[Editor's introduction: Consider the dinosaur. Although it has not made the fern-bar scene or feasted on its fellow colossi since the late Cretaceous, it remains vital to the world’s imagination. As every kid, palaeontologist, and movie producer knows, there is something inherently lovable and enthralling about these vanished Gargantuas, as well as something that evokes pathos—when we contemplate their lost, lumbering grace, their great dignity and gravity, we often have the nagging sense that what has replaced them has not necessarily been for the better.
So, too, for the dinosaurs of communications technology. The digital gizmos that have made them obsolete have nothing of their charm, nobility, or romantic allure—at least not according to the seven writers assembled here, who offer bittersweet encomiums to the typewriter, the rotary phone and the phonebooth, letter-press printing, black-and-white photographs, 45rpm records, telexes and telegrams, and writing and receiving letters via good, old-fashioned snail mail. Read on, and be here then.]
My heart sinks a little when I see them now at yard sales and library fairs, cradled in the hands of (other) graying ex-hippies and weekend motorcycle outlaws who rummage through the dusty cartons with an air of crazed anticipation reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in the final scenes of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. In the digitized age of the mp3, the 45rpm “single” is now two full technological generations out of date. Yet today’s relic was once my link to a cultural revolution: the great record boom of the 1950s and 1960s, which changed the way the world listened to popular music, during a time when popular music was changing the way that kids like me thought about such weighty matters as age and race, sex and love.
By 1941, when the outbreak of war in the Pacific abruptly curtailed the importation of shellac (a natural resin from Southeast Asia that was a prime component in the manufacture of phonograph records), audio engineers in the US were already seeking a suitable replacement for the scratchy, breakable 78rpm discs that had served as the principal medium of recorded music since the turn of the 20th century. It took them another seven years, but in 1948 America’s two largest labels, Columbia and RCA, introduced competing—and deliberately incompatible—new formats. Columbia’s was by far the bolder innovation: a 12-inch “long-playing” record, designed to turn at 33 1/3 rpm and made of nearly unbreakable vinyl, whose low speed and high fidelity “microgroove” technology enabled it to carry more than twenty minutes of music on a side. RCA staked its hopes on a more modest advance: a 7-inch vinyl record, turning at 45 rpm, which possessed the improved durability and sound quality but not the capacity of the LP.
The advent of the long-playing “album” created a vast new adult-oriented market in recordings of classical music, Broadway shows, film soundtracks, satirical comedy, and instrumental jazz. But the humble 45rpm “single” quickly became the coin of the realm in the song-based world of popular music, thus bifurcating the record market into a pair of parallel social universes on the eve of a decade when the musical miscegenation of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll first captured the imagination of young people around the world. Cheap, durable, bright-sounding, and seamlessly compatible with the single-play formats of the jukeboxes, AM radio stations, and portable phonographs that serviced the musical needs of teenagers, the 45 proved to be an exquisite vehicle for the dissemination of pop songs. For the next 20 years, the mystique of the hit single, as determined by its ranking on the weekly charts published by trade magazines like Billboard, would serve as the gold standard of success in the record business.
Perhaps the subtlest virtue of the 45 was its racial anonymity. For unlike the LP, whose foot-square cardboard jacket was typically faced with a color portrait of the artist, singles were sold until the mid-1960s mostly in plain paper sleeves, with only the names of the singer, the song, and its composers printed on the trademark label at the center of the disc. In the race-charged social climate of the 1950s, this early example of stealth technology allowed the genius of artists like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, and Little Richard to gain unfettered access to the heart and soul of America. Many of us have never been the same since.
Jonathan Gould is the author of Can’t Buy Me Love, hailed by critics as a “true group biography” of the Beatles.