American Culture

Random thoughts about record albums – part 1: Dylan’s LP idea…

…and how the invention of vinyl changed music forever.

“I agonized about making a record, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make singles, 45’s – the kind of songs they played on the radio. Folksingers, jazz artists, and classical musicians made LP’s, long-playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves – they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LP’s were like the force of gravity.” – Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. One

Bob Dylan (image courtesy Mojo Magazine)

I’m about 50 pages into Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1. The quote above leapt out at me last night as I was reading. It seems a prescient comment from our latest literature Nobelist, given that he was one of those about to usher in the record album as art form.

Dylan’s preoccupation with making LP’s rather than singles (we still use the term album, though the operative word for a single is “track” these days) seems, on the face of it, in line with his preoccupations: he didn’t see himself as, nor did he want to be, a “hit maker.” That would have been selling out to commercial forces (stop me if you’ve heard that one before) that, as a budding artist (stop me if you’ve heard that one before), Dylan disdained. It might cost him that “force of gravity” he desired.

Serious music fans know that “force of gravity” as authenticity. According to Dylan, authenticity lay in the album format. 

The LP as a record format arose once  33 1/3 rpm record speed first appeared shortly after WWII (1948 to be exact). Before that time all records were 78 rpm, and to have a work on disc approximating what we think of as a record album meant having boxes of records (78 rpm records were made of a shellac compound and were heavy and fragile. Aside: I own one of these 78 rpm shellac sets, one of Ed Murrow’s reporting from London in the dark early days of WWII; just over an hour’s listening consists of about a dozen discs and weighs several pounds).

LP’s were made from the newly developed vinyl and an album with its cover weighed a few ounces. Whereas a 12 inch shellac 78 rpm disc could hold only about 3 minutes of music per side, a 12 inch 33 1/3 rpm vinyl disc could hold about 10 times as much recorded material; that meant that one vinyl disc could hold 60 minutes of music. The album composed of collections of recorded tunes was a natural development of this technology.

While 78’s had long been the staple of radio music, their limited storage meant that the single was the standard form of recorded music sales even though they were bulky and delicate. The appearance of a third format in 1949, the 45 rpm 7 1/2 inch disc, also on vinyl, appealed to radio stations as they transitioned their formats from broadcast radio dramas, comedies,etc. to all music formats due to shrinking audiences (the result of another technological innovation, broadcast television programming).

Lightweight, inexpensive, and durable, the 45’s popularity soared in the mid 1950’s thanks to the explosion in popularity of rock and roll. Teenagers could easily buy 45’s – and did in large numbers. The single, in 45 rpm format rather than more expensive and delicate 78 rpm format, provided radio stations with easily stored (and replaced) discs. The single format, thanks to the 45’s storage limits, continued to dominate radio (and sales) in spite of the LP. LP’s became the format associated with classical and jazz music (because of the length of works in those genres). Folk music, because of its non-commercial, specialized historical content, became another genre of music that found the LP format amenable. In pop music, with the exception of perhaps Frank Sinatra’s 1950’s albums done with Nelson Riddle, pop LP’s were eponymous collections containing usually a couple of singles hits with plenty of what came to be known as “filler” (most often covers of singles hits by other pop artists). Pop music was all about the single.

So when Bob Dylan reminisces about his desire to make LP’s rather than singles, he’s responding quite naturally based on his knowledge of his art form.

But Bob Dylan, as we all know, was not a typical folk singer. He had played in a rock band while in high school, and he had a deep love for the work of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison among others. Holly inspired Dylan to begin composing his own songs.

That combination of Dylan’s preference for the LP format and for composing his own work led Dylan to be a major innovator. By focusing on LP’s rather than singles and writing his own material, Dylan literally changed the record buying habits of college aged audiences, a group who would become a major buying demographic as the sixties wore on.

In a very real way, Bob Dylan invented what we came to know in pop music as the album experience. By his third album, The Times They are a-Changin’ (released about 3 weeks before the Beatles invaded America), Dylan was creating records of completely original material meant to be heard in toto.

We know, too, that Dylan was knocked out by the phenomenon known as The Beatles. There’s an anecdote that tells us that Dylan was in Denver visiting a record store while on tour in the spring of 1964 and saw the top ten list posted behind the store counter. He was astounded to see The Beatles holding the first five spots in the top ten. Late that summer Dylan met the Fabs and they discovered they were mutual admirers of each others’ work. Dylan admired the Fabs’ wit and melody. John in particular admired Dylan’s lyrical gifts.

The implications of that meeting for the future of the pop record album we’ll discuss in part 2.

2 replies »

  1. The term “album” came about because, like a photo album, a record album was a book-like structure with “pages” that held 78s. Anything longer than the 3 minutes per side, such as classical music, was in an album. Of course, I bet it was a pain to change sides every few minutes to hear Beethoven’s 9th.

  2. I am not sure that Dylan’s preference for the LP is really relevant to his art. His own assessment of the LP is, by the way, at least partly given in hindsight. And, though many of his songs are good, excellent and even great, many of his albums are flawed artistically. That he helped to sell LPs rather than singles is certainly not a measure of his quality.