Time Waits For No One – how tech has changed music forever

The Rolling Stones play Glasto this weekend – and their 50-year career has seen a succession of music formats change how we listen to our tunes. We take a look back at music formats from the dawn of recorded sound to the latest streaming tech, and everything in between
The Rolling Stones

A liquid takes the exact form of its container. The milk in a milk bottle is exactly milk bottle shaped until the moment you slosh it onto your Rice Krispies – and the same is true of pop music.

In the 100 years or so that we’ve been recording sound there have been a number of delivery systems used to sell recorded music to the public. Each one has left its mark on the music of its era.

I can’t think of one pop act that’s lasted a whole century – but The Rolling Stones have endured for fully 50% of the sound recording era. If we can find any barometer of the way that technology has shaped pop music, that leathery-faced troupe of bluesmen from the Home Counties are our best bet.

The Wax Cylinder

Heyday:  1890 − 1910

Technical description: Super-inventor Thomas Edison came up with the idea of recording the air-pressure waves that constitute sound onto a revolving cylinder in 1877. The principle is simple enough. Air pressure waves vibrate a diaphragm in much the same way as they act on the eardrum, the vibrations are passed on to a needle that traces the shape of those oscillations onto a revolving cylinder. Initially impressing the grooves on tin-foil Edison later moved on to  hard carnauba wax. The cylinders would wear out after a few hundred plays. Today’s music moguls can only dream of such perfect built-in obsolescence. Have a listen here.

Cultural impact: Incalculable. Even though early gramophones were an expensive luxury, and the cylinders couldn’t be mass-produced in significant numbers, the fact that a live musical performance could be recorded changed everything. Composer John Philip Sousa, who for non-sousaphone players is best remembered as the composer of the Monty Python theme, memorably described wax cylinders, which were sold in small tins, as ‘canned music.’

Key Stones Recording: They’re not that old! It’s a near-certainty that vintage Jazz fan Charlie Watts has a few recordings of the period in his record collection though. Here’s Charlie’s Jazz band in full flight. The music’s a little late for the cylinder era, but just listen to the man play.

The 78rpm Shellac disc

Heyday: 1930 − 1960

Technical description: A flat-round black disc that all but the most aggressively modern music fans will recognise as a record, the 78 followed the same basic mechanics as its predecessor (and sometime contemporary) the cylinder. From the 1920s ‘electrical’ recordings used microphones and and electrically driven cutting lathe, but the principle remained the same.  78s were easier to store than their tubular cousins and — eventually — sounded better too.  They tended to be cheaper than cylinders and two-sided discs were perceived as being better value.

Cultural impact: The 78 laughed in the face of the two minute time limitation that constrained early wax cylinders.  Ten inch 78rpm singles had 50% more play time —  a full three minutes of sound. It’s the legacy of the 78 that, to this day, pop songs tend to be about 3 minutes in length. Longer pieces were collected into ‘albums’ of multiple discs. As the discs were two-sided, the 78s introduced the idea of a ‘B-Side.’The shellac discs were also much more fragile than their vinyl successors. Which is why until surprisingly  recently recording artists’ royalties always had a sum deducted to allow for ‘breakages.’

Key Stones Recording: The Stones’ own records started appearing after the demise of the 78, but it’s almost a certainty that Mick and Keith would have learned their blues licks playing along to 78s at home. Certainly Charlie remembers owning 78rpm records by Jelly Roll Morton, and Charlie Parker. The last major 78rpm release was Chuck Berry’s ‘Let It Rock’  / ‘Too Pooped To Pop’ on the Chess label. And, as we’re about to discover, Chuck was a big influence of the Stones.

The 45rpm single

Heyday: 1960 − 1990

Technical description: Smaller and hardier than the shellac discs that came before, the 45 could endure the rigours of autochanger devices that slapped one disc down onto the previous one to offer (almost) continuous music. The format was developed by RCA as an answer to Columbia’s 33rpm long-player format. Of which more in a bit. The 45 was a tough little beast. Made for jukeboxes and parties and improbable dances on beaches. The 45 arrived at around the same time that the NME printed their inaugural Hit Parade and 7” singles and the Top 40 were a marriage made in pop heaven.

Cultural impact: The three minute paradigm imposed by 78s endured for at least a decade. Musicians were encouraged to stretch out by Bob Dylan’s 6 minute ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ in 1965, but radio formats were by then so dominated by the three minute song that record companies did their best to discourage their artists from following Dylan’s lead. The format of a 45rpm pop single has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s hard to write a song that doesn’t fit the template. You’ll still see the odd ‘boutique’ 45 release but the day the music died, at least from the 45s point of view, was in 1993 when Culture Beat’s ‘Mr Vain’ hit the Number One spot without a 7” release.

Key Stones Recording: The first Rolling Stones recordings didn’t even push the 3 minute barrier. Their début, the Chuck Berry cover Come On makes its excuses and leaves before two minutes are up. I Wanna Be Your Man is about the same length. Follow up ‘Not Fade Away’ fades away a few seconds sooner. It’s All Over Now was first UK Stones single to break the 3 minute barrier, fading away a hair before 3’30”.

The 33rpm LP

Heyday: 1950 - 1988

Technical description: The 33rpm ‘microgroove’ record was originally intended to replace multi-disc ‘albums’ of classical music spread across multiple 10” 78rpm discs. It took a little while for pop acts to work out that they could do something more than collect the previous year’s single releases on and LP. But once they did, pop music would change forever.

Cultural impact: The first pop album that was conceived as more than a collection of singles was the Beatles’  ’Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Paul McCartney, disenchanted with the manic merry-go-round of single releases and Royal Command Performances dreamed up the idea of an imaginary band to play on the Beatles’ next record. The ‘concept’ collapsed before recording was finished and  Sgt. Pepper mostly comprises songs that might have sat comfortably on its predecessors Revolver or Rubber Soul, framed by the title track and a reprise.  But the precedent was set. The album-oriented ‘progressive’ music of the 1970s took its cue from McCartney’s ambition. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis barely bothered with singles at all. Songs sprawled out to fill a whole 20 minute side of the LP. In the case of arch-proggers Yes, one song was smeared across four sides of a double album. For most of the Seventies, the album was king, only to be toppled towards the end of the decade with the advent of Punk.

Key Stones Recording: Their Satanic Majesties Request was the Stones’ somewhat unfocused rejoinder to Sgt. Pepper. It isn’t regarded as a classic. But actually the 1966 Rolling Stones release Aftermath featured an attempt to challenge the 3 minute standard.  Side one concludes with Goin’ Home, a meandering blues exploration that jogs along agreeably until about the 11 minute mark.