Sunday, 2 February 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 2 - The 12"

If you want somebody to blame for the current, money grabbing shenanigans of the record companies, then the inventor of the 12” single is who you need to vent your anger at. Although we had different formats before then, the 12” soon found itself being appropriated by the record companies for potential chart assaults. With the 78 or the Cassette album, these releases were used to give the consumer a choice of playing format upon which to buy the latest release. 78s, before their demise, mirrored what was on the 45, and during the 1970s, Cassette albums did nothing more than include what was on the accompanying LP release, albeit with a sometimes altered track listing (see The Beatles' “Revolver“). The EP, meanwhile, was in fact an independent format that existed alongside it’s 7” cousins, most EPs either dealing with exclusive material for the hardcore fans to seek out, or cobbled together older hits into one place, for anybody who had not bothered to buy those earlier single releases. In all of these cases, the “second” format was never really in competition with the first, other than to offer the consumer an element of choice, without ever really getting in the way.

The 12” did, to be fair, start like that. It began it’s life in the disco scene of the mid to late 70s, with it’s extended playing time offering something the 7” single could rarely match. But by the time the mainstream labels got their hands on it, it soon became used as a tool to help the labels improve their chart positions via “legal“ chart rigging, as 7” and 12” singles began to get issued with alternate track listings, thus ensuring the completists had to own both versions. It set in motion the multi formatting madness that populated the 80s and 90s singles charts, especially by artists such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who issued more or less every single on as many different versions as they could think of. In some respects, you could argue, that the greed shown by the labels, the decision to try and get the population to buy the same single time and time again, eventually infuriated the record buying public so much, that the death of the physical single came about through the industry’s financially driven disdain towards it’s consumers.

How did this happen? Where did it all start? Well, legend goes that in the 1970s, a request for a test pressing of a 7” single by disco mixer Tom Moulton, caused some issues, because there were no spare 7” acetates laying around to be used for the purpose. There was, however, a 10” disc, and the record was duly pressed. However, Moulton thought that the idea of a big record with an inch wide set of grooves, and a far bigger run out section looked odd, and asked for another copy to be made with the grooves spread out, so that it looked more like a standard single. Upon doing so, it was realised that the “un-cramming” of the grooves gave the record a better dynamic range, perfect for airing in the disco environment. And so it was that the idea was extended - the 12” single was basically a record the size of an LP, but played at the same speed as a 7”, 45rpm. Depending on how much the grooves were or weren’t crammed together, determined how long the single would last, but generally, a 12” could fit ten minutes of music on each side quite easily. Disco producers began to make songs that were designed to “fill up” the vinyl, and the 12” single was born.

The mainstream soon became fascinated by the format, and regular rock and pop singles began appearing on the format. Leading the charge were Blondie, who issued several of their early period singles on the format in the UK, such as 1977‘s “Rip Her To Shreds“ and 1978‘s “Denis“. In each instance, the track listing was identical to the accompanying 7”, meaning that the 12” editions had been pressed simply for fun - or perhaps were designed for the benefits of the teenage boys who would get to look at a bigger picture of Debbie Harry on it’s cover than if they had bought it on 7”. The “dynamic range” benefits were probably not really a factor. But by 1978, Blondie were interested not just in the 12” format itself, but the disco origins of it, and were starting to write songs that were heavily indebted to the disco scene. In late 1978 they promptly issued a 12” of “Heart Of Glass” which included a special six minute extended remix on the A-side. Things were about to change forever.

The ownership of the 12” by the mainstream opened up multiple possibilities. For any acts who did NOT claim to have always had a dance element to their sound, the 12” was a perfect excuse to resurrect the spirit of the maxi single, or the EP, and some acts began to release bonus tracks on the 12” edition of their latest single, albeit at a price. You would pay, say, 99p for the 2-track 7” or £1.49 for a 12” that added a third track (see The Cure‘s 1981 single “Charlotte Sometimes“). The “floating voters” would go for the 7”, just to get the hit they had heard on the radio in the form they had heard it on the radio, and at minimum price, and the hardcore would shell out extra for the 12” to get all the new songs - this would soon become industry standard.

For the pop acts that did claim to be inspired by dance music, even if only very briefly, the 12” was used as an opportunity to do, usually, one of two things - a maxi single where the a-side mix was also extended alongside the inclusion of 12“ only b-sides (such as Siouxsie And The Banshees’ “Spellbound”) or the 12” was used as an alternate format, where the all of tracks from the 7” were left off completely in order to take full advantage of the new fangled format. If the 7” included album tracks on either side of the disc, this was not an issue, but some acts would have a “radio remix” done of their latest hit, which would be used for the a-side of the 7” but completely left off the 12” (see Madonna’s 1985 hit "Angel", or 1986's “Open Your Heart”). When The Stranglers released the stand alone 45 “Bear Cage” in 1980, never to be included on a studio album until it appeared as a CD bonus track many years later, a 12” was also released featuring extended mixes of both sides of the single, and nothing else, meaning completists had no choice but to buy the same single on both of the available formats in order to get all of the band’s “new” material. This would be the sort of approach that would be pushed to it’s limits throughout the rest of the decade. Strangely, when The Jam hit the top spot in 1982 with “Town Called Malice”, another single available on both 7” and 12” in different covers, the group and their label, Polydor, were accused of “fixing” the charts via this approach - both by industry players and associates of The Stranglers themselves, as the band’s very own “Golden Brown” was being held off the top spot by Weller and Co!

The 12” became so associated with the pop mainstream by the mid 1980s that the concept of the “extended dance mix” also became an industry standard - acts who seemingly would never have gone near a club in their life, watched as their latest single was remixed into a lengthy, often messy, eight minute long funk workout, seemingly for no other reason than to take advantage of the extra playing time that a 12” gave them over a 7”. What started off as maybe an oddball, occasional, obsession (The Stranglers abandoned the concept for some years after “Bear Cage”) soon became a must-do event. You name it, just about everybody went down the 12” dance mix route in the eighties, with everyone from Status Quo and Elton John to The Clash and David Bowie being the recipients of shape throwing dance revamps on the a-side of their latest single. For acts who survived long enough to witness the demise of the format, and with it, the generic 12” mix, these old dance mixes now look like bizarre relics of a bygone era.

The size of the 12” also allowed for an element of clever-clever design advantages over the 7”. Not only were numerous 12” singles pressed as picture discs (as were 7“ singles), but the sheer size was perfect for including things like free posters, and the likes of Madonna again saw virtually every one of their 12” releases coming with such freebies in the years between 1984 and 1992. With the emergence also of the shaped picture disc, singles were able to appear on multiple variant vinyl editions, although usually, the track listings of most mirrored what could actually be found on one of the other formats. You still generally had, at most, a standard 7” track listing and a standard 12” one, it was just you might get the same track listings on two or three different formats apiece.

As the eighties progressed, the world of remixing got more complex, and many acts saw their latest efforts being revamped, in different forms, by different remixers. But chart rules in the UK at that time meant that a single could last no longer than 20 minutes, so some acts got round this by issuing two different 12” singles, with the first lot of remixes on one 12”, and the second lot on another - see 1990‘s “So Hard” by Pet Shop Boys for starters. With seemingly no obvious restrictions on the number of formats you could have, acts often issued the same single in different sleeve designs as well, to try and get the fans to buy the same thing multiple times. In the case of the PSB’s, for example, it was not unknown for some copies of their latest single to appear in one sleeve showing Neil on the cover, and another with Chris (see 1988’s “Heart”). With the Cassette and Compact Disc formats also starting to become popular at the end of the 1980s as well, acts at times were coming close to releasing just shy of eight or nine formats per single, a slightly ludicrous situation that never quite got that ridiculous with the album formats.

The 12” began to lose it’s grip on the format wars in the early part of the 1990s. Mainly because the CD was starting to become the format of choice across the industry, as vinyl, in general, began to be seen as a slightly archaic, and sometimes unreliable, format. The CD single, quite simply, could do everything the 12” did and more, and usually without skipping or getting stuck, and given that the 12” still had those dance music connotations attached to it, acts who had used it purely for the EP stylings it offered, simply transferred their affections to the CD - it was more “middle class” I guess, the format beloved by the Yuppies, and so a new Julia Fordham single would be more suited to a CD edition than a 12”. As the restrictions on the number of formats allowed started to get reduced bit by bit as the decade progressed, vinyl began to get marginalised, and it was the 12” that failed to fully survive. It had received a bit of an overhaul in 1992, when the chart rules allowed for both 12” and CD singles to have a running time of up to 40 minutes, as long as the single included no more than six remixes of the same song (no B-sides allowed). But pop groups like The Spice Girls started to gravitate towards the CD and the Cassette, the consensus was that their young fan base wouldn’t even OWN a record deck let alone be interested in the format (although the debut Spice LP appeared on vinyl, possibly as a nod in part to the strand of their more mature fan base, such as me!) and the bands and singers who had been forced to move with the times and go down the “dance mix” route, simply moved with the times again and walked away, by reverting to issuing EP’s or Maxi Singles on CD with an A-side, and two or three new B-sides, by the middle of the decade. Elton dance mixes became virtually non existent as the millennium approached.

By the late 90s, vinyl made something of a minor comeback, usually as part of a quirky collectible style release, and although the dance/pop crossover acts like Madonna and Depeche Mode continued to adopt the 12” format for their own means, the resurgence in popularity of the 7” overwhelmed it, the amount of indie bands heading down the seven inch route simply outnumbered the amount of pop and electronic acts who continued to indulge in the world of the remix, and 7” releases by the early noughties were far outweighing the amount of 12” pressings, at least within the mainstream. 7” singles had a cool factor to them that the 12” didn’t. A lot of mainstream acts simply ignored both, as neither format really met with their desires, with the likes of Bowie and Suede both issuing singles on multiple CD editions on occasions in the latter part of the decade and the start of the 2000s, with no vinyl pressings at all for said single releases. In the end, the cost grounds attached to the creation of physical singles in general post-iTunes made even the 7” an extortionate format by 2010, so any 12” singles that were being pressed were thus even more expensive, with price tags not far off the £9.99 mark at times. The same old names continued to try and keep the format going, and even the likes of Paul Weller stepped in at times to remind people of their soul and funk credentials by issuing the occasional release on 12” only, but really, the format had reverted back to it’s roots - most releases were by pure dance acts, and the mainstream pop acts that had jumped on the bandwagon in the early 80s had long since jumped back off again. Even The Mode’s 2009 single “Peace” failed to get a 12” release, appearing instead on 7” and CD formats only, a sign that the 12” had more or less gone underground again. Madonna’s “Celebration” from the same year was on Picture Disc only, offering up selected highlights from the CD edition, and was thus aimed purely at the fanboys and nobody else. The 12” had become a cult.

But the format by this time had already made it’s mark. The sheer lunacy of multi formatting in the UK singles charts had been established by the turn of the century, and even as the 12” began to fall by the wayside, at least as regards the non-dance acts, the concept of multiple formats per single was now par for the course. Even today, there are still a few bands sticking by the multi formats approach, something that would not have started without the invention of the 12”. But it was really the use of the Cassette and CD formats that helped take it to the next level, both in the album and singles charts, and we shall look at quite what happened as the 1990s approached next month.

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