Slinging Singles

The obvious and easy argument raised by those dinosaurs tenaciously and fruitlessly attempting to make it worthwhile to own a turntable in the 1990s is the Hip-Hop Equation. Rap-music makers have continued the practice of releasing their material on vinyl, usually one song remixed several ways on the twelve-inch, album-size format. They have and still do use records in the production of that material (via scratching). If there were no vinyl, there would be no rap, so there would be no vinyl.

Except that even while hip-hop thrives on, there really is no vinyl any more. The material reportedly makes up less than two percent of the "product" issued by labels, with CDs and cassettes comprising the other 98 percent. Forget it, ye loyal but naive mastodons.

Except. There's always that except.
And the exception in this cultural breakdown is the once-venerated, now almost forgotten, seven-inch vinyl single: the ol' 45. The format that laid the foundation for popular music hitmaking. Every boomer and her brother grew up with it, mostly because the music industry offered little choice until the Beatles came along and set a new standard (i.e., screwed everything up) with Revolver.

"Along with the Beatles," says Jeff Lemlich, author of Savage Lost and owner of thousands of vintage singles, "the big turning point was when groups started getting away from two-and-a-half-minute songs and doing five-minute songs. Then the record companies began editing singles. `Keep Me Hanging On' by Vanilla Fudge was cut for single release. `Light My Fire,' to get the long version you had to buy the album. You'd buy the single, and go, `Where's the solo? This is not what I wanted to buy.'"

Before the revolution, recording artists released nothing but singles, unless and until they had enough hits. Then the labels would stick those already-milked hits on a bigger slab with a smaller spindle hole, pad them with filler tracks (often the B sides of the singles), and squeeze mo' money from the star-struck masses and "serious" fans willing to cough up for LPs.

"From 1964 through 1968," says Lemlich, "with one later single in 1972, the Birdwatchers put out a dozen singles and no album, despite being signed to major labels. And that was not uncommon. They made a movie appearance, went on Where the Action Is, but unless you were in the Top 40, you didn't get to put out an album."

Eventually, of course, this operating procedure came to be reversed. The artists recorded albums, markets were tested, sales were tracked, and the hot song would be separately issued as a single, adding a new dimension: non-LP B sides. With technological changes -- cassettes and CDs and their accompanying hardware -- leading to the damn-near obsolescence of vinyl, you'd think 45s would be the first pronounced-dead victim. And you'd be as wrong as Bush is about abortion.

In 1992, singles are the thing, at least for a certain type of music fan. Just ask Sub Pop, the Seattle label that shot to the top on the hitmaking strength of Nirvana (now on Geffen) and the underground muscle of Tad, Mudhoney (now on Warner Bros.), Soundgarden (now on A&M), and others. "All my favorite stuff," says the label's Nils Bernstein, "old and new, is on singles. Up to the late Eighties we were primarily a singles label. That's how Sub Pop got to where it is." He adds that Sub Pop often starts bands by releasing a single, and also issues one-off 45 rpm projects by bands not even signed to the imprint. "We do it for fun," Bernstein says, "and to give the bands exposure."

That's merely a taster, just as singles once were a tease for albums. Sub Pop actually runs a singles club, in which subscribers receive a new seven-incher each month. "It's hugely successful, too," Bernstein boasts. "We have almost 10,000 members. And biz people say singles are nonexistent." Maybe the biz people don't do their homework. Does David Geffen know that Nirvana first smelled teen spirit in the small-slab format? "We didn't think we could sell more than a thousand Nirvana records," Bernstein recalls. "Now those singles have become extremely collectible."

Collectibility and what can only be called "coolness" might contribute to the new glut. "I think a lot of the signed bands that do it," says one major-label rep, "do it because it's a cool thing for their fans, and because it allows them to put some good artwork on there."

There is, however, a much more pragmatic thinking that goes into the decision to cut a mini. "A single costs about the same to put out as a demo cassette," Sub Pop's Bernstein points out. "We basically do not listen to demo tapes here. There's just too many of them. But the chances are we will listen to a single. It's a tangible release and it tells people it's not just another demo. So many demos, you know, they may as well have been recorded in a bedroom [plenty are], and we get about a million of 'em a day. Another thing is that with some new bands, the material wears thin through the length of a tape. Just releasing the two best songs you have has more impact."

Before local plate-breaking rockers Load, managed by savvy biz veteran Bob Slade, set out for their summer tour a few weeks ago, they released a seven-inch of songs ("Does Dead Godflesh Smell?" backed with "Barbara's Bush" and "Trying to Use") culled from their full-length cassette Hellraiser Sessions. "We had to have something," Slade notes, "to send to radio and get advance word out to the places the band was playing. We had the tape, but a single's a great way to do that. They can hold it in their hands and see the band's serious about the release." What's more, Slade says, is that in some musical cliques, singles never went out of fashion. "They've always been strong in punk," he explains. "A band can put three songs on a seven-inch, and even do a 33 rpm seven-inch. And punk kids like to buy, say, ten singles and dub them all onto one cassette for their car or their box or whatever."

"Yeah, a lot of people do that," agrees Bernstein. "Vinyl might be only two percent of the market, but in certain genres, say California new hard core, the releases are primarily singles. I mean, with Lionel Richie or Whitney Houston you're not going to pick up a lot of singles. Oh yeah, and there's the emotional attachment. I buy CDs now, but when I look through my collection, what gives me that feeling in the pit of the stomach is usually on a single."

Oh yeah, that emotional attachment. There was a time period during which Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band -- who didn't really exist until the "Dancing in the Dark" single came out on May 15, 1984 -- released a series of seven-inchers whose non-LP B sides comprised a stronger set of songs than the group collected for albums such as Tunnel of Love. (With picture sleeves to boot.) Turn over the single of "Born in the U.S.A." and you'll find a haunting, war-torn ballad called "Shut Out the Light." Flip "Brilliant Disguise" and there's the faithful-to-himself Brucer "Lucky Man" (not to be confused with Lucky Town). Behind "Cover Me" was the first cover song (apart from his Mitch Ryder medley on the No Nukes compilation) made public by B.S. -- Tom Waits's "Jersey Girl." Buy the solo of "Fade Away" and you get the excellent nostalgia rave-up "Be True." Et cetera.

And whose life would be complete without owning a copy of the five-song, 33 rpm, 1982 seven-inch "Don't Sweat the Petty Things..." by SoFlo's own Spanish Dogs, members of which went on to become Rooster Head? Or, for that matter, the masterful scorch of the

"Turn Off Your Radio" and "I Don't Get"/"Johnny" and "It's Essential" single by the Essentials, alums of which formed the Chant. Or Psychic Fair's three-cut Dedicated 45, featuring the legendary Charlie Pickett....

Some bands clearly see the single as an opportunity to have some fun outside of the wax itself. CD J-cards and cassette wraparounds don't get it, and anyone with a conscience avoids CD longboxes. But a single -- cheap as a common demo to produce -- allows the always creative Screaming Iguanas of Love to put out "Nitro Burning Funny Cars" (with two non-LP B sides) on green vinyl and offer it only to fans (at live shows and through mail order). San Fran's F-Boyz (formerly based here) stuff their single package with those collectible RockCards -- it's a joke, son -- and a lyric sheet and some weird oriental writing and a sleeve that depicts a wheelchair-bound guy with earphones on and a sizable python about to enter his mouth. The record's had time to play through twice before you're done scoping the detritus that comes with.

And while local act Madonna put out a regular ol' seven-inch of "Like a Prayer" for no good discernible reason three years ago, the Genitorturers recently displayed something truly provocative, something that might even make Ms. Ciccone blush, when they slabbed "House of Shame" and "Jackin' Man" b/w "River's Edge" and "Strip the Flesh" on a lavender seven-inch cloaked in two fold-out sleeves, one of which shows a lovely snapshot of frontperson Gen -- who looks a bit like Madonna -- stretching and mashing her right nipple with forceps while simultaneously poking the fleshy point with a sharp stick.

It's reasonable to assume that Love Camp 7 had something above their shoulders -- nothing personal, Madonna -- when they decided to issue "King Sex" b/w "& Sour Old Men" on peach-color vinyl with picture sleeve.

Singles trackers can find a revolution per minute. Go back a few years to when Little Steven left the E Street Band. Though he created and got distributed three of the great all-time rock albums, he managed to sell only three copies of each. Probably more memorable to some is his "Vote that Mutha Out!" single, which precipitated his now well-known political posturing. The sleeve is a backward American flag (well, it was printed in Holland) with a distressed skull overlaid. Though dated 1984, the Reagan-dissing A-side song included this line: "To fight a communist conspiracy that does not exist." As usual, Little Steven was about five years ahead of his time. At least as far as subject matter goes.

About that same time, the dead middle of the Eighties, a Leeds, England, band formed, calling themselves the Wedding Present. They began issuing independently a series of singles that garnered them a spot on a New Musical Express compilation, which brought them U.K. chart action, which helped them land a deal with RCA in England. Then, after RCA in the U.S. dropped them, they signed with First Warning. At the start of 1992, the Wedding Present initiated a project that has them releasing a seven-inch single on the first Monday of every month in the U.K. Each features a new original on the A side and a cover on the flip. "And now they've set a record in Great Britain," reports First Warning's Jerry Liebowitz. "Seven consecutive Top 30 hits over seven months with seven different songs."

Even more interesting is what happens to those other-side-of-the-pond singles upon their release, chartwise. Almost every copy is scooped up by Tuesday, so their mid-week chart numbers are way up there, around number two or three. The end-of-the-week numbers drop, and, because no more copies are available, the song disappears from the chart in the second week of release. First Warning has now compiled the first six of these anomalies and distributed them as the CD Hit Parade 1 in this country. Naturally, there will be a Hit Parade 2 at year's end, when the single-a-month campaign ends.

First Warning is also distributing the Diesel Only label's compilation Rig Rock Jukebox. Organized by a Brooklyn band called the World Famous Blue Jays, Diesel Only issues nothing but 45 rpm vinyl singles intended for jukebox play, all of them exploring truck-driving-related topics. According to reported figures, 36 million of the 40 million singles released annually are consumed by the jukebox industry.

Of course, that leaves four million for individual citizens' home use. A number of labels besides Sup Pop and Diesel Only have calculators in their possession and sense in their heads. Amphetamine Reptile, Regal Select, and Bob Mould's S.O.L. (yes, it stands for Singles Only Label) specialize in the seven-inch configuration. Bellingham, Washington-based Estrus Records issues comic books with soundtrack singles included.

None of this trivia is going to put the CD manufacturers out of business (unfortunately). "Singles are not stronger than they once were," says retailer Rich Ulloa, owner of the Yesterday & Today chain. "Only in a few formats: straight-edge [a form of clean-living punk] records, for example. And with independents the format is stronger than ever. But as far as domestic major labels, everything is cassingle, not vinyl. The indies are different. The really great underground labels do it."

And, on rare occasions, major labels do, too. When Social Distortion began their latest tour on April 11 in Phoenix, Arizona, they brought along a little gift for their fans: a seven-inch single featuring "Cold Feelings" and a live, acoustic version of "Bad Luck." You can't buy it. "No, it was promo only," says Dave Gottlieb, director of alternative music at Epic Records. "They were passing it out at their shows. The reason we did it was that because they've been around since 1979, their roots were with the original punk scene, whose motto was D.I.Y. [do it yourself] -- press your own records. We had tried the same thing with other bands and shouldn't have. But it was appropriate for them and the point they were at in their careers."

Gottlieb says the ploy was jointly decided on by the label and the band's management. At least 10,000 copies were pressed and handed out. "It served two purposes," Gottlieb adds. "It was a) a fans' piece and b) for people who got dragged along to the show, the logic being to give them something, like a seven-inch, that they don't get every day, so maybe they'd make the effort to listen to it."

Any other singles on the Epic release schedule? "We're lucky if we release a vinyl album," Gottlieb says. "Up until three years ago, Epic was still releasing a fair amount of singles. Now they're the rarest of the rare.


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