Listening to Sandinista! recently got me thinking about 3-record sets. Kind of like the recording industry’s version of a play having two intermissions, they can be challenging, intimidating, irritating, and downright scary. They can, in rare instances, succeed.
Often, it’s hard enough for an artist to fill a double album (or sometimes even a single one); three is really pushing it. There aren’t a lot of triple albums out there that aren’t either greatest hits collections and other such retrospective packages or, more commonly, recorded live.
As with most questionable musical trends, the 1970s mark the heyday of triple albums. The Woodstock soundtrack that came out in 1970 kicked off a long string of live, 3-record sets, by everyone from the Band (The Last Waltz, 1978) to Yes (Yessongs, 1973) to Wings (Wings over America, 1976) to Santana (Lotus, 1974) to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends, 1974). Live charity shows that were famously turned into 3-record sets include George Harrison and Friends’ Grammy-winning Concert for Bangladesh (1971) and the multi-artist No Nukes (1979).
I don’t know about you, but I was never very excited about live albums. Most are double records, which for me is too much. (I can think of one live album I like: Cheap Trick at Budokan , and that’s a single disc.) The fact that these 3-record whoppers tend to run for around two hours, what with all their drum solos, tuning up, and between-song chatter, doesn’t make me want to run out and listen to any of them from start to finish…even if I like the bands.
(I seem to recall Krusty the Clown famously overstayed his welcome at the Simpsons’ by wanting to play The Concert for Bangladesh in its entirety long after dinner [see 11 minutes in].)
The first big triple album by a solo artist, and probably the most successful ever, was All Things Must Pass by George Harrison (1970). It’s one of the rare studio-recorded 3-record sets, though album number three is free-form group jams. Sandinista! by the Clash (1980) similarly loads its third record with dubs and experiments most of which we could live without. There’s some good stuff on there, and it’s kind of nice to see the band having some fun goofing off; but really, this, like most 3-record sets, could have been a better double album.
There are a few 3-record sets that manage to fill all three albums with good stuff. Decade by Neil Young (1977) is great from start to finish; but as a greatest hits collection, it ought to be (which is not to say all greatest hits albums are full of great hits. Most aren’t. So, good going, Neil!). This was before CDs, so before box sets. Now everyone’s got a 3-or-more-disc collection in a box, but it’s rare to find one that doesn’t contain at least a disc’s worth of filler. Given that CDs typically run longer than LPs, a 3-CD set is usually something like a 4- or 5-record set.
My favorite 3-CD set that isn’t a live or greatest hits collection is 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields (1999). It’s a little gimmicky, sure, but there are a whole lot of good songs on there, a few great ones, and no really bad ones. (They’ve also included a song starting with every letter except J.)
Chicago had a thing for multi-album sets: their first three releases were double albums, and their fourth was a live, 4-record set, Chicago at Carnegie Hall (1971). It was a gutsy move. The box of records sold pretty well, and hardcore Chicago fans loved it. The reviews were pretty mixed, though, and even some members of the group have gone on record saying it was just too much.
Their next album, Chicago V (1972), was wildly successful, probably because people were relieved it wouldn’t take all day to listen to it. It sold more copies than anything they’d released thus far and gave them their first top-3 hit, Saturday in the Park, but I wonder if it made as much money. It was a single record.