Somebody (certainly not Steve Martin) said writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Which is an outstanding thing to consider. If more people spontaneously burst into the Mashed Potato after stumbling across a geodesic dome, the world would be in better shape. don'tcha think?
Double albums are one of the major facets of the rock music universe to suffer a near fatal blow from the advent of the compact disc. And now that CDs are slowly being shown the door (good fucking riddance, I say) and digital downloading is consistently rising as the dominant consumer standard, the significance of a musician or band collecting a large group of songs into a tangible, sometimes unwieldy, other times revelatory statement/package seems as far away as ever. And that’s okay. Times change, and the last thing I want to be is in cahoots with the kind of smelly curmudgeon that’s constantly barking over how multi-track recording ruined music, or that the shift away from analog in favor of digital technology somehow spelled the end of worthwhile contemporary recordings. Nah, that’s not me. I just downloaded a bunch of fine new music last night. Adapting to whatever technological (and ideological) changes that develop as time marches on seems to me a simple decision to make since the overall conditions and impulses that actually cause people to get together in a room and make music (and gather together to listen to it) are essentially the same. Commerce entered the picture well before the Great Depression, forever changing how music was received by the populace, and one constant theme since then has been the struggle between musicians and the people who wish to profit from their abilities. This is a big reason why digital downloading has been so largely embraced not only by listeners, but by musicians as well.
But sometimes it’s hard not be a bit, uh, nostalgic for certain things that have all but slipped away. And I want to put a fine point on this, making clear that it isn’t just a lament over the vinyl LP, for high quality records are still being made by current bands and plenty of important, classic recordings are getting fantastic reissues on wax. And if you throw the never ending stream of second-hand rescues from stores, yard sales, flea markets, antiques shops, etc it should be plain that the desire to simply enjoy music via the vinyl format is an easy one to quench. So no, my point here is a bigger one that has specifically to do with the 2LP.
The double album once held a significance that I don’t think has ever been replaced. Think about it: The Mother’s “Freak Out”, Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”, The Beatles White Album, Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”, The Velvet’s “Live 69”, The Grateful Dead’s “Live Dead”, Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica”, Can’s “Tago Mago”, and such underappreciated underground choices as The Hampton Grease Band’s “Music To Eat” and Skip Spence’s “Oar”. Yeah, the double CD has been around for quite a while, but the best of these from my perspective have come from the experimental music and avant-garde jazz scenes (and often aren’t intended to be absorbed all at once), and I can’t really think of many double CDs of pop/rock offhand that have had any kind of lasting significance besides Wilco’s “Being There” and Godspeed You Black Emperor’s “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven”. Of course, many 2LP reissues fit on one CD, and the extended length of the compact disc allowed many bands in the ‘90s to release long discs that probably are in some ways analogous to the double album, except that the basic uninterrupted movement from first track to last (unless of course you want to so easily skip over however many songs don’t really fit your mood right now) is sort of antithetical to the whole 2LP experience.
This experience, if you’ve never had it, can be roughly like: Cue up side one. Sit (or lie) down. Listen. Talk with your friends, if you’re lucky enough to have any. Consider how track three is not all that great. Debate skipping over it. Oh, fuck it, it’s almost over. Marvel at the bass playing on track four. Wow. Side one is done. Rather sweet. You kind of want to jump right into side two, but maybe you’ll step outside to check out that full moon and digest that bass playing some more. Repeat variations of this experience three times. Chuck a 78 minute CD in the player and you’re done unless you want to program under half the tracks or quickly jump over two or three along the way. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. It’s easy, and often necessary.
But the 2LP, at least to nerds like me, held a serious aura that was like ritual. Listening alone wasn’t essential, but allowing any old jamook to join in was not recommended. Discussion was welcome, but so was tight-lipped silence, which is why solitary listening in these cases has its own sort of circumstance, the “bigness” of the endeavor being much different than the vibe fostered by “party records” or “house-cleaning staples”. If this sounds kooky or completely foreign to your personal experience, then I’ll just add that I still have strong memory residue from very deliberate interactions with every single 2LP listed above, sometimes on first listen, other times after becoming very familiar with the recordings, and either alone or with friends, some of whom I remain close with to this day. And this experience is kind of finite, since double albums aren’t things that can just be conjured up out of thin air. There were a few in the ‘90s, like Mike Watt’s “Ballhog or Tugboat” (released simultaneously on CD, though I had the vinyl version), and outsider masterpieces like Royal Trux’s “Twin Infinitives” and Simon Wickham-Smith & Richard Youngs’ “Lake” release (both of which were initially LP only, making them scarcer and more rarified tastes), but as that decade moved forward, the pickings became quite slim indeed.
And that’s the situation now, and a particularly distorted one, when new 45 to 50 minute releases are given 180-gram pressings that are spread over two LPs with a code for the downloads stuck inside. These are beautiful objects, sure. I own some, and will buy more. But they shouldn’t be confused with REAL double albums. And I’ve noticed that very few non-compilation/reissue releases by bands these days are pushing very far beyond the 50 minute mark. This is sensible, since most super-long discs aren’t, as they say, all killer no filler. But when some band does get inspired and kicks out a lengthy compact disc, it just doesn’t hold the weight that two thin, mass manufactured slabs of vinyl in a gatefold sleeve does. I realize that if CDs are all you’ve purchased and if vinyl holds no appeal for you, then my argument possibly resonates like one of those weird screeds your great granddad makes at Thanksgiving dinner. But please bear with me (for I am sincere), and I’ll stress again that my rambling isn’t that of the Luddite, but is only simple reflection.
Well, it was Husker Du that got me thinking about this. Maybe I have too much time to think, but hey, it all started with my initial idea that it wasn’t really technology that killed the 2LP, it was the 1980s. I mean, what a fucked decade. Particularly from a musical perspective (though film and literature were in the doldrums as well), it was, as Dickens once wrote, the worst of times. Except that it wasn’t if you happened to be plugged into the right connections. And if you were, then you very likely knew that three of the epoch’s best bands, Husker Du, Minutemen, and Sonic Youth all released double albums. What’s more is that they all released GREAT double albums. This might not seem unusual on the face of it, but it stands out for me for a couple of reasons.
First, all three essentially came from punk rock, which is a scene that has always championed brevity. The Circle Jerks’ classic debut album “Group Sex” lasts all of fifteen minutes. Four years later Husker Du unveiled “Zen Arcade”. Now, the kind of punk that the Husker’s were pile-driving through was certainly an expansive, thoughtful strain that could appeal to well-adjusted college kids and Rolling Stone critic David Fricke, which meant that for every spiky haired miscreant who couldn’t fathom this record’s hugeness, there were others to take their place. And the response was a big deal. Part of the reason why punk and Hardcore was running out of gas was due to the standards being set so goddamned low. Naturally, their compatriots from Pedro saw it as a challenge, and came up with “Double Nickels on the Dime”. Of course, by this point Minutemen had eclipsed punk to become the best unhyphenated rock band on the planet, so a double album wasn’t such a stretch in retrospect. At the time it was simply a bold move. By the decade’s close, Sonic Youth had jumped ship from SST and released “Daydream Nation”. I’ve debated with myself and others until blue-faced countenances resulted over whether “Daydream” or “Double Nickels” is the best record of the decade, and after a while it’s pointless. Call it a tie, and be done with it. Sonic Youth really had the easiest path to double LP immortality, since portions of their fan base were flirting with free jazz and other experimental forms and any notions of punk rock purity were sensibly given a big wet raspberry from the whole enclave. But this leads to my second point in regards to why these records stand out.
All three of these bands were undeniably underground, and while they were all certainly on the radar screens of mainstream writers and played by college radio stations and MTV’s more adventurous programming (specifically the IRS records program “The Cutting Edge Happy Hour” and the Sunday morning video staple “120 Minutes”), the very idea of releasing double albums to an audience that hadn’t been spoon fed a large publicity campaign and were not being bombarded with constant mainstream radio and video play was simply a very risky thing to do. Particularly in the case of Husker Du, being the first to do it, and Minutemen, following quickly afterward. The whole deal could have been disastrous for the Huskers and SST if nobody had bought the record, and if this had been the case, I think it’s doubtful that “Double Nickels” would have been released as a double. Which somehow makes me think it’s unlikely that “Daydream” would have came out in the form it did. It all really rested on the shoulders of the Huskers. “Zen Arcade” quickly sold out the initial conservatively sized pressing before the band finished touring to support it, and the idea that something born from the cleansing and often fleeting impulses of punk rock could span four sides of vinyl was soundly solidified.
Now I’ll admit that of the three records discussed, “Zen Arcade” sits a bit below the others in overall personal esteem. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it gives me the least pleasure while listening, but does say something about its lasting effects and the kind of pleasure that it does give. As smart and unique as it is, “Zen” is still very much a punk experience. Sure, it’s twice the punk record in comparison to nearly all others in terms of album sides, and five or six times the punk record in terms of overall abrasive beauty, but it’s still clearly in the punk rock playground. When that’s the only music that can hit the proverbial spot, “Zen” does the job as well as just about any other release that springs to mind. And when you’re looking for a more diversified sonic stew, “Zen” does have its moments: the shambling acoustics of “Never Talking to You Again” (a sound that remains an indie-rock staple to this day), the Bo Diddley gone bonkers mania of “Hare Krishna”, and the rising and falling extendedness of the near fourteen minute album closer “Recurring Dreams”. But these are just moments that successfully punctuate the overall modus operandi the band was mastering at this point in their existence, which was dynamic, scorching, noisy, yet still melodic rock music that owed a considerable debt, but was in no way slavishly devoted to post ’77 developments in sonic architecture. “Zen Arcade” only suffers when compared to the diamond hard perfection of the Minutemen and the sheer expansive largeness of Sonic Youth.
But let the comparisons cease. What Husker Du achieved with this four sided beast of a document deserves placement with the greatest of 2LPs, for it never suffers from lapses of inspiration and its forays away from punk orthodoxy never feel self-indulgent or shallow. On the contrary, its sustained energy and ingenuity form a wild momentum that’s demanding and ultimately rewarding. Where the great majority of double albums have a wide, horizontal sensibility due to the numerous directions they head into, “Zen Arcade” instead feels vertical and narrow and three dimensional, the songs sprinting forward in a tight space one after the other and resulting in a fantastic pile-up of beautifully dense heaviness. Listening to it on vinyl does allow the listener three breaks for reflection, and in this instance I’m not quite sure if that’s preferable to having them all jammed up together into one big uninterrupted blitz on a compact disc. Never having experienced this release on CD, I can only wonder and shrug my shoulders at the cagy brilliance of the band. Of course, it wouldn’t be at all difficult for me to experience this record in the digital format. But frankly, the attraction of continuing to deal with the splendor of “Zen Arcade” the way it was originally released, as two albums, four sides, and twenty-three amazing songs overrides any temptation to diversify the way I receive it. If that means I risk being seen as a stubborn stick in the mud, so be it. I prefer to think of it as simply championing the album as it was first released, and holding on to the wild vibe it so smartly provides. I own the vinyl right? Why not ride that specific experience for as long as I can afford electricity. Dropping the needle on this baby provides four grand bursts of shrewd and manic rock music, and sitting on my couch soaking it up takes me back two decades to some of the best times that era offered. And since records like this one always helped to stomp down and level off the worst of times, listening today holds a touch of joyous celebration. Am I wrong to think that Dickens would’ve dug it?