The Joys of Modern Life 68: The single
Tuesday 02 November 1999
This makes the single a 20th-century art form - discs were sold in Britain from 1897 and, in late 1999, their death warrant is about to be signed. Faced with such a definitive time frame I shall stick my neck out: the single recording - in particular the 45rpm record - is the greatest cultural monument of the 20th century.
For those of us brought up on them, their loss is tragic. Of course, songs will continue but the stand-alone single was the perfect package: a sound-recording classically three minutes long and structured with formulaic verse, chorus and middle-eight elements, cheap enough to be within reach of early teenagers and with a small graphic component in the label. Such market discipline created some great art, and masses of dross. Now, in the twilight of the single's years, they are all heroes.
We all remember our first single (mine was "Ape Man" by the Kinks) as they marked out life's changes in a special way. The purchase of one's first single was akin to the loss of virginity or the first time drunk; but arguably more pleasurable and with less lingering payback. It was part of becoming a person of taste and discernment, of joining adulthood.
And as singles helped make grown-ups of us, they also provided a readymade soundtrack for history. The television programme The Rock and Roll Years was successful because it harnessed the power of the single as an epoch marker with unparallelled emotional impact. Hear a single you enjoyed as a youth and it punches you straight in the limbic system.
The very act of putting the single on has become sacramental. Vinyl junkies cite the crackling anticipation of the first few grooves as the greatest moment of the single, followed by the beautiful noise, then the run-off at the end. If music "quickens us to the finest enjoyment of time", as Thomas Mann wrote in The Magic Mountain, then the single was the prime moment of mystic rapture, and the best singles - from Heartbreak Hotel to Satisfaction, Bittersweet Symphony and Brimful of Asha - all had that sense of autonomy.
Why can you not get the same experience from an album? For one thing, as the flagship of the LP, the single was usually the most accomplished song on the whole album. The presence of other tunes detracts from it.
The single should be properly commemorated. It's a shame that last pillar in Trafalgar Square has been taken - we should have put a valedictory tower of seven-inch vinyl upon it. But there is still time to clad the Millenium Wheel with an enormous plastic disc with "She Loves You, The Beatles" written in the middle. Now that would make a fitting tribute.
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