It's long enough ago that we all have different memories of 1980s pop music. Was it the Cure or Bon Jovi? Kylie & Jason or New Order perhaps? Phil Collins or Mel and Kim? But one thing they all have in common, and which arguably defined the 1980s pop scene, is the 12-inch vinyl single.
This was a specialist format popular in the 1970s discotheques. Nightclub DJs liked them because they were easier to work with and the wider grooves meant the sound was better than that from a seven-inch single. So the record labels specialising in dance music released tracks on 12-inch vinyl for them to play and made them available to the wider public albeit in small quantities. Most high street record shops had a specialist section for these strange, outsized, usually American dance or soul singles.
But mainstream pop acts didn't release them. It was a disco thing. But then disco became mainstream. Never mind punk rock, this was the dominant pop style in the late 1970s, propelled by ground breaking singles from the Bee Gees and Donna Summer. But these megahits were released in the traditional pop way, as seven-inch singles.
The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight
may have been the UK's first proper 12-inch hit single in 1979. Straight out of the New York clubs, it was just the type of music the format was meant for. But using Chic's familiar disco sound it found its way to the charts and introduced Britain's living rooms to the word "rap" on Top of the Pops
Framed 12-inch vinyl single: "Blue Monday" by New Order
It helped grow the awareness of the larger single format, and as more and more mainstream pop acts dabbled with disco styles, their record companies tested out the physical format too. Blondie and ABBA released their "disco" hits in 1979 and 1980 as "maxi" singles - Heart of Glass
and Lay All Your Love on Me
But it remained a gimmick. Heart of Glass
had an instrumental version on it - interesting up to a point - but pop fans had been buying seven-inch singles for twenty years. Why change; why pay more? I'm no audio geek and had a cheap record player back then, but even I noticed the difference in the sound quality. But convenience has always trumped marginal gains in sound quality - hence the cassette tape, mp3 file and Spotify.
Perhaps the breakthrough moment was provided by Soft Cell. Tainted Love
was a momentous hit in 1981, in the days when everyone in the country knew what and who was at Number One. Then they released a 12-inch single version which gave the song a different ending and blended it into a cover of The Supremes' Where Did Our Love Go?
, just as a DJ might play around with it on a dance floor. So a huge 3-minute pop hit was transformed into something quite different and wonderful - and 10 minutes long. And it sold well enough.
Then the Human League released longer mixes of all the singles from their best-selling Dare
album on 12-inch singles to much curiosity and acclaim. But while an extended dance mix filled the B-side of Don't You Want Me
, this sounded more like the producer having fun mixing things up in the studio rather than Soft Cell's ingenious attempt to replicate the night club.
By 1983, releasing both seven-inch and 12-inch versions of a single was standard practice. Even Bucks Fizz did it. New Order famously had a hit with Blue Monday
which was only released as a 12-inch single. Producer remixes and extended versions were the norm, and some put more thought and effort into it than others. The "maxi single" tag soon disappeared, and in a few instances record companies released exactly the same tracks on both formats, with an improvement in the sound quality the only point of difference. But often enough, there was extra music and it was worth paying extra for.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood had two colossal hits in 1984 with Relax
and Two Tribes
with sales of the 12-inch releases almost matching those of the standard seven-inch single, and multiple remixed versions of the same song now becoming available, made much easier by rapid advances in digital recording tools.
This encouraged the biggest stars of the day to make the effort, and Madonna and Prince - both still basically dance acts - embraced the 12-inch remix with great success; Madonna's Open Your Heart
and Justify My Love
and Prince's Alphabet Street
are as good as anything ever recorded for this format.
The "alternative" bands made fine use of the longer format too, with extra songs and cover versions as common as extended versions, which helped the format survive well into the 1990s - after CDs had more or less made the sound quality argument redundant - with Oasis, Suede, and the Stone Roses releasing some of their best loved songs as extra tracks on 12-inch singles.
They looked great too. Nearly all standard size singles were released with proper picture sleeves by the early 1980s, and the artwork allowed performers to make the most of how they looked as well as how they sounded. Or it allowed more adventurous acts like New Order and Frankie to have more abstract designers dress their records as beautifully as possible. And how much better this all looked on a 12-inch picture sleeve!
12-inch singles were more expensive, so record companies liked them. If a single was released in both seven- and 12-inch formats, they could expect roughly one in four to be bought in the larger, pricier format. Fans would happily pay £2.49 rather than £1.49 for the extra music.
The price difference was small enough though, many performers and producers made imaginative and successful use of the extra space, and the vinyl sounded great, so the format endured well into the 1990s.
I would argue to this day that the 12-inch single containing two or three different songs and a creative, extended version of the lead single is the best format for popular music ever invented. The seven-inch vinyl EP ("extended play"), popular in the 1960s and usually with four different tracks, comes very close, while CD singles had the space for extra music too and a big, clean sound, but neither had the great, big, fantastic album sized artwork.
And let's face it: nearly all albums can be boiled down to four or five great songs.
But the "vinyl revival" seems to have passed over this particular format. Vinyl is a premium market now and albums are its bread and butter. But that is now, and this was then: 12-inch vinyl singles were cheap, affordable and superb value for money.
We're not asked to frame 12-inch singles nearly as often as I'd like, but they look great. I suppose I would say that, but they really do! Everywhere
by Fleetwood Mac and Nothing's Gonna Stop Us
by Starship have proved very popular in this format, as has Blue Monday
and several Oasis singles. We'd love to do more so please get in touch!