I want to consider double albums, by which I mean four sides of vinyl presented as a single collection. I want to focus on studio recordings and not live albums, as I consider these to be less interesting. Some doubles, such as Cream's "Wheels of Fire" or Pink Floyd's "Ummagumma" comprise one live album and one studio. I will cover these as they represent an artist seeking to reflect both the live and studio side of their art. I will not cover double album compilations or greatest hits style packages as these reflect the whole of an artist's oeuvre. I will discuss the albums by year of release and as near chronologically as possible. I am only going to discuss those albums that I have a copy of.
Double albums or two disc sets represent the ambition of an artist or artists. An artist or group stretching their material out to fill four sides of vinyl. Space to breathe and experiment. Following the lead of the likes of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, musicians began to see themselves as artists capable of creating works of greater substance than a quick 45. Double albums could tell an extended story or featuring single tracks of up to 20 minutes in length or collect everything recorded in a single session or in a short run of sessions, or compile live and studio recordings to present a multi-faceted picture of the artistes. There is a case for claiming that the arrival of double albums spelt the end of pop music as light and fun and turned former pop musicians into aspiring jazzers, full of expression and ambition not always within their means.
I have always liked double albums ever since I held a copy of The Who's "Tommy" in my hands, savouring the weight, the heft, carrying the band's full expression across four sides. I like the size and scale of them. If you like an artist then what can be better than two sides of vinyl? Why, four sides, of course.
Some lps last as little as 12 minutes a side. Short, sharp songs, verses and chorus and an instrumental break. Maybe a middle eight for the more musically accomplished. Double albums could last up to 70 minutes and beyond. Plenty of air to fill with sound and ambition. Hard to imagine Jerry Lee Lewis saying in 1960 that he wants his new lp to be a double even if he had enough material to fill one (he did).
The economics of the recording industry probably dictated as much. Recording time costs money. Time spent in the studio reduced the amount of time that could be spent playing live and earning hard cash. Record companies chasing after teenagers' pocket money saw singles as the money spinner. Albums were for old folks. Inevitably it took Bob Dylan to change that view.