Film: When Albums Ruled the World (2013)

February 11, 2015 | By


BLANKFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  n/a

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Genre:  Documentary / Music / Vinyl

Synopsis: Brisk, informative chronology of how the long-playing LP influenced popular music, resulting in classic concept albums in jazz, rock, electronica, and fusion.

Special Features:   n/a






An obvious companion piece to the BBC’s The Joy of the Single (2012), When Albums Ruled the World gets into the rock doc genre with this taut, prescient chronology of how the lowly long-playing record, the  LP, managed to offer jazz and rock musicians powerful opportunities to create concept albums rather than a series of 2.5 minute tunes the major record labels could spin-off as 7″ record singles.

Perhaps what’s been lost among the LP vs. vinyl debate (something that’s addressed within Steve O’Hagan’s film) is why the LP, not the 7″ record, was embraced by artists in many genres: more playing time, and the freedom to pretty much create ground-breaking listening experiences.

In the digital realm, length and content have limitless possibilities, but the LP freed composers and musicians to indulge, explore, and create counter-programming to formulaic radio – and radio and the labels hated that. The LP also mandated better recording techniques, rendered from experimentation with multi-track recording and mixing, mic placement that challenged the old Decca tree standard, better recording gear, creative editing, and adding effects and processed sounds instead of sticking to what emerged from performers locked in a recording room.

Jazz also blossomed on the LP, but rock went even further, branching off with pro-rock, fusion jazz, electronic, and R&B with often epic works that spanned part or the full side of a record.

O’Hara’s breadth of interview subjects is massive, yet the doc’s focus is that late 60s / early 70s period when the LP came into its own and mandated people sit, gather, and listen before Sony’s Walkman in the 80s put the power of track order and mixing up albums and genres into the hands of the listener.

More or less starting with The Beatles, the doc weaves through Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Rick Wakeman, Yes, The Doors, Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield, Marvin Gaye, and more greats (although weirdly, no Isaac Hayes, known for crafting epic, single-side versions of songs). There’s also Miles Davis, who realized his only means of reaching a larger audience and expanding his stylistic range was to blend rock and jazz, resulting in the divisive / brilliant Bitches Brew album.

The power of live recordings and meticulous studio albums are addressed via specific LP releases, and as for the LP vs. CD debate, that naturally remains unresolved. What’s agreed is the allure of the format – the manual handling, anticipating the flood of sound from the speakers, LP collections as indicators of personality – and its warm sound are unique, but as to whether vinyl sounds better, the compromise that’s reached is perhaps the most rational: it depends how music is recorded, mixed, engineered, and how its all mastered, which for the LP, depends on the quality of the master stamper, vinyl stock, and the sound system you ultimately use.

Not unlike statements heard in Vinyl, Alan Zweig’s 2000 documentary on extreme album collectors, the debate rages on with warmness being characterized as our perception of analogue distortion as something pleasing, versus the cleanness of CDs, mastered from supposedly noise-free audiotape. To the other end, there’s digital-bashers who argue the compressed sound of MP3s and CDs are sterile representations of the musician’s true sound– a stance that pushed Neil Young to develop the PonoPlayer for ‘higher resolution’ music that’s broader than the older digital formats yet supposedly brimming with the warmness of analogue.

The doc’s conclusion is admittedly bittersweet: the level of pioneering and the landmark albums from that era remain unique and inimitable, but they’re rightly regarded as benchmarks of creativity in composition, performance, production, and distribution.

The BBC production of When Albums Ruled the World is available on YouTube, with a low-res format offering the full version with un-blocked music.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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