Format Rules

Things may have changed a lot when it comes to listening to music. Whilst the fact that I have no idea what is in the charts these days is most likely to be an indication of advancing age than anything else, it does nevertheless feel that people aren't as into music as much they used to be. Whilst the tribes seem as strong as ever (Belieber or Directioner?) it's more disposable and the energy seems to be missing. However I can't really judge without being young myself and the only experience I have of that was in the past.

It was exciting back then - all these new things to discover. The absence of an internet meant that information was far more difficult to come by and therefore far more precious. You scoured the music press for the smallest clipping. And as for the music - well without YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify,, illegal and legal downloads you simply had to wait. Sometimes if you were lucky a DJ - John Peel or Kid Jensen, sometimes even Peter Powell - would play something they'd got hold of in advance or that had been recorded specially for their show. Well that was what tape decks had been invented for wasn't it?

But the most important things were the records themselves. They were the central artefacts in the process, ultimately desirable and sometimes even collectable. After all if you were a true fan of a band it was essential that you owned their entire output. That was a given. To this day it still rankles that I never got hold of Soft Cell's Mutant Moments EP or A Man Could Get Lost/Memorabilia 7" single. The fact that I now have the songs contained therein is scant consolation.
Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track (and a tacky badge)
- The Smiths, Paint a Vulgar Picture
There were rules of course and when a band broke them it felt like a bit of a rip off (and I apologise in advance here for covering some of the same ground as in a previous blog entry "Extended Remix"). As an obsessed fan you had to buy everything, sure - which of course helped get the single into the all important charts - but in return you expected a reward. The tacky badge or photograph were all very well, but what really counted was the extra track (or tracks). Furthermore both the seven and twelve inch singles should contain something unique to the format so your desire to own both of them was fully justified. Ideally different B-sides and a different mixes of the A-side. Where ten inch singles were issued the tracks should be different again. It was only fair.

The only exceptions were cassette singles (or "cassingles" as they were so execrably known for a short while) and the cassette versions of albums. Despite the fact that I taped stuff from the radio and loved my home made tape collection - and I used to copy all my vinyl LPs onto cassette so I could listen to them on the move - there was something altogether false about official cassettes. I preferred my collection to consist of things I could buy. Tapes were more informal. After all if you bought the album on cassette then - aside from the card insert - a copy you made would be pretty much equivalent.

Besides the sleeves were way too small, and the enjoyment of record sleeves were part of the whole experience.

Whilst singles were obviously released as a taste of the album to come - the bigger the hit the more people would buy the album - I did have a set of internal rules about was and what wasn't acceptable when it came to the relationship between the two.

Firstly, singles should only come out before an album. After all, once you'd heard a song on the album then being made to buy it again on the off chance of a new B-side was annoying - however not many bands adhered to this rule so I was more forgiving of it being broken provided the related rule two wasn't broken as well.

Rule two: B-sides should not be album tracks. I'll repeat that: B-sides should not be album tracks.

B-sides were a bonus - extra material from your beloved band. I never subscribed to the theory that they were somehow substandard - there just wasn't room for them on the album. Furthermore they gave you an additional reason to buy the single which almost certainly would be on the album. They were there so you could tape them onto the end of the side of the tape upon which you'd put the album. Sometimes there'd be too many of them to fit on one side of the C90 which, whilst annoying, still mean that there was more precious music in your collection.

Breaking both these rules meant that you could end up with an album that was next to pointless (or a handful of singles that was pointless) to the serious collector.

Of course you could understand why the record companies did it. If an artist  on the rise had a moderately successful hit single which made a large number of punters buy the album a few weeks later then the temptation to release another track from that album in that hopes that it too would go top ten and provoke another rash of album sales must have been strong. After all it made sound economic sense. And if there wasn't anything to put on the B-side aside from one of the tracks from the album then so be it.

But it was annoying to a collector like me, not least because it meant I still had to buy the superfluous single on both seven and twelve inch to avoid a hole in my collection which would nag at me for years.

A major offender was the David Bowie album Let's Dance. It was only eight tracks long anyway, two of which were re-recorded tracks from earlier in his career - Cat People (Putting Out Fire) from the sound track of the film of the same name the previous year and China Girl which he'd co-written with Iggy Pop and which Iggy had included on his 1977 album The Idiot. To add insult to injury three of the four singles released from the album contained album tracks as B-sides. This meant that there was only one track unique to the album. Frankly this was just taking the piss.

Still, at least I wasn't a fan of Michael Jackson as I seem to recall that every last track on Bad was released as a single. Whilst this no doubt contributed to the fact that the album was one of the best selling of all time it must have made an obsessive Michael Jackson fan's record collection very irritating.

Thankfully lot of the bands I was really into were very conscientious when it came to giving their fans value for money. During the Safari years and at the peak of her chart success Toyah was constantly determined not to rip fans off. In 1981 her Platinum album Anthem contained only two tracks that people had heard before (and I suspected that the first of those It's a Mystery had been included only under protest).

You'd have expected that after the success of the album a further single would have been lifted from it - but no. Instead a brand new track - Thunder in the Mountains - was recorded and released.  Eventually in addition to the 11 track LP there were a grand total of 14 other tracks realised that year (if you counted the two on Flexipop magazine - both of which were unavailable elsewhere) on EPs and singles. That was like having a whole extra album.

My other favourites, Soft Cell, were equally dedicated to giving their fans value for money with long versions of both the A-sides and B-sides on their 12" singles (with extra verses, new lyrics and everything), extra tracks alternate mixes etc - and I forgave them for issuing Say Hello Wave Goodbye as a single after it had already appeared on the Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret album due to the magnificence of the remix on the A-side and the B-side Fun City. Plus of course there was a brand new single only a couple of months later in Torch.

The collector mentality had not gone unnoticed by the record companies. It wasn't long before they realised that a few additional formats could help kick start a single in to the all important top forty. Furthermore they could skip on studio costs if they included no extra tracks or remixes. And thus was the picture disk born.

I had mixed feelings about picture disks. On the one hand they felt like a rip-off because they invariably contained the same tracks as the regular seven or twelve inch but at lower quality - and sometimes ramming them onto the turntable itself was a bit of an effort.

On the other they looked great.

These days it's all a lot simpler and now I actually think I prefer it that way. What is important is the music itself and for the avid collector making sure you track down every last byte of music is the important thing.

But unfortunately there isn't an equivalent of the Camden Record and Tape Exchange for downloads.


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