It’s now just a marketing term, but the concept of a “classic album” was virtually invented by Columbia Records. The US label developed the first long-playing albums in 1948 and it revolutionised the record business. No longer was a wheelbarrow required to carry all the 78rpm discs needed to listen to a symphony. And in popular music, no longer did “album” refer to a phonebook-sized collection of discs by one artist, but a collection of tracks on just one disc lasting nearly 45 minutes.
Columbia and its artists embraced the new format with enthusiasm: any list of classic nonclassical albums has to include My Fair Lady, South Pacific, West Side Story, Kind of Blue, Time Out, The Barbra Streisand Album, Highway 61 Revisited, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Red-Headed Stranger and Born in the USA – not to mention Thriller.
Before the invention of the LP with its slower playing speed of 33¹⁄3rpm, the Columbia catalogue was full of what are now called “legacy artists” – a Mt Rushmore line-up of acts that included Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra. Further back, Columbia subsidiaries released discs by blackface talkie pioneer Al Jolson and blues legend Robert Johnson.
360 Sound is a lavish coffee-table book celebrating the first 125 years of Columbia Records, always the champagne label among the big US corporates, and now – owned by Sony – one of the last giants left standing in an industry going through tumultuous times. Written by Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton (and a Dylan scholar in his spare time), it is an absorbing mix of music and business.
“No one likes the suits,” says Adele, Columbia’s current bigselling diva. But a compelling element of Wilentz’s account is his description of executives such as the suave CEO Goddard Lieberson (Mr My Fair Lady); the revered talent scout John Hammond (who signed Bob Dylan and many others); Clive Davis (who expanded Columbia’s rock roster in the 1960s); and even the foul-mouthed Walter Yetnikoff (who accused MTV of racism when the network wouldn’t play the videos accompanying Thriller).
Like recorded music these days, Wilentz’s text suffers a little from over-compression: too much information is squeezed to fit the format. Many artists are barely mentioned, including Jackson, whose Thriller was on Epic, a Columbia subsidiary. But the production of 360 Sound is as luxurious as the high-fidelity recordings that justified Columbia adding that slogan to its labels. This is a book worthy of Bernstein, Dylan and all the other high-end acts – even if One Direction and Glee are currently paying the bills.
360 SOUND: THE COLUMBIA RECORDS STORY, by Sean Wilentz (Chronicle, $79.99).
Chris Bourke is author of the award-winning Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964, an accompanying exhibition for which is at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington, until February 24.