Fine. I’m tired of hearing you ask. If it’ll shut you up I’ll write a post about double albums, though quite why you’re so desperate for one is beyond me. By chance I was chatting to a chum recently about music and they said they had just purchased a copy of The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ on vinyl. I was a bit surprised by this, not least because I didn’t realise they were particularly a fan of the band; a notion that was backed up a touch when we discussed the album and agreed that there are only really three or four good songs on it, and you could argue that none of them are what you might describe as world class. Still, three or four good songs is often three or four times more good songs than there are on an Ed Sheeran album, but the problem with ‘Urban Hymns’ is that it is not a short album. In fact it is a whopping 75:57 minutes long, and when you have to delve around in all that for three or four tunes you’d be forgiven for wondering if there wasn’t just a tiny bit more to life. In my head I thought buying it on vinyl may have been a careless move but then I remembered I have the ‘Urban Hymns’ deluxe box set – a 6 disc brick with all kinds of dreary, Wigan trimmings, which I bought a couple of years ago and is still waiting to be opened, so I’m not really in a position to judge.
The point is that 75:57 minutes of ‘music’ in 1997 was becoming a routine affair: bands feeling compelled to stuff as much sound onto the running space of a compact disc as possible, often without seriously considering trivial things like quality control. The days of Britpop were so coated in coke and ego that much of the music released at the peak is now to be found seriously lacking – case in point, ‘Be Here Now’ by Oasis which starts with a brilliant opener and then follows it with well over an hour of pin-eyed, self indulgent, repetitive offal; and yet you could hardly walk the streets in the late summer of ’97 without treading in it. These were big albums but they were hollow, and if they had been made 25 years earlier they would be considered double albums, but that was back when double albums were not particularly routine affairs: most acts of that time never released one at all (Bowie never did, for instance) and they were often seen as a defining statement, certainly by their makers but not automatically by their audience. A good double album is, therefore, really quite an achievement and that is why there are so few worth having – you can talk an awful lot in 75 minutes but that doesn’t mean you’ve said anything at all.
So now we must take a look at what a good double album sounds like and to do this we need to think about those albums which offer four sides of vinyl that make you want to keep on flipping them over. For me the best album yet made is a double: ‘Exile On Main Street’, so there’s no questioning whether it can be done or not. Tellingly that beautiful, ragged, sordid, glorious offering featured 18 tracks over 67 minutes, because they had more tunes and so didn’t feel the need to stretch out every mediocre idea well beyond the limits of endurance. This is a crucial feature of good doubles, finding the right pace and not letting the quality drift too far from the mark. Other bands could get away with some longer songs but only because they were very good at making them – Led Zeppelin’s ‘Physical Graffiti’ features quite a few epics and yet it is an almost flawless album and I cannot imagine how it would sound if you removed something like ‘Kashmir’ from its ranks. On the other hand The Beatle’s ‘White Album’ goes the other way and is stuffed fully of little odds, sods and half songs. That isn’t to say it doesn’t work, but I am firmly in the corner that says it could have easily been trimmed down to make a superb single album, though somehow I’d also much rather have it the way it is, provided I can skip past wanky crap masquerading as abstract art like ‘Revolution 9’.
Elsewhere in the catalogue of double albums that are genuinely worth your time and effort we have ‘London Calling’ by The Clash, which is positively brimming with ideas and energy and by far their most satisfying work. I will champion the virtues of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ until the day I croak and if I could only take one album of theirs with me that would be it: Lindsey Buckingham should be given credit for having the balls to try something a bit different when everyone else was just doing the same thing over and over again. Another personal favourite is ‘Stephen Stills Manassas’ which is split into four loosely themed quarters, not one of which hides a stinker and should be sought out if only for ‘So Begins The Task’ and the transcendent band work and wah-wah solo on ‘The Treasure (Take One)’. The Who liked double albums so much they made two of them, of which ‘Quadrophenia’ has aged far better than ‘Tommy’. Pink Floyd kind of did the same with ‘Ummagumma’ and ‘The Wall’, both of which have their merits but neither of which should ever be mistaken as their career best. Come to think of it Elton John released two double albums and within three years of each other – ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and ‘Blue Moves’ – but neither is a classic to my ears; perhaps it is the case that no double is fine, one double is enough and two doubles is a sign you need to get more fresh air.
The list goes on. ‘Tago Mago’ by Can (if you like German rhythm), Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ (more a guitarists album – good ice cream but served with a bit too much waffle), ‘Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’ (not as good as they say it is but still a lot better than a lot else and, typically for this version of Dylan, the double that started doubles), Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ (much admired by a certain generation of second rate, yowling soul singers with limited imagination and scope (eg – Beverly Knight and the human klaxon that is Heather Small) – a solid double but not up to its glittering predecessors and no surprise that it marked the last gasp of his imperial phase), ‘Something/Anything?’ by Todd Rundgren (not his only double but the more famous of the two from his purple patch for housing the almost too good ‘I Saw The Light’, a song that does not adequately sum up the rest of the album), ‘Bitches Brew’ by Miles Davis (a hot oven stuffed with the snakes and squawks of a new, very different musical jungle), ‘Layla (etc)’ by Derek And The Dominos (which oddly is better enjoyed if you forget about the title track and open other cupboards instead) and ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen (which to me just sounds like twice as much Bruce Springsteen as one of his normal albums, and is therefore probably twice more than anyone really needs.
And they are just a few, because the more you start to delve into double albums the more you realise just how many there are. Prince recorded enough music to make endless doubles though it seems he squirrelled most of it away; but then I’m not amongst the new wave of post-death Prince sycophants so it doesn’t bother me one bit – I can’t even remember the last time I listened to his proper doubles like ‘1999’ or ‘Sign O’ The Times’. There have been doubles by so many acts that it makes the ears water and there are many that I can guarantee I will never, ever listen to: ‘All Eyez On Me’ by 2Pac (but not so much anymore), ‘The Downward Spiral’ by Nine Inch Nails (does any of that sound remotely appealing?), ‘Gratitude’ by Earth, Wind and Fire (no thanks), are just three that I’ve found which sound less than promising. I don’t have the energy to discuss other great follies like ‘Use Your Illusion I & II’ by Guns And Roses – two double albums released on the same day that sold squillions but barely had enough puff to fill half an hour on a turntable (but do at least emphasize the fact that musical hubris is something to be wary of because the results often come in a double and that double is more often than not less than worth it). If Hitler had been a musician he would have made nothing but doubles, maybe even triples. Incidentally there is really only one triple album worth having and that is ‘All Things Must Pass’ by George Harrison, but given the third disc is a quartet of relentlessly dull jams it is essentially an honorary double anyway.
Doubles exist in other forms, I haven’t forgotten that. There are double ‘best of’ albums, but ‘best of’ albums invite their own separate discussion. There are double soundtracks like that for ‘Saturday Night Fever’, which has a lot more going for it than just The Bee Gees, and then there are double live albums of which the best are some of the best albums ever made. That said a good live album is only as good as the musicians that made it, which explains why a lot of today’s acts don’t release them but instead make a concert film, well aware that the music has become secondary to the spectacle of the show and that in turn the show has become more of a gaudy circus populated by rainbow glittered clowns and cheered on by arfing pinnipeds that slap their flippers together enthusiastically, refusing to admit that they have paid an awful lot of money to see an awful lot of shit. So there’s no point denying it – the glory days are indeed over. But out there, buried beneath the featherweight topsoil are the ruins of a proper kind of glory, the music that had a heft you don’t get a lot of anymore. And the best double albums from the golden age of double albums then are the old warhorses: big, frequently cumbersome, yet coated in decorative barding to give them a totemic majesty all of their own. And there’s no point letting them go to seed on some shelf in the loft, you have to get them out once in a while and take them for a ride; because that’s what great double albums want. And they often want to be ridden twice as hard; it’s the rock n roll way.
G B Hewitt. 06.02.2021