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Sean Wilentz’s 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story

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By Captain K

There are a great many things this book isn’t. It’s not a compelling narrative of the ebbs and flows of a great record label. It doesn’t sharply draw the outsized personalities behind the scenes of a commercial enterprise that had an immense cultural influence. It takes no pains to dig into the sometimes lucrative, sometimes tortured relationships between artists and the men — always men — who needed to turn a profit from popular art. It is more like a yearbook, with similar heft, good pictures and a narrative touching the high points but necessarily sketchy.

There are great pictures of all the cool kids, though the schlubby producers in the AV club also pop up from time to time. Like any yearbook there is no theme — other than time itself — and no coherent focus. But I will recommend it anyway, if only to flip through the photos and take a walk through the misty water-colored memories.

“360 Sound, The Columbia Records Story” has the feel of something put together by producers; a greatest hits reissue to package the product and get it out on the stands for us kids who must have everything. The completists. Or in this case, the coffee-table completists. The book dutifully grinds through the years with “and then this…. and then that” that makes the reading spotty and some parts easily skippable. Somehow the vicissitudes of Walter Yetnikoff are not quite as interesting as John Hammond. Nothing against Walter.

Considerable pages and much explicatory jiu-jitsu are devoted to black artists. Columbia Records is busily patting itself on the back for its promotion of “race records” back when it wasn’t fashionable to do so. I doubt Columbia was any better than the rest of them about rewarding the artists whom they were exploiting, so their virtuous self-regard is disingenuous. Especially when they somehow fit Al Jolson in blackface in with their African-American roster of talent.

But the pictures and the graphics more than make up for the inevitable narrative shortcomings. They raided the Columbia archives — and what archives they are. There are concert photos, studio candids and promotional portraits given large format, high quality reproduction. It reminds us that Columbia was the best — the Rolls Royce — of labels. The best photographers, the best production values, top promotion — everything A-plus. They reproduce sets of album covers, disc labels, posters and print ads.

The true completist may mourn what was left out — but those well chosen images are what’s essential about this book. A favorite image is a wide angle concert photo of a skinny young Frank Sinatra on stage at the Paramount with a huge grin saying “did I do this?” It shows the crowd going simply bananas. That picture sums up why people care so deeply about this music. Those people in that audience are having the best time of their life and they know it. It was important artistically, culturally, socially and commercially. And it is true; for decades Columbia records lived at that intersection, for better or worse.

The book pays attention to the technical aspects of the industry as well. Columbia was involved in a great many recorded music innovations and the technology arms race between Columbia and RCA drove the evolution of the music and the business itself. The 45 rpm record anchored the heyday of the hit single which was the great promotion mechanism, while the LP — invented by Columbia engineers — not only created the “album” as the artistic statement of the performer but helped usher in the reissue, leveraging the back catalog and making a fortune for the labels.

That came full circle when Sony pioneered the CD and eventually came to own Columbia records and their gargantuan back catalog. So a Japanese company ends up owning the cultural legacy that defined, shaped and helped into existence the art form that is synonymous with American art: popular music. The book is at its best in the middle — the great flourishing of mid-twentieth century classical, jazz, pop, musical theater and rock and roll — the American Songbook. It has a whole lot to do with Columbia Records.

Sinatra in the 40s, Miles in the 50s, Dylan in the 60s and the whole cavalcade of others, Ellington, Streisand, Glenn Gould, Dave Brubeck, Aretha, Johnny Cash — all the cool kids most likely to succeed are given their due. Into the 60s and 70s Columbia still hung tough, but the popularity of jazz and classical music levelled off and went down. Artists increasingly formed their own labels and management. The vertically integrated music factory was on the way out. The fat lady was warming up. Columbia still had Dylan and Bruce Springsteen but in the book, their increasingly aged mugs begin appearing far too often.

Ultimately the whys and wherefores of how it all happened is less interesting that the fact it happened at all. A large picture at the front of the book sums up what is important: the records. There is a full-size picture — end on — of the spines of a shelf-full of Columbia LPs. The obsessive will go through all of them — Hey Johnny Winter! Billie Holiday. Blue Oyster Cult. Doris Day. Janis Joplin. And there is one in there with no name on the spine. Only what looks like some blue sky. It’s wedged in between “Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson and the Original Cast Recording of “A Chorus Line.” What the heck could it be? The completist must know!

The book is a valedictory. We will not see the like of Columbia records again. It exists, the catalog will always be there, but the music studio, as it existed, is, and can be, no more. There are very few corporations for whom anyone feels nostalgia but Columbia and its brethren certainly qualify. This is not a book I pull down off the shelf too often but I am happy it is there to remind us once again of the way we were.

November 10, 2016

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