Rediscovering Lost 45s

Allmusic.com publishes a newsletter detailing the latest new releases and linking to its reviews. A recent edition ticked off two notable reissues: Michael Jackson’s 25th anniversary Thriller and the latest volume of The Complete Motown Singles. Even if you don’t plan on buying them, you ought to read Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review of each one. The Jackson essay is an excellent perspective on Thriller‘s place in history. The Motown essay is a concise discussion of the moment at which Motown should have launched a second generation of superstars, but how, with the exception of the Jackson Five, it failed to do so.

The Complete Motown Singles is just too much music—up to nine multi-disc sets now—for me to consider buying it, but I’m glad it exists, for history’s sake. With few exceptions, Motown’s greatest songs were conceived as singles, and were collected into albums mainly for marketing purposes. But it’s the album versions of these songs that have endured. America’s 45rpm legacy—not just at Motown, but at other labels as well—has been tragically watered down, because neither producers of compilation albums nor oldies-based radio stations have been all that rigorous about finding the original single versions of many classic hits. The difference is often critical: At Motown, the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is a fearsome thing on 45, but it’s the pallid album version that’s most often anthologized and played on the radio. Ditto the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which appeared originally on the radio in a form far different than the way they’re commonly heard today.

I’d already been thinking about this last week when I put on The Complete Hit Singles compilation by Three Dog Night. Yeah, it’s essentially the replacement for a greatest-hits collection that was one of the first CDs I ever bought, but it’s much more than that, for it contains the 45 versions of several songs I first fell in love with as a teenage AM radio geek. Hearing them again was like rediscovering lost treasure. Compare the versions of “An Old-Fashioned Love Song” below to hear how different the typical Three Dog Night 45 was from the album version of the same song. The 45 will sound a lot like the album version until about the 1:30 mark, although you may catch some differences in the sound of the keyboards and the way the guitar is mixed before that. But notice the difference, especially in the backing vocals, from the 1:30 mark onward. And notice also that the 45 is longer than the album version.

Recommended Reading: Last week I linked to a post at Living in Stereo about the demise of Kansas City’s classic rock station. David Cantwell followed up with the text of an e-mail he sent to the station. The crux of it is this: Where are the black artists not named Jimi? If the station is going to play a blue-eyed soul shouter like Joe Cocker, it ought to be playing Ray Charles, too. If bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan is OK, then why not bluesman Albert Collins? Cantwell’s still waiting for an answer, and it’s my guess he may be waiting for a while. No genre segregates itself from its roots and influences more strictly than classic rock, or is less willing to face up to the segregation.

(Late clarification: Strictly speaking, the KC station in question has gone from classic rock to adult alternative, but my statement about segregation still applies, to both formats.) 

“An Old-Fashioned Love Song” (album version)/Three Dog Night (buy Harmony here)
“An Old-Fashioned Love Song” (45 version)/Three Dog Night (buy The Complete Hit Singles here)

3 thoughts on “Rediscovering Lost 45s

  1. I’ll have to check out that newsletter. I’ve come to enjoy Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s reviews.

    I also really enjoy William Ruhlman’s reviews. Ruhlman also wrote the booklet that came with Chicago’s 1990 “Group Portrait” box set back when Columbia released it. When Chicago got back the rights to their Columbia catalog and re-released it on their own label they dropped the booklet. It was a pity as it was quite a concise history of the band’s time on Columbia Records.

    Ruhlman’s reviews on AMG are also of a high calibre. Erlewine and Ruhlman are probably my favorite reviewers over on AMG.

  2. JP

    If you’re gonna talk Three Dog Night, also remember the 45 version of “Eli’s Coming,” which fades out with a solo piano bit. The version on the album (that you now hear on oldies stations) doesn’t have it. I prefer the single…and not just because I’m used to it, either.

  3. Spiritof67

    I grew up in the 1970’s and always took the position that the “album” version of a song was the definitive version. As a result, I missed out on a lot of great mixes of songs that were released on 45. American Breed’s “Bend Me Shape Me” as a single had more punch than the stereo version most oldies radio plays today. Neil Young’s “Cinamon Girl” on 45 have vocals that are much more in front than the LP mix. BIlly Joel’s “Sometimes A Fantasy” in 1980 has a longer ending than the LP.

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