THEY were the soundtrack to the lives of generations of teenagers, but this week the 45rpm single turns 65. Yet despite having been written off in an age of CDs and digital downloads, the seven-inch golden oldies are not about to be pensioned off.
It was in 1949 that the Radio Corporation of America invented the 45 as a replacement for the brittle 78rpm shellac discs that had endured since the late 19th century. Like the 12-inch long players introduced a year earlier by rival Columbia, they sounded better and were virtually unbreakable.
But the microgrooves etched into the new vinyl discs meant you needed a different stylus and a new record player to hear them - so for the next decade the two standards existed side-by-side, with early rock and roll classics from Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly released on both 45 and 78.
It was with the teenage revolution of the late Fifties and Sixties that vinyl came into its own - and for millions of music lovers, the first six shillings and eightpence spent on a treasured tune represented a rite of passage into adolescence and adulthood.
“It was all about the ritual of taking the record out of the sleeve and dropping the needle on to the groove,” says Ian De-Whytell, owner of the independent retailer Crash Records in central Leeds, where the 45 is still the format of choice among image-conscious music lovers.
“Vinyl has made a huge resurgence,” says Ian. “The trend with record companies seems to be that if they release a physical disc at all it will be a seven-inch single rather than a CD.”
Despite predictions of its imminent demise in the 1980s, the 45 has outlasted rival formats - to the point where its replacement, the CD single, is heading for an early fade-out.
“Without a doubt the 45 will outlast the CD single,” says Ian. “There are very few releases now on CD single now and pretty much zero interest.”
Today’s revive 45s are by independent, rock and alternative bands, he says, as well as popular picture discs from veteran David Bowie. The fact that they may not sound as good as CDs, let alone downloadable MP3 files, is beside the point.
“It goes against all conventional wisdom but people seem to like that almost tinny sound,” says Ian, whose shop has a profitable sideline selling £120 replicas of 1960s gramophones.
“People are interested in the shape more than the sound,” he says. “45s are deemed to be collectable, and there’s a whole new generation of people who collect them in the way we used to.
“I’m amazed at the number of younger people buying them. People are doing it right across the age ranges.
“It’s probably the collectibility of it that appeals. There may be one or two different versions and a limited quantity, so people believe they’re buying something that might increase in value. Some of them get really obsessive if someone’s even touched the sleeve.”
The first 45 discs on this week in 1949 were colour-coded according to content. Rhythm and blues were pressed on red vinyl, country on green, popular classics on blue and “pop” on black.
The early days saw a “speed war” between the 45 and the 33, with different formats promoted by rival companies. 16rpm long-players were also briefly produced, and while never popular, remained a setting on turntables for decades.
Early stars on 45 included swing musician Spade Cooley, singer Dick Leibert and orchestra leader Al Goodman. But for most listeners, the golden era of the seven-inch disc is the one that corresponds to their own coming of age. So we asked Twitter and Facebook users yesterday to tell us the first single they bought.
Peter Beard named Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind (1963); and Steven Crabb bought Motorhead’s St Valentine’s Massacre (1981). On Twitter, Bradford Batman nominated 1982’s John Wayne Is Big Leggy by Haysi Fantayzee; and SweetsWetherby remembered buying My Sweet Lord by George Harrison in 1970. Robert Sheard bought Monster Mash by Bobby ‘Boris’ Picket and his Crypt Kickers back in 1962 and JohnnyfromDonny recalled 1960’s Muskrat Ramble by Freddy Cannon. For Richard Sykes it was the 1983 Christmas single Only You, by the Flying Pickets.
• What was the first record you bought? Tweet us at @yorkshirepost using the hashtag #7inchRecord.
The first albums were not 33rpm long players but pre-war collections of six or more 78rpm discs, their sleeves literally bound into an album with wood and glue. The advent of vinyl meant all the songs could go on one disc - but the name stuck.
The first British 45s were released in 1953 by EMI.
The Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, was released in 1962, shortly after EMI discontinued the 78 and switched to 45rpm singles exclusively. But 78 versions were produced in other countries, especially India, and are highly prized collectables today.
Early 45 pressings of Love Me Do with an old red Parlophone label are among the most valuable 45s. A promotional copy with Paul McCartney’s surname mispelled is worth up to £15,000.