Music Playback – One Upon A Time – There Was A Big Difference

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It’s such a treat to download a favorite song and play it over and over. It makes no difference where it comes from. Before digital – we didn’t have that luxury. Cassette tapes – they were OK – but tapes eventually stretched, could jam or just plain wear out.

When 78rpm singles became a mainstay during the mid-1920’s – they were all made from the same material and – it didn’t matter if you were listening to someone on RCA-Victor or Decca – you pretty much knew you had a decent playback for its day. In 1955 – the 45rpm single took over the singles market – and there was one big difference – 45’s were mostly pressed on inferior material. In fact, depending on the label, they could be pretty low quality.

So, let me explain. When 45’s first came out, RCA and Columbia Records figured out they could press these smaller records on polystyrene – a cheaper imitation of vinyl. It needed more heating in the pots and the result – records were harder and more brittle – and, they tended to crack or break more. And, they didn’t last as long as vinyl. You didn’t get nearly the number of plays from these cheaper materials. Others followed. As bad as Columbia was – Warner Brothers used an even cheaper, more brittle polystyrene. For record buyers – it meant less plays – much less. The worst was anything on Warner Brothers/Reprise/Philllips and London. The best was Capitol because it used material that was “closer” to virgin vinyl.

Phillips – was home to the 4 Seasons (Jersey Boys to everyone else). Cheap, Cheap, Cheap.

We’re only talking about 45rpm singles – not 33 (albums) – which – demanded better material. If the record companies could have gotten away with cheaper polystyrene for albums, whey would have.

So, in the summer of 1965 for 69cents – you could purchase a brand new hit 45 from your record store. For that price – you might have purchased, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones on London. And, you may have purchased – “Help” by the Beatles. Same price. The quality of those two 45rpm singles couldn’t be more different. Depending on your playback, you might have gotten 100’s of more plays on the Capitol/Beatles single. You always got more for your money if you bought anything on Capitol – and that included the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

Motown singles were pressed mostly by Columbia – which was in between Capitol and Warner Brothers.

Interestingly – our counterparts in England used virgin vinyl on most of their 45rpm singles. So, if you purchased “Satisfaction” by the Stones over there – you got your money’s worth.

Here’s how you can really tell. You can’t “bend” the polystyrene singles – they’ll break. The more vinyl, the more flex. You can bend a Beatles single, but – not a Stones. And, pure vinyl 45rpm singles really have a “shine” to them. Especially on the grooves.

Check out some of the Youtube record collections from England. Most of them – spin their discs on turntables while you listen. Notice – you can see the quality of these singles. Day and night from anything USA (even Capitol).

For these cheaper labels – collectors find it extremely challenging to find – say – a good London, or Warner Brothers single from the 1960’s in decent shape. Thank goodness for Capitol – they always used the best material for their singles – pretty much into the 1980’s. Looking for a good copy of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones on London? Good luck.



Gary West

Historian Gary West built his first website in 1998 with That addressed now forwards to - an amazing pop culture/news database with 25,000 pages, covering the years 1955-2014. He's also the author of - covering consumer technology from 1952 to the present. West has been a contributor to numerous books, radio-TV shows, CNN & USA Today & the History Channel.

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