By Vince Tinguely
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
First single I owned– at least the first that sticks in my memory– was American Pie by Don McLean. American Pie was a monster hit in 1972, which made no sense, really, since it was an epic tune running waa-a-a-y over the four or five minute hit-single length. In fact, the single actually split the song in two, so you had part 1 on side A and part 2 on side B– so I’d sit in front of sister’s putty-coloured plastic portable turntable listening to one side, turning it over, listening to the other –but all it was, was the album-length version stupidly faded out in the middle… it was a massive hit mainly because of its complicated lyrics, which referred to the whole history of pop music from Buddy Holly to the Beatles in a sort of moralizing poetic code. For instance, here’s a bit about Holly:
But February made me shiver/
With every paper I delivered
Bad news on the doorstep/
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried when I/
Read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside/
The day the music died
You could go down to the local AM radio station and pick up a mimeographed decoding of the lyrics of American Pie, the sort of thing that record nerds had really started getting into with I Am The Walrus, decoding lyrics… listening to it today, it comes across as a really reactionary attack on the revolutionary, psychedelic drug freak hippie music of the time– so big surprise that it was a monster hit.
Helter skelter in the summer swelter/
The birds flew off with a fall-out shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast/
And landing foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass/
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume/
While the sergeants played a marching tune
Spot the Beatles, Byrds and Dylan references, not to mention the anti-drug jibe? That’s what happens when born-again Christians write rock songs, I guess. That was my first single, and it was quite possibly my only single for a while… I missed my chance to be in on the great era of singles by being born too late. By the time I was even marginally a music consumer, it was the age of AOR (album-oriented rock), where, no matter how much it sucked, you wanted the album and not just a single. This arbitrary desire for 12 inches over 7 inches of vinyl meant that you ended up getting stuck with a whole album of crap by an incredibly lousy artist like Meatloaf, rather than just the one hit song. (Let’s be truthful, wouldn’t it have been better if Boston had only released a string of hit singles, and never bothered with any albums, never mind the comeback albums? Same goes for the completely ridiculous Stone Roses, actually.)
But though they were on the wane, singles were still around in the early 70s. My friend Danny had Peace Train by Cat Stevens, which he would play incessantly on his clunky portable turntable with the tartan sides that opened up like a suitcase and weighed about 30 pounds. The kind of portable they always had in primary school and they’d play incomprehensible excerpts of poetry by Dylan Thomas or something. Dan would be lifting that big ceramic tone arm and dropping it over and over again–
Cause out on the edge of darkness/
There rides the peace train
Oh peace train take this country/
Come take me home again
–even interrupting the playing through of the track to concentrate on a particular part of the song, like the hand-clapping parts, over and over again. I guess we were just getting intimate with the technology, the fact of the artifact, the little disc of vinyl you could buy in a store and bring home and put on a machine and you could then make noises come out of it– and YOU controlled it, no-one else, none of this waiting all day by the transistor radio with your cassette recorder at the ready for that ONE SONG you were nuts about, putting up with the incessant DJ chatter and ads and bad songs and when it finally came on you were doing something else and ran across the house and so you missed the first thirty seconds or so… not to mention the stellar sound quality of your home recording… no, when you really loved the song, it was worth coughing up a buck and a half or so (which amounted to one’s entire week’s profits from one’s paper route).
But still… who wanted the three-minute edited version of Roundabout by Yes, when you could have the full 10-minute version on the album? There can never be too much of a good thing, when you’re twelve years old.
So singles faded out of my life for quite a while; they were the sort of thing I’d sneer about, if I thought about them at all, whenever I was in the record store buying the latest magnum opus by Bob Seger or Jackson Browne. Singles only made their reappearance at the end of the 70s, right around the time I first started hearing campus radio and reading Trouser Press. With the whole indie, underground, punk rock DIY thing happening, suddenly singles were cool again! Because songs were cool again… insanely important punk rock albums like Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, the first Clash album and Singles Going Steady by the Buzzcocks aren’t albums at all, they’re compilations of all the incredibly fucking amazing SONGS from the singles that charted in the UK the year before and totally transformed musical culture forever.
By this time, nobody was paying any attention to singles in North America (except for the fools at Cash Box.) Top-40 radio was virtually dead, if record companies still put out singles it was only out of habit or something… but down at the local Records On Wheels store (in London, ON), there was a basket of nifty looking singles on the front counter, British imports, American hardcore and local punk shit that my friend Mark took to with a passion. I remember buying a bootleg David Bowie single of a couple of Lou Reed covers, but Mark was into totally obscure shit like The Forgotten Rebels, Teenage Head, TV Party by Black Flag… he’d put these blistering singles on and I’d ask him where he’d heard about them, and he’d say, “Nowhere, man.” Well, I’d ask, how’d you decide to buy them then? “I just liked the covers,” he’d say. This struck me as a revolutionary concept, buying a record completely cold, with no knowledge of what might be on it. Soon enough I had Too Drunk To Fuck by the Dead Kennedys and I decided Mark had the right attitude about new music. If you couldn’t hear it on the radio, and you didn’t read about it in the papers, then you just had to trust your instincts.
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