Anatomy of an Album (Or is it an Autopsy?)

Anatomy of an Album (Or is it an Autopsy?)

vinyl records stack
Is the ‘album’ dead?

If so, who killed it? Did it die of natural causes? Should we mourn its demise?

I ask this question because, recently, I was with a young friend who loves music from the 60s and 70s. He was listening to The Beatles’ Abbey Road … on shuffle!

I asked ‘why?’, he replied ‘why not?’

This got me thinking. Why should I be so outraged and dumbfounded at the idea of mixing up an album like Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon or

Wish You Were Here?

So, let’s dissect the inner makings of an ‘album’ as opposed to a recorded collection of 10 or 12 songs released under one title. To do this, I asked an established recording producer what he thought. For what will become obvious, I have given him a pseudonym. The guy still needs to work in the recording industry and his observations aren’t too flattering.

“A great album can be ruined by a dumb A&R man”, said Producer Jeff. A&R stands for ‘artists and repertoire’. The A&R man finds songs, does deals and matches songs to an artist. Sounds like a noble profession, but it’s not as skilled as it perhaps should be.

There are exceptions to every rule, so let’s say, some A&R men are cowboys who can screw up a potentially awesome album by imposing an incongruous inclusion amidst an otherwise cohesive, inspiring collection of carefully sequenced tracks. Occasionally, the artist themselves can make the same call through subjective indulgence. Presumably, because they intend to listen to their own album a whole lot more than they expect their fans to.

The most ludicrous example I can think of this is an otherwise perfectly structured 1967 recording of brilliantly written and exquisitely produced songs by Jimmy Webb, performed with soulful virtuosity by vocal group The Fifth Dimension. A class act, all around.

The album is called Magic Garden and it is acknowledged by some as a complete ‘concept album’ of 12 tracks. Almost true, apart from track 6, which was not written by Webb, but Lennon and McCartney.

Magic Garden tells a beautiful story of young love. As only Jimmy Webb can tell it. It’s poetic, dramatic, operatic and deeply soulful and heartfelt. Then half way through the band sings Ticket To Ride. Gimme a break. It jars like a kazoo break in Stairway To Heaven.

In isolation, a Beatles song can never be a bad choice, but in this instance, I can only imagine that the A&R department at Soul City Records, (distributed by Liberty Records and David Geffen), had an agenda far from creative synergy.

When I play this album, I edit out track 6. It makes it an albeit shorter, masterpiece that you want to listen to from beginning to end without interruption and certainly, without a reshuffle.

There are exceptions to this theory of mine. For example, Fleetwood Mac’s classic Rumours is a collection of superb songs that are so individually robust and awesome that you can mix it up, in any order and it’s still a joy to listen to. So I have another theory about that. Quite simply, in making Rumours, Fleetwood Mac were recording a ‘greatest hits album’ before it was even released. That’s very rare.

Perhaps unique.Greatest Hit albums are just that, a collection of popular hits. Sentimental favourites. In my book, not an album.I can perhaps guess what you’re thinking, ‘Ok Dr Bob, you’ve told us what can prevent an album from being an album. So tell us, what you think makes an album an album!’.

Fair enough. Here goes.

I put it to you that an album is about structure. Something the 12 “ vinyl disc dictated by virtue of having two sides and a limited play length. It forced the artist to consider a beginning, a middle and an end. This empirical physical constraint obliged the artist to structure the recording.

One of the best writers, performers and producers in the industry is ELO’s Jeff Lynne (currently about to tour AND headline at Glastonbury 2016). His iconic track Mr. Blue Sky incorporates a vocal instruction that highlights Lynne’s awareness of ‘listening structure’ when he included the cheeky vocodered line ‘please turn me over’ at the end of the song, which was the last track on side three of his classic double album, Out Of The Blue.

With the advent of cassette tape, this still made sense to the listener. But then, along came CDs, and now we have streaming, downloads and shuffle. This has allowed the listener to randomly deconstruct what the recording artist may have spent months, even years, carefully shaping into ‘an aural experience’ to share that made some visceral, linear sense to them. Artists like David Bowie, with his reputation of chopping up lyrics in a William Burroughesque form, would probably approve of ‘album shuffle’.

But, I suspect, others would not.In 1989, the mighty Joe Jackson addressed this problem by making his concept album Blaze Of Glory, which has about 11 songs on it, a one-track CD. That one track is around 40 minutes long. The sleeve notes list the sequence of songs, which has a narrative and structure of Jackson’s liking, but you can’t select individual tracks. Not without a fast forward function on your CD player. Neat trick Joe.

To be fair, there are plenty of long playing recordings of 10 to 12 tracks that suffer no ill-effects from being chopped up like a mixed salad. Not because they are in the same class as Rumours, but because they are disjointed compilations of odd songs that should never have been grouped together in the first place. My take on this is that the artist and record company conspire to create ‘radio friendly’ singles. An ‘album’, in the classic form, is not their priority. Their choice.

But guess what? Vinyl is on the up! Back in the big chain stores and sales are growing.So the physical opportunity these beautiful black, shiny discs represent may inspire recording artists to consider structure as they attempt to create something that exceeds the listeners expectations.
In her 1975 song about her relationship with Bob Dylan, Diamonds and Rust, Joan Baez sings, you arrived on the scene, already a legend. That doesn’t happen too often, if ever, since.Iconic album status is earned. And ever shall it be so.

As Brian Wilson prepares to tour with his complete live performance of Pet Sounds, in its original sequence, here’s a handful of recording in my collection that I regard as ‘classically structured albums’. Recordings that I would never want to shuffle or play in part. I listen from beginning to end. Because it’s the right and most pleasurable thing to do. In addition to those I mention above, and in no particular order …

  • Surf’s Up The Beach Boys
  • Astral WeeksVan Morrison
  • After The Gold Rush Neil Young
  • Deja VuCrosby, Stills, Nash and Young
  • Retriever – Ron Sexsmith
  • The Boatman CallsNick Cave and The Bad Seeds
  • Sail Away Randy Newman
  • Aerial BalletNilsson
  • GauchoSteely Dan
  • Born To RunBruce Springsteen
  • BlueJoni Mitchell 

There are many, many more.

Till next time,
—– Dr Bob.

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