Thursday, November 19, 2020

45s

Suffice it to say that I am satisfied with Spotify for the car, but it's the tactile sense that's missing with the virtual world.  An album cover on my TV screen does not make up for holding Dark Side in my hands, for thumbing through the pages of Tommy or Magical Mystery Tour, and how, exactly, does today's digital music generation roll a joint without a gatefold LP? For the past couple of days, I've had an urge to hear the instrumental intro to Lou Reed's Rock 'n' Roll Animal (AM9).  The remarkable guitar duet by Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter is a monster live performance but I've become such a vinyl snob these days that I want to pick up a copy and hear it the way it should be heard, and without the iconic album cover flipping from side to side on my TV screen and counting down the seconds till the next track. 

OK, I'm back. I took the plunge. I found Rock 'n' Roll Animal for $6.99 and I bought a pretty mint Ten Years After for a buck 99. Pretty good score. I also found a nice copy of "Pleasant Valley Sunday" on 45 with a photo sleeve; so I'm happy. 

Interestingly, there are those who actually argue the superior sound quality of the 45, based on the increase of speed and the wider grooves. No one has ever persuaded me that the quality of a 45 is superior on any level, and I would maintain that the typical 45 lacks sorely in manufacture and quality control. That said, I am a collector.  I adore my 45s.  I love the look, the diversity of the labels, the size and format. I play them on an RCA 1953 bakelite 45 phonograph. It's vacuum tube-driven and if you don’t allow for it to warm up, you'll only hear the sound coming off the needle and not through the phonograph's speaker. Despite being fully restored, the motor's hum is audible, though not over the speaker.  The quality of the sound is rich and heady, but quality here is subjective. There are perceptible clicks and hisses, and an empty, somewhat hollow sound that just, well, sounds authentic. I guess it's an acquired taste.

Here's the deal. I collect 45s for the thrill of collecting based on my interest in the era (I confine my collection to the 60s and early 70s), the unique format, the bang for the buck (45s are notably inexpensive), and the aesthetics.  I appreciate the Snap, Crackle, Pop of the format, the wow, the hiss, and the nostalgia. I doubt that I will ever take my mint version of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" and play it on a $600 Shinola turntable. If I did, I have my doubts that the experience would exceed the digital sonic landscape created by the LP, let alone my SACD of The Original Soundtrack.

The 45 and LP were developed based on the rivalry between Columbia Records and RCA Victor to replace the 78 rpm format created early in the century. Made of brittle and noisy shellac — a compound consisting of secretions from Southeast-Asian beetles — the 78 rpm format was ripe for replacement by the late 1940s. (The term "album" originated with the photo-like albums manufactured for multi-record 78 rpm releases.) In 1948, Columbia unveiled the 33-1/3 rpm, 12-inch record made of "Vinylite" (vinyl) that was quieter and less prone to breakage than shellac. The new format was perfect for reproducing long musical performances, and even though no "album" was required to contain them, single LPs (Columbia copyrighted the term "LP" for Long Player) retained the moniker and is utilized even in today's digital world.

Not content to use Columbia's format for its huge back catalog, RCA released its own 7-inch, 45 rpm format in 1949. Originally, RCA's strategy was to tout its new format's superiority over Columbia's LP, viewing it as a replacement, for rather than a complement to, the 33-1/3 rpm record. (The "45" rpm concept was established by subtracting "33" from "78.") RCA began to manufacture inexpensive 45 RPM players featuring a spindle that could hold many 45s, dropping each to the turntable for play as soon as the previous was finished. Part of RCA's thinking was that the 45's sound reproduction was superior to the LP, and part was its unwillingness to cede the long-playing music market to Columbia, even though Columbia was willing to license its manufacturing process to any record company. (Columbia did not make music playback equipment.) Both companies felt they had the upper hand; both concepts would become industry standards.

By the early 1950s, playback equipment for consumers quickly adopted modifications for playing all three formats (not to mention an unused format for spoken word recordings, 16rpm). The 78 format persisted well into the 1960s, but its fate was sealed by the sheer superiority of the new 45 and 33-1/3 rpm records. For a while, RCA tried to position the 45 as the 33-1/3 rpm LP's equal by releasing box sets of 45s intended for use on their "spindle" player system, but by the end of the decade, even RCA had adopted the LP helping to bring it to the Pop audience by releasing LPs for Elvis Presley and other big-name artists.

While there was a plethora of corporate labels releasing LPs, names like Victor, Columbia, Capitol, Decca and Mercury, the manufacturing process was expensive and left rather exclusively to the big five in the U.S. Smaller subsidiary labels began to appear and in the heyday of rock there were dozens of iconic labels, many started by bands and distributed by larger conglomerates: Brother Records (Beach Boys), Swan Song (Zeppelin), Manticore, Harvest, Virgin, Asylum, to name a few. 45s, though, would find hundreds, if not thousands of manufacturers, tiny labels made in someone's garage and distributed locally or to radio stations. That phenomenon created one of 45 collecting's most interesting idiosyncrasies: many collectors are in it only for the labels. Names like Del-fi, Kama Sutra, Stateside, Ever-Soul, Fairmont, End, Parrot and Dooto exemplify the phenomenon.

While the LP would go on to establish the age of the concept (Sinatra's Wee Small Hours of the Morning) and the auteur (The Beatles, particularly with the release in 1966 of Rubber Soul), creating a format in which the artist was challenged to create a full 40 minutes of quality music, 45s sustained the hit format that began in the days of the American Standard. Collecting 45s is an incredible resource for the music enthusiasts.  While I disagree that the 45's sound quality exceeds that of the LP (and in no way approaches that of hi-def formats), nowhere will one find a more exceptional historical artifact.