The Art of the Album Part Three
by Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy
In the 1970’s, the album reached new heights and artists from many musical backgrounds embraced the format and treated the album as a complete body of work.
From Marvin Gaye to Kraftwerk, Stevie Wonder to Yes, David Bowie to Herbie Hancock, making a proper album was a badge of credibility. The Seventies is considered the golden era of the album, and during this decade, the music industry was bigger than the movie industry. That’s pretty difficult to conceive of now.
After The Beatles, another band took the album format up yet another notch: Pink Floyd. They had decided quite early in their career that they were unable to contain their musical vision on a three-minute pop single. Their 1968 song “Point Me at the Sky” was a commercial flop and is primarily remembered as the last single they released in the UK for 11 years. Instead, they focussed upon creating behemoth, weighty bodies of work, sometimes with extensive pieces that needed the two or four sides of the LP to host it.
They welcomed the new decade with Atom Heart Mother on which the title track suite took up the entire first side, and their subsequent album Meddle featured the space-jam ‘Echoes’ that filled out the entire second side. But it was their 1973 album that became a landmark for the format…
The Dark Side of the Moon examined big topics: mental illness, mortality, money’s curse, and was a reflection upon themselves as a band. It pushed the limits of 16-track analogue studio technology and brandished new sounds such as the EMS Synthi A used to glorious effect in ‘On The Run’. Rather than a series of songs, the album unfolded like a suite on each side, the songs flowing into one another with sound effects like that wonderful clock, poignant keyboard interludes, voices that sounded like they were in your head. The album drew in the listener with its heartbeat, enveloped them, transported them, transformed them, and then completed its journey with the grand finale ‘Eclipse’, a beating heart, fading, bringing it full circle.
Pink Floyd fans were engrossed by and enchanted with this album. And they still are. By 2008, The Dark Side of the Moon had racked up over 1,630 weeks on the Album charts (approximately 31 years), and 925 weeks of that were consecutive upon its release in 1973. It has sold over 45 million copies and is one of the best-selling albums of all time. Pink Floyd had set a new bar for the album format, and they endeavoured to raise it with each album…
Pink Floyd’s next album Wish You Were Here, was a response to their previous album. The success of The Dark Side of the Moon was bewildering and made the band wonder if it was all a fluke. They were physically and mentally drained and relationships between the band and within their personal lives were suffering. Roger Waters decided the album should reflect what was, and wasn’t, going on in the group and the album reflected their lack of communication.
This ‘unfulfilled presence’ was in turn reflected in the album’s packaging, designed by their old friend Storm Thorgerson. He packaged the album in an opaque black covering to make the artwork absent. Thorgerson had been designing Pink Floyd’s album cover from A Saucerful of Secrets, and his contributions increasingly became an integral part of the album’s experience. He was often considered the fifth member of the band. As The Beatles did the decade before, Pink Floyd furthered the idea of an album experience that went beyond just the aural.
Watch: Classic Album Sundays and John Peel Archive present Nick Mason on ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ Video
Pink Floyd took full advantage of the album format and thematic works became their modus operandi. In 1976, Pink Floyd took a break from touring and invested even more time and money into making an album as they built their own recording studio. With their ensuing record, Animals, Waters cast his eye on society and wrote lyrics with ideas loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
But it was their next album that would stake Pink Floyd’s place as the Kings of the Concept Album…
The Wall was their most ambitious undertaking. The Wall is a true concept album as Waters wrote a storyline with a beginning, middle and end (even if the finale alludes to the onset of a vicious cycle). It tells a tale of self-imposed alienation revolving around the character Pink based on Waters, himself. The concept extended to their live show with Gerald Scarfe’s incredible animation.
Pink Floyd built a career upon thematic and conceptual albums so much so, that they didn’t want to commercially release their music in any other format. They classified their albums as whole entities in which the sequencing was mandatory, as it told a story or developed themes, there were culminations and conclusions.
Sometimes the importance of the album’s track sequence had musical underpinnings such as how varying tempos would compliment the order of songs or how the key of two consecutive songs could relate. The album’s changes in mood and dynamics, it’s texture, was defined by its sequence, and this could sometimes determine whether the album would be a success.
Pink Floyd felt the sequence of their albums should be protected rather than broken apart as it would no longer make sense out of sequence as often the songs were segued or linked with sound effects. This approach was incongruous in a world of downloading, shuffling and streaming but the band did win a landmark court case against their record label EMI in which the label lost the right to sell single Pink Floyd tracks as downloads. The court acknowledged the band’s right to preserve their albums as complete bodies of work. However, Pink Floyd did eventually adapt to the shifting musical landscape as a few months later they agreed to allow single downloads of their work.
The Seventies was the Golden Era of the album, but what happened to our beloved format in the following decade? Find out in The Art of the Album Part Four coming soon.