In praise of the album

I want to praise the album. Not the digital download or even the CD offering outtakes and extra tracks. I mean the humble vinyl long player (LP). And not because I’m just being retro and nostalgic.

A traditional LP was a single disc with twelve tracks, six on each side. It varied, of course but what didn’t was the playing time, usually totalling about 15 minutes each side, 30 minutes in total. (Cliff Richard made one titles 32 Minutes and 17 Seconds, while rock’n’roller Del Shannon brought one out titled ‘1661 Seconds,’ though I never actually timed it.)  The duration was originally set for technical and quality reasons, but it was an ideal length to sit and listen. Without standing up to skip tracks, the listener followed through each side in its entirety. It was planned by the producers to a pattern. Tracks would alternate from fast to slow, starting and ending with a bang. In between, there would be different styles, pacing the listener through the selections. In later years, artists became more adventurous and programmed the tracks to tell a story, sometimes joining tracks so they melded into one, and the concept album was born.

At first hearing of an album, the listener might not like every track. The variations and changes of style didn’t suit everyone – perhaps track two was a ballad from a singer more associated with rock, or track five was a solo by a band member you didn’t like – and it’s true that the strongest material was always saved for the singles and pole positions at the start of each side. But what it meant, as you listened through all 15 minutes each time is you gradually got used to the differences, growing to like the new, different or unexpected. For me, many became ‘growers’ that, over time, have become some of my absolute favourites. And it gave the artist latitude to create a package, set moods and deliberately lift and drop the listener, not just a series of songs that could be played in any order. There are so many examples to illustrate, but suffice it to say that Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys are two brilliant albums that used the programming that an LP offered.

Then along came CDs and now streaming. CDs did the initial damage. You could skip the tracks you didn’t like and the neat LP package of 15-20 minutes listening time became continuous through 60 minutes or more with added tracks and outtakes. Any planned sequencing the artists had created became irrelevant. Then came streaming, where the concept of an album was destroyed forever. Each track available singly, skip it after two seconds if you don’t like it instantly . . . what chance for something a bit different?

The consequence is, more choice has led to less. Less chance for artists to innovate and less excitement for listeners at discovering different music and building a love of something new. Music is now compartmentalised into types and we choose the ones we know and are familiar with. Specialist radio stations and channels offer oldies or rap or hits, but where’s the mix, the opportunity to expose listeners to something they weren’t expecting? There’s BBC Six and – ironically, given its history – BBC Radio 2 but people the age I was when music first really excited me are not listening.  I’d duck my head under the bed covers and listen to the new releases on Radio Luxembourg, the sole station to play records. It was only on in the evening and the sound was poor, and it was simply record companies plugging their music, (they used to fade records after about 90 seconds so they could play more in the time they had), but it exposed me to things I’d not heard before.  Then came the offshore pirates, and they played what the DJs liked – and as they were such a motley crew, you could hear almost anything.

Today, we choose what we think we want and shut ourselves away from anything we don’t think we like or that might take time to appreciate. Why wouldn’t we? That’s what choice allows us to do.  But I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

Richard Smith’s novel Homeward Bound is published next week and already available on Amazon and Waterstones online.