Though one could reasonably claim that, in an age of iPod shuffling and the downloading of individual tracks at the expense of a carefully planned running order by the artist, the recorded album as a structured art-form no longer exists, the fact remains that this weekend marks the sixtieth anniversary of the British album charts. The first chart-topping LP (as the album was commonly referred to prior to the advent of the CD) was Frank Sinatra’s peerless ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’, a classic for a defiantly adult audience, the audience the LP primarily catered for following its 1948 introduction onto the market. Initially, the Long Playing record was developed for classical music, enabling separate movements of orchestral works to completely fill two sides of vinyl, rather than being split into little sections as had been the case with the 78. The newfangled format was soon taken up by the mums and dads as a grown-up alternative to the vinyl choice of their children, the 45rpm. It continued to be a barometer of largely adult tastes for the first half-decade of the LP charts’ existence.
Glancing at a list of early LP chart-toppers, however, it’s interesting to note appearances by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Tommy Steele, even if Rock ‘n’ Roll has a mere cameo role to play where No.1 albums are concerned during the late 50s and early 60s. If one imagined ‘Original Soundtrack’ was the name of a band, they’d probably be the most successful album act of all time, for original soundtrack recordings utterly dominate the album charts during this period.
‘Carousel’, ‘Oklahoma!’, ‘The King and I’, ‘High Society’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ – either original Broadway cast recordings of stage musicals or the movie versions – all spent endless weeks sitting atop the LP charts between 1956-58, though none can compete with the daddy of them all, ‘South Pacific’. Hitting No.1 in November 1958, the soundtrack album for the film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage musical remained resident at the top of the charts for the next 70 weeks! Yes, it was the sole No.1 LP for the whole of 1959 and wasn’t deposed until March 1960. That wasn’t the end of the album’s chart-topping run, however; it returned to No.1 on a further seven occasions, finally ending a staggering tally of 115 weeks at the top with one solitary week in September 1961, almost three years after first reaching the pinnacle. Beat that, ‘Thriller’.
The early 60s saw an upsurge of chart-toppers from Elvis, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, as well as the incursion of Trad Jazz via the likes of Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, though middle-of-the road tastes were still the dominant trend; The Black and White Minstrels had a trio of No.1 LPs in 1961-62 and ‘West Side Story’ upheld the original soundtrack tradition.
There was a notable change from May 1963, however, when The Beatles’ debut album, ‘Please Please Me’, hit the top of the charts. It remained there for the next seven months, only knocked off No.1 by the follow-up, ‘With The Beatles’, in December. After almost a full year as the sole No.1 album act, The Beatles were momentarily deposed by The Rolling Stones, when their debut long-player hit the top for twelve weeks in April 1964. Most retrospectively regard the rivalry between the two bands in terms of the singles chart, though it’s more glaringly evident in the LP chart of the time. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ knocked the first Stones album off No.1 in July, a position it occupied until The Beatles again replaced themselves in December, this time with ‘Beatles for Sale’. ‘The Rolling Stones No.2’ hit the top spot at the end of January ’65 and the Beatles-Stones dominance of the chart finally ended when Bob Dylan’s ‘Freewheelin’ reached No.1 in April, the first non-Beatles or Stones chart-topper in two whole years.
By the mid-60s, the LP was becoming more recognised as an additional vinyl plaything for the singles-buying teens, with further chart-toppers from The Beatles, Stones and Dylan enhancing the generational handover where the album was concerned. There was one final hurrah for the old-school LP, however, when the soundtrack album for ‘The Sound of Music’ hit No.1 in May 1965, a position it returned to on a further ten occasions for the following two-and-a-half years, enjoying 70 chart-topping weeks in total. Hard to believe in an age when the songs from the film are now primarily seen as the province of a cult and mainly gay audience; but it was once the mainstream.
It was the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in June 1967 that finally sealed the album as the vinyl purchase of choice for the record-buying masses, a position it held throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, surviving the changes in formats, from the cassette to the CD. The changes of the past decade, however, have altered the listening experience far more dramatically than at any time since the long-playing record appeared 68 years ago. The listener can now choose the running order of the album if they so wish; and the cohesive narrative of songs that became the album’s most distinctive hallmark has been rendered redundant. Still, it was bloody good while it lasted.
© The Editor