The 12” single was initially a promo format in the 1970s before evolving into the disco, then dance standard size. The first might be Glad Rag Doll by jazz guitarist Buddy Fite from Ampex in 1970. It was purely an attention seeker, playing at standard LP 33 1/3 rpm. Shelter released some 12″ Leon Russell promos to radio stations in 1971, again at LP speed.
Tom J. Moulton was a DJ who used tape to extend playing time, then had his own 7” records pressed. Once upon a time the studio ran out of 7” blanks and he used a 10” blank, and thought the narrow strip of grooves looked silly, so they repressed it with wider-spread grooves. They found it was way louder with deeper bass. Then they moved to 12”. In 1974 he worked remixing and repressing disco songs for use by DJs. They always assumed the public sale would be 7”. Among the hits promoted by 12” DJ promo mixes in 1975 were Gloria Gaynor’s Never Can Say Goodbye, Frankie Valli’s Swearing to God and The Rolling Stones’ Fool To Cry. There were dozens of them.
Simon Napier-Bell’s Black Vinyl White Powder (2001) has a chapter (Four-to-the-Floor) describing the evolution of disco, which in turn created the initial market for the 45 rpm 12″ single. I’ll summarise. He traces the development of dance in gay clubs, and the popularity of Motown’s basic beat. He cites Francis Grasso, a New York DJ, who started using two decks to segue two records without a pause, by holding one in place with his finger. I suppose that’s digital, then.
Grasso’s other speciality was to play two tracks at the same time mixing the raunchy heavy drums of British rock music with the soaring voices of American soul. Led Zeppelin’s thumping solid drum breaks woud throb like an amphetamised heartbeat under the delicate vocals of Gladys Knight or Aretha Franklin. According to Albert Goldman, Grasso didn’t just play records, he “reinvented them out of their composite parts, the top end vocals and the bottom end rhythm. His method of mixing the different parts of different records to make altogether new music was 15 years ahead of its time.”
Simon Napier Bell, Black Vinyl, White Powder, 2001
The action moves to Munich in Germany, where Peter Meisel realized that the one place everyone of all ages and abilities could dance to the same music was German wedding bands with a solid four to the bar bass drum rhythm. It was so uncool, that he thought of mixing the beat with black singers. His engineer in Munich cut the first example, Save Me by Silver Convention. Then Meisel, working with Giorgio Moroder took La Donna Gaines from the Munich production of Hair, changed her name to Donna Summer, and had her moan in Je t’aime … mois non plus style to a bass drum track. Result? Love To Love You Baby in 1975. They took the track to Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records, and he made a leap forward. American club DJs were using two copies of a record on twin decks to produce long dance sequences. They were playing Karaftwerk’s Autobahn because it took up a whole LP side. Bogart told them to re-make Love To Love You Baby as a full LP side … and in effect, the 12″ single was born (except it had several tracks on the flipside). Also, it was still playing at 33 1/3 rpm. The true 12″ single would be at 45 rpm. However, the grooves were further apart even on 33 1/3 12″ discs, making it easier for DJs to pinpoint starts and play around with mixing.
Meisel and Moroder repeated the formula I Feel Love from Donna Summer. Meisel moved on to create Bony M, putting a male dancer who mimed vocals, with three black female singers … the male voice is actually Meisel. The 1976 Disco Special Edition of Daddy Cool is a 12″ single at 33 1/3 rpm but they hadn’t sussed yet that as it’s only 4.05 minutes long, the point was to press it at 45 rpm.
The explosion for disco was Saturday Night Fever combining disco tracks, with new compositions by the Bee Gees.
For three years, from 1977 to 1980, disco ate the world.
Simon Napier Bell, Black Vinyl, White Powder, 2001
The 12″ single was at the heart of it. It could be a remix with more focus on bass, extended track length or simply a higher fidelity version. For mixing two decks, you need to be able to match speed … enter the Technics SL-1200 turntable with variable speed control. Built like a tank for transportation.
Ten Percent by Double Exposure on the Salsoul label is usually held to be the first sold to the public as a 12” in 1976. It played at 45 rpm, so was 9 minutes 15 seconds long … the 16 minutes 50 seconds of Love To Love You Baby really meant 33 1/3 rpm. Notice it credits ‘Disco blending.’ i.e. remixing.
Donna Summer’s Winter Melody is also claimed to be the first twelve-inch single, but that was issued in January 1977. Over the next six years it became the default format for disco tracks, and then for hip-hop. By 1991 several labels such as Interscope and Death Row released only 12” vinyl.
A 12” record playing at 45 rpm is louder, has greater dynamic range, and it’s easier to play around with the stylus for mixing decks, scratching etc. Oddly, a few played at 33 rpm, which wasn’t the point.The 12” company sleeves often have more elaborate designs than their 7” counterparts as well as being printed on card rather than paper. The inclusion of the word DISCO on the sleeve seemed mandatory early on, before 12” evolved as a Dance format.
Note one of the classics: Le Freak / Chic Cheer by Chic. It lists the BM (beats per minute) after each track … Le Freak 121 BM, Chic Cheer 113 BM (to get your breath back a little?) An unusually restrained standard WEA 12″ sleeve too. Simon Napier-Bell quotes some alleged research that suggests marijuana smokers like to dance at 110 BM. but amphetamine users prefer 130 BM.
Disco gallery … click for full images
Madonna and Prince
Because Madonna and Prince are highly collectable, and because they produced a lot of 12″ singles, they’re among the most sought after, though with Madonna the prices tend to go 7″ … 12″ … 12″ picture disc … 12″ picture disc with added bits, pictures, badges etc. Picture discs are designed to look at. Most agree that they usually sound poorer than normal releases. It’s similar with Prince … 7″ … 12″ … 12″ picture disc … 12″ with calendar. That would take you from £10 to £50 mint with Little Red Corvette, though as with all items manufactured specifically to be collectable, “mint” will be the average condition. Blondie’s Heart of Glass on 12″ has a special picture centre label, but as it’s still 5 minutes 50 seconds, it’s another 12″ failing to take advantage of 45 rpm.
Gallery Madonna … click for full images
12″ was loved for scratching and mixing, so it’s no surprise that rap and urban employed 12″ singles. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s The Message was around in 12″ more than 7″ to my eye in 1982.
Gallery urban … click for full images
An oddity are the three early Rolling Stones EPs, which were issued as 12” EPs by Decca in 1983. They use the full extent of the LP grooves so should be better than original EPs.
Some artists may have failed to grasp the point about extended length and remixes. Neil Young’s Get Back To The Country was the 2m 49 s LP version. It’s from Old Ways one of the bunch of short and unusual albums Geffen tried to sue Neil Young for, alleging misrepresentation. This one was 12″ to impress DJs.
The late eighties was an era where desperation to chart might result in an artist releasing a 7″ single, 12″ single and a CD single. You can see the point for Whitesnake’s Still of The Night (6m 38 s at 45 rpm) or Robbie Robertson’s Somewhere Down The Crazy River at 4 minutes 57 seconds (both Geffen) or Godley and Creme’s Cry (Extended Version) on Polydor. All are longer than average and benefit from the length. They play at 45 rpm.
Some 12″ releases have three or four tracks and are labelled ‘maxi singles’ a name Pye’s Dawn label had used on 7″ 33 1/3 records which were effectively EPs.
Gallery- mainstream 12″ singles … click to see full image
12″ and 45 rpm … LPs
It is accepted that 45 rpm gives more volume and higher fidelity. So much so that when The Band 50th Anniversary box set appeared in 2019, they put the original 33 1/3 rpm album onto two 12″ discs playing at 45 rpm. Am I alone in thinking that it might have been wise to print 45 rpm on the labels? They didn’t. It’s on the back of the box.
Mobile Fidelity has re-mastered more than twenty classic albums at 45 rpm. In every case you get two records instead of one. These include Bob Dylan Oh, Mercy, Jefferson Airplane Surrealistic Pillow, Vanilla Fudge’s Vanilla Fudge (45 rpm and MONO), Dire Straits by Dire Straits, Blues for Allah by The Grateful Dead, and Walk The Line by Johnny Cash. A warning … these 2 LP versions cost from £40 up to around £70. OK, sorry, £69.99.
The 12″ EP?
Pye’s Bid Deal series of 12″ singles in 1977 were all four tracks, so EPs. It was common enough to put two tracks on the B-side of 12″ singles, but these are all EP length.
Record Store Day 2021 brought an oddity. Jokerman / I and I by Bob Dylan, reggae and dub remixes. It’s labelled as an “EP” but is 12″ not 7″. Then instead of using the 12″ format for extra fidelity, it plays at 33 1/3 (though it is 12 minutes a side, so close to LP length).