By Alan Gregson
For many years I’ve had a love of long songs, not just your five minute 12 seconds extended versions with an extra middle eight and chorus, I’m talking epic storytelling songs or lengthy and complex instrumentals. Songs that need at least seven or eight minutes to tell their story, tunes with plenty of room for the musicians to stretch their legs, show off their new effects pedals and generally do some fancy noodling.
So here’s my journey into epic tracks, enjoy the ride.
In the interests of consistency, all running times below are taken from Discogs…
It all started when I had a paper round. Twice a week, I would deliver 250 free newspapers around a nearby council estate. A decent Walkman with good quality headphones was necessary to keep me sane as I trudged around the estate, rain, hail or shine.
This would be around 1982. I always had a few cassettes in my pocket for the round, which would usually take a couple of hours.
At first, my favourite tape was Queen’s Greatest Hits, which opens with “Bohemian Rhapsody”. At three seconds under six minutes, this is a pretty long song. As it tells a story, it keeps your interest, along with the ever-changing time signature to keep you on your toes.
In the days before Spotify and Tidal, radio was the way we found music, and radio stations want to play as many songs as possible, so they preferred songs to be around three minutes long. Short and to the point. So “Bohemian Rhapsody” was different, twice the length of most other songs I heard on the radio.
Around this time, I discovered Dire Straits and bought a copy of Love Over Gold, and what a revelation this album was, opening as it does with the truly epic “Telegraph Road”, 14 minutes and 20 seconds long, a small town history set to rock music.
I remember one month Britannia Music had The Best Of The Doors on offer. This album held two particularly lengthy songs within, “When The Music’s Over” at 11 minutes and “The End” at 11 minutes 43 seconds. The Doors were a new sound to me, simultaneously epic and sinister. I didn’t know music could be so complex.
Electronic music had interested me for a while. Jean-Michel Jarre was my favourite at the time. “Oxygene Part V” was particularly expansive at over 11 minutes long, but it didn’t really do much, just kind of meandered along for five minutes, picked up for another five minutes then died away with some crashing waves. “Magnetic Fields Part 1” (18:07) and “Ethnicolor” (11:41) off Zoolook are similarly spacious tracks.
CD must have been a boon to people like Jarre because not only did they now have a pure digital medium to deliver their music, but they no longer had the 20-minute time limit per side, and Jarre took advantage of this on his 1990 album Waiting For Cousteau, with the title track clocking up a quite magnificent 46 minutes 53 seconds.
With my interest in electronic music piqued by Jarre, I started exploring other similar artists, like the German bands Kraftwerk with their massively influential “Autobahn” (22:30) from 1974, and Tangerine Dream. While much of Kraftwerk’s output is in the four- to six-minute range, Tangerine Dream went with a single track per side on most of their early albums. From the mid Seventies, they started to get a lot of soundtrack work and moved to shorter tracks but their best work is definitely the tracks where they take their time, cruise along for a dozen or so minutes finding their feet, then carry on for another ten minutes, just to see how it feels. “Mojave Plan” (19:55) is one I still listen to a lot. This is side one of their 1982 album White Eagle, and I’ve always thought of it as being the soundtrack to a road movie. It’s awesome and I suggest you pop along to your favourite streaming site, find it and play it right away, I’ll wait…
See I told you, amazing stuff.
While I’m on a German rock tip, I’ve got to mention Can, who are masters at filling a whole side with a single track. For me the rhythmic, hypnotic beats and mantra-like vocals of “Yoo Doo Right” from their debut album Monster Movie are a perfect introduction to their work. At 20 minutes 14 seconds, “Yoo Doo Right” is pretty long as it is, but legend has it that this track was edited down from a six-hour long recording. Now that’s something I’d like to listen to given a spare afternoon.
On the subject of hypnotic rhythms, I think the time is right to touch on Afrobeat, and more specifically Fela Kuti, the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, polygamy enthusiast, human-rights activist and general thorn in the side of the government. In between spells in prison, Fela was persecuted by the police throughout his life, but he recorded some of the greatest Afrobeat albums, fusing African rhythms, jazz and funk. Many of Kuti’s albums just contained a single track per side. Among his best work are “No Agreement” (15:35), “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” (13:45) and “Army Arrangement” (16:31). All these tracks can be found on albums of the same name.
Funk is a source of some extremely lengthy tracks. I was reminded of one amazing track the other day that actually prompted this article. George Clinton led two fantastic funk groups, Parliament and Funkadelic, and they both recorded some spectacular and lengthy funk workouts. The track I’m going to list is “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic (10:20), which has some absolutely amazing guitar work by Eddie Hazel, obviously influenced by Jimi Hendrix, but equally it influenced Prince.
Prince majored in funk, but covered soul, jazz and psychedelic pop. Most of his tracks are three- to six-minutes long but he stretched his legs occasionally. The full-length version of “Purple Rain” is a case in point at eight minutes 45 seconds, with a nice extended guitar solo. With Around The World In A Day, Prince touched on psychedelia and launched his own Paisley Park label. The album itself wasn’t remarkable for lengthy songs, but the 12” single of “America” was stretched and reworked with several long instrumental breaks. It plays at 33rpm to accommodate its 21 minutes 46 seconds running time.
The last Prince track I’ll mention is from his little-known Madhouse side project. Madhouse was a jazz funk band with most of the music played by Prince, with help from his regular collaborators Eric Leeds on sax and flute, Levi Seacer Jr on guitar and Matt Fink on keyboards. Madhouse released two albums, 8 featuring tracks named “1” to “8”, and 16, with tracks named “9” to “16”. The last track from 8 – I’ll let you guess the name – is almost ambient, ten minutes and five seconds of flute, keyboards and drums, with some heavy breathing thrown in. It’s on Spotify if you want to give it a try.
Prince leads us nicely to Hendrix, who performed many a lengthy guitar workout, chief among which is obviously “Voodoo Chile” (14:59). Hendrix pretty much took ownership of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”, to such an extent that he’s sometimes incorrectly credited as the writer on cover versions. There are live versions that clock in around 13 minutes but I can’t find any official releases with times longer than five minutes, so forget I mentioned it in this paragraph.
But I do have an amazing version of “All Along The Watchtower” by the late, blind guitarist Jeff Healey and his band that clocks in at 11 minutes 15 seconds.
I suppose from a Dylan cover, our next port of call is the Nobel laureate formally known as Robert Allen Zimmerman. Dylan has a number of great, and long, storytelling songs, in no particular order: “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” (11:23) and “Visions Of Johanna” (7:33) off Blonde On Blonde; “Joey” (11:05) and “Hurricane” (8:33) off Desire; “Desolation Row” (11:18) off Highway 61 Revisited; “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (7:30) from Bringing It All Back Home; and “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” (8:50) off Blood On The Tracks. This is just his first ten years or so.
One reliable source of extremely long songs is the live album, where the band just takes the ball and runs with it until they either run out of steam or road, like Neil Young & Crazy Horse, who took the quite long “Like A Hurricane” (8:14) from the 1977 album American Stars ’N Bars and made it even more majestic at 14 minutes and one second on the 1991 live album Weld. Or Frank Zappa, who turned “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” (2:06) from Apostrophe (’) into 20 minutes and 16 seconds of improvisation and audience participation on 1988’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol 1.
Zappa has a ready supply of many long tracks, such as “Billy The Mountain” (24:42), a song about a mountain that manages to assert his image rights and becomes very wealthy from postcard sales, or “Watermelon In Easter Hay” (10:00) from Joe’s Garage Act III, one of the greatest guitar solos I’ve ever heard, or the brilliant reggae cover of “Stairway To Heaven” (9:20) from the 1991 live album The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, an artefact of his 1988 band who imploded before the end of the Broadway The Hard Way tour.
Speaking of great guitar solos, what about great riffs? “Marquee Moon” (10:40) by Television springs to mind. In the time of punk, this immensely long track was full of jazz-inspired interplay between the two lead guitars, so it’s essentially anti-punk.
From New York’s Television, I’ll move to New York’s Velvet Underground and “Sister Ray” (17:00) from White Light/White Heat. Joy Division regularly performed this song, and it appeared on their posthumous release Still (7:34), recorded at The Moonlight Club, London on 2 April 1980 (not 3 April as credited on the album). New Order also performed it regularly, with two recordings appearing on official releases; a seven minute 30 seconds version recorded in São Paulo in December 1988 and released on a 1989 compilation called Like A Girl, I Want You To Keep Coming, and a nine minute 21 seconds version recorded by the BBC at Glastonbury in 1987 and released on the album BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert.
New Order, ahh New Order, my very favourite band. They’re the purveyors of some lovely long tracks, including three extremely long tracks. Let’s start with the obvious, “Blue Monday”, the biggest-selling 12” of all time, also one of the worst business decisions ever, allegedly losing 2p a copy due to the complex die-cut sleeve. It’s also 7 minutes and 29 seconds, so nice and long. “The Perfect Kiss” (8:46) was long in its original form but the live version performed on the seminal Jonathan Demme-directed video is a very tidy nine minutes and 56 seconds. For Factory Records completists, the video for “The Perfect Kiss” has its own catalogue number, FAC 321.
These two tracks, though, are mere minnows compared to the next three tracks. First up, “Elegia”. In 1985, John Hughes asked New Order to record three tracks for the film Pretty In Pink. Disappointingly, you only hear tiny snatches of “Shellshock”, “Thieves Like Us” and “Elegia”. “Shellshock” and “Thieves Like Us” received 12” single release, and an edit of “Elegia” appeared on New Order’s third album Low-Life but we had to wait 27 years for the Retro compilation (and buy the limited edition five-CD set instead of the regular four-CD release) to experience “Elegia” in all its 17 minutes 31 seconds glory. And it is glorious, go on, it’s on YouTube, give it a listen.
“Elegia”’s running time is eclipsed by “Video 5-8-6” (22:25). This was an experimental piece originally composed for the opening of the Haçienda nightclub. Elements of the track became “5-8-6” and “Ultraviolence” on Power, Corruption & Lies. The track itself was released in two parts as “Prime 5-8-6” on the cassette magazine Feature Mist in December 1982. It was then re-released intact as a CD single in 1997.
The longest New Order track was recorded as the incidental music for an exhibition of Peter Saville’s work at Manchester’s Urbis gallery in 2003. The track, cunningly titled “The Peter Saville Show Soundtrack”, is 30 minutes and 13 seconds and was sold as a CD single at the exhibition.
From New Order, we’ll touch on another Factory artist, The Durutti Column. Their music is hard to pigeonhole: abstract, ambient, jazz, who knows? Whatever it is, Vini Reilly produces some of the best guitar playing you’ll ever hear, not flashy, but simply stunning. Anyway, their fourth Factory album consisted of two tracks, “Without Mercy I” (18:46) and “Without Mercy 2” (19:35).
As I touched on ambient with The Durutti Column, I’ll bring in The Penguin Café Orchestra, Simon Jeffes’ avant-garde orchestra that covered many genres. This track quietly ploughs the ambient furrow, and while its playing time is quite long, it also has an extremely long title, “The Sound Of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter” (11:41). In another article for British Ideas Corporation, I mentioned Allegri’s “Miserere, Mei Deus” and said it was the most beautiful piece of music ever recorded. Well, “The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter” runs it a close second. It’s on You Tube, you know the drill.
While we’re on a kind of semi-classical tip, I think I’ll bring in Gavin Bryars. “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” started life as a field recording Bryars made in 1971 as part of a documentary of life on the streets in the Elephant and Castle and Waterloo. When he listened back to the recordings, he noticed a section of it included a homeless guy singing a snatch of an unknown song, and it was perfectly in tune with his piano and nicely looped in 13 bars. Bryars worked on this track for a number of years, layering music over the song loop. The first release was limited to 25 minutes, a side of an album, but the advent of CD gave Bryars free reign, and the ultimate version is 74 minutes and 43 seconds, split into six parts, with and without strings, with and without orchestra, and with and without Tom Waits. Again, it’s on YouTube and it’s utterly beautiful.
One of the most famous long instrumentals is “Tubular Bells (Part One)” which is over 25 minutes long. This is the track that kickstarted both Mike Oldfield’s and Richard Branson’s careers, as Tubular Bells was the first release on Virgin Records. Seventeen years after Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield fell out with Virgin and wanted to leave but he was contractually obliged to deliver one more album, so he gave them Amarok, a single-track LP lasting 60 minutes and four seconds. It’s not an easy listening album. “Amarok” is the longest single track in my collection.
Let’s step back in time to 1984, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Frankie’s label ZTT famously released so many versions of “Two Tribes”, the Official Charts Company was forced to change the rules. Most of the “Two Tribes” remixes were quite indulgent, extended mixes, some running in excess of ten minutes, so really they breach my rule against extended remixes. One Frankie track I will include, though, is the album version of “Welcome To The Pleasuredome”. This is a genuinely interesting track, and it’s 13 minutes 38 seconds.
Now we’ll zoom forward to 1989 and The Orb, and a track with an even longer title than the Penguin Café Orchestra I previously mentioned. “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre of The Ultraworld (Loving You)” has had a number of incarnations. The original release from 1989 was 19 minutes seven seconds, the 1990 re-release was 19 minutes 15 seconds, while the live recording released in 1993 was 18 minutes 52 seconds. The longest version I can find is from the 1989 Peel Session at 20 minutes 14 seconds.
I mentioned that Frankie Goes To Hollywood forced the Official Chart Company to change their rules. One of the new rules was a maximum running time for a single. For a CD single consisting of versions of the same song, the maximum running time is 40 minutes. The Orb took advantage of this with “Blue Room”, which in CD single form is a single track that is 39 minutes and 58 seconds long. The 12” single is two tracks totalling 37 minutes 46 seconds. You may remember The Orb appearing on Top Of The Pops playing chess whilst the 7” edit of “Blue Room” played to a bemused audience of pop kids.
I’m going to finish this run through of lengthy tracks with a couple of unusual inclusions from William S Burroughs. The first is “The Junky’s Christmas” (15:54), a spoken-word story set to music by The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy. There is a film version that runs to 21 minutes 27 seconds. The film is produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Nick Donkin. The second William S Burroughs track is “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him” (9:41), another spoken-word piece, this time with accompaniment provided by Kurt Cobain and released on a single-sided 10” single. The blank side is laser etched with Burrough’s and Cobain’s signatures.
So there you have it, my journey through some of the longest tracks in my record collection. I hope there’s a few tracks that interest you, and if you were to plug them all into Spotify (assuming they’re all available online, I’ve not checked) it would make a playlist around 15 hours long, with an average track length of 17:10.