That was all fascinating. But to many young American males in the 1960s and 1970s, one artifact of this cultural-capitalist marriage towered over all others. This was the record album—the 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm vinyl disc that, adorned in the increasingly baroque jacketry of the times, turned a black-and-white world into bursting technicolor. When I was 14, 15, 16, there was nothing better, and I mean nothing, than going to a record store and fondling these objects, lingering over them, studying the little visual signals they were sending, finally settling on the one in which I’d invest that $4 I’d gathered by shoddily cutting the neighbor’s grass, getting it home, ripping off that cellophane, plopping it down on the turntable, and praying that for the next 40 minutes, Mom wasn’t going to bay at me to clean the basement.
This history, of the record album, is salient on this anniversary not only because Sgt. Pepper at the time transformed what the album was, which everybody knows. It’s a story worth telling now because the album, when it was invented, was supposed to be something entirely else. The story of the album—how it was designed for fans of classical music, then hijacked by the hippies, who then delivered it into eager young hands like mine in forms it was never meant to assume—is the story of a marriage of consumerism, technology, and culture that could only have happened when it did, and it’s one that too few people know.
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In the beginning, of course, there was only live music. Then, in the late 19th century, Thomas Edison and others developed recorded music. The first delivery method was the cylinder, through which opera fans could hear the great Enrico Caruso sing “I, Pagliacci,” or Thomas Edison recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Then came the 1920s, and the dominance of the disc. It wasn’t really sonically superior to the cylinder, but it was cheaper to mass-produce. It was 10 inches in circumference and played at 78 revolutions per minute—and it was heavy. It was made of shellac, which came from a bug resin. If smashed against someone’s head, it would shatter into hundreds of pieces. But it might knock the person out, too.
Yet, in the age of bathtub gin, the disc was a revelation, because it meant that more people could play whatever music they pleased. And the fact that each side of such a disc could hold about three minutes or so of music was just fine. Why would a song need to be longer than three minutes? It was that technological limitation, incidentally, from nearly a century ago, that created the template for the single; and it still means, to this day, that most hit records try to hang somewhere in the vicinity of the three-minute mark.
This constraint was fine, for fans of Rudy Vallee or besotted swells forgetting themselves at lavish Tom and Daisy-ish parties. But what if one were a devotee of more serious music—wanted to listen, say, to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? That had a running time of roughly one hour and five minutes (it could vary depending on orchestra and conductor). On a 78-rpm record holding about three minutes per side, that required 11 records. The listener would have to get up every three minutes or so to change sides—sometimes, in the middle of movements. Yet the appetite for Beethoven was strong enough that such records went to market, packaged in boxes that roughly resembled the CD box sets of the 1990s. They looked to people of the time like photograph albums, which is where the word “album” comes from.