The 7″ single is popular music’s most magical artefact, possessed with a power that far outstrips its modest physical dimensions – Johnny Marr described 45s as “absolutely powerful, possibly otherworldly objects”. Gary Tipp salutes this most enduring format…
In the eternal debate about the vinyl format of preference, the 45 is often dismissed – too easily – as the starter to the LP’s main course. Yep, both can sound great, both have fantastic artwork, both are pleasingly tactile… but the album is serious, substantial and played for keeps, while the 7″ single is frivolous, short-lived and, ultimately, throwaway.
While we can kind of see the argument, weaknesses can also be regarded as strengths, and what makes the 7″ single so magical is its power to instantly gratify, its ability to get the job done and dusted in approximately two minutes and 57 seconds. The physical rush of hearing Chuck Berry’s guitar on Maybellene for the very first time, or the adrenaline thrill caused by the first 29 seconds or so of The Damned’s New Rose – sorry, but you just don’t get a spike in your serotonin from an album in the same way.
Over the course of a 70-year history, there are any number of 45s that have been able to shape the world of music around them and lay down a lasting influence on what is to come; and this actually makes them far from ephemeral.
We’ve drawn a line in the sand at 45 singles, which was no easy task. The 7″ single is great at ushering in new scenes and genres, and it is these pioneering 45s that we pay respect to across the following pages.
As ever, we’ve tried to give you an indication of how much the 45s in question would cost and, wherever possible, this is done on UK first presses. Also, while we’ve tried to keep our list of music-shaping singles to the 7″ format, inevitably, the latter-day releases in our list were also available on 12″.
What we do know is that if you happen to be beginning your collection, this is a pretty good starting point…
Hank Williams (1949)
MGM Records, £15-£20
A colossus of country music and a doggone progenitor of rock ’n’ roll, Williams’ first No. 1 single in the US embodies his characteristically emotional, desperately heartfelt approach to singing and songwriting.
Falling and Laughing
Orange Juice (1980)
Released on the semi-legendary Postcard Records, Orange Juice provided a joyful alternative to the sturm und drang of post-punk’s austere intellectualism. The Edinburgh band’s debut single, Falling And Laughing was a little ray of sunshine; with a young Edwyn Collins at the helm, they sounded every bit as fresh as their name suggested.
The Slits (1979)
The Slits were gobby and fearlessly uncompromising; they also gloriously redefined the perception of what a girl band could be. Their classic debut single Typical Girls is driven by the band’s distinctive punky-reggae rhythms with a less-than-faithful version of Heard It Through The Grapevine on the B-side. It was the 45 that set the stage for the riot grrrls to come.
Under Me Sleng Teng
Wayne Smith (1985)
The digital bassline of Wayne Smith’s irresistible 45 was the first time computerised rhythms were used in Jamaican recordings and sparked a mini-revolution. It drew dancehall reggae closer to the production values of its cousin, US hip-hop. The rhythm may have been an attempt to recreate Eddie Cochran’s Somethin’ Else.
Lemmy named his post-Hawkwind outfit after a track he’d previously recorded with the druggy space rockers; it was a safer bet than his first choice – the less-than-radio-friendly Bastard. This breakneck ode to speed-freakery bridged the gap between metal/punk and would go on to have a profound effect on any number of bands, including Metallica.
People Get Ready
The Impressions (1965)
Helmed by Curtis Mayfield, The Impressions bridged the energy of 50s R&B and the increased sophistication of 60s soul. Mayfield was one of the first black songwriters to bring a social and political charge into soul music.
Little Johnny Jewel
Recorded and released in 1975, this lost treasure of a 45 reveals that somehow Television were post-punk before punk had even arrived. The painfully intellectual art-rockers laid down the foundation for guitar-orientated alt-rock in the US.
A Guy Called Gerald (1988)
Inspired by the innovative, dancefloor-filling house-music sounds emanating from Chicago and Detroit, Voodoo Ray creator and 808 State member Gerald Simpson was a regular visitor to The Haçienda. The UK’s first acid-house single was a groundbreaking release and a significant precursor to the fast-developing Madchester scene.
The Modern Age
The Strokes (2001)
Rough Trade, £25
On their debut 45, New York pretty boys The Strokes gave indie in the 2000s a much-needed shot in the arm with a return to rock ’n’ roll basics. Sure, it was retro, but their reference points – specifically The Velvet Underground – were everlastingly cool, and they wouldn’t be seen dead in an ill-fitting charity-shop plaid shirt.
Bikini Kill (1993)
Kill Rock Stars, £15
Bikini Kill, led by Kathleen Hanna, were radical feminist pioneers of the riot-grrrl movement in thex 1990s, and a socially charged punk-rock force to be reckoned with. Rebel Girl is the scene’s most emblematic 45. Former Runaway Joan Jett produced the track as well as contributing backing vocals and guitar.
You Send Me
Sam Cooke (1957)
With this joyously romantic self-penned ballad, Sam Cooke opened up his brand of sweet Southern soul to a mainstream pop audience. He was one of the first black artists to hold such strong crossover appeal, and his gliding delivery has subsequently proved a strong influence on countless scores of performers.
Roxy Music (1972)
Musical futurists Roxy Music ushered in a new age of art-pop with their ultra-stylised debut 45. The perfect antidote to the lumpy 70s, Virginia Plain was gleefully artful, glamorous and otherworldly all in the right proportions. The original ‘Virginia Plain’ was actually a painting by Ferry, from his art-school days.
The Human League (1978)
Human League spearheaded the anti-rock New Pop movement of the early 80s, but their debut single came from a darker, more experimental place. Phil Oakey introduces the 45 by quoting the last words of mass murderer Gary Gilmore – “Okay, ready, let’s do it”, – before bringing up the subject of silkworm farming.
Release The Bats
The Birthday Party (1981)
Written as a self-parody of the band’s links with the emerging goth scene, the bass-driven pisstake Release The Bats ended up being adopted as one of the genre’s defining anthems. Nick Cave has since dismissed the association, but not before inspiring dark legions of would-be vampires to pick up a guitar.
Essex boys Blur butted up against the all-pervading US grunge scene of the day with a snotty brass-filled slice of British art-school pop. Despite being overlooked at the time, this milestone 45 is now regarded as one of Britpop’s very first singles, along with Suede’s The Drowners, released two months later.
My Boy Lollipop
Millie Small became Jamaica’s first global recording star when her infectious proto-reggae version of a little-known doo-wop number hit No. 2 on both sides of the pond. It opened the floodgates for a ska invasion of the UK.
New Hormones, £60
After borrowing cash from friends and family, the Buzzcocks were the first punk band to release a self-financed 45 on their own independent imprint. It was a statement of punk’s DIY spirit and inspired a flurry of small labels to follow suit.
Pump Up The Volume
This landmark cut-and-paste collaboration between Colourbox and A.R. Kane, two groups both signed to indie label 4AD, is a milestone in the development of UK dance music. It was the first time a hardcore DJ record aimed at the dancefloor, without the faintest trace of traditional song structure, became a chart hit.
Black Sabbath (1970)
Black Sabbath had near-enough invented the heavy-metal genre with their first album and, just four months later, they were back in the studio working on the follow-up. The album’s lead single, Paranoid, was written at the last minute in the studio and was the heaviest 45 to reach the upper echelons of the UK charts, peaking at No. 4.
The Jesus And Mary Chain (1984)
JAMC’s thrilling debut 45 Upside Down on Creation was a game-changer in the world of indie, fusing waves of cochlear-crushing feedback with Phil Spectorish girl-group melody. It paved the way for pop and noise to coexist and was a pivotal influence on celebrated shoegaze bands such as My Bloody Valentine.
Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats (1951)
It may say Jackie Brenston on the record label, but it was actually by Ike Turner and his band. In 1991, after a great deal of debate, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame recognised it as the first rock ’n’ roll song ever recorded. Turner was in jail at the time for cocaine possession, so his daughter accepted the award.
Hong Kong Garden
Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978)
Polydor, £30 (with gatefold sleeve)
While the band’s punk credentials were unimpeachable – they sat on the sofa during the Grundy show – the music they created quickly outstripped the genre. Released in August 1978, Hong Kong Garden was a sublime slice of 7″ vinyl.
No Woman No Cry
Bob Marley and the wailers (1975)
1975 was the year the UK mainstream was finally ready for reggae, and its global ambassador was Bob Marley. This breakthrough 45 was taken from that year’s Live! At The Lyceum. Marley gave the songwriting credits to Vincent Ford, a friend who ran a soup kitchen in Trench Town.
This Charming Man
The Smiths (1983)
Rough Trade, £15
Manchester’s Morrissey and Marr reclaimed guitar pop in the 80s and, with its chiming guitar and witty wordsmithery, their second single set the stylistic template for a new generation of indie bands. Tales of jumped-up pantry boys on hillsides desolate had rarely sounded so appealing.
The 22-minute repetitive synthscape of Kraftwerk’s fourth album was edited down to a radio-friendly three minutes or so. The Dusseldorfians’ paean to Germany’s motorways unexpectedly became not only a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, but also a highly influential touchstone in the way electronic music was to develop.
Chuck Berry (1955)
The pioneering Chuck Berry started playing his own idiosyncratic brand of country music for black audiences and ended up inventing rock ’n’ roll. Obviously, it’s not quite as simple as that, but his debut single for Chess – a song, fittingly enough, about cars and girls – was a portentous slice of everything to come.
The Damned (1976)
The Damned may have been the jokers in punk’s pack, but they got their ragged arses in gear to release the genre’s first 45. Hitting the shops in October 1976, New Rose is a gobsmacking ball of manic energy thrust forward by Rat Scabies’ banging drums and Brian James’ scratchy guitar.
David Bowie (1972)
RCA, £60 (with picture sleeve)
At the behest of his record-label bosses, Bowie’s Starman was a last-minute addition to the Ziggy Stardust album. An androgynously provocative performance on Top Of The Pops to promote the 45 not only led to Bowie’s commercial breakthrough, but went a long way towards blurring the lines between what was weird and what was normal.
What’d I Say
Ray Charles With His Orchestra (1959)
One of soul’s earliest milestone 45s, the wildly influential What’d I Say was improvised live onstage by Charles and his backing singers, The Raelettes. The call-and-response style was inspired by the church music that Brother Ray was brought up on, but the “sweet sounds of love”, as he put it, certainly were not.
(We’re gonna) Rock Around The Clock
Bill Haley And His Comets (1955)
Rock ’n’ roll’s avuncular founder Bill Haley’s fusion of country and R&B whipped the youngsters up into a state of frenzied excitement on both sides of the pond. (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock was a ground-zero single that ushered in a new music-industry era.
Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five (1982)
Sugar Hill, £5
The early hip-hop 45s were nothing more than party tunes full of self-congratulatory boasting, but The Message’s blossoming brand of social commentary opened up fresh vistas.
The Fat Man
Fats Domino (1950)
The Second World War was not long over when New Orleans native Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino was committing his own embryonic version of rock ’n’ roll to vinyl. Years before the phrase had even been coined, his stripped-down boogie-woogie piano and smutty lyrics blazed a trail for others to follow. The Fat Man was released the same year the 45 format appeared.
Rock Island Line
The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group (1955)
Lonnie Donegan’s unfeasibly rapid, almost punk, version of the traditional American folk song played a big part in triggering the skiffle craze in the UK. Following its release, legions of would-be rockstars picked up DIY guitars: including a young John Lennon and even younger Jimmy Page.
Aretha Franklin (1967)
The Queen Of Soul perfectly rearranged Otis Redding’s 1965 hit single and reappropriated it, turning it into a powerful feminist anthem with a global message. Recorded with her sisters Erma and Carolyn on backing vocals, Aretha’s version added the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” chorus and the fantastic “sock it to me” refrain.
You Really Got Me
The Kinks (1964)
On The Kinks’ breakthrough hit, it was mad axeman Dave who nipped briefly out of his elder brother’s shadow to lay down one of rock’s most influential riffs. His distorted solo was the heaviest yet witnessed on a UK 45, and lays claim to being a forerunner of the heavy-metal scene that was lurking around the corner.
Rebel Without A Pause
Public Enemy (1987)
Def Jam, £8
Rebel Without A Pause was the first single lifted off the It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back album. Faster beats, a screaming horn loop and textures aplenty created an intense sample-delic wall of noise that was further into people’s faces than ever before: a powerful mix of innovation and aggression.
I Feel Love
Donna Summer (1977)
A spectacularly influential 45, electronic dance music began with producer Giorgio Moroder’s seductive collaboration with breathy disco queen Donna Summer. According to legend, Brian Eno excitedly played the record to David Bowie at Hansa Studios in Berlin, and promptly declared: “I have heard the sound of the future.” He wasn’t wrong.
Mr. Tambourine Man
The Byrds (1965)
The Byrds upped the jingle-jangle factor on their electric cover of Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man and established the folk-rock genre. Their version so impressed the songwriter, he said: “You can even dance to that!”
Smells Like Teen Spirit
An obvious but unavoidable entry, almost overnight Smells Like Teen Spirit transformed 80s outsider rock into the mainstream music of the 90s. Rock had a new godhead, in the shape of Kurt Cobain, with swinging Seattle its epicentre. The song itself owed a lot to the Pixies and Boston’s More Than A Feeling.
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag
James Brown And The Famous Flames (1965)
This marks the emergence of The Godfather Of Soul’s signature sound and is one of the first funk records to make an indentation on the charts. Brown’s heavy use of percussive rhythm changed the direction of R&B – and led to some pretty nifty dance moves while he was at it.
Like A Rolling Stone
Bob Dylan (1965)
Clocking in at six minutes, Bob Dylan’s monumental single was like no other 45 that came before it. With its densely expressionistic lyrics and bluesy barroom groove, it was a work of high art and the very antithesis of ephemeral pop. As Bruce Springsteen said: “It sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind.”
Elvis Presley (1954)
The King’s first single hit the record shops in Memphis on 19 July 1954 and its iconic aftershock is still felt today. His hillbilly version of the Arthur Crudup song was fresh, exciting, sexy and was the music post-war youth had been waiting for. Elvis was still a teenager when he first got behind the mic at Sun Studios – he was about to redefine popular music.
I Want To Hold Your Hand
The Beatles (1964)
The first Beatles 45 to be recorded on new-fangled four-track equipment, I Want To Hold Your Hand signified a spike in the sophistication of Lennon and McCartney as songwriters.
Be My Baby
The Ronettes (1963)
Clearly unhinged, but undeniably a genius, Phil Spector was one of the first producers to realise a recording studio could be an instrument in itself. The ‘Wall Of Sound’ he created with his wife/muse Ronnie has held a huge sway over pop music ever since. Brian Wilson believes Be My Baby to be the greatest 45 ever made.
The Beach Boys (1966)
It may have cost a pretty bundle to record, but Brian Wilson’s sunshine symphony sanctioned a new wave of musical experimentation and also triggered the onset of both psychedelic pop and, to a degree, progressive rock. It also helped define the recording studio as the place where creative heights could be scaled outside of the live arena.