Tuesday, 16 August 2005

London Calling


I have always gone against the popular critical outlook when it comes to double albums by big bands. Many fans and critics, for instance, argued that The White Album would have been better if it were released as a single album. "Sacrilegious!" I say. I can't think of many examples where I prefer a single album by a band who has released a double album. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, The Clash. Best albums? The White Album, Blonde On Blonde, Exile On Main St., London Calling (respectively). All killer no filler? Well, no. All of these albums have filler, albeit surprisingly little in most cases. Mostly, however, the filler simply adds to the charm of these brilliant albums. Double albums gave artists the much needed breathing space that they didn't have with LPs, allowing them to experiment a little and dip their toes into musical waters they wouldn't normally swim in within the confines of a single LP. Even if a song doesn't work on a double album, the listener can relax, knowing that there's "plenty more when that came from".

London Calling is a very unique double album as it has surprisingly little filler. The Clash took a big risk with this album, releasing a 19-track 65-minute album that went completely against the punk roots of their previous two albums. This album encompasses a sprawling array of musical genres - there's jazz (Jimmy jazz), rockabilly (Brand new cadillac), ska (Hateful, Rudie can't fail, Wrong 'em boyo), reggae (The guns of Brixton), pop (Train in vain, Spanish bombs, Lost in the supermarket), punk (London calling, Clampdown, Death or glory, Koka kola) and even an epic tale of deceit (The card cheat). Yes, this album has it ALL. And unlike their extremely patchy follow up Sandinista, it ALL works.

The 8-song run from Jimmy Jazz to The guns of Brixton is one of the greatest sequences of music ever released. Classics, the lot of them. The tunes! The lyrics! The energy! The passion! On most of the songs on this album, it sounds like these guys are simply having a hell of a lot of fun trying out new stuff. It's like they had all this creative energy bottled up and they exploded this energy on to four sides of vinyl.

All killer no filler? Sure is. And 65 minutes of it to boot!

9 comments:

  1. Jiggy, I was interested to note that all your example "classic double albums" were from the vinyl era (i.e. pre-CD) where the technical limitations of the medium meant the two pieces of vinyl were required if, for example there was more than 60 minutes of content and/or the track lengths wouldn't fit "neatly" onto the two sides of a single disc.

    The modern pressed CD, with its capacity of ~74 minutes, means "London Calling", if it had been recorded today, would almost certainly have been put onto a single disc. As it was, it only just required to be spanned over 2 pieces of vinyl, being only ~5 minutes over the "limit"* and having plenty of short songs that could have kept two sides fairly even in length.

    I would have said that "All killer no filler" is a bit rich for an album that barely needed that second disc at all... :-)

    Chis (stirring up trouble)


    (*) I've just done a web search and numerous commercial LP sides have been pressed with over 35 minutes per side...

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  2. Okay, I should have put a little footnote at the end of this post.

    Thanks for picking out the flaw in my "all killer no filler" statement, Chisel.

    The lame truth is that I wrote this review ages ago and just "imported" it into my blog to make it look like I was writing new stuff. Had I written it now, I surely would have crapped on about how double albums back in the vinyl era are (generally) single albums now.

    However there are some exceptions to this rule. The Clash released triple LP (!) Sandinista as the follow-up to London Calling. On CD it has become a double album.

    George Harrison's classic All things must pass album was also a triple album on vinyl, and a double album on CD.

    Bob Dylan's infamous Live 1966 album was a double bootleg and is now a double CD :-)

    Miles Davis' influential Bitches brew, at 93 minutes, is still a double CD (just as it was on vinyl).

    And one of the ones I did mention, The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) was a double LP and is ALSO a double CD. At 93 minutes it missed out on making a single disc.

    And now some other interesting notables...

    Captain Beefheart's classic album Trout mask replica was released in 1969 as a double LP, and it just makes the cut of a single CD (at 78:51). From memory, CDs evolved from 74 minutes to 80 minutes, so had this album been released on CD prior to this evolution, it would have been a double CD. Freaky, hey?

    Wilco's double CD album Being there, at 76:57, didn't need to be a double CD album. It would have easily fit on a single disc but they chose to release it as a double album.

    Another interesting tidbit: when Elvis Costello released his single LP Get happy!! in 1980, the record company were concerned that because the album had 20 tracks on it (10 per side), consumers might think there was some serious compression going on at the end of each side which would affect sound quality. So they put a warning sticker on the album stating that no such compression was occurring. There was really nothing to be concerned about, since the album was under 50 minutes and the average song length was 2 minutes and 23 seconds.

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  3. OK Jiggy, your (game-show-winning) encyclopaedic knowledge of music has comprehensively put me back in my box! :-)

    Yes the 74/80 minute CD is a very interesting kettle of fish. My understanding was that an 80 minute CD is "stretching the rules" of the physical track layout to the limit (at the expense of error tolerance) - some bright spark worked out how to tweak their CD burner's firmware and the rest is history. I wonder if producing CDs > 74min costs the manufacturer more because some might not actually work?

    I could be wrong, but I'm not sure "compression" is the correct term for the technique used to fit more tracks on a vinyl record. It's well known that tracks with a lot of bass require "deeper grooves" on a record, and these deeper grooves have to be correspondingly wider to maintain strength. Hence a bassy record will need more vinyl space than a normal record. When it came to pressing the record and this became apparent, the producer and/or mastering engineer would usually run the whole album through an equaliser (or high-pass filter) to cut some low end. This is equalisation or filtering. The removal of dynamic range (difference between quiet and loud passages) is compression. Conversely, compression can make a record sound bassier because it smooths the volume of everything out, and in that situation the human ear imposes the "smile curve" on everything and hears more highs and lows than mids. Extreme compression (limiting) is what makes TV ads seem SOOOO much louder than the program content - although the peak volume never exceeds the limit controlled by your TV, the AVERAGE volume (or "area under the curve" if you wanna get really techo) is much higher than the program.

    ...And that concludes today's Audio Engineering lesson :-)

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  4. You completely lost me in that 3rd paragraph Chisel! I don't think I have much to say except "I'll take your word for it" :-)

    But please, keep the replies coming! There's a huge backlog of postings on this blog ready for your dissection and analysis :-)

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  5. I looked at the back of my copy of Get Happy!! this morning, and you are correct, the technique was not referred to as compression.

    Nick Lowe (the producer who wrote the note) explained that while there were 10 tracks per side, groove cramming was not employed as a technique as the vinyl reached the end of the side.

    Doesn't that term sound like something Disco Stu does before his finals?

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  6. Groove Cramming. Great phrase! I agree it sounds highly Disco Stu, but its made my shortlist of names for my forthcoming* 74-minute album of 70's deep funk and soul disco covers :-)

    I'll try and keep the Professor Frink-esque audio engineering babble to an acceptable minimum in future, it's just as a techie, muso, music lover AND home studio owner it really interests me when you veer into that arena :-)


    (*) Actual album may not be forthcoming.

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  7. But if the CD was called Groove Cramming, wouldn't it be 80 minutes?

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  8. Love the Milhouse pic!

    At the risk of cross-pollination of posts, did you pick up the Oasis CD at lunchtime? If you like that, I can recommend lots of other stuff!

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