Going all the way back to the lacquer 78 days, records had two sides and usually contained two songs. Packaging at first was incredibly dull — nothing more than paper or cardboard sleeves protected those brittle early records.
That changed when country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers became the first recording superstar. Some marketing guru had the brilliant idea of binding several of those sleeves together under a decorative Jimmie Rodgers cover: An album in which to keep your Singing Brakeman 78s. Many songs contained in one album — see the connection?
When the 45 came along, it became the dominant sales format. Some of that has to do with DJs and jukeboxes, but we can’t forget that 45s were also much cheaper than albums, which by then were the single disc, multi-song collections that we now think of when we hear that word. Additionally, prior to the Beatles albums often contained a lot of filler. Most kids didn’t want to pay extra for the seven cruddy songs that came along with the one that they wanted.
Along came the CD and cassette revolutions during the ’80s. The 45 was losing market share to the new formats, but rather than thinking that maybe kids actually preferred albums now, the labels tried to keep the single alive in these new formats. The CD single and cassette single, or cassingle, were born.
These guys were really stuck on the idea of “album big, single small,” so they shrunk the standard 5-inch CD down to an even more compact 3 inches for the CD single. Even though it was smaller than a 78 or a 45, 4 songs still fit on the little disc, which brings us to the other great treat of releases like this (well, prior to box sets anyway): B-sides. On today’s subject, not only did we get two versions of XTC’s shimmering new single for our CD3 dollar but we got two home demos, too, and on top of all that is the great, die cut packaging. Come on!
We’re back to the single as the dominant format in our streaming/download/stealing world, but it’s not the same. There’s no cool packaging, and what once would’ve been a killer B-side is now probably a YouTube clip. The world is poorer for this loss of creative artifacts. Would Jimmie Rodgers have survived the decades as a bunch of digital files? I don’t think so. He would’ve just sunk into the digital quicksand like everyone else. But that first album, handed down from parent to child or neighbor to neighbor, that tangible thing filled with mojo and representing an actual investment in the work of the artist, that meant something.
You can get your own “King For A Day” CD single for 5-8 bucks, but good luck finding one that’s still sealed and bearing a Tower Records price sticker. That one is mine all mine. Sorry suckers, and happy hunting.