It is amazing to think that, as The Guardian reported earlier this year, vinyl albums sales now outstrip those of CDs – sales hit a 25 year high.
It was not that long ago that people were predicted the death of vinyl – it was seen as ‘old technology’ that would not survive changing technologies. This has not happened and many have been surprised by the return of vinyl.
There are many reasons for this but I would argue that a key one is the way music is ‘consumed’: vinyl demands that we listen to the music in the order intended by the artists, you cannot leave the room because the album ends and in the average house, you can’t really jump around for fear of scratching or damaging the album.
It is this dimension of music I reflected on when I was invited to write a piece for The Conversation to celebrate 50 years since the release of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – available here…
A still powerful concept
In December last year, I purchased a record player for my wife as a birthday present. It had been two decades since I owned one. Buying vinyl is a very different experience from CD: the art counts. It’s the classic listening experience of this format that contrasts with CDs, playlists and even streaming services, which now invite songs to be skipped and shuffled out of their original order.
The key to vinyl is that we listen to the album the way the artist intends: the order matters to the musical and lyrical story that unfolds. This was certainly the case when The Beatles released Sgt Peppers. What makes a concept album is a larger meaning that unifies the order and themes of the music. The collection is more than simply a range of individual tracks.
Concept albums became a scarce commodity as vinyl sales all but evaporated with the rise of digital. But with vinyl’s recent resurgence, we are reminded that music can still be presented as an immersive story.
In Sgt Pepper’s, The Beatles take us on this rather experimental journey – perhaps more so because it was never meant to be toured. (The band actually planned to stop at the conclusion of their final August 1966 US tour after tensions were mounting). The reprisal of its title track towards the album’s close (known as bookending), and the thematic “military band” alter egos walk us through the album’s various stages. Listening to it, you can sense the specificity of the concept they imagined. Now, 50 years on, it is no less powerful.