The 12-inch single: When size really matters

DJs, MCs, and dance fans would be lost without the 12-inch single. CHRIS MUGAN celebrates its accidental birth
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The Independent Culture

Two compilations out now celebrate in different ways the invention of a format that changed the course of popular music: the 12-inch single. It is taken for granted today by dance fans, indie connoisseurs and, above all, the DJs that continue to play them, despite the emergence of more portable formats (CDs and MP3 files are widespread, along with hardware that enables them to be mixed live).

Yet the format's conception is all down to a studio accident, and the work of one man, who also pioneered the dance mix. It is chronicled on A Tom Moulton Mix, a compilation of early alternative versions released by the much valued, London-based, label Soul Jazz, which is famed for unearthing gems from reggae, funk, and now disco. For it was during the emergence of the latter much-derided genre that the 12-inch took hold.

At the turn of the Seventies, disc jockeys were already experimenting with mixers that let them move seamlessly from one track to another across a pair of turntables, rather than chat mindlessly in between. A problem they found was that just as a crowd was getting into a tune, it was immediately over. The more thoughtful practitioners took to playing album tracks, which tended to be longer, while some labels released singles over two sides of a seven-inch (part one and part two), so DJs had to invest in two copies. Moulton, though, came up with an idea that made that course of action irrelevant.

Raised a Baptist in Schenectady, Indiana, he had come to love black music through listening to the radio. His early experiences in the business were as a record buyer for a jukebox company, then as a radio plugger. It was then he began to edit tunes, though only to make them suitable for broadcast.

Now based in New York, Moulton looks back at those days with some degree of fondness. "DJs came up with any reason to refuse to play a record - the intro was too short or there was a rap at the beginning, so I became good at splicing tapes to tighten them up."

Despite early success, he became disenchanted with the industry's cynicism and politics, so in 1969 he left and became a male model. Two years later, a colleague in his agency took Moulton to Fire Island, a gay hangout off the coast of New York State, where he ran a bar. Despite misgivings about its hedonistic reputation, Moulton tagged along and was pleasantly surprised to see a white crowd dancing to soul music. More importantly, he immediately recognised people were frustrated by the length of records they enjoyed.

His original answer was to create a mix on reel-to-reel tape where records flowed one into the next, a process that took 80 hours to produce 45 minutes of music. Somehow, the manager responsible for programming entertainment in the bar rejected Moulton's tape. "They told me, 'don't give up the day job', so I walked back to the ferry all dejected. This guy said you looked like you lost your best friend. When I explained what had happened, he happened to own a rival bar. He took the tape and my phone number to his club, The Sandpiper."

At 2.30am the next Saturday morning, The Sandpiper's owners called him up. Over the roar of the crowd, Moulton could make out their plea for a follow-up. On his next instalment, the nascent producer elongated certain songs by cadging instrumental versions from their record companies. Word soon reached the Big Apple about Moulton's talent. So impressed were the labels that they invited him to devise official disco mixes, released as B-sides on seven-inch singles. The larger format only came about by accident.

"I wanted to get a master copy to take home after a day's work and my engineer, Jose Gonzales, said he had run out of seven-inch blanks. We cut one version normally that looked stupid with all this unused vinyl, so I asked him to spread out the grooves over the whole disc." Gonzales would need to increase the recording levels to maintain quality, to which Moulton agreed. Yet both were still surprised when they played back the recording and it nearly blew their speakers.

"I almost died when I heard it. I knew I needed all my music like this," Moulton says firmly. He could not predict, though, that the 12-inch would become the format of choice in nightclubs for years to come, from disco, through hip-hop, to house and the myriad of genres encompassing contemporary dance music.

While Moulton continues to work on soul tunes today, he is primarily associated with the Seventies' disco boom. However, the three-CD Extended Seventies compilation shows the immediate impact his new format had on a wide variety of sounds. The first two discs are arbitrarily divided between disco and pop. The former covers Hamilton Bohannon's epic "Let's Start The Dance" and Diana Ross's slow burner "Love Hangover". The latter set is no less groovy, opening with Donna Summer sighing all over "Love To Love You Baby" before the original of Elton John's Philly-influenced stomper "Are You Ready For Love" and a more earthy performance from Eddy Grant on "Living On The Frontline".

Disc three, though, covers the late-Seventies new wave scene. Punk had called for short, sharp shocks in reaction to the decade's expansive prog-rock excursions. In its wake, though, many of the scene's pioneers moved away from such a strict template. Indeed, some groups were just as involved in dance music as Moulton.

Blondie, impressed by New York disco as much as punk, released a long version of their eminently danceable "Heart Of Glass", while Public Image Ltd were more interested in dub reggae on "Death Disco". Another direction was the use of synthesisers, which Gary Numan's Tubeway Army took forward on "Are Friends Electric". Famed for their idiosyncratic covers of pop classics from yesteryear, the Flying Lizards took the opportunity to extend their range. Now an acclaimed composer and producer, the former Lizard David Cunningham was just as groundbreaking in his post-punk days when the band hit the charts with a number also recorded by The Beatles. Although now famed as a one-hit-wonder, the Lizards originally recorded "Money" as a 12-inch. Its multitrack master was more than six minutes long, revealed in an extended dub B-side that was nothing like a regular remix. "It was a continuation of the basic material playing on into the realms of dub," Cunningham explains. "Part of the reason for this was probably Junior Murvin's 'Police and Thieves'. 'Money' relies on a very similar minimal hi-hat and bass drum part and the dub possibilities suggested themselves almost automatically."

Cunningham points out some downsides of the format. Artists were given fewer royalties for 12-inch versions in standard contracts, while US companies recorded them at 33rpm so as not to confuse DJs, negating their improved sound. The industry saw them as a chance to funnel even more money from die-hard fans, a precursor to the CD reissues many years later.

Yet despite major label machinations, the 12-inch provided a sonic arena for huge productions and involved arrangements that pleased fans, DJs and musicians alike, and it remains today a much-loved format.

'A Tom Moulton Mix' is on Soul Jazz and 'Extended Seventies' is on Optimum