ROCK / To cut a long story short: They said CDs would run and run, and little by little they've been getting longer. Andy Gill calls time, gents, please

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The Independent Culture
ALFRED Hitchcock is famed for, among other things, his opinion regarding the optimum length of a movie, which he believed should be in direct proportion to the capacity of the human bladder, and thus viewable in one sitting. It is a principle which might readily be adopted by the record industry, with regard to the ever-expanding length of albums on CD. For since the little silver discs started to supplant the big black ones, the running-time of the average album has crept up and up, from between 40 and 45 minutes to anywhere between 60 and 79 minutes.

While on the face of it the customer is getting a better deal than before, in the majority of cases the effect is to lower the standard of the album as a whole. Dave Bates, head of A&R at Phonogram, believes the move to longer albums has been a big mistake. 'What you're getting is people just banging things on as extras,' he claims. 'Extra remixes, alternative versions, and extra tracks because distributors in Japan or Holland say they're getting beaten up by imports and need something the import version doesn't have. You're not getting anything that's real value for money, you're just getting a bunch of old crap under the guise of value for money.'

The convention which dictated that an album lasted up to 20-23 minutes per side dates from the vinyl era, when technical limitations imposed restrictions on the amount of music that could be squeezed comfortably on to a side. Denis Blackham, engineer at Porky's Mastering Service, explains: 'The heavier the music, the more trouble you have getting it to fit - with acoustic music, you can get a bit more on, but generally, if you want to get much more than 23 minutes on, the grooves have to be cut thinner. The louder the music, the greater the stylus swings about in the groove, and consequently the greater the possibility of the record jumping if the groove is thin. This is why, when tracks are packed on to compilations, the bass is often diminished, to prevent that happening.'

In the brave new world of CD, however, such considerations are rendered meaningless due to the musical information being read by laser rather than stylus. 'The official CD parameters, dictating things like optimum length, are known as The Red Book Standard,' Blackham says, 'and they specify an upper limit of 74 minutes - but it is possible to go up to 79 minutes.' And so artists and record companies have rushed in as if the extra space were a vacuum that must be filled.

'I think the artefact will always be a determining factor in shaping the art,' says Jonathan Morrish of Sony Music, formerly CBS. 'If you go back to literature, you'll probably find that the novel really only became popular when printing presses could actually cope with the physical demand. If you put that in the context of music, someone like Mozart was essentially writing for his own medium, which was live performance, to entertain people through the course of an evening, and that would probably play a determining factor in how long the piece of music was going to be. Likewise, when the LP boom took off in the late Sixties, it was no coincidence that things like Atom Heart Mother and Meddle, bands like the Pink Floyd, were essentially working within a 20-minute time frame, because that's the format they were writing towards.'

Martin Mills, head of Beggars Banquet, claims his artists prefer the new format. 'A lot of our artists always found the length of an LP limiting. They view CD as a liberation. But when you say that parts of an album aren't up to scratch, that's probably always been the case.'

Perhaps he's right. But to take an obvious example, if you bought a Dylan album in the Sixties, you knew you were getting an entire album's worth of good material, because there were always several out- takes which had been left off the final product. There was no filler on Highway 61 Revisited, for instance, and by the time one got to hear the fabled out-takes like 'Killing Me Alive' on bootleg albums, they glowed with the frisson of outlaw exclusivity, despite their shortcomings. It was generally only when they were bootlegged, in fact, that one got to see one's heroes' clay feet; now, when every last recorded track, however semi-finished, seems to be included, nobody is an enigma any more.

'I don't know if artists have the ability any more to judge what is great and not- so-great about their own work,' reckons Dave Bates. 'I wish people were better at self-editing: they think, I've got 60 minutes to fill, I've got a good beginning and a good ending, I'll fill it up with toss in between. Forget it] If the good bits only come to 40 minutes, so be it.'

It comes as some surprise, then, to learn that Michael Jackson's Dangerous, a sprawling, uneven work compared to his earlier albums, was actually edited down from something like 30 songs, while its predecessor Bad was culled down from a whopping 60 tracks. 'The editorial process is still going on,' claims Jonathan Morrish. 'What artists and record companies need to be conscious of is that more isn't always more.'

There's not even a convincing financial justification as regards the royalties paid to the artist. In some countries there are apparently provisions for higher rates according to the amount of material; but not in the UK. 'In America, song royalties are paid per track, rather than as a percentage of the retail price,' explains Martin Mills. 'So a 15-track CD in America earns a lot more for the publisher - and therefore costs the record company more - than a 10-track CD, irrespective of the price; whereas in England it's purely a percentage of the retail price.'

If not greed, then the basic impulse in operation, it seems, is ego.

'The mistake that people have made is in not recognising the classic form of an album,' reckons Dave Bates. 'The classic form is five, maybe six songs to a side, and each side would be self-contained. CD has a lot of pluses as regards quality and durability, but has a few minuses too, the biggest of which is that there's no end to Side One and beginning of Side Two.

'There is a skill to laying down a running-order, and most people get it wrong. They think, 'We've got to have the biggest hits at the beginning, and it doesn't matter after that'. But you have to approach it like a seduction, and entice people into the album. It's all about mood and drama, not just hits. Chopin would lay out a piece of music to flow naturally through the beginning and middle to the end; there was no need for him to add on a couple of extra remixes. And Vivaldi was quite happy with four seasons - there was no need for a fifth, or a remix of the third.'