Is the music industry calling time on the double album?
A detail from the cover of Pink Floyd’s double album The Wall
The 90s had Smashing Pumpkins’ Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, Springsteen’s The River, the Boo Radleys’ Giant Steps, Spiritualized’s Laser Guided Melodies, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever and Sonic Youth’s Dirty. The 80s had Sign O’ the Times, Blood and Zen Arcade. And in the 70s it seemed all major bands were contractually obliged to knock out a lumbering great double album every three years or so as Pink Floyd, ELO, Chicago, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Genesis and Yes knocked out multiple discs. Back then, if you couldn’t string together 30-odd tracks telling the psychedelic story of, say, a lamb feeling slightly knackered on Broadway, you were nobody.
Most decent bands, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, have marked their creative high point with a monolithic double-disc masterpiece and many a generation has been defined by them. In my youth in the late 70s most HMVs were a battleground as Out of the Blue waged bloody war with London’s Calling for control over popular culture. But as the major labels tighten their belts, dropping new bands and scything away at their payrolls with furious abandon, is the double album the latest industry dinosaur to face the chop?
I mean, you’d expect the Cure – a band with past double opus form, thanks to 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me – to be able to release a double album, right? Er, sadly not. Their new album 4:13 Dream is the “light” first half of a double collection, with the second “dark” half to be released separately in 2009.
Robert Smith recently told me the rather shocking factors behind the release strategy. Basically, Geffen were only prepared to pay them royalties equivalent to a single album, even if the album was priced as a double. In effect the label were penalising the band for wanting to give their fans more music for less. Smith insisted he didn’t care about making any more money but the principle was paramount; he was furious at the idea of a major label conning him out of making the record he wanted. So he held back the second half of the album for six months and one day later, the earliest moment that his contract permitted. The concept would be intact, it would just be up to the fan to Sellotape the two “episodes” together.
Is this the (disappointingly thin) shape of things to come? The noughties have seen a notable decline in the standard of doubles – Speakerboxx/The Love Below was fatally lop-sided, American Idiot brutally crass and Stadium Arcadium, well, a Red Hot Chili Peppers record. Instead the likes of Muse, prime candidates for gatefold glory, are promising to release batches of songs on the internet rather than crowbar them onto a single CD. Will our burgeoning young artists now be robbed of the chance to make their White Album?
There is hope for this endangered rock species. This week Patrick Wolf announced that his next album would be a double – one “light” half and one “punky, aggressive” half – featuring Alec Empire from Atari Teenage Riot. Wolf claims it will be a politically charged record tackling his depression, near insanity and redemption in the arms of fresh love. Fingers crossed for this generation’s The Wall?