You can hardly blame them. Record companies make their money by bands selling music, usually albums and singles and with singles traditionally being the primary source of revenue. Albums are fine. Fans buy albums. But singles are what get played on the radio, get the band or artist spots on TV, get the music to the music buying public. So of course, record companies want singles. But the cry for singles has often backfired on everyone and at times the deliberate avoidance of writing songs for singles has led to success.
In the 1980’s, neo-progressive Scottish rockers, Pallas, wrote a series of songs that were performed in sequence at live shows. The songs told the story of the fall of Atlantis but also served as an allegory for the Cold War. When EMI gave the lads a record deal, they agreed to include some of the songs but not the entire suite (if I may call it that). Instead, the record company heads wanted the band to give them singles, the genius behind the thought being that the subsequent album would have singles for radio stations and the single buying public and the fans would get some of their favourite songs on an album at last.
But the plan totally missed the mark. While the inclusion of songs for radio play was not a bad idea in itself, the decision to leave off some of the songs that made up the Atlantis story meant the story was published incomplete. Additionally, the order of the songs was changed so that the story was now told in pieces jumping back and forth. Fans were disappointed at not getting the full Atlantis story and the band disappointed about having their story meddled with. The singles didn’t cause a great stir either. Since the album could have sold to fans first it would have made sense to give the fans what they wanted. Instead the album didn’t sell as well as hoped and all parties involved were disappointed. Note: the album was re-released on CD in 1992 with the three individual songs and the full Atlantis suite in proper sequence.
For the most of their brief career, the Yardbirds had been writing and playing the style of music they enjoyed and doing fairly well that way. Since their formation in late 1963 they had become successful initially as a blues act with Eric Clapton on guitar and then gradually pursued more experimental music with Jeff Beck and his fuzz boxes. When Jeff Beck left, Jimmy Page, who had joined first to take over bass guitar and then switched to electric guitar, remained as the band’s guitarist. In 1967, just as the psychedelic years were really taking off, the Yardbirds prepared to release their next album. Their concert performances were made largely of old Yardbirds hits that were taking on an even more experimental nature than during the Jeff Beck period. Jimmy’s violin bow had been introduced and the fuzz box was getting featured regularly. The times were ripe for extended instrumental sections and solos and this is how the Yardbirds came across live.
However, the record company called in singles producer Mickey Most to make sure the band had a good stack of radio-friendly songs. The resulting album “Little Games” was released in the summer and was a confusing melange of music. Songs like the title track, “Drinking Muddy Water,” “No Excess Baggage,” and “Think About It” stuck with the group’s guitar-driven sound but most of the other songs came from many different directions. Previously the band had written songs together but this time it was more like a Monkees album with everyone writing on his own or with someone else. The album sounds like half a Yardbirds album and the rest a mix of solo efforts (“White Summer” by Jimmy Page, “The Black Rose” by Keith Relf) and obvious single flops of music uncharacteristic of the band but written for and played by them. The end result: the Yardbirds rapidly began the slide to their demise which occurred a year later.
Perhaps one of the most well-known and best examples of a “singles be dammed” story is that of Rush’s “2112” released in 1976. Ever since the inclusion of drummer Neil Peart, the band had begun moving away from the Canadian Led Zeppelin image that had got the attention of Mercury Records and radio-listeners and started writing in a more progressive vein. Their second album featured an 8-minute track telling the story of a battle between two fantasy characters, which raised a few eyebrows unfavourably at Mercury. But their next album “Caress of Steal” made everyone sit up and take notice, perhaps even stand up and take notice with great alarm. Half of side one was taken up by a three-part fantasy story and side two was comprised entirely of yet another story-telling suite in six parts. Mercury Records was not impressed. The album did not receive support or promotion but instead manager Ray Daniels was called in and leant heavily upon. “More singles” was the snarling cry as the tour was taking the band to smaller and smaller venues that didn’t sell out.
This could have had two responses: the band could have acquiesced and written an album of rock singles or they could have spilt up. But the three ambitious musicians decided to give it one more go their way and put out an album with side one being filled entirely by a concept piece not coincidentally about a young man with a guitar who is told by the high priests of music control that his own music is irrelevant. Mercury Records threw its hands in the air in exasperation. Rush went on tour and by golly they drew a crowd. Word spread without record company support and the album became a success. Not only that but it became a classic and has since made it on many lists of best and important albums. It was also the album that brought Rush world-wide fame.
So there you have two examples of where the record company decision to record singles for an album led to a disappointing result and one case where the deliberate ignoring of the cry for singles led to success.