The term “multisided record” can be confusing. Vinyl records are by definition multi-sided, as they have two sides, each engraved with a groove running from the edge to the inside of the record. However, there are albums that break away from this norm and adopt a design as surprising as it is rare. Who other than the Monty Pythons and their zany humor to challenge conventions and decide that their vinyl should have two grooves per side? An innovative idea created in the name of offbeat humor and the fun of confusing listeners.
In 1974, as the members of Monty Python were preparing what would be the troupe’s fourth album, Matching Tie and Handkerchief, the British comedians decided to do something unusual to disrupt the form and format of the typical vinyl record. In the BBC documentary Monty Pythons: Almost The Truth, Terry Jones explains “You’ve got a record and it goes from the outside into the middle. Why couldn’t you start at a different point and do the same thing with a concentric circle — so you wouldn’t know what you’re going to get on the record?”.
What Jones describes, and what the comedy troupe accomplished on this album, is a multisided record, LP, or single with multiple grooves cut into one side of the vinyl. This means, quite simply, that the listener will have a totally different experience depending on which groove the stylus is placed in.
While Jones thought he had come up with a brand new idea, he soon realized that record companies had been making multisided vinyls for decades, primarily as a promotional tool to sell singles. While Monty Python were pioneers with their multisided record, this was probably the first time a comedy album was intended to confuse listeners because, naturally, they didn’t tell anyone.
Cutting two grooves into one side of a record might seem like a straightforward operation, but according to Gus Elg, sound engineer and owner of Sky Onion Mastering in Portland, Oregon, it takes a lot of precision. In addition to spacing out the first groove so that a second groove can fit, the master must be calibrated in a way that limits the size of each groove.
“Most professional lathes have some sort of computer that automatically adjusts for the groove spacing based on the level of the audio,” says Elg. “When the music gets really loud, the spacing increases, and when it gets quiet, it packs the grooves tightly. You have to bypass that if you’re going to cut a double groove record. You need the grooves to be consistent for the whole side so they don’t run into each other.”
In addition to reducing the amount of sound that can be delivered by a double-grooved disc, it also has an effect on quality. Tighter grooves result in a less dynamic sound reproduction.
But even though they don’t have the same sound as standard records and are far from offering audiophile sound quality, multisided records are a fun concept that will delight curious vinyl collectors. Here is a selection of 10 albums that explore this concept:
Puzzle Plates (1898)
The Puzzle Plates produced by the London Gramophone Company in 1898 and 1899 were two-track records that combined several pieces from the company’s catalog.
Fortune Telling Puzzle Record (1901)
One of the earliest examples of a three-track side is a fortune-telling record from 1901. It is a multi-track record with three tracks that run throughout the record. It is titled “Fortune Telling Puzzle Record a song and two Fortunes, See if you can find them”.
Laura Scudder – Magic Record (1969)
Produced by George Garabedian, Laura Scudder’s Magic Record was offered as a promotional gift. Each side contained three different songs that were played randomly depending on the position of the stylus.
The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973)
The British comedy troupe’s album features two grooves on the B side of its original pressing. Concocted to confuse listeners, this idea may not have been as original as the Monty Python thought at the time.
Rush – Rush ‘N’ Roulette (1981)
This record, released in 1981 to promote Rush’s live album, Exit Stage Left, features excerpts from a half-dozen different tracks on each side. “Simply place your tonearm on the edge of this record,” the record sleeve reads, “and when you let Rush ‘n’ Roulette spin there’s an equal chance that any of the six featured Rush songs will be heard.”
Kate Bush – The Sensual World (1989)
The single The Sensual World by English artist Kate Bush was pressed on an LP, with one track containing the standard vocal version and a parallel track featuring an instrumental version.
Fine Young Cannibals – Good Thing (1989)
Which mix should be included on the album when the artist can’t decide? The Fine Young Cannibals found the answer in 1989 with their single Good Thing, which was pressed onto a multisided record that contained two different mixes of the same song.
Tool – Opiate (1992)
The 12″ version of progressive metal band Tool’s EP Opiate features a track containing either the track The Gaping Lotus Experience or the live version of Cold and Ugly depending on where the needle is placed.
Mr. Bungle – Disco Volante (1995)
In keeping with the strange nature of the band, the first vinyl version of Mr. Bungle’s Disco Volante album featured a multi-groove track in the middle of the A side. So anyone who wanted to listen to Carry Stress in the Jaw or The Secret Song had to find the exact placement of the needle to do so.
Jack White – Lazaretto (2014)
The “ultra edition” of Jack White’s solo album includes all sorts of additional features. Known for his love of vinyl and his creative approach to the medium, the former White Stripe offers here an album with two tracks hidden under the center label (and each played at a different speed). This album also features a hologram etched into the vinyl as well as locked grooves.