Monday, July 21, 2008

The Long-Player Goodbye by Travis Elborough

A record-making invention

The CD was just a shiny toy; it was the LP that revolutionised the way we hear music

The Long-Player Goodbye
Travis Elborough
Sceptre £14.99, pp468

Is anyone likely to lament the death of CDs? The evidence suggests not. When EMI announced that it was shipping over a million unsold units of Robbie Williams' Rudebox to China for the polycarbonate plastic to be recycled into road surfacing landfill, it felt like a fair use of the discs, rather than the label's own critique of their artist. Other than audiophiles, thrilled by the sonic sheen that the compact disc promised when it arrived on the market in 1983, few people have warmed to the CD in the same way that they once fell for vinyl.

It was 35 years earlier, in June 1948, that Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records in New York introduced the world to the LP. Standing flanked by two stacks of discs, he demonstrated the difference in playing time between a conventional shellac 78 and a 12-inch disc designed to spin at 33 revolutions per minute. This vinyl acetate platter lasted 22½ minutes - enough time, using both sides, to listen to Beethoven's 'Eroica', or the first part of Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans, should it ever come to that.

While the LP was conceived with the classical market in mind (and because the Second World War caused a shortage in shellac), it opened up new sonic vistas. For instance, Eric Satie's idea of musique d'ameublement was realised by a deluge of LPs with titles such as Music for Dining, Music for Reading and the studiously un-erotic Music for Two People Alone.

There was a similar shortlived boom in 'travelogue' LPs. A specialist in this field was Jo Basile (later to compose the music for The Magic Roundabout), who created records such as Accordion de Paris, the sleeve of which featured a beret-clad musician serenading a saucy mademoiselle.

The arrival of the LP spurred on the nascent art of sleeve design, kindling the attachment between fan and artist (later generations would derive their kicks from the artwork for Roxy Music's Country Life or, later, Big Black's Songs About Fucking). But the real significance of the LP was that it encouraged musicians to think of themselves as artists for the first time - rather than as simply hired hands there to interpret the music under the control of a composer or arranger.

If any LP can be considered key, surely it's Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours (1955), which he crafted meticulously, recording at night to ensure his voice had the right love-torn timbre. Sinatra resurrected his career with the record and went on to outsell Elvis for the rest of the decade, even if Presley enjoyed more number one hit singles. Later the Beatles announced their highbrow ambitions through records such as Rubber Soul which, rather than simply being a collection of singles, felt like an intended whole, paving the way for Sgt Pepper.

The desirability of such developments is something that Travis Elborough skips in this enjoyable history of the LP. The Long-Player Goodbye peters to a close with the arrival of the compact disc, but the CD did nothing to dismantle this new conception of pop: on the contrary, record labels and new magazines like Q rushed to construct the rock canon, encouraging the idea that no home library could ever be complete without at least one Phil Collins album. The long history of the LP would really end with the arrival of the MP3 player (the MPMan F10 in America 10 years ago), which has reinvoked that old idea of the hit song as pop's chief currency. It's easier to love an iPod than a Sony Discman, too.

Buy Long Player Goodbye at the Guardian bookshop
A fascinating and funny history of the pop album from the invention of vinyl and the LP 60 years ago, to its revival in the iPod age. Filled with enough detail and idiosyncrasy to inclusive insight into how music has shaped our lives.


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