Joel Goldenberg: The stand-alone single phenomenon

Kiki Dee and Elton John singing Don't Go Breaking My Heart.

Much attention was paid in recent weeks to the new Rolling Stones song Living in a Ghost Town, particularly because it seemed to be prescient in regards to the COVID-19 lockdown, with many of us staying indoors and the resulting near-empty streets of major cities.

(I have been venturing in downtown Montreal for walking exercises on Saturdays, and the streets are so empty that I've been able to park for free all day alongside the Bay, where restrictions only apply from Monday to Friday and there are no parking meters.)

But Living in A Ghost Town is also a revival, of sorts, of the stand-alone single, although it was released as part of an album, the compilation Honk.

But in the retro days, stand-alone singles were very common, especially in the U.S. in the 1950s and some of the 1960s; and in England for even longer.

For artists like Frank Sinatra, especially when he was on the Capitol label in the 1950s, his albums were extended mood pieces, whether jaunty like Come Fly With Me, or very melancholy like No One Cares, while singles were lighter pop. Sinatra recorded so many stand-alone singles in that decade that not only were they collected on LPs like This Is Sinatra, but his complete Capitol singles needed a box set to accommodate them all.

The most canny strategy was exercised by Columbia Records and the artist Johnny Mathis. His best known songs were mostly from the mid to late-1950s and included It's Not For Me To Say, Chances Are; Wonderful, Wonderful and others, and they were all stand-alone, non-LP singles.

At least they were until they were collected on the 1958 album Johnny's Greatest Hits. Not only was that album number one for three weeks, but it spent a massive 10 years on the charts, a record that was broken by Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which was not a hits collection.

The stand-alone single phenomenon faded by the mid-1960s, at least in the U.S. The best known American group of that decade, the Beach Boys, released very few, an alternate version of Be True To Your School, an alternate mix of the Christmas standard Little St. Nick that was released a year later on the band's Christmas album, The Little Girl That I Once Knew, Do It Again and their biggest success, Good Vibrations, which was released on the Smiley Smile LP many months after the single's release.

Elvis Presley released many stand-alone singles in the 1950s and the early 1960s, and they made up the contents of his first four Gold(en) Records collections; and he continued to release some in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Suspicious Minds, Kentucky Rain, Mama Liked the Roses, It's Only Love, I'm Leavin', the studio versions of I've Lost You and Patch It Up and, in a sense, the huge hit Burning Love. By in a sense, I mean that the song was not released on a regular LP but thrown onto a budget LP released on the RCA subsidiary Camden label, which made no sense at all, especially as it was accompanied by its stand-alone B-side and already- released songs from 1960s movies. The same happened to his other "stand-alone" single from 1972, Always On My Mind/Separate Ways.

On the other hand, in the UK, many artists were adamant that record purchasers get value for money, meaning that, in numerous cases, singles had to remain separate from albums because people were not expected to want to buy the same song twice.

(For those record companies that release numerous CD remasterings of the same album, this noble UK philosophy would be especially alien to them.)

In the case of the Beatles, we did not totally experience this in North America, as we had songs like I Want To Hold Your Hand, She Loves You, I Feel Fine, Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out placed on regular-release albums. We did have to wait a few months or years, though, for songs like From Me to You, Hey Jude, Revolution, the single versions of Get Back and Don't Let Me Down, and The Ballad of John and Yoko, to be placed on either specially-made American LPs or compilations.

The Rolling Stones also had plenty of stand-alone singles, but of those, Not Fade Away, Satisfaction, Get Off My Cloud, As Tears Go By, Let's Spend the Night Together and Ruby Tuesday were released on regular American albums, while songs like 19th Nervous Breakdown, Dandelion/We Love You, Jumping Jack Flash and Honky Tonk Women had to wait for compilation albums.

While most artists, including the Stones, had no stand-alone singles in the 1970s, some carried on the tradition. The most notable were Paul McCartney (and Wings) with Another Day, Hi, Hi, Hi, Helen Wheels (at least in the UK), Junior's Farm, Mull of Kintyre and Goodnight Tonight; and Elton John with Philadelphia Freedom, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, and one of my favourites, Don't Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee.

Back in the day, a stand-alone single would be met with more anticipation and likely appreciation, because of its isolated status. Unfortunately, today, they are mainly a means to sell the latest of an artist or group's many compilation albums.

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