The Story of a Marriage of Consumerism, Technology, and Culture
by Michael Tomasky
This week brings another Beatles-related 50th anniversary, and arguably the grooviest of them all: The release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It landed, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, on June 1, 1967 in England, and June 3 in the United States. Maybe that’s just how trans-Atlantic shipping worked in those days, or maybe the lads wanted to give the mother country a wee head start. In any case, land it did, and, as the cliché goes, everything changed.
A hundred thousand paeans—and one famous pan, by Richard Goldstein in The New York Times, back before the paper of record was in the habit of regularly reviewing rock records—have been written about the album. The world doesn’t need another one. What I think the world may need, however, at this point in history, is a tribute to the form—to the physical thing itself. I was born in 1960, and as such I witnessed a lot as I sprouted toward puberty: the first war brought into American living rooms every night via television; those first post-Kennedy shared cultural moments, everyone watching Archie Bunker, Olga Korbut, and the moon landing in real time; and the primordial expansion of the commercial and cultural ganglia that bound Americans together as a nation of ravenous consumers, from cable television to the proliferation of the chain stores that seemed so novel then but are so inescapably banal now.
That was all fascinating. But to many young American males in the 1960s and 1970s, one artifact of this cultural-capitalist marriage towered over all others. This was the record album—the 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm vinyl disc that, adorned in the increasingly baroque jacketry of the times, turned a black-and-white world into bursting technicolor. When I was 14, 15, 16, there was nothing better, and I mean nothing, than going to a record store and fondling these objects, lingering over them, studying the little visual signals they were sending, finally settling on the one in which I’d invest that $4 I’d gathered by shoddily cutting the neighbor’s grass, getting it home, ripping off that cellophane, plopping it down on the turntable, and praying that for the next 40 minutes, Mom wasn’t going to bay at me to clean the basement.
This history, of the record album, is salient on this anniversary not only because Sgt. Pepper at the time transformed what the album was, which everybody knows. It’s a story worth telling now because the album, when it was invented, was supposed to be something entirely else. The story of the album—how it was designed for fans of classical music, then hijacked by the hippies, who then delivered it into eager young hands like mine in forms it was never meant to assume—is the story of a marriage of consumerism, technology, and culture that could only have happened when it did, and it’s one that too few people know.
In the beginning, of course, there was only live music. Then, in the late 19th century, Thomas Edison and others developed recorded music. The first delivery method was the cylinder, through which opera fans could hear the great Enrico Caruso sing “I, Pagliacci,” or Thomas Edison recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Then came the 1920s, and the dominance of the disc. It wasn’t really sonically superior to the cylinder, but it was cheaper to mass-produce. It was 10 inches in circumference and played at 78 revolutions per minute—and it was heavy. It was made of shellac, which came from a bug resin. If smashed against someone’s head, it would shatter into hundreds of pieces. But it might knock the person out, too.
Yet, in the age of bathtub gin, the disc was a revelation, because it meant that more people could play whatever music they pleased. And the fact that each side of such a disc could hold about three minutes or so of music was just fine. Why would a song need to be longer than three minutes? It was that technological limitation, incidentally, from nearly a century ago, that created the template for the single; and it still means, to this day, that most hit records try to hang somewhere in the vicinity of the three-minute mark.
This constraint was fine, for fans of Rudy Vallee or besotted swells forgetting themselves at lavish Tom and Daisy-ish parties. But what if one were a devotee of more serious music—wanted to listen, say, to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? That had a running time of roughly one hour and five minutes (it could vary depending on orchestra and conductor). On a 78-rpm record holding about three minutes per side, that required 11 records. The listener would have to get up every three minutes or so to change sides—sometimes, in the middle of movements. Yet the appetite for Beethoven was strong enough that such records went to market, packaged in boxes that roughly resembled the CD box sets of the 1990s. They looked to people of the time like photograph albums, which is where the word “album” comes from.
Recording engineers pondered this matter of the three-minute limitation, but for a long time, it wasn’t really much of a problem since only a small percentage of Americans could afford the proper equipment. There was little demand for an improvement during the Depression, and certainly not during the war, when plastics (and presumably shellacs) went toward the war effort.
But after the conflict ended, certain advancements that had been attained during wartime were applied to civilian life. And so it came to pass that in 1948, a group of engineers at Columbia Records, led by a man named Peter Goldmark, took innovations in the polyvinyl-chloride realm and applied them to the record industry—and the LP, the long-playing record album, was born.
The new record was not heavy and stiff, but light and flexible. This, along with the fact that it could be spun at a lower speed, produced a cleaner sound, with much less hiss and ambient noise. And best of all, it could hold about 20 minutes of music per side. Consider Beethoven’s Ninth now: not 22 sides, but six! And no interruptions of movements. It had to have been as revolutionary to music fans then as Spotify is to listeners today. And it was invented almost solely with the classical music lover in mind.
Record companies continued to produce the old 78s, and it took a little while for the new delivery system to dislodge the old: In England, for example, 33-rpm records didn’t outsell 78-rpm ones until the late 1950s. But sales of the newer discs expanded throughout the decade, helped along by new establishments called record stores. A man named Sam Gutowitz thought there might be a profit to be made in selling these records. He had opened his first store on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan in 1949, shrewdly changing the outlet’s name from his given surname to the more Anglicized and inviting Sam Goody’s. He expanded quickly up and down the East Coast, and others followed.
Those Goody’s clerks of the 1950s were experts in classical music, and to some extent jazz. And that was the album market: classical music, jazz, and Broadway and film soundtracks, plus comedy and folk music (after the “folk boom” of the 1950s). That’s what album purchasers—adults—bought. Kids, once rock ’n’ roll hit in 1955, bought 45’s, the seven-inch singles made of the same material as the 33’s. Elvis sold enough albums to crack the charts, and, later, the Beach Boys and Little Stevie Wonder did too. But in those days, the wall was high: Singles were for kids, albums for grown-ups.
Take, for example, the Billboard album chart for August 17, 1963. The number-one album that first week? The soundtrack to the film Days of Wine and Roses, featuring the saccharine title song by Andy Williams. And the number-one album the week the Beatles first came to America in 1964 was the eponymous album by one Jeannine Deckers, a Belgian nun in the Dominican Order who was marketed in the United States under the name The Singing Nun. Her hit single, “Dominique,” spent four weeks at number one. But her album topped the charts for a formidable 10 weeks, until Meet the Beatles! dislodged it. It was only after that—after the British Invasion, after Dylan went electric—that the youth album market really took off.
This is the proper context in which to understand why Sgt. Pepper—a mere three years after Meet the Beatles!, but a generation in terms of sophistication—was such a big deal. It was astonishing that a quartet that had been known just a short time ago as a teeny-bopper “beat group” could produce a 40-minute work that was filled with flourishes worthy of Schubert and surrealist lyrics. Yes, there had been cerebral rock records before: Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ own Revolver. But no one had ever done anything remotely like this: a band creating an alter-ego band to make a record as a performance by that band, complete with orchestral tuning-up before it started and audience reactions—applause, laughter—salted in at the beginning and the end.
The album’s detractors sniff that it’s not a rock ’n’ roll album, and they’re right (although it is a “rock album,” since “rock” as a category includes King Crimson and Feist and everything in between). But maybe that was intentional. After all, it was the Beatles only during part of the first song, with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” taking over from there—the only portion of the album, not coincidentally, that is rock ’n’ roll: three bluesy seventh chords, with Paul McCartney singing, in fine “Long Tall Sally” voice, “It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.” From the beginning, it was a nostalgia act.
And from then on, albums were for kids too, “kids” being expanded to mean not just mewling 14-year-old girls, but pot-smoking college students. And the records flooded out. Are You Experienced? Disraeli Gears. Strange Days. Music From Big Pink. Beggar’s Banquet. Astral Weeks. Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. And on, and on, and on.
And so albums entered their golden age. It lasted, I would say, about 20 years, from 1967 to 1987 or thereabouts. There was an explosion: two-record sets, three-record sets! Even single albums with a gatefold sleeve—the folded cover, a la Sgt. Pepper, on which detailed liner notes could be printed and that helpfully doubled as a tool to separate out the seeds (I will say no more on that subject). The free posters tucked inside. The artists of the era, actual dedicated album-cover artists, most notably Roger Dean, who did the Yes covers (and who now, perhaps predictably, does video games).
You went to a guy’s house for a party. You didn’t know him particularly well, weren’t sure of your impression of him. Then you noticed the album collection—in milk or cantaloupe crates, or in cases that were meant to hold the textbooks he never quite got around to buying. What? He has Sailin’ Shoes? Horses? Exodus? I’d better rethink this guy! I might have subsequently run into him in a record store, of the sort that proliferated during the golden age even in my small hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, which at one point when I was in high school had, I think, six or seven independent record stores. (It’s a university town, and rent was nothing in those days.) These were not at all like Sam Goody’s. They were small, cramped, smelling of mildew or old wood. They carried only rock, and the obscurer the better.
Or I might have come across him in the listening rooms at the West Virginia University student union, “the Mountainlair,” or simply “Lair.” These were two large rooms, side by side, with many speakers mounted on the walls, plush couches and chairs, and appropriately Keith Richards-esque lighting. You went up to a desk, said to the guy, “Side three of Physical Graffiti, please”; you went downstairs to the Blue Tic Tavern and got a pitcher of cheap beer, brought it up, and life was good. To my knowledge, no figure of authority ever darkened the door of the listening rooms to see what people got up to in there—good thing for all involved.
Now, I see, vinyl has made a bit of a comeback these last few years. I guess it’s nice; I actually find it a bit twee. Attempts to recreate the past always are. Still, it warms the heart to think of a 15-year-old male going to the local Barnes & Noble, as long as it exists, and examining the fully-functioning zipper built into the sleeve of Sticky Fingers with the same awe I did in 1971.
The sales of vinyl records in the country increased roughly 25 percent from 2015 to 2016. That sounds heartening. But looking at the actual figures, they seem more like the numbers for New Mexico than for the entire United States. The top-selling vinyl album of 2016 was Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface, which moved a grand total of 49,004 units. Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black was second, and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool third. And fourth? With 39,615 sales, a full 47 years after its release, was the record with the picture of those four blokes crossing the street. Now there’s another 50th-anniversary piece waiting to be written.
*This article was originally published on The Atlantic Online