When Albums Ruled The World: The LP's golden age

Friday 8 February 2013, 08:39

Steve OHagan Steve OHagan Director and Producer

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Like most men of a certain vintage, I remember well the first album I ever owned. Age around 10, I found myself in possession of Back In Black by AC/DC.

I got it from my big brother. Well, I was made to buy it from my big brother after I scratched it while listening to it when he was out.

So when it came to directing BBC Four’s documentary When Albums Ruled The World, plenty of memories came flooding back. Good ones of course: Back In Black is a classic.

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Noel Gallagher, Slash and others on the rituals around vinyl LPs

These days, an album is a click on a mouse, its tracks soon dispersed into the ether by playlists and the shuffle button.

Back then, an album still meant getting a thick slab of unwieldy vinyl stuffed inside an intriguing cardboard sleeve.

The album was the package: two sides of music listened to in order, while digesting the sleeve notes.

When we were told we had 90 minutes to fill with the story of the 'golden age of the album', we had to ask ourselves two questions: How are we going to fill 90 minutes? And what golden age exactly?

The second answer came first: we soon discovered that from around the mid-60s to the late 70s, the vinyl album – the LP – turned music into America’s most popular entertainment industry ahead of Hollywood and sports.

In these years the vinyl album let artists think about music in new ways, and the albums they recorded – from The Beatles' Sgt Pepper’s to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon not only turned popular music into an art form, but sold by the truck load.

So that was our ‘golden age’ – we’re not talking about albums in general, but the original album - the vinyl album.

Record shop Record shop memories from the documentary

Once the second question was answered, the first was turned on its head: it’s not how do you fill 90 minutes? It’s how do you fit all this in to 90 minutes?

Between the mid-60s and the end of the 70s, tens of thousands of albums were released, hundreds of millions sold, and billions of dollars made by record companies and artists.

Where do you start?

We ended up filming with around 40 contributors – from musicians, to producers, to record company executives, to journalists. And still we felt like we needed more.

We tried to keep our own tastes out of it: this isn’t a documentary about the ‘best’ or our favourite albums.

It’s about the albums that had the biggest impact, those that changed music history, forged careers, or set new artistic standards.

In the end, hopefully the story of the vinyl album is a gripping one. It was a privilege to work on a project like this, and I know my music tastes came out of it expanded.

My favourite album discovery? Well, that would be a toss-up between the Small FacesOdgen’s Nut Gone Flake and In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson – two records that weren’t in my collection before.

Needle on an LP: from When Albums Ruled The World Put the needle on the record... where?

Neither of these fantastic albums is covered in our documentary – we felt that despite their amazing music and packaging, they didn’t help tell us the bigger story of the LP. I’ll be interested to see which other classic albums you may have missed from the story we told.

Of course vinyl is making a relative comeback today, but one moment on the shoot reminded what a thing of the past it is.

One of our researchers – in his mid-20s – went to put an LP on a turntable and asked whether you put the needle on the outside or inside groove of the record. I laughed thinking he was taking the mick.

He wasn’t.

Steve O'Hagan is the producer and director of When Albums Ruled The World.

When Albums Ruled The World is on BBC Four at 9pm on Friday, 8 February. For further programme times, please see the upcoming broadcasts page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "Like most men of a certain vintage, I remember well the first album I ever owned . . .". Tsk! And women too, Steve, and women too! I and many of my friends were just as enamoured with vinyl as you (and the men featured in the trailer to your programme) and we too would spend our Saturday afternoons going from shop to shop, flicking through the racks, oohing and aahing over German import 7"s of obscure bands we'd heard on Peel etc. etc. etc. Inspired by what we had heard, some of us even went on to work in the music industry, be in bands, and run record labels.

    This looks like a really good documentary but I hope that there are some female contributors in it because, without them, you'd only be telling part of the story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Steve, the pre info clip is already whetting my acetate buds! I do remember every Saturday from '77 right up to '86 I would travel by tube from my home in north London to visit a record shop in Greek St, Soho & at the right price obtain 'Bootsy?' by Bootsy Collins Rubber Band or indulge in 'This Years Model' by E.Costello. Such musical diversity sitting displayed in a vast variant of quite luxurious artwork LP covers. The artwork alone was worth a bob or two! On 'one up west' occasion I splashed out twelve pounds sterling( nearly whole weeks apprentice wage) on 'Transformer'(L.Reed), 'American Fool'(J.Cougar) & managed to get to 'Woolies' back home & scrape some left over currency to purchase 'Ride A white Swan'(T.Rex) then reminded by my father 'it's an 'MFP' label, no wonder you go it so cheap'!
    It didn't matter, they were all mine from 'King of the Rumbling Spires' to 'Vicious' & the weekend was complete.
    I'm still a 'crate digger' & had the surprise of my acetate life some weeks back, when i came across 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake'(S.Faces) circa '68 original pressing, sb a 16015 not mint but in v.g condition, wedged in between two James Last LP's!!
    Looking forward to the BBC 4 airing tonight & there must be a Part 2 here for the future, surely?...

    Kind regards,

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Great article and feature! I love vinyl too, have hmm a few feet of a collection here too, 12", 7", 78s even! What is it about the "Qschhhhhh" sound as you rest the needle on that smooth silky black galaxy that injects a ripple of nostalgia, excitement and teenage expectation every single time?!! You are right about vinyl having a recent boot up it's popularity. Did you go to the Vinyl Factory's David Bowie preview? It's still on if not (the Chelsea gallery), was heaving, which completely attests to there being a contemporary interest in the black stuff.
    Also I covered the Art Vinyl awards recently, amazing cover art. Nothing like holding a BIG cardboard picture, or a gatefold (even better) to chill to the music too...
    Ahhh now where did I put Ramsey Lewis that still smells of that Parisien basement I bought it in...... Keep on rocking guys!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Why could your production team only find TWO women - Grace Slick and Pauline Black - to be commentators on this programme? But then again, that's not really surprising, as the bias towards middle-aged blokes on BBC Four's music programming is breathtaking. The Danny Baker album shows were largely middle-aged blokes and young women in their thirties, chosen from whoever's writing for the broadsheets preferred by the young researchers. The TOTP documentaries invariably feature a couple of blokes from the broadsheet press, and barely any female commentators; bizarre for a programme which was such a female phenomenon.
    Why do the teams which make these programmes seem unable to find any female journalists over 40 (and those under 40 who really know their subjects in depth) to appear on their music programmes? They do exist, honestly, and us women viewers in the same demograpic also deserve to have our views heard - why aren't they represented? I'd be very interested to hear from any producers or researchers as to why this is so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    More than a little pleased I managed to catch the broadcast of When Albums Ruled the World.
    I only hope lovers of good music -- from those who were old enough to live through the vinyl era to the later generations picking up on what vinyly was and is becoming again -- caught it, too.
    Great programme; proved something I've said on and off for years (and mentioned more than once on my music and review site) -- the strongest, most creative, innovative and, in many cases, concise (when less truly was more) album works rose and fall with the rise and fall of vinyl.
    And I got to live through, buy (lots, lol), play 'n' share vinyl experiences through that era, as did many of us.
    Now excuse me, I have to plug the record player back in and nip up to the loft and retrieve a box or three of records...

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The Golden Age of Albums was an outstanding programme. I have already watched it twice.
    Following an excellent week on BBC4. The Danny Baker programmes were also excellent.
    I've always played my records. I have always preferred them to CD and MP3.
    Congratulations BBC4

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It might surprise the BBC to know that there are women out there who study, teach, and even write about popular music. Some of us even publish articles and books and things about boys' genres like progressive rock, and heavy metal, and punk. Some of us can even remember buying our first vinyl copy of Dark Side of the Moon. Most of us have copies of Tapestry, and Rumours as well, but we don't need to talk only about them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    glad i found this.. wonderful documentary. interesting from so many angles, and very timely in view of HMVs news. Noel Gallagher and Guy Garvey sum it up in the first 30 secs. Sadly, Ray Manzarek talks utter drivel, and Grace Slick, oh my how that girl has aged (she looks like Aunt Flo from Bod)... but otherwise, i LOVE the fact that you reference jazz, because there's a big hole in the story otherwise...
    check this out from my blog if you're interested! http://mrnickheath.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/its-only-shop-isnt-it.html
    the saddest thing of all, for me, is that i sold ALL of my vinyl in the early 90s.... all my original Stones, Beatles, Metallica, 7"s EPs etc etc etc. Wont get those back again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    "This looks like a really good documentary but I hope that there are some female contributors in it because, without them, you'd only be telling part of the story."

    For gods sake lighten up, why must everything be dominated by the feminist agenda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    If everything were 'dominated by the feminist agenda', we would no doubt have seen more actual women on the programme, and indeed would see more women taking part in such programmes in future. While it may be uncomfortable to remember that women also pay their BBC license fees and may on occasion wish to feel represented on the programmes paid for by those license fees, it is also a fact that the BBC should take into consideration when commissioning and producing documentaries such as this. It wasn't so very long ago that the first chair of Popular Music Studies was created at Salford, and it is not insignificant that the first scholar appointed to that chair was a woman, Sheila Whiteley. Her work has been concerned in part with much of the era at issue here, and a contribution from her on this documentary would have been lively and insightful. But there are also many, many other women teaching popular music studies at British universities who could have provided similarly lively and insightful comments, thus taking the idea of the culture of the LP out of boys' rooms and into the wider public, which is -- I hate to remind you -- fairly evenly represented by both men and women. I can send you a reading list to support my claims if you like. You're welcome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    A difficult show to pull off and satisfy and there were pieces of perceptive which were a tad flawed IMHO.

    Dylan being the shown sole originator of the album with his own songs but no mention of The Beatles own independent desire and focus on songwriting and developing albums away from throwaway filler. They along with Dylan and The Beach Boys influenced the album culture. The influence and push between these 3 artists from 1965 was the major shifting point of pop music as art. Yet The Beach Boys were completely ignored for some reason.

    There was also a shot of Beatles "Please Please Me" shown alongside The Kinks and another band's album which was out of context, as Please Please me was released at least a year earlier. By the time The Kinks entered the scene in 1964 The Beatles were onto A Hard Days Night which featured their own songs. The Kinks and Stones etc were still R&B cover bands until 1965.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Loved the programme and my 1st album was With The Beatles still got it tatty as hell and unplayable but would never get rid of it or any vinyl I bought

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    A passing mention of Pet Sounds, one of THE albums which influenced all that followed it.Come on BBC you can do better than that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    You might be interested in this http://blog.chasejarvis.com/blog/2013/02/best-album-art-from-the-past-year-19-images/ by Chase Jarvis.

    The conversation has definately started 0)

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this programme it was interesting to learn about the problems caused by high oil prices in the 90s which paved the way for an onslaught of greatest hits and live albums.

    Wasn't too sure about the comments about the early sixties claiming that Long Players were merely collections of singles, cover versions and fillers. Perhaps in the UK and US for "pop" artists this was true, but jazz musicians had been releasing conceptual albums for almost ten years by then. Miles Davis released "Kind of Blue" in 1959 and still the most successful jazz album of all time.

    Finally, the closing narration laments the passing of vinyl LPs as if they are completely long gone. Nothing could be further from the truth. They omitted the rise of Record Store Days that promote vinyl greatly. Vinyl is still being manufacturered in large quantities and I regularly buy new remastered pressings.

    The new formats may come and go but vinyl will be with us forever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    There was a section devoted to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, a landmark album that deserved it's inclusion. The analysis was a little misleading insofar as suggesting that, hitherto, Motown and its boss Berry Gordy had not taken the album format seriously and that Gordy was wary of Gaye's attempt to break out of the hit factory mold. I think producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield's work, particularly with The Temptations but also with Edwin Starr and The Undisputed Truth, had already led the way in this regard. Even in 1969 the Cloud Nine album, including the extended track Runaway Child, Running Wild, had demonstrated that Whitfield and The Temptations were prepared to break out of the sixties' sound. By the time of Psychedelic Shack, a full year before What's Going On, the whole album was produced and co-written by Whitfield, the style had clearly left Motown's trademark sixties sound behind, there was a coherence that meant it was more than singles and filler, the extended playing time was being fully explored and, like What's Going On, this album made the American Billboard album top 10. I accept it wasn't as good as Gaye's best work and that Gaye was in control of his output by this time whereas The Temptations were pretty much told what to do but What's Going On was less of a break with the past than the programme suggested and Gordy was less inflexible than we are often led to believe.

    Now I come on to the singer songwriter section. Once again it was perfectly right and proper that Carole King's Tapestry was singled out as it's a beautiful album. I thought it odd, though, that Paul Simon wasn't given a mention, particularly given the monster success of Bridge Over Troubled Water. True, this was a duet album with Art Garfunkel and it did contain a couple of cover tracks, but I thought it odd that Simon's contribution to the singer-songwriter genre was completely overlooked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Bob Dylan's Freewheelin was quoted as being the first example of an album of original songs...but it wasn't

    "Whereas his debut album Bob Dylan had contained only two original songs, Freewheelin' initiated the process of writing contemporary words to traditional melodies. Eleven of the thirteen songs on the album are original compositions by Dylan"

    So basically it's a mix of original songs along with others with Dylan's lyrics to other people's music.

    Who researched this programme's content...maybe they class Led Zeppelin 1 as an original album's worth of material?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Interesting programme brought back so many memories. However, how can the makers of this programme justify the glossing over at the very end, of the the greatest selling album of all time, Thriller? It makes no sense whatsoever that the programme is titled When Albums Ruled the World and yet more time is granted to the Sex Pistols than to the musical genius of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones! When Thriller is mentioned, Michael Jackson is compared to Madonna! In terms of musical ability, history in the music industry and talent this simply makes no sense. Very poor in my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    In response to oughut's comment 18, the eighties produced not just Thriller but also other huge selling albums like Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms. The reason for their exclusion was the emphasis on the vinyl LP format. The programme said that LP sales dipped for the first time in 1979 with the growing popularity of the cassette format and Walkman players. Thus by the time of Thriller, the LP format was in decline and this trend accelerated with the the advent of CDs. The programme should have been entitled "When LPs Ruled The World" to avoid confusion but I think the point they were trying to make was that the album as a single entity was in its pomp from the mid-sixties to the end of the seventies. When Walkmans and then CD players became popular, track skipping grew and people were not listening to whole albums in the same way as before. Nowadays, with wholesale filleting of albums with customers quite often only buying particular tracks to download, the album concept is under threat like never before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    "One of our researchers – in his mid-20s – went to put an LP on a turntable and asked whether you put the needle on the outside or inside groove of the record. I laughed thinking he was taking the mick."

    When my dad, at age 70, got his first CD player in the 1980s, He loaded the CD shiny side up and called me for help.


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