The physical format in which rock and roll was delivered had been in a state of flux from the outset. Originally the ten-inch 78 rpm disc was the favoured form, but by 1958 the seven-inch 45 rpm single had achieved sales parity, and from then on the 78 was clearly doomed. The seven-inch, four-track EP (extended play) was popular for a while in the early 1960s, but that too went into decline, and the last EP chart was published in Record Retailer in December 1967. The following year sales of twelve-inch 33 rpm long player albums reached the same level as singles and then overtook them.
The chart statistics for 1970 tell the story of the decline in importance of the single in Britain. It could be seen in terms of sales: of the 100 bestselling singles of the 1970s, just six came out in 1970, only three of which were British, and two of those weren’t exactly cutting-edge pop – Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’ and a bagpipe-led instrumental version of ‘Amazing Grace’ by the Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
It could also be seen in terms of the separation between rock and pop: half of the twenty bestselling albums of 1970 were by British acts, but the eight acts responsible could between them only muster five singles that even made the top 50 that year – the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’, Deep Purple’s ‘Black Night’, the Moody Blues’ ‘Question’, Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ and Free’s ‘All Right Now’.
Also in 1970, for the first time since the show’s inception, Top of the Pops failed to make the weekly charts of the top twenty most watched programmes at any stage during a calendar year, and it began to seem almost as though singles-based pop might wither on the vine from lack of interest. Worse still, the problem was institutionalized and self-perpetuating. With record companies chasing album sales, they had become indulgent of rock bands who would spend six months in the studio jamming, writing and recording a new LP, and they began to see the singles market simply as a way to make a quick profit and thus subsidize this leisurely lifestyle.
Consequently there arose what was effectively a return to the values of Tin Pan Alley. Songwriting and production teams – Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, Barry Mason and Tony Macaulay, Bill Martin and Phil Coulter – would produce hit singles on so tight a budget that they became a production line. On those records, a small roster of session musicians filled the vacuum left by the disappearance from the singles charts of the big-name bands.
‘The finances of making a record meant that for a pop single you needed to make it in three hours,’ remembered Ron Roker, one of the songwriters of the time. ‘You’d have three songs in that session: one was the A-side, one was the B-side, the other was a possible A-side. And a lot of our music was made in those sessions with the same guys because you knew what you were going to get: you could put any dots in front of them...’