Make It a Double

Inside five classic rock, pop and funk albums whose sessions were too sprawling for the record industry.

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Prince performs in Paris on the Sign O’ the Times Tour in 1987. Credit: FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images.

In the Showtime documentary The Go-Go’s, the group’s main songwriter, guitarist Charlotte Caffey, recalls the pressure she felt to follow up their smash debut album. “I felt like, ‘Oh, my God, I wrote a hit song. Now what do I do?’ It messes with your head.”

For some artists, writing 12 good songs every two years is easy; for others it’s a maddening task. And for an elite few, it’s all in a day’s work. Some writers are so fertile they have an excess of hits and give them away: The list ranges from Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the ’60s, Stevie Wonder in the ’70s and Prince in the ’80s to, more recently, Bruno Mars, Jessie J, Ne-Yo, Kesha, Ed Sheeran and Sia.

Record companies aren’t happy when their artists hand over income-generating smashes to other acts, but they’re also often unwilling to let artists release more than one album at a time, as Tom Petty discovered in 1994 when he presented Warner Bros. with Wildflowers, a 25-track double album. Lenny Waronker, president of the label, talked Petty into trimming it to 15 songs. (One discarded number, “Leave Virginia Alone,” went to Rod Stewart, who had a modest hit with it the next year.)

Petty considered Wildflowers his best album, and he vowed to one day release the full version, but died before he could finish it. Wildflowers & All the Rest, released in October, is a heaping portion of Petty: the Super Deluxe Edition includes the 25 songs he recorded plus home recordings, live renditions and alternate versions, totaling 70 songs across five CDs or nine LPs. It follows, by less than a month, an expanded reissue of Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, a landmark record that, although it was released in its intended double-LP format in 1987, was culled from wildly productive sessions. Its Super Deluxe Edition builds out the original double album with hours of live and studio material, including 63 previously unreleased tracks.

Here’s a dive into essential albums conceived during eras when the artists had more to say than the labels wanted to fit onto LP or CD. In some instances they’ve been restored to their original desired length (or greater).

Tom Petty
Wildflowers (1994/2020)

Petty called Wildflowers “the divorce album,” and even the song titles abound with trouble: “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “You Wreck Me,” “Hard on Me,” “Wake Up Time.” He and Jane Petty had been married for 20 years, and when their daughter Adria heard the record, she told Petty biographer Warren Zanes, “I knew the marriage was over.”

The disc of demos Petty recorded are primarily voice and guitar, and they don’t differ notably from their completed versions, because co-producer Rick Rubin kept the arrangements spare and effective. Among the 10 songs Petty cut from the album, several are of a quality equal to the ones he kept. “Something Could Happen” adds a dimension of cautious hopefulness to the gloom, the brief and punchy “California” praises the state where the Florida-born Petty settled and found fame, and “Hung Up and Overdue” builds on the praise with a Beach Boys-styled coda featuring an actual Beach Boy, Carl Wilson.

On the flip side of geographical sentiment, Petty revisits Florida on the acoustic ballad “Harry Green,” and tells the story of a football player who “stopped a redneck from kicking my ass,” but later killed himself, the song hints, because he was gay and afraid to be himself. Whether Harry Green was a real person or not, it’s one of Petty’s most personal songs, because it describes the oppressive machismo that caused his earliest emotional damage and propelled him west.

The biggest prize is the live music, recorded between 1995 and 2017, the year Petty died. The Heartbreakers were one of rock’s best bands, and they shine on “Drivin’ Down to Georgia,” a quickstepping joyride of a song, and “Girl on LSD,” a goofball novelty, with ringing mandolin, about relationship challenges caused by various drugs. The box set ends, as it begins, with a version of “Wildflowers,” a song Petty realized he’d written for himself after his therapist pointed it out: “You belong somewhere you feel free.”

Prince
Sign O’ the Times (1987/2020)

There’s prolific, and then there’s Prince. “The songs came out like a sneeze, one track after the next, after the next,” his recording engineer, Susan Rogers, recently told the BBC.

Prince had a vault he filled with a wealth of unreleased recordings, some dating as far back as 1977. He was the only one who knew the code to the vault, so after he died suddenly in 2016, it was drilled open. Michael Howe, the former record executive who was hired to catalog the archive, has declined to say how many songs were in the vault, but reasonable guesses, based on Prince’s fecundity and longevity, total a few thousand unheard nuggets.

Prince regularly released double and triple albums, but even that didn’t clear out the vault; last year’s reissue of 1999 (a double record from 1982) added a whopping 35 previously unreleased tracks to the original 11 songs.

Another double album, Sign O’ the Times — released in 1987 and often considered to be Prince’s masterpiece — features eight CDs and a DVD in its Super Deluxe version, including three CDs of unreleased studio material that encompass funk, hard rock, jazz, swing, gospel, psychedelia and new wave. There are short songs and long songs, solo songs and band songs, serious songs and stupid songs, sacred songs and horny songs, edited versions, extended versions and alternate versions.

There’s a surplus of highlights: “All My Dreams,” a lithe track he recorded with his band the Revolution, declares his devotion to sex as well as to Cap’n Crunch cereal; “Soul Psychodelicide,” a 12-minute funk workout with only a few nonsensical lyrics; and “Emotional Pump,” an R&B thumper he wrote for Joni Mitchell, whom he adored, and even cited in his song “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” (When Mitchell heard the lyric “You are my emotional pump ... to make my body jump,” she later told the Auckland Sun, “I called him back and said that I could not do the song.” It remains a rare case of Prince being jilted.)

Even after several complete listens to the Super Deluxe version of Sign O’ the Times, it’s just too much to fathom. Prince knew his fertility was too abundant to be curated, even by him. “One day, someone will release them,” he said of the songs in his vault in a 2012 interview on The View. “I don’t know that I’ll get to release them. There’s just too many.”

George Clinton, a canny visionary who’d been in the record business since 1959, understood that he could maximize both his income and his freedom by forming different groups at different labels. His two central bands, Parliament (funky, frolicking, almost cartoonish) and Funkadelic (gritty, skeptical, rocking), brought a thorny intellect and a filthy libido to futuristic R&B.

Electric Spanking, Clinton later explained in his memoir, was his look at “the darker side of patriotism: The idea was that governments promote their own agenda through mass media, which was electronically manipulating and beating up the brains of the Baby Boomers.” In other words, it’s an album that’s about the start of the Reagan era, and also about our present day.

If his explanation makes it sound like an R&B record written by Noam Chomsky and produced by Marshall McLuhan, it’s not, though the sprawling, vivacious, unfocused music is a challenge to absorb. Maybe that’s why Warner Bros. rejected Clinton’s plan to make it a double album. The untruncated version of Electric Spanking isn’t well documented, but the original length seems to have been about 83 minutes. Legend has it that one rejected track was “Atomic Dog,” a big hit Clinton released under his own name in 1982, but Parliament-Funkadelic historians have debunked that as a possibility.

Paul McCartney & Wings
Red Rose Speedway (1973/2018)

After the Beatles broke up, Paul McCartney wrote and recorded so many songs that even his musicians couldn’t keep track of them. Guitarist David Spinozza played on about 20 songs for the Paul and Linda McCartney album Ram, released in 1971, but only a handful of them (including the signature hit “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”) made the LP. “Another Day,” which Spinozza also played on, came out as a 45, and then in 1973, his work on “Get on the Right Thing” came out on Red Rose Speedway by McCartney’s band Wings. Not only was Spinozza not a member of Wings, but by then he’d begun recording with John Lennon.

The biggest music stars usually get their way, but it’s not clear why Red Rose Speedway, planned as two LPs, was released as a single. In 2018, McCartney put out the original 18-track double album as part of his Archive Collection, and in an interview published on paulmccartney.com, he couldn’t recall why the album had originally been truncated: “Possibly because of the label?” he speculated. “But, to be honest, it’s more likely that I would have just said it’s so much easier to deal with a single album.”

In its single-disc version, Red Rose Speedway has long been dismissed as slight, even annoyingly twee. The critic Robert Christgau called it “possibly the worst album ever made by a rock and roller of the first rank,” and in the 2000 book The Beatles: Off the Record 2, McCartney admitted that he “couldn’t stand” the record. Apple Records released only one single, “My Love,” a tacit admission that the material was weak commercially.

Less is usually more when it comes to albums. But the expanded Red Rose Speedway improves the original, thanks to sharper sequencing — it opens with “Night Out,” a crackling, fuzzed-out rocker, and closes with the restful “Little Lamb Dragonfly” — and other additions, especially two swaggering live tracks and a cover of the Fleetwoods’ ballad “Tragedy,” which showcases some sterling harmonies. It’s still not one of Sir Paul’s best, but it has the pleasant appeal of a home movie.

The Kinks
Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

The first notable rock double album was Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, released in 1966, and like most things Dylan did, it was imitated posthaste: the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Donovan and the Who quickly followed suit. When the Kinks finished 12 songs for the album that became The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, singer and main songwriter Ray Davies was so enthusiastic about the material that he asked Pye Records to expand it to a double album. Pye said no, but agreed to let him add three more songs.

In 1968, the prevailing mood in rock was rural and psychedelic; TKATVGPS, a sort of concept album about people who live in a small British town and treasure their quiet lives, is the former but not the latter. Davies had been moving the Kinks away from blasting garage-rock songs like “You Really Got Me” and toward a gentle, bucolic sound that was almost baroque, and his lyrics expressed nostalgia for steam-powered trains, cricket and, most puzzlingly, virginity. “Walter, isn’t it a shame the way our little world has changed?” he sings to a childhood pal in “Do You Remember Walter?”

Even at 15 songs the album was a resounding dud. The headlines and sales that year went to Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and the Beatles’ “White Album,” both of them doubles. These days, TKATVGPS is viewed as the Kinks’ best album, one of the decade’s masterpieces and the starting point of Britpop. But the initial failure rankled Davies, even after he was vindicated; it was “the most acclaimed flop of all time,” he told MOJO in 1995, adding, “even the people who talk about it haven’t heard it.”

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