360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story - review

by gabeatkinson / 07 February, 2013
A celebration of Columbia and its pioneering role in the record business.
It’s now just a marketing term, but the concept of a “classic album” was virtually invented by Columbia Records. The US label developed the first long-playing albums in 1948 and it revolutionised the record business. No longer was a wheelbarrow required to carry all the 78rpm discs needed to listen to a symphony. And in popular music, no longer did “album” refer to a phonebook-sized collection of discs by one artist, but a collection of tracks on just one disc lasting nearly 45 minutes.

Columbia and its artists embraced the new format with enthusiasm: any list of classic nonclassical albums has to include My Fair Lady, South Pacific, West Side Story, Kind of Blue, Time Out, The Barbra Streisand Album, Highway 61 Revisited, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Red-Headed Stranger and Born in the USA – not to mention Thriller.

Before the invention of the LP with its slower playing speed of 33¹⁄3rpm, the Columbia catalogue was full of what are now called “legacy artists” – a Mt Rushmore line-up of acts that included Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra. Further back, Columbia subsidiaries released discs by blackface talkie pioneer Al Jolson and blues legend Robert Johnson.

360 Sound is a lavish coffee-table book celebrating the first 125 years of Columbia Records, always the champagne label among the big US corporates, and now – owned by Sony – one of the last giants left standing in an industry going through tumultuous times. Written by Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton (and a Dylan scholar in his spare time), it is an absorbing mix of music and business.

“No one likes the suits,” says Adele, Columbia’s current bigselling diva. But a compelling element of Wilentz’s account is his description of executives such as the suave CEO Goddard Lieberson (Mr My Fair Lady); the revered talent scout John Hammond (who signed Bob Dylan and many others); Clive Davis (who expanded Columbia’s rock roster in the 1960s); and even the foul-mouthed Walter Yetnikoff (who accused MTV of racism when the network wouldn’t play the videos accompanying Thriller).

Like recorded music these days, Wilentz’s text suffers a little from over-compression: too much information is squeezed to fit the format. Many artists are barely mentioned, including Jackson, whose Thriller was on Epic, a Columbia subsidiary. But the production of 360 Sound is as luxurious as the high-fidelity recordings that justified Columbia adding that slogan to its labels. This is a book worthy of Bernstein, Dylan and all the other high-end acts – even if One Direction and Glee are currently paying the bills.

360 SOUND: THE COLUMBIA RECORDS STORY, by Sean Wilentz (Chronicle, $79.99).

Chris Bourke is author of the award-winning Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964, an accompanying exhibition for which is at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington, until February 24.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

A post-mortem on Todd Barclay and Matt McCarten's fiascos
76497 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Politics

A post-mortem on Todd Barclay and Matt McCarten's …

by Jane Clifton

In the catalogue of disaster, is a Todd Barclay worse than a Matt McCarten?

Read more
The Trump family's Kremlin connection
76655 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z World

The Trump family's Kremlin connection

by Paul Thomas

From “nothing to see here” to a Cold War-era spy story played out in real life, the Trump family’s Kremlin connection is a source of fascination.

Read more
The Journey – movie review
76661 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Movies

The Journey – movie review

by James Robins

A van isn’t a great vehicle for a drama on how old enemies ended the Troubles.

Read more
Gaylene Preston on the difficulties of filming at the United Nations
76664 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Gaylene Preston on the difficulties of filming at …

by David Larsen

Tracking Helen Clark’s tilt for the top job at the United Nations, Gaylene Preston documented the creatures of the diplomatic world.

Read more
Jackie van Beek puts the gags aside for The Inland Road
76815 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Jackie van Beek puts the gags aside for The Inland…

by Russell Baillie

Best known for her comedy roles, Jackie van Beek takes a dramatic detour in her feature-directing debut.

Read more
Parisian Neckwear plays the long game, even as its centenary approaches
76427 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Small business

Parisian Neckwear plays the long game, even as its…

by Rob O'Neill

Parisian Neckwear, founded in 1919, has survived depression, war, deregulation and a deluge of cheap imports. How? Just feel the cloth.

Read more
David Tamihere case: Key witnesses' doubts about murder of Swedish tourists
76738 2017-07-23 00:00:00Z Crime

David Tamihere case: Key witnesses' doubts about m…

by Donna Chisholm

Nearly 30 years after young Swedish tourists Urban Hoglin and Heidi Paakkonen disappeared in the Coromandel key witnesses say the mystery haunts them.

Read more
Modern slavery and tourism: when holidays and human exploitation collide
76728 2017-07-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

Modern slavery and tourism: when holidays and huma…

by The Conversation

With the advent of orphanage tourism, travellers think they're doing good. But they can often just be lining the pockets of the orphanages' owners.

Read more