Relics of Obsolescent Technologies

A few weeks ago, the hard-to-believe he’s Rev. Richard Easterling posted a query to his Facebook account, asking which recordings truly demanded the purchase of the whole album, rather than just selected tracks. Ah, these youngsters and their mp3s!
His question, though, intersects with my hobbyhorse about the arbitrary nature of the commercial-technological-ideological construct of the “album”; which of those complete-albums truly warrants its claim to being an integrated composition? Some come to mind almost instantly: Pink Floyd’s albums mostly fit (paradigmatically, and probably The Wall, but most of them really); Richard excluded Beatles albums, but we should note that the Beatles did a great deal to advance the idea of the album-qua-oeuvre. The Who’s Quadrophenia more even than Tommy (which sounds to me as though Pete was still just working out the idea of weaving the songs together). Some albums had to fade out and restart, either because particular tracks lapped over from one side to another (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery, in which “Karn Evil 9 – 1st Impression” was split between sides one and two) or because the whole album was through-composed (Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play come to mind). And on eight-track cassettes, the order of songs was frequently altered to fit the peculiar track arrangements, as well as having songs split up between tracks (with a loud “thunk!” when the tape heads switched around). Et cetera.
I recall Richard’s post, though, because I have an even more archaic question: namely, which album sides work together especially well? Now, many of you kids may not realise this — it’s sometimes hard for me to recall, and my life was powerfully shaped by listening to album sides well into the 90’s — but one’s musical recordings used to stop and you had to go over to the stereo and physically turn the record (or tape) over to hear the other side. Since many of us had many different albums and enjoyed hearing a wide selection of them, I rarely listened to two sides of the same album consecutively in those years. That meant that in many cases, the arbitrary construct of the album side was even more powerfully impressed on me than the “album” as a whole.
For example, side one of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life belongs together in my memory. The Beatles and Pink Floyd feature strongly in this category, too, of course. Each side of David Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust has its own continuity (the second side always strikes me as a series of conclusions, each more encompassing and satisfactory than the last); the first side of Hunky Dory works very much more cohesively and impressively than the second, though I like the second as well. The giveaway, for me, is the experience of hearing a song in isolation and feeling a frisson of disappointment not to hear what-comes-next; each side of Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow, but especially the second. (Interestingly, one side effect (sorry) of this phenomenon was that I heard some less-favored songs more often than I would have chosen, since they were on sides with songs I loved, and some wonderful songs less often, since they were on otherwise weaker sides.
I live by my iTunes’ Shuffle setting — but I sometimes miss the (arbitrary) unities constructed for me by the physical constraints of the LP album. Now, I think I’ll go listen to Stevie Wonder.

1 thought on “Relics of Obsolescent Technologies

  1. Just thinking through the pop music albums I listen to (of course classical music come out quite differently in this discussion), I’m hard pressed to think of too many albums or album sides which cohere especially well. I love the B side of Heart’s Little Queen (despite the nature/paganism theme).

    I think the issue is really that bands as a rule just put together one song at a time. Some of the songs come out better than others. They are a bit like short story or essay collections in that they appear to be joined together under a particular cover, giving the illusion of unity, but the contents often vary in both quality and theme.

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