When I discovered the album, it was a form already past its prime. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released in November 1982, a few months after my first birthday. By the end of 1983, it had sold 22 million copies worldwide. Until then, no album by a solo artist had sold more than 12 million. Almost 40 years later, its sales total – more than 50 million – is still unbeaten. But, fittingly for a record concerned with corpses and tombs, Thriller sounded the death knell for the reign of the long player. The music writer David Hepworth has suggested that it marked the point at which making records “changed from an art to a science”. Issued at the end of the vinyl era, it was the last album to truly conquer the world.
Not that I knew any of that when, aged seven, I pulled the record from the shelf and lay on my stomach on the carpet of our suburban sitting room. The poise of the 24-year-old Jackson, reclining in his white suit with its faintly otherworldly glow, was impressive enough. But flipping open the gatefold revealed a tiger cub on Jackson’s knee – a delightful surprise, and, considering that my favourite piece of vinyl up to this point had been the soundtrack of The Jungle Book, subconsciously reassuring. Pulling out the inner sleeve, I was met with a dense grid of lyrics. As the hyperactive drum track and propulsive bass of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” kicked in, I read along, appreciative of Jackson’s habit of thorough and accurate transcription (every “yeah, yeah” is present and correct), perplexed by the language (who is “a vegetable” and why?) and intrigued by the weird line drawings.
I didn’t know that this was an “album” but it seemed to me an object full of rich meanings, a text to be deciphered, and a sound-world in which to lose myself. A year or so and many listens later, I brought Thriller to a primary school disco. The DJ obligingly gave “Billie Jean” a spin – and when he returned the album, he generously slipped something in the sleeve: his own 7-inch of “Smooth Criminal”. On the reverse of the sleeve was an inset image of Jackson in a black leather jacket, and the fateful words: “Also available: Michael Jackson’s LP Bad”. The golden age of the LP might have been over, but for me it had just begun.
The gramophone record, made of heavy, brittle shellac and spinning at 78 revolutions per minute (RPM), dominated recorded music for 50 years. Emile Berliner, a German who had fled the Franco-Prussian War to move to the US, secured a patent in 1887 for a gramophone – the first player to use flat discs with a spiral groove. With a playing time of two to four minutes per side, listening to a full piece of classical music meant loading a succession of records: the German label Odeon introduced the term “album” in 1909, when it released Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite in a wallet containing four discs.
Through the Thirties and Forties, the holy grail for the record companies was a format with extended listening time: a “long player”. A 33 1/3 RPM vinyl disc was produced as early as 1932, but it took another 16 years for the materials to be perfected and, crucially, a length to be settled on. After the Second World War, Edward Wallerstein, the president of Columbia Records, was offered prototype discs of between seven and 12 minutes per side. But after a week exploring the label’s backlist, he settled on a figure of at least 17 minutes per side: enough for most classical works to be contained on a single record. The final product was 12 inches in diameter and 22 and a half minutes a side, and when it was launched in 1948 the “Revolutionary Disk Marvel” lived up to its name.
It would be two decades before a new generation of musicians figured out how to turn this format, designed to carry The Mikado and South Pacific, into a modern work of art – a marvel for the baby boomer generation. Initially, albums were synonymous with “grown-up” music: classical and jazz for the musos; soundtracks and comedy recordings for everyone else. The rise of rock ’n’ roll in the Fifties and beat music in the early Sixties was driven by singles, disseminated through the radio and jukeboxes and bought with pocket money or Saturday-job cash on 45 RPM 7-inch records. Albums were a commercial afterthought, sold only to fans who were sufficiently devoted or wealthy: Phil Spector, the producer most responsible for shaping the sound of the early Sixties, memorably described LPs as “two hits and ten pieces of junk”.
But by 1965, this had begun to change. In that year the Beatles released their sixth album, Rubber Soul – a mature, experimental and ambitious record containing no cover versions. The band’s American record label Capitol did not release any singles in advance, giving the album the air of an unusually coherent artistic work. Listeners agreed, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys rushed to begin work on his own “complete statement”, Pet Sounds.
[see also: Who is Bob Dylan?]
Wilson’s LP, released in May 1966, was a song cycle that married emotionally naked lyrics with a rich symphonic sound. Paul McCartney declared it “the album of all time” and acknowledged that the Beatles needed to raise their game yet again. The result was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
If Pet Sounds had pushed the LP further away from a ragbag of songs and towards a unified whole, the Beatles’ eighth album, released in June 1967, completed the transformation. The alter ego of the “fake group” allowed them to “make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place”. There was the autobiographical through-line of a Liverpudlian childhood; the sonic portrayal of psychedelic drugs; the audacious segues between tracks; Peter Blake’s myth-making cover art: Sgt. Pepper was not simply a very good album – it was, wrote Kenneth Tynan in the Times, a “decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation”. It was 20 years ago today, McCartney told us, that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play; it had also been 20 years since the long player was born. The technology developed to contain a Beethoven symphony had spawned an entirely new form.
In 1969, just two years after Sgt. Pepper’s release, albums outsold singles for the first time in Britain. The 7-inch discs that had powered pop music’s rise were now seen as commercial and disposable. In 1971, 50 years ago, album releases included Carole King’s Tapestry, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
By the age of 14, my cassette of Bad, promptly obtained after that disco, had worn thin and been temporarily retired. Meanwhile, I’d moved through the entire Beatles back catalogue, via my dad’s vinyl, and then on to the heavier sounds of Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana and Cypress Hill. Then came The Bends.
In the first few seconds of Radiohead’s second album there’s a sound like a wind whistling through a nuclear winter; metaphorically at least, it keeps blowing until the record’s close. The Bends portrayed a dystopia that was recognisably close to the present. You could see it in the grainy quality of the resuscitation mannequin on the cover. You could sense it from the song titles: “Fake Plastic Trees”, “My Iron Lung”, “Black Star”. You could find it in Thom Yorke’s bruised and resigned vocals, the shimmering and stuttering guitars and the lyrics that married doomed relationships with the ennui of late 20th-century capitalism.
To me as a teenager in 1995, this album seemed as much of a “complete statement” as Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper. What’s more, it acknowledges the idea of a vanished golden age: “I wish it was the Sixties,” Yorke sings on the title track. He probably wishes too that he wasn’t on a digital format, housed in a plastic case, released by a major corporate label, on a rapidly degrading planet. But if not, what would he have to sing about?
The compact disc gets a bad press. David Hepworth describes buying a CD in a megastore in the Nineties as “more akin to an act of surrender than to an expression of devotion”. When Bret Easton Ellis imagined a yuppie serial killer, he made him a CD collector: in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is an obsessive fan of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News and takes great care of his compact discs. Most people agree on the CD’s flaws: its sound is over-sanitised; its size doesn’t allow for rich artwork; its digital playback lacks ceremony; you can’t easily roll a joint on its case.
But the CD did not kill the album. In 2000, 942.5 million CD albums were sold in the US, compared to 344 million LPs at vinyl’s peak in 1977. In the age of the compact disc, we were buying more albums than ever before.
And the variety on offer was exhilarating. Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), created an absorbing hip-hop mythos from kung fu films and New York grit. Jeff Buckley’s Grace (1994) introduced a songwriter whose raw, soul-baring talent matched that of his father. DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… (1996) did for the sampler what Jimi Hendrix had done for the guitar. Björk’s Homogenic (1997) was a glorious hymn to Iceland wrapped in abrasive electronics and lush strings. Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (1998) ushered the listener deep into a dark, dub-rock otherworld.
In the Nineties, artists and fans had the enormous resource of four decades of pop music to draw on. Cool Britannia had resurrected the Beatles, whose Anthology series was released in 1995-96. But there were deeper seams to mine. Spiritualized stole a haunting line about a “hole in Daddy’s arm” from the country-folk singer John Prine; Goldie’s 1993 track “Ghosts of My Life” sampled Japan. Super Furry Animals quoted Steely Dan; Fatboy Slim nicked a riff from the Who. Overlooked artists such as Nick Drake and Arthur Lee, of Love, were reissued and discovered by a new generation.
The artistic achievement of Sgt. Pepper and the cultural hegemony of Thriller may have remained unchallenged, but it did not feel like the end of the journey for the album. Everywhere, there were new arterial roads opening up, new directions to explore. Unfortunately for the music industry, one of these paths led directly to the MP3.
The primary worry of music executives in the late Nineties was the threat from bootleg CDs. But the more existential threat was invisible. In 1995, a century after Emile Berliner invented the gramophone record, music technology underwent a further revolution, thanks to another German engineer. Karlheinz Brandenburg had devoted 13 years to creating a digital format that could compress audio data sufficiently to make a file small enough to manage; now, finally, he had the MP3. It was playable on home computers, but it had no portable device and studio engineers thought it sounded terrible. The recording industry barely looked up from its profit sheets. But users didn’t notice the decline in sound quality. And they weren’t just playing MP3s on their PCs. They were uploading them to the internet and sharing them for free.
A small number of music pirates were doing this in a remarkably organised way, procuring CDs via a network of moles who worked in pressing plants and leaking the files online before the album’s release date. Then, in 1999, an 18-year-old American university dropout called Shawn Fanning launched Napster, a file-sharing service that made this underground activity accessible to anyone with an internet connection. In July 2001 the record industry shut Napster down, but it was too late. The contract between fans and the business – the tacit agreement about the “worth” of a piece of music – had been broken. People found it laughable that they should go back to paying £13.99 for a CD. Luckily for them, they didn’t have to, because three months after Napster ceased operations, Apple launched the first iPod.
If the idea of “1,000 songs in your pocket” wasn’t life-changing enough, this digital jukebox had an extra setting: “shuffle”, a randomised live mix of your music library. The iPod could be filled up by “ripping” your CDs, transferring illegally downloaded files or visiting the iTunes Store: a warehouse with infinite aisles. Crucially, Apple’s digital shop “unbundled” albums: if you only wanted the two hits and none of the “junk”, you could download your chosen songs for 79p each.
The album was being stripped for parts. Since the Recording Industry Association of America began keeping count in 1973, albums – on vinyl, then cassette and CD – had always outsold singles in the US. The download industry changed that: in 2012, 1.4 billion single digital tracks were sold, vastly exceeding album sales in all formats combined.
The digital era was living up to Facebook’s early motto, “Move fast and break things”. Devices were becoming quicker and better connected: in 2007, Apple launched the first iPhone and more than half of UK households had broadband. Meanwhile, the word “streaming” was making its way into the lexicon. In 2005, three former PayPal employees launched a video-sharing site called YouTube; the following year, two Swedish entrepreneurs founded a new “audio streaming platform”, Spotify. Napster and iTunes had introduced the idea that there was no need to physically own music. With streaming, there was no need to own it at all.
The repercussions for the music industry have been enormous. With revenue from physical and digital sales falling, record labels and artists have little choice but to accept the paltry royalties offered by streaming services. Touring, merchandise and licensing music to film and television have in many cases become more financially important than making and selling albums.
Streaming, too, has further changed how we listen. Online interfaces are landscapes of distraction, with algorithm-driven suggestions at every turn. Some artists are now tailoring their music to mood- or genre-based playlists, from “Sexy As Folk” to “Energetic Run”. They are avoiding long intros (if impatient listeners skip your track, the algorithm downgrades it) and creating large quantities of music of a similar tempo to keep listeners locked in. The rise of voice-recognition software such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri is likely to move us further towards listening by keyword.
It’s depressing to think that our complex relationship with music, our tangled strands of taste, emotion and memory, might be reduced to: “Alexa, play Sixties music” or “Siri, play sad songs”. But not for the first time, reports of the album’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
In fact, the humble LP is having a second coming. Since 2007, UK vinyl sales have increased by 2,000 per cent: in 2019, one in every eight albums bought was a vinyl record. This is not pure retro-mania: alongside Fleetwood Mac and Joy Division in that year’s vinyl top ten was an uncut gem of a pop record by a 17-year-old Billie Eilish. A Communist-era pressing plant in the Czech Republic, once destined to be a relic, now produces 24 million records a year.
Even the cassette is making a comeback. The tactile ritual of playing vinyl and tape; the warm, imperfect sound; the inability to shuffle – all these have a role in the revival of physical formats. There is an element of exhibitionism, too, in a physical music collection: it’s a display of cultural capital, a way of making friends and lovers.
Our favourite albums are our most faithful companions – something that became clear when, for a New Statesman feature in 2017, I approached some of my favourite writers to each choose the record that they felt had changed them in some way. Their responses showed just how deeply the form is embedded in our lives – and now they have become a book, featuring 50 miniature essays, from Deborah Levy on David Bowie to Marlon James on Björk.
It’s further proof that we are not ready to say goodbye to the long player. In fact, for many, the opposite is true. Tired of the hyper-convenient but oddly unsatisfying experience offered by streaming platforms, listeners are returning to the album as an unbroken artwork: something with an emotional and sonic arc, to be played from start to finish without interruption.
You might recall the thrill of the concerts in the 2000s in which artists from Brian Wilson to Sonic Youth would perform an LP in its entirety, or you might have joined Tim Burgess’s lockdown album-listening parties on Twitter. You might, in a moment of nostalgia, simply have dusted off an old disc. But whether it’s communal or solitary, via a vintage turntable or a smartphone, there is something revelatory about rescuing your favourite songs from the algorithm and placing them back where they belong.
“Here Comes the Sun” is an exceedingly pretty song – and the Beatles’ most played track on Spotify. But it undergoes a strange alchemy when heard between the abruptly curtailed white noise of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and the eight-miles-high harpsichord and harmonies of “Because”.
Abbey Road is more than the sum of its parts; it demands to be heard the way it was intended. All great albums do.
Tom Gatti is deputy editor of the New Statesman. This essay is adapted from the introduction to “Long Players: Writers on the Albums That Shaped Them”, published by Bloomsbury
[see also: Liz Phair: “I’m practising not being cool”]
This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?