It's funny how we've arrived at an understanding that the three minute pop song lasts, well, three minutes. That films last two hours, and that novels are 300 pages. Actually that last example is interesting, as we're arguably entering a new era of the long-form literary novel with Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt, Hanya Yanagihara and Eleanor Cotton winning awards for blockbusters of up to a thousand pages in length. So, why not long songs?
The radio, primarily. If you want to get your song played, three minutes is the way to go. Actually going back to the 60s, two minutes was the norm for radio play, and there are few early Beatles recordings that push up to the three mark. In fact Revolution 9 was pretty much the only example of the group attempting a long song, and that was so far outside the framework of how they operated to be discounted as an outlier.
The early 'seventies might be regarded as the heyday of the long form. Prog rock took itself pretty damn seriously, so a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-verse-chorus structure was never going to be an adequate vessel for Tales of Topographic Oceans. This particular album by Yes starts with the twenty minute The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn) and climaxes with Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil), clocking in at 21:37. No wonder keyboard player Rick Wakeman used to order a takeaway curry to arrive halfway through concerts in those days.
This episode showcases long form songs that neither outstay their welcome or concern themselves with mediaeval kings and the mythos of the Silmarillion. Marquee Moon by Television shows that prog and punk could be blended to brilliant effect and indeed the most staggering thing about Marquee Moon is that it always feels terse and economical. Tracks by Fiery Furnaces, DJ Shadow, the Microphones, Sonic Youth and Car Seat Headrest also demonstrate that experimentation tends to require a broader canvas on which to operate. Of course, this might require the listener to show a little more patience than usual. But the rewards are worthwhile.
Teenage Riot, Sonic Youth
Tropical Ice Land / Rub Alcohol Blues / We Got Back The Plague, Fiery Furnaces
Changeling, DJ Shadow
The Glow, The Microphones
Marquee Moon, Television
The Ballad of Costa Concordia, Car Seat Headrest