By The Landlord
"I was shocked. It made everything else sound so inferior." – Tom Moulton, pioneer DJ
They were something special – a gift, a higher quality enhancement, a cherished object with extra artwork, possibly with coloured or picture-layered vinyl, perhaps with another track or two, but certainly a new exploration, an experimentation and adoration of a particular song. And they happened by accident.
As a vinyl format, the 12-inch single really came into widespread release in the 1980s, a decade of, among things, commercial excess, with multiple versions maximising sales, sometimes without even offering anything new but a louder sound. Yet with typical contrariness, the UK's biggest ever selling 12-inch (which actually came before the standard 7-inch version) New Order's Blue Monday was the opposite. Bass player Peter Hook famously remarked that the more it sold, this actually increased losses of the band and its label, Factory Records, due to the cost of its expensive but iconic sleeve.
But this week our topic comes prior to any of that, where the 12-inch gradually came into the hands of producers, DJs and then the public, from the mid-1960s up until the end of the 1970s. So let's follow this and the whole idea of the remix. In its early days it was less a marketing gimmick, more of an DJ tool, an extension of favourite tracks played on the streets of Jamaica and then in the clubs of New York and elsewhere, to broaden the possibilities of dance and partying.
The idea of remixed or re-released larger format singles really began with dub, when early Jamaican reggae and rocksteady songs were given by Jamaican sound systems owners to "selecter" DJs in acetate or flexi disc form. Originally these may have been mento and Jamaican rhythm and blues recordings before they were issued commercially. As sound engineering technology improved, so did the new versions, highlighting the bass sounds and lengthening the originals for live consumption. These acetate "specials" would be made in a 10-inch format, and are also valid for this topic. King Tubby was one of the early production pioneers.
Another Jamaican, DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) exported many of these tunes to the Bronx in the early 1970s, and breakbeat records, emanating from Jamaica, began to be used in the development of hip hop, switching between breaks in different songs in a technique he called "The Merry-Go-Round".
He highlighted his first consistent merry-go-round in 1972, was using James Brown's Give It Up or Turnit a Loose (with its refrain, "Now clap your hands! Stomp your feet!"), then switching into Bongo Rock by The Incredible Bongo Band then into the break of The Mexican by Babe Ruth.
The concept of remixing and lengthening was a real breakthrough that would ultimately lead to singles being re-released in formats such as the 12-inch. And so topic covers all kinds of genres, from reggae, soul and R&B to funk to disco, punk (by contradiction), postpunk and electronica. The first official release of a 12-inch is generally regarded as Straight from my heart’ by Swamp Dogg in 1973, but even as early as 1970, Cycle/Ampex Records test-marketed a 12-inch single by Buddy Fite – For Once In My Life alongside the song Glad Rag Doll. The idea was to stimulate the flagging 7-inch single market, which had dipped in the early part of the decade.
But the 12-inch wasn't just about shifting units. Why else try to sell another version of an existing popular single in a new format? Well, another key figure came in the form of American producer, mixer and DJ Tom Mouton, who in the mid-70s had become a prominent disco DJ and and had pioneered ways to splice songs together so other DJs would not refuse to play songs on 7-inch vinyl deemed too short. Here is one of his famous remixes from 1975:
In the mid-70s, Moulton was at New York's Media Sound studios looking to get a new copy cut of I'll Be Holding On by Al Downing. The engineer, José Rodríguez, told him that they'd run out of the usual 7-inch acetates, and he only had 10-inch versions. So at first Rodríguez cut a copy with the grooves as close together at on a standard single but Mouton regarded this as a waste of the vast quantity of remaining vinyl, so asked him to space them out across the whole record. This resulted in wider, deeper grooves, and also a louder volume, but when Moulton heard it played back, he was astonished at improvement in quality. "I was shocked. It made everything else sound so inferior. … I almost died when I heard it. I knew I needed all my music like this."
So the larger format was not only about sales, but about giving a song a new lease of life musically. The first official promotional 12-inch was South Shore Commission's Free Man in 1975.
So any song that only came out on limited promotional format is also valid here and there are plenty of them. But gradually it was discovered that the 12-inch could do a lot more to a record than re-sell it. It kept people on the dance floor. It made the original something more than itself. And so with Love To Love You Baby by Donna Summer out on Atlantic Records, the 12-inch began to appear regularly in full commercial release, bringing new or enhanced versions of favourite records, lengthening certain sections to prolong dancing, taking us on new musical journeys, heightening the bass, repeating certain phrases, exploring new instrumental versions, and many other variants. Some were done successfully and certainly improved songs, others perhaps were unnecessary embellishment, but generally they were cherished. Remixed B-side versions were preferred by DJs, and record buyers enjoyed them just as new versions with noticeable improvement in sound quality.
So from early dub to disco, funk, soul and postpunk along the way, there's still a huge choice available to nominate. From remixes of I'll Be Around, by the Spinners, Ten Percent by Double Exposure, Bob Marley to The Clash, Hamilton Bohannon to Eddy Grant, Gorgio Moroder to Marvin Gaye, Sister Sledge to Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones to Blondie, Chic to Ja-kki, The Droids to Mathematiques Modernes, Erotic Drum Band to Cloud One, Yellow Magic Orchestra to Tumblack, Manu DIbango to early Prince, Sylvester to Space … dancing and other genres, spin on and on.
And so then, taking the controls behind the Song Bar decks and spinning your nominations of 12-inch classics and more up to the end of 1979, I'm delighted to welcome back this week's guest DJ guru – DiscoMonster aka Fuel aka Paul Hayes! Put forward your requests by 11pm on Monday UK time for playlists and the party to spin out next Wednesday. Now let's all get into that groove …
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.