What's old, shiny and round and refuses to die?
The 45rpm single of course, says Tim Healey, a record label chief who has discovered that the 50-year-old format is still the best for new bands
Tim Healey, 65, is a freelance writer and a broadcaster known for his many programmes on the popular music of the past. His recent comic tale 'Mortimer Keene - Attack of the Slime' has been shortlisted for the Sheffield Children's Book Award. See www.timhealey.co.uk
Sunday 25 April 1999
This year is their 50th anniversary. Half a century ago, in 1949, RCA Victor produced a seven-inch disc operating at 45 revolutions per minute. The original required a new form of record player, with a large centre hole 1.5 inches wide. American jukeboxes incorporated the same feature, which is why, to this day, seven-inch singles come with that push-out middle piece which troubled my adolescence. What was it there for? Did it have a name? Today I know. In the trade, it is called the optional centre.
I was born in 1949, which makes me the same age as the 45rpm single. Like the rest of my generation I grew up with those lightly aromatic black discs, paper-sleeved and labelled Pye-pink or Decca-blue. Smuggled into my teenage bedroom they unleashed the Kinks, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones whose subversive excitements all hissed and popped and went thurrock, thurrock, thurrock with the amplified mechanism of my wonky Woolworth's Dansette. The 45 brought us the music of a revolution and it is easy enough to see how it might engender affection, not just in me, but in millions more besides. Last year, with the smash hit "Brimful of Asha", Cornershop lead singer Tijinder Singh gave the world his own mighty, nostalgic tribute to that glorious plastic circle.
Vinyl singles were never very easily stored; they were the wrong size for the bookshelves. Dim memories surface of bobble-footed wire racks, and of snap-locked carrying cases made of plasticised cardboard. But if you could afford to buy a new single, you'd buy the single - not waste your pocket money on a container. My 45s always ended up sheaved in paper carriers under the bed, where they tended to spill out on to the Jackson Pollock-patterned carpet for a light scouring with dust and fluff.
The scratches! The warps! My own precautions were casual enough, but those of some of my mates were appalling. Friendships exploded on the return of this or that loaned disc which came back with mysterious new tics and hiccoughs, or conspicuous knifed scars. "Look what you have done to the Spencer Davis Group!" I ended up acting like the public libraries, demanding at the very least a stylus inspection before lending out.
Satellite television, videos, remote controls: technology has changed the landscape of leisure since the Sixties. Languishing in the bathtub- bright sound of the modern CD, I had assumed the old vinyl single to be commercially dead. That was until I formed Luscious Peach, my own small independent rock/pop label, and planned our first release. It was to be a CD single, but wise PR types immediately warned me off. Don't launch a band on CD. Believe it or not, in the indie world where credibility is everything, groups still come out first on seven-inch vinyl. It is the traditional route for making a start cheaply.
The arbiters of taste on the indie scene are a handful of broadcasters such as John Peel and Steve Lamacq, and the journos of the inky music press, NME and Melody Maker. They all hate the idea of a band having money thrown at them. The group is supposed to start up in a garage and greet the world on scratchy vinyl. It's in the rules.
Plus, there's the collectors' market. Because seven-inch singles are the traditional format for The Next Big Thing - and because they are perishable - a mint condition debut single by a later famous band is a very collectable artefact. CDs just don't have the same appeal.
Garreth Ryan at leading distributors Shellshock told me: "It's a very sensitive market. As soon as a new group starts to pick up press attention, their vinyls fly out of the indie stores - much faster than the CDs do. Hardcore teenage musos prefer that format, but it's not just the kids who are buying them. It's the collectors, who may be middle-aged Japanese businessmen." Best of all, I was told, go for coloured vinyl - a highly collectable format. EMI, Britain's leading manufacturer, today produces more seven-inchers on coloured vinyl than on black. You can choose from the full rainbow of hues; you can even have transparent vinyl with little sparkly bits in it.
It's all quite daft, actually, like manufacturing fake antique toys. And 45s give you completely unnecessary problems. For example, the loudness of the sound you get on vinyl depends on the depth of the grooves you cut. Space is limited on a seven-inch single, and a long track is liable to sound relatively quiet, putting it at a serious disadvantage when it is played alongside rivals on radio. For maximum impact you need grooves cut as deep as ploughed furrows. That means you're stuck with the classic three- to four-minute track-length which gives you no more than eight minutes in total. For the same price - or less - you can manufacture shrink- wrapped CDs offering more than an hour's worth of crystal-clear sound.
But you've got to please the indiecrats - Peel, NME and the rest - and you've got to please your distributor, because he is the guy who gets your records into the shops, and he knows his market. So a combination of nostalgia, fetishism and commercial nous have united to keep a piece of outmoded technology at the cutting edge of popular music.
Which is why, when we release our new single by the disco-punk outfit Holy Roman Empire - a love song to Benazir Bhutto - it will be as a seven- inch disc of exotic purple vinyl, or maybe see-through vinyl with little sparkly bits. Hiss and pop it will go, and (in many a teenage bedroom, no doubt) thurrock, thurrock, thurrock. But I'm learning to love the format again - and incredibly it still offers our best hopes for success in the new millennium.
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