There were always more differences between albums and singles than just the price and size. Singles, by tradition carried the vital new ideas of music, while albums collated the successes and consolidated the ideas.
Up until The Beatles‘ Sergeant Peppers LP in 1967, albums were rarely more than a means of assembling an artists most recent two or three singles along with some (usually sub-standard) filler.
Their price and lack of immediate impact rendered them suitable for birthday gifts and parties (in houses without an automatic changer!). After all, who really cared what album House of the Rising Sun was on? Living In A Child’s Dream was never on any album.
Pepper gave the 12 inch vinyl form a new credibility. It stood as a creative entity in itself, with flow, structure and concept. With this lead (and a new economic situation) artists began stretching their talents to twelve tracks instead of one.
Gradually and inevitably, the succinct art of the perfectly-crafted three minute power punch dissipated, and singles became little more than a trailer for an album. Not surprisingly, pop radio at this point was at its lowest, dullest ebb. Gone was the exhilarating ‘song’ – made as a single and intended as a single.
Record companies now took a six minute cut from an album, edited it down to three minutes and were moderately pleased if radio played it.
The advent of the New Music in 1976 challenged the state of the industry by returning artistic focus to the 45. Anarchy In The UK was, like My Generation, an anthem single, a song, a brief statement of anger.
The British singles boom was a reaction against three things – the moving of albums out of the financial reach of the working class, the forsaking of excitement and imagination for formula and slick production, and the refusal of major labels to sign radical ‘new wave’ acts.
Small independent labels began to appear in Britain. The two initial leaders were Chiswick (formed by Rock On oldies record-store proprietor Ted Carroll), and Stiff (founded by rock managers Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, with a loan from Dr Feelgood).
Without the distribution might of the major labels, these brash beginners joined in the establishment of an efficient store-supply system throughout a good part of the British Isles.
‘Indie’ distributors such as Rough Trade and Bizarre, and mail-order specialists such as Small Wonder, were soon able to ensure sales of up to 30,000 for quality new wave singles – without the aid of chart placing or airplay. By comparison, American indie singles were lucky to move 7,000 units in a country with four times the population.
Like a poison ivy rash, indie labels spread throughout England; Beggars Banquet, Spy, 2-Tone, Criminal, Enigma, Fast, Mute, Bent and literally hundreds of other tiny labels rose to meet the demand for inexpensive records of the thousands of new bands running rampage throughout the country.
Other established (but imaginative) labels such as Virgin, Island and Chrysalis swung the thrust of their operations into the singles area as well.
The result was without precedent. Thousands upon thousands of singles by relatively unknown acts flooded into selected shops, and they were often a little more than just 7 inches of black vinyl in a plain paper sleeve.
In order to stimulate the market, record companies (big and small) introduced every gimmick imaginable.
Suddenly there were coloured vinyl, speckled vinyl, 6 inch discs, 5 inch flexidiscs, concert giveaway-only discs, triangle shaped discs, one-sided 12 inch singles, 12 inch picture disc singles, singles released in five different colours, singles with rare live tracks on the flip side, singles deliberately pressed in quantities of no more than 100, demo tracks pressed to disc for reviewers only, 12 inch live versions of 7 inch studio singles, picture sleeves and whatever else the ingenious labels could dream up.
Radio and the charts could not ignore the singles phenomena forever, and around 1978 there were regular hits by indie singles. Stiff’s Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick(by Ian Dury) actually sold a million copies and, as if in proud affirmation of the supremacy of singles, was never issued on an album.
Within a few years, Stiff had evolved from a cheapo enthusiasts operation to a label that easily rivalled the major corporations.
Having risen from virtual extinction in the early 70s to a position of supreme power in the late 70s, the single boom was to be short-lived, its demise hastened by the advent of the compact disc in the 1980s.