ONGAKU BORUGU April 12 2019

Part 1 DOUBLE ALBUM – A Brief History Of The Double Album

A double album ? Really ? In 2019 ? In the current state of the music industry ?  Who in their right mind would put out a double album in 2019 ?

…. Me, that’s who….

Before I go into my ramblings and justifications about unleashing such a concept worthy of the age of the pterodactyl or the triceratops or other fauna of the dinosaur variety, I think a bit of context is important. Let’s go into a little history lesson regarding the fascinating story of the double album.

Let’s start with the definition of a double album brought to you by the fine purveyor of information that is Wikipedia : A double album (or double record) is an audio album which spans two units of the primary medium in which it is sold, typically records and compact disc. A double album is usually, though not always, released as such because the recording is longer than the capacity of the medium. Recording artists often think of double albums as comprising a single piece artistically…

Nice .. isn’t it ?

Usually, the double album is regarded by many critics as the culmination of an artist’s inflated ego… Hah !! What do these failed wannabes know about that ? Seems to me that many of these critics are just as egomaniacal as the proverbial singer-song writer/artist/performer…  Some of the most memorable albums of all time have been double albums : The Beatles’ “White Album”, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street” and Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” just to name a few. Did any of these bands have ego problems ? Well, let’s leave THAT wonderful debate for another day.

So, let’s go back in time, shall we ?

The ancestor of the “whatever media” you are listening to today was the non assuming and modest wax cylinder of the late 19th century. Again, according to our good friends at Wikipedia : The earliest practical recording technologies were entirely mechanical devices. These recorders typically used a large conical horn to collect and focus the physical air pressure of the sound waves produced by the human voice or musical instruments. A sensitive membrane or diaphragm, located at the apex of the cone, was connected to an articulated scriber or stylus, and as the changing air pressure moved the diaphragm back and forth, the stylus scratched or incised an analogue of the sound waves onto a moving recording medium, such as a roll of coated paper, or a cylinder or disc coated with a soft material such as wax or a soft metal.

Of course, the quality of sound back then was as like opening a can of peas and sticking in your ear in it to try to listen to the ocean.. well, maybe I am exaggerating a wee bit.

Then, in the early 1900’s, a more convenient format came in the form of records turning around at 78 rpm. A record was a microgroove disc with a diameter between 10 and 12 inches (25 and 30 cm), with usually one track on each side. Depending on size, they could hold between 3 and 5 minutes of sound. At first, records were made of shellac (which is an animal-based resin secreted by an insect…. Yum !!! ), wax, cotton and slate. But the shortage of resin during WWII prompted manufacturers to use vinyl. The 78 rpm records became obsolete with the coming of microgrooves which permitted much longer playing time as well as a much improved dynamic range and sound quality. This was the start of the age of 45s and 33s we of a certain age remember and love. With the 50s came the great revolution known as rock & roll which was to dictate the direction of music media for the next decades. At the same time, a German invention from the 1930s known as the magnetic tape also came to the forefront. Although tape cassettes were very popular for listening to music up to the 90s, the magnetic tape was an even bigger revolution for recording the actual sound and still has implications in recording today.

Finally, the digital age succeeded the vinyl for the casual listener in the form of CDs in the mid-80s. Things were fast forwarded real fast as CDs became DVDs then BlueRays and to finally these formats finally felt the bite of much more fluid formats of various files from Mp3s to Wav files of gradually bigger and bigger resolutions.

Now that we have established some context, let’s sink our teeth into the double album…

Two years after introducing the LP ( The 33 rpm vinyl version ), Columbia Records released the first double album, the “Carnegie Hall Concert” by Benny Goodman, released in 1950. Of course, this was a live album, so technically, it was not a studio album of new material. It was, apparently, the first product in the form of a double record. The Lp and double albums was a welcome format for classical music, jazz improvisations and many works that surpassed the limits of time the media of the day allowed. However, until the mid-1960s, double albums were rare and not considered significant.

Then, in 1966, another rock & roll revolution ignited the limits of recorded sound and Bob Dylan released “Blonde On Blonde” starting the trend of the studio double album. No longer were double albums reserved for live albums, compilations or symphonies. Dylan revolutionized the musical soundscape after electrifying folk music by paving the way for the other rockers to get the boost of confidence necessary to get ambitious. Within a few weeks, Frank Zappa and his band of merry men, The Mothers of Invention‘s debut album, “Freak Out” was released.

In 1968, “The White Album” from the Beatles became the gold standard of double albums, a logical step after inventing the concept album with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

By the time 1972 rolled along The Animals, Cream, Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, Chicago, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, The Small Faces, Muddy Waters, The Who, Johnny Winter, Miles Davis, Derek & The Dominos, Dylan ( again !! ), Soft Machine, Nina Simone, Taj Mahal, The Allman Brothers, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Todd Rundgren and Neil Young all unleashed very successful double albums. In some cases, the albums would turn out to be the best sellers in their respective careers.

The 70s rolled on with more grandiose double albums such as Genesis with “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”, Led Zeppelin with “Physical Graffiti”, Stevie Wonder with “Songs In The Key Of Life” and the decade ended with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”.

But by then, new sounds from punk and new wave bands reversed the trend although the Clash would contradict everything I am saying by eventually releasing a double album AND a triple album… (so much for the minimal approach of punk music !! ) and the golden age of the doubles started to wane.

The arrival of the CD with its 74 minute length changed the picture. Some former double albums fitted in 1 CD and the longer format made it possible for bands to extend the normal length of an album by a good 15-20 minutes making a single album a longer piece of work. In the 90s, we saw a whole lot less of real double albums and successful double albums started to be the exception. “Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness” from the Smashing Pumpkins was one of the last true breaths of the double album. Some artists tried to do things differently like Bruce Springsteen putting out 2 new single albums at the same time and Guns’ N‘ Roses releasing “Use Your Illusion 1” and “Use Your Illusion 2” a couple of months apart. System Of A down would pull a similar stunt in 2008.

Since albums like M83’s “Hurry Up We’re Dreaming” and Mogwai’s “Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will” came out early in this decade, one would be hard pressed to recall a double album that would compel the listener to say “Wow! That’s quite an album !”

And thus is my take on the history of the double album.

Stay tuned for part 2 when I will entertain you about my own take of a double album… called Nation Of Iron

J.P. Mortier

Author J.P. Mortier

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