more in 1978 than in any other year; by the year's end, even Boney M's Mary's Boy Child had advance sales of half a million and remains the 10th best-selling UK single ever.
Possibly record buyers were hypnotised by the spinning coloured vinyl singles that were introducing Top of the Pops. These, it recently transpired, were purloined by Swap Shop's Maggie Philbin when the opening credits changed, and have just been sold on eBay. I'd have doubled the price, whatever it was.
That's because for obsessive collectors like me, 45s remain the ultimate pop format and retain their allure in an era when pop formats are done with. Listening to Kid Cudi's Day and Night on Spotify just doesn't give me the thrill of taking the record from the sleeve, placing it on the deck and guiding the arm into what RCA Victor called the "microgroove". Scouring the internet for contemporary pop 45s by, say, Girls Aloud or the Sugababes, is a miserable experience; the fact that Push the Button and The Show were never even issued as 45s I find profoundly sad. I'd dearly love to file Push the Button alongside Sam Cooke's You Send Me, Shanice's I Love Your Smile and the Beach Boys' You're So Good to Me - 45s to suit the first buds of spring. Knowing I can't, and that Push the Button was only ever issued digitally, sets me on the edge of a panic attack.
If I were under 30, attuned to CDs, then Napster, then Spotify, I probably wouldn't give two hoots. And yet, I sit surrounded by Schweppes crates full of redundant 45s that are now just an instant click away. I still hunt down rare pressings of the earliest 45s, which were easily outsold by 78s, and ones from the turn of the 21st century, which were only pressed for aging vinyl jukeboxes. The result of this mania is a 45 wants list that includes Lita Roza's How Much Is That Doggie in the Window (which even the singer hated), for which I would gladly lay down a ton.
I don't think I'm alone in my sickness. Major labels could be missing a trick by not issuing everything that hits the Top 10 on a 45. They could be limited editions, maybe even car-shaped, Rolex-shaped, Pussycat Doll-shaped. Or maybe not. Thomas Edison continued making wax cylinders, for an ever shrinking market, until his death in 1931, because he refused to believe the format would die. So, for sanity's sake, I'll concede that 45s are a product of a bygone era, beautiful and desirable as they are. The heart of a cultural revolution, though, they will survive in the collective memory as more than just the snuff boxes of the mid-20th century.