Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Double Album

Are double, or multiple disc, albums a necessary artistic endeavour? Or an exercise in self indulgence?

We're not talking about compilation albums or live albums here. We're talking albums of all new material from working musicians.

Some of popular music's most highly regarded albums were double albums in their original configurations: Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde", The Clash's "London Calling", Frank Zappa's "Freak Out", Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland", The Beatles' "White Album" et al. But did they all really need to be doubles? Was every song that great that it needed to be released then and there?

Sure, some albums could really use some judicious editing. I've always felt that Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" had at least three songs that should have been cut in half. Or if not, side 4 was too short at only one song, 11 minutes long. They could have added some recent non-LP singles to fill up the rest...

Some of these albums achieve greatness through their epic sprawl. The Beatles' 1968 self titled album (otherwise known as "The White Album") probably didn't need to be a double. George Martin begged them to drop some songs from the album. The band were at each other's throats in disagreement during recording. and about the only thing they agreed on was not to edit the album.

Jimi Hendrix's 1968 epic "Electric Ladyland" was the result was an ever creative, ever restless soul who was overflowing with new music. Cream's "Wheels of Fire" LP was also released the same year. It was half studio album, half live album. This would have been great had the live tracks not been so long and tedious.

George Harrison's first post-Beatles solo album was a triple LP entitled "All Things Must Pass" and it was a clearing house full of great songs that he didn't get to record in his day job. There were four sides of great songs but then he goes and spoils it with two further sides of pointless instrumental blues jams. This is one example where a triple album would make a great double.

The Clash were the first punk band to try their hand at the double album with "London Calling". Over the course of 19 songs, not all of them are great, but it's better than their next effort, the triple album "Sandinista!". Only around half the album is worth keeping. It makes up a decent extended length single or even double LP if one was to edit it. Indeed, it was released as a double LP in some locations, but I feel that was because of the manufacturing costs of pressing 3 LPs, and the fact that CBS would have had to have cut their profit on the record in order to release it at a price that people could actually afford.

This was also a problem with Chicago, a larger than life jazz rock band who liked long jams and complex extended suites on their LPs (before they sold out and became a dodgy AM radio pop band). Their first three albums were both doubles, and the band agreed to a royalty cut in order to avoid editing them down to single LPs.

Due to the limitations of the original LP format, multiple discs were necessary as the most you could get on an LP was around 45 minutes. If you wanted more, you could squeeze it out to around 53 minutes, or you could make a double LP. This practice was quite common in Classical and Jazz circles, but then fans of this music were often older and more affluent people who could afford the extra money for the extra packaging. However, it was less common in rock circles as record labels though that Rock was only purchased in small quantities on LP and large volumes on singles.

In the age of the CD, it made it easier to make longer albums without having to include a second CD. The original length for a CD was 74 minutes, although this has been revised and now it is 79:57. This meant that many older double albums could now comfortably fit on one CD (although some were still placed on two CDs for the sake of continuity if they are too long, or at least for the purpose of raking in extra cash). This also meant that many bands took to the longer running time by inflating their albums, in some cases unnecessarily.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers among the first to start the trend in 1991 with "Blood Sugar Sex Magik", a 73-minute album on 1 CD and 2 LPs. Each subsequent LP has been a single CD of no less than 55 minutes, but a double LP in each case. Their 2006 LP "Stadium Arcadium" was a 2CD/4LP set, clocking in at 28 tracks. But it could have easily been an excellent 12 or 13 song single LP with some editing...

It's interesting that certain record labels have made double vinyl LPs out of albums that could have been singles: The first two Oasis LPs were pressed on double vinyl, despite the fact that the longest of them is only 52 minutes. Probably in the interests of preserving audio fidelity, they were pressed up in this fashion, and there was a bonus track on each thrown in for good measure.

The curious phenomenon within this is when a band releases two albums either simultaneously, or in quick succession, that were never intended to be a double/triple album, but are conceptually and graphically linked to each other. Metallica intended for "Load" and "Reload" to be a double album, but the two discs were released 12 months apart. Guns 'n' Roses' "Use Your Illusions I & II" were never intended to be a double album, but are so intertwined with their sound, style and artwork that it is impossible to evaluate (or even listen to) one without the other. Green Day's latest three volume work "Uno! Dos! Tre!" was never intended to be a triple album, but again, each album was released two months apart from each other with similar artwork linking them.

In most of these cases, it is my view that a lot of them could be edited to make them more succinct. Some of them achieve their greatness through their epic sprawl. Although it's hard to imagine The Who's "Quadrophenia" or "The Wall" by Pink Floyd as a single record.

Of course they all could be streamlined into single albums, but then that wouldn't be any fun now, would it? It's easy to go back and revise history, but then it's sometimes better to take the good with the bad. Sometimes ambition outweighs ability resulting in some spectacular disasters, but it's still fun to watch.

Further reading:

"The Indulgent Theoretical Double-album-as-single Fantasy List" by Bonzoboots on Rateyourmusic.com

"The Double Album Diet Plan" by user:Finulanu on Rateyourmusic.com

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