In interviews, I often refer to the golden age of albums as shorthand for the 10-year period from Sgt. Pepper''s Lonely Hearts Club Band through the advent of punk rock. It was a period when albums—until then typically little more than collections of filler intended to sell off the back of hit singles—were elevated to a total package of music, lyrics, artwork, and sequencing in which the musical continuum became more important than any individual song. This vision for something greater helped rock music finally join cinema and literature as a serious art form.
One important aspect of this era was that artists released one and sometimes two studio albums a year, with little regard as to how they would be received. They didn''t have the time to worry about that when faced with the record companies'' constant demand for new material. This pressure allowed the artists to experiment, and if those experiments failed, then so be it, there would be another album within a matter of months to redress the balance.
Consider that in the early 1970s, Elton John released 10 studio albums, two of them doubles, and two live albums—all of high quality; Neil Young''s output from the late ''60s to the early ''70s covered singer/songwriter material, country music, and heavy rock. Not to mention that at almost any time during Frank Zappa''s career, you could expect a jazz album, a classical album, a box set of guitar solos, a rock opera, or a doo-wop album.
Once punk came along, however, the idea of the album as an artistic statement came to be seen as old-fashioned and pretentious. And while many bands continued to make fine albums, the advent of MTV in the mid-''80s brought music back to the level of image and artifice, as the golden age of the artist gave way to the golden age of the A&R man. Album releases were spread out more as companies shifted their priorities from putting out as much music as possible in the hope that some of it would hit big, to micromanaging album projects to ensure that every release was a potential blockbuster—the next Rumours or Hotel California.
With a new model in place of an album every three years or so, the stakes riding on each one were phenomenally high. If it failed, the artist''s career could well be over before the next album came along. This resulted in a play-safe mentality, with artists reluctant to mess with an established hit formula and labels centering massive promotional campaigns around comeback albums that largely epitomized more of the same. Experimenting was out, and making records became about feeding a hit machine, not following the artistic muse.
The good news is that current recording technology has enabled musicians to free themselves from a dependence on record labels, and the Internet has put distribution into the hands of the artists themselves. Bands are arguably freer to record and distribute music now than at any time since the dawn of the music industry.
For all the apocalyptic clamor about the death of the album, this is actually a very exciting time for recording artists. The decline of commercial radio and music television has swung the focus away from the idea of selling your whole concept in the space of a three-minute pop video, and pushed the emphasis back to artists who make albums and tour. And because the Internet has created a stronger bond between fans and artists than ever before, the artist once again has the freedom to experiment and take chances, releasing several albums a year in wildly different styles if they choose to.
Just like they used to in that golden age.
Steven Wilson is the lead vocalist, guitarist, and founding member of the band Porcupine Tree. His most recent solo album, Insurgentes, was released in 2008. Go to swhq.co.uk for more info.