When I worked for the classic-rock station here in Madison, we would occasionally have “long song weekends,” and we even created a MySpace page, back in the pre-Facebook era, for the Long Song Preservation Society, whose guiding principle was “if it can be said in under six minutes, is it really worth saying at all?” (The society’s “about me” blurb was written by a certain Internet writer whose work you might know.) Recently the Onion‘s AV Club wrote about Thick as a Brick and the pleasures of the very, very, very long song. This got me thinking about the long songs I have known.
I can remember hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time on WLS sometime around 1974 and thinking how strange it was for a song to last so long. (Same for the album version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which I also heard for the first time about then.) Not long after that, I started getting into prog rock, and suddenly long songs were not so unusual. If Emerson Lake & Palmer wanted to take 12 minutes to play “Take a Pebble,” it was fine with me.
The previously unknown utility of long songs quickly became apparent to me when I got my first radio job. While I was on the air at KDTH, I also had to tend the room-sized automation system that operated our FM station, D-93. Until I got the hang of changing tapes and other tasks, I would start each shift on KDTH by rounding up the longest songs I could find in the station’s library, which would give me plenty of time to do what needed to be done in the other room. The longest ones ran maybe five minutes at the outside, and even they weren’t enough sometimes. I wished I had “2112” or “Alice’s Restaurant” or “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” or “Do You Feel Like We Do,” which I knew so well from college radio.
“Do You Feel Like We Do,” which runs close to 14 minutes, was the longest song in the libraries of most of the rock stations I worked for. I cued it up one night and laughingly announced on the air, “I’m going across the street for a burger—here’s Peter Frampton.” After a trip down the hall to the restroom, I came back to find the studio line blinking. I answered and the caller said, “Wow, you really did go across the street!” How long have you been letting it ring, I wondered.
The longest song I have in my library is a bootlegged version of “The E-Street Shuffle” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, recorded live in my much-missed former home of Iowa City in 1975, which runs 24:05. (Another song from the same show, “Kitty’s Back,” clocks in at 19:20.) Also taking up a lot of time on a single track is Pat Metheny, whose “As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls” (one of the greatest song titles ever) runs 20:43. Jazz players do like to stretch out: Red Garland’s “All Morning Long” runs 20:18—and doesn’t waste a second. Jimmy Smith’s 1958 track “The Sermon” runs 20:12, and he has others that run in excess of 15 minutes. The title song from Kenny Burrell’s All Day Long lasts 18:22.
Most impressive of the long songs in my library might be Van Morrison’s “Summertime in England,” which runs 15:38 and has to be heard to be believed. Alas, all of the versions at YouTube are either live tracks or truncated—the whole thing is on the 1980 album Common One, which includes a second 15-minute track, “When Heart Is Open.” Other favorites: the Miles Davis track “All Blues,” from Kind of Blue, which runs 11:35, and Starcastle’s fabulous prog-rock “Lady of the Lake,” at 10:28.
If you have a favorite long song, please tell the whole class what it is.