Film: Joy of the Single, The (2012)

February 11, 2015 | By


BLANKFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  n/a

Extras:  n/a

Label:  n/a

Region:  n/a

Released:   n/a

Genre:  Documentary / Music / Vinyl

Synopsis: Brisk, highly informative and ebullient history of the 7″ single record, and its enduring impact on the production and release of hit songs.

Special Features:   n/a




A definite companion piece to the BBC’s When Albums Ruled the World (2013), The Joy of the Single covers similar ground in putting the love for an obsolete media format –  RCA’s 7” 45 RPM platter – which in 1949 established a whole slew of conventions that still remain part of the way music is written, promoted, and enjoyed by the masses.

Whereas the long-playing 12” 33 ½ RPM record has managed an unexpected comeback – perhaps inevitable, given its storage capacity, like a CD or hard drive, gathers multiple songs on two sides instead of the 45’s two-tune limit – the 7” was the format whose storage capacity of roughly 2.5 minutes per side established the maximum song limit preferred by radio stations so songs, adverts, and DJ chatter could swiftly intermingle and keep a station’s content short and concise.

The running time of the 7” also mandated composers, arrangers, orchestrators, producers, and musicians figure out a way to synthesize a musical idea into a compact container which teased and hooked the listener, gave a few tasty morsels of harmony, catchy lyrics, and brief solos in the meaty midsection, and a finale that left one wanting more. The end result was fans replaying the damned thing repeatedly until it had virtually been worn out.

For consumers and bands, singles were cheaper to buy and produce than LPs, and according to some of the musicians featured in Chris Rodley’s zippy doc, the 7” format made it easier to build up enough material to put eventually out a long-playing record, gathering top tunes and the odd B-side to feature a full 30-35 min. program.

Like the LP, fans of the single express the mystical, nostalgic draw of holding, handling, putting the needle into the platter, but there’s clearly a bittersweet tone to the memories of the single’s fans, largely because the format was too restrictive to present a longer song, unless it was split and spread over both sides, as sometimes happened. (Musician Suzi Quatro clarifies that a single and an LP track were different animals, and one couldn’t really be created from the other.)

The record’s evolution and success was often affected by small battles, and as the LP doc makes clear, that format’s solid 45 mins. storage capacity allowed bands to create concept albums, making the very creation of a single – often an edited version of a longer tune – almost insulting to the band’s original concept.

And yet the single was vital in promoting bands because the short-form song remained a standard well into the eighties, suiting the anarchic war cries of punk – short, assaultive, addictive works – and morphing into the 12” 45 RPM single which conceptually transferred the hit song from a short version to something longer, yet uncluttered by filler material.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson describes the various 12” remixes of the band’s handful of hits which kept them on the charts for lengthy periods, and both musicians, fans, and engineers describe the creative methods used to make a single ‘punch through’ the din of a crowded pub or club by making the audio loud and sharp, and exploiting the boom power of a jukebox.

Rodley’s doc is very effective in capturing the allure, importance, and nostalgia for the single, contextualizing its importance and its legacy in standardizing a hit song’s DNA – neatly detailed by hit makers Neil Sedaka and Mike Batt, among many other interviewees – but left out of the doc is the war among the owners of the rival formats.

The 10” 78 RPM record, which offered great sound for early singles but a short running time, was eventually superceded by the 10” 33 ½ RMP LP that could archive more music on the same-sized format; RCA’s 7” platter was designed as a higher fidelity alternative, but it ran head-to-head against CBS’ 12” LP, with sometimes comedic results.

Decca Records, for example, issued Elmer Bernstein’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) soundtrack on both 12” and 7” platters: all cuts on the LP were spread out over three 7” platters in a kind of mini-album (dubbed a ‘3 EP set’). Some sets were housed in the library-styled albums typical of classical / instrumental sets featuring three or four 10” 78 RPM records.

The issuance of music in two rival formats certainly begged the question: Would the music enthusiast prefer every cue on a single record with just one turnover, or several small platters requiring getting up and flipping sides to enjoy the full LP contents?

And decades later, even collectors would have to admit the storage of LPs was easier than a multitude of 7” records filed in boxes that couldn’t be stacked, and whose contents couldn’t be easily discerned because there were no record sleeve spines – just paper envelopes.

Nostalgia and unique content (the sometimes challenging B-sides of alternative music or straight instrumental versions) are what radiate from the single’s fan base – especially its size, company logos, and splashy sleeves – and while the physical format may be fully obsolete, its repercussions remain very much alive: instead of buying the whole album, fans could grab just the good stuff, not unlike buying just MP3s of specific album cuts instead of the whole lot.

In later years the 7” single offered music fans some choice, but certainly in its early years, the single was king of the hill – hit tunes on an exclusive format that built record label and radio empires.

The BBC production of The Joy of the Single is available on YouTube.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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