by Rick Ouellette
Across much of rock history’s last half-century, the double album has stood for a certain stakes-raising ambition and creative envelope-pushing, with artists asking fans for a little more of their attention and a little more of their disposable income. Among the sample titles pictured in this post, you’ll find some of rock’s most revered and, in a few cases, most reviled recordings. What do these titles have in common other than they were originally released as two-disc packages? In some ways, not a lot. As one might expect, the musical styles and subject matter are as varied as the far-flung pop universe itself. Delve into these records and soon enough you’ll come across overtures, artful sidelong suites, titanic instrumental jams and concept works based on socio-political and fantasy themes. There will be room for genre dabbling, sound collages, acoustic interludes and maybe even space left over to let the bass player sing a number.
How did these outsized albums come about? After all, as conventional wisdom would have it, rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not concise. The early songs of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly et al rarely exceeded four minutes and were often closer to two. And that framework—the short, concentrated blasts of rebellion and celebration, dance and romance—are still often held up as the ideal of the art form. But art forms are rarely or ever immutable. They evolve and expand often to the point of earning a backlash, circling back closer to their original incarnation. Rock music is no exception to the rule. In its initial era of greatness, the 45 RPM single was the coin of the realm for rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers. The latest smash by Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis was played on a jukebox at the drop of a dime or heard on the AM radios of the big cruising sedans of the 1950s.
Long-playing records existed back then more as a vehicle for the most successful acts, pooling together a few hits and adding on some cover versions or dashed-off filler material.
In the wake of the Beatles’ worldwide success in 1964, rock music evolved into an artist-driven force to be reckoned with. Along with the Fab Four, bigger artists like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan were able to assert more creative control. Soon, establishment-friendly fare like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” wasn’t cutting it any longer, especially as the Sixties became a more turbulent, crucial decade. Moreover, people like Dylan had multiple influences to begin with and it was just a matter of time before they all came to the fore. Sure, ol’ Zimmy was inspired by the great country artists like Hank Williams he’d pick up on his radio during lonely nights in northern Minnesota. But alongside them—and rock ‘n’ rollers like Little Richard that he would soon emulate in his high school band—there was a Beatnik strain as well.
Many of early baby boomers who came of age in the Sixties looked back in admiration at the literary rebels of the previous generation (Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac) as a touchstone to a new subversive epoch. For the Beats, the chosen music was jazz, an exploratory long-form medium that connected with a crowd searching for something more cosmic than what the Eisenhower years generally had to offer. The combined effect of a seized artistic freedom and a tempestuous era eventually led to ambitious rock music and it was Bob Dylan on the leading edge. His seminal Blonde on Blonde is widely regarded as rock’s first double album, ranging from ruminative balladry to fierce and free-associating blues rock; it set a very high bar for all four-sided efforts to follow. The officially-given release date of Blonde on Blonde was May 16, 1966 although there are claims that it didn’t show up (at least on the charts) until that July. In the month in between, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention debuted with a two-record set aptly called Freak Out! This anarchic blend of protest rock, Dadaist vocalizing, revisionist doo-wop and avant-garde aural collage was an early indicator as to how far off the margins counterculture music could go in the decade to follow.
By the end of the Sixties, the hippie masses had been treated to the Beatles’ White Album, the Who’s Tommy and Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others. We were off to the races. In a few days, I’ll start with a review of Blonde on Blonde that will, like other posts in this series, look at the album in view of how it pushed out at the boundaries of rock music (or at least tried to).
Throughout 2018, I’ll post a new one every 10-14 days, jumping around in time and genre. This is for a once a maybe future book project and I have about a third of it written. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments section (you can use the album cover images here as a jumping off point). Note that I have made double live albums and best-of compilations ineligible for this series, though half-studio/half-live records will be included.