By Dave Thompson
Let’s make a list!
The 10 best albums of all time. The 10 best-selling albums of all time. The 10 most influential albums … the 10 most eagerly awaited … the 10 most downloaded … the 10 most disappointing …
Or, the 10 you are most likely to find in a thrift store, priced to sell at $1 or so, and all of them gazing out at you with big puppy eyes that ask “What did we do to deserve this?”
There are lots to choose from. The history of the long-playing record is littered with releases that, today, we are forced to wade our way through with the tenacity of polar explorers, fighting through an Arctic blizzard. Budget-priced Christmas collections. Awkward AOR recreations of contemporary pop hits. “Hooked On Classics.”
Can you even begin to imagine a time when sufficient people were so excited by the prospect of Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra fiddling their way through a bevy of disco-fied classics that they raced out to purchase so many copies that it remained on the chart for 68 weeks? And who then so tired of tapping toes to Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16” that they offloaded it to the local Goodwill at the first available opportunity?
It would be intriguing indeed to poll sundry donors to demand, “But why are you getting rid of this record? It’s great!” Because, when we do look at the albums that most frequently turn up, it’s shocking how many of them are as likely to turn up on a Certain Type of Person’s “favorite LPs” list.
Some of the exceptions are understandable. Fallen teenybopper idols, purchased in a rush of devotion when you’re 12 or 13, are often among the first things to go when you reach … ooh, 14 or 15. All those Donny and David, Osbros and Partridges, the detritus of an adolescence spent gazing lovelorn at the bedroom wall and then discovering someone even better on the next installment of Bandstand.
Others… television tie-ins by oddly misguided actors, K-Tel style compilations, those Multitudinous Guitars of Death Play The Fabs style waxings testify equally to precise moments in time, when an entire nation, it seems, was so enamored by one thing (Moonlighting, the Hustle, the Beatles) that it rushed out to buy others simply to feel a part of the party.
Saturating a market that is ultimately uninterested can also lead to a plethora of Salvation Army shelf fillers. Prior to the release of the horribly miscalculated Sgt. Pepper movie in the late 1970s, the accompanying soundtrack album shipped an unheard-of triple platinum. According to RSO Records’ Fred Gershon, however, most of them came back as returns, together with maybe another million in bootleg copies. And the rest, the ones that weren’t returned at the time,…well, you know where they are.
“Sgt. Pepper’s” is an interesting case study, too, because in many ways its doomed release marks the end of what we might call the Golden Age of Thrift Store Thunderbolts – those albums that thought they were in our lives for the long haul, when, really, we got rid of them before you could sing a verse of “Mr. Blue Sky.”
Between 1975 and 1979, a raft of new albums was released that set new standards for record sales. Peter Frampton’s epochal “Frampton Comes Alive,” as the man himself has said, “changed the music industry. Single-handedly, that one record. I am responsible … not for better or worse, for worse alone … I am responsible for turning the record business into an industry.
“Up to that point we’d been learning. Everything was new with rock ‘n’ roll, every year was new, everyone was having fun and making some money, and people got screwed but it didn’t matter because you were having fun. And then, all of a sudden, all these people saw that one record or one artist could sell that many records in one go, and they got interested in the corporate world. That’s when all the big mergers started; that’s when all of that started.”
It’s also when every new album by every putatively major star was heralded as the ultimate in musical perfection, and proceeded to sell accordingly. Between them, the albums on this list do indeed deserve a ranking on most reasonable “all-time best sellers” lists. But they also merit one on the “and all-time rather quickly disposed of” list, too, for they were piling up in the bargain boxes even before compact discs arrived to coerce the entire record-buying community to trade in their treasured vinyl for a pile of tin coasters with the extra-added “if we tell you they sound great, will you believe us? YES!!!” deception. (And a swift diversion to remind purchasers of ELO’s “Out of the Blue” picture disc…– didn’t the first CDs sound just like it?)
“Out of the Blue” was released in Fall 1977, a double album package that was regarded, at the time, as the apex of Jeff Lynne & Co’s career-long struggle to sound exactly like the Beatles would have, if they’d sacrificed soulful songwriting for clever sounds played on smarty-pants instruments, then layered with pseudo-meaningful lyrics.
Not that it’s a bad record. In a world where those are considered qualities to aspire to, “Out of the Blue” is positively littered with classic pop tones. “Turn to Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” deserve their berth of any Best of the ’70s collection; “Wild West Hero” has a yearning majesty that reaches as high as any of Lynne’s sentimental sing songs; and then there’s that cover, a gargantuan gatefold so lavishly lifelike that if you ever rolled a joint on it, you will remember the first thought that ran through your head:… “Wow, a few puffs on this, and I’m going to be riding that spaceship, man.”
Massive sales did not necessary guarantee a spot on the thrift store countdown. Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” sold so many bucketloads that you could probably build a stairway to heaven from them, but it has also remained such a consistent seller that used copies have found an aftermarket several rungs up from the thrift store.
Less so “Fleetwood Mac Live,” the double album package that followed “Tusk” as a space (or contract) filling reminder that the bigger Mac got, the less spontaneous their live show became. Three sides of concert (and a fourth of newly knocked-out studio stuff) surely ranks among the least live-sounding live albums ever; a disappointment to fans who wanted to recapture the glories of the Buckingham-Nicks lineup’s earlier shows (catch the bootlegs), and a let-down for casual listeners who were looking for the perfect peaks of the earlier albums. Result? A swift donation to the charity store of your choice.
Abba’s “The Album.” Jethro Tull’s “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!” The Carpenters’ “A Kind of Hush.” All have as many supporters today as they ever had. Further RSO Records leviathans, the soundtracks to “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.” And, finally, the Eagles’s “Hotel California.” The album that everyone seems to own; everyone says they like. And everyone can play air guitar to.
So why can nobody actually hang onto a copy for more than a couple of weeks?
Answers on a postcard, please…
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