These Are the Songs That Never End
Sugar Hill Gang, Cat Power, Bob Dylan, Umm Kulthum

Sugarhill Gang, Cat Power, Bob Dylan, Umm Kulthum. Photos: Getty Images/Matador Records

Ever since the length of a 10-inch phonograph record playing at 78 RPM set the standard, people have assumed that the default length of a song is, you know, three or four minutes, something like that. Of course, a lot of pre-recording-era songs were longer–sometimes much longer. One of the Child Ballads, the fifteenth-century showstopper “A Gest of Robyn Hode,” goes on for a staggering 456 verses.

Still, it’s always a bold move when certain kinds of musicians record songs that crack, or smash, the ten-minute wall. It’s not terribly surprising when jam bands or progressive-rock acts go on at enormous length, obviously. The current champion in that category would probably be the Flaming Lips‘ 24-hour-long “7 Skies H3.” Here’s the first six hours of it.

Monologues that don’t have to rhyme or scan, like Arlo Guthrie‘s 18-minute-plus “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” can go on for a while too. The same goes for dance mixes, like the Orb‘s 39:57 mix of their 1992 single “Blue Room,” which became the longest track ever to make the British singles charts. (The rule, in those days, was that any recording over 40 minutes long was counted as an album for chart purposes.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lz8EKpAymFM

And musicians whose art is built around improvisation or grooves often play a single number at great length. (There’s a probably apocryphal story about John Coltrane telling Miles Davis that he’d just played an epic solo because he couldn’t figure out how to stop, and Davis advising him to try taking the horn out of his mouth.) The legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum often drew out a single song for two hours or more. Let’s just take a moment to watch this classic performance by her, shall we? And by “a moment,” I mean “56 minutes.”

But singer-songwriters have it a little tougher: they have to remember all the words of the really long ones, and they also have to sustain their audience’s interest with those words. A lot of famously long lyric-centered songs are actually not so lengthy as all that. Gordon Lightfoot‘s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“? Six and a half minutes; that’s nothin’. Don McLean‘s “American Pie”? A paltry 8:33. Now, sardonic folksinger Phil Ochs‘ 13-minute-and-13-second song “When In Rome,” from his 1968 album Tape from California: that’s a bit more of a challenge.

“Tempest,” the title track of Bob Dylan‘s recent album, is an account of the sinking of the Titanic that clocks in at 13:54. But it’s not his longest song: that would be 1997′s “Highlands,” from Time Out of Mind, at 16:31. (It is, however, his longest lyric, beating out 1975′s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” which squeezes 888 words into a parsimonious 8:51; a slightly longer alternate version of “Lily” appears below.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIsnU4GB0iE

The singer-songwriters of the late ’60s and early ’70s occasionally took it as a challenge to fill an entire album side, or close to one, with a single track. In 1969, Al Stewart‘s “Love Chronicles” — a confessional document of the history of his love life — ran 18:04. It appears below, and is apparently the first mainstream rock record to use a particular word; see if you can guess which! (Hint: Stewart rhymes it with “plucking.”)

Half of Cat Stevens‘ 1973 album Foreigner was his 18:19 “Foreigner Suite”; it got a second life, of sorts, a few years ago, when Coldplay‘s “Viva la Vida” prompted some legal issues over its alleged resemblance to the final few minutes of Stevens’ song. Here’s a live performance from 1973.

The next wave of artists who made a point of how deep their word-hoard could get were early rappers: the full-length version of the Sugarhill Gang‘s “Rapper’s Delight” was nearly 15 minutes long. But that was the first in a tradition of very long posse cuts. Jimmy Spicer‘s 1980 “Rapper’s Delight” ripoff “Adventures of Super Rhyme (Rap)” is a solo performance, and 14:15 long. Bonus points for the fake Transylvanian accent.

Occasionally, individual rappers still attempt to make a really, really long track; Lil Wayne‘s 35-minute “10,000 Bars” (below) would probably set the record on its own, but it’s arguably more a mixtape than a single piece.

Indie-rock songwriters don’t push their songs into triple overtime very often, but when they do, the results are sometimes spectacular. Nick Cave concluded his 2002 album Nocturama with a 14:45 blowout, “Babe, I’m On Fire” — for which the John Hillcoat-directed clip below might be the longest music video that’s actually entirely devoted to a single song.

Cat Power‘s much more relaxed 18:20 epic “Willie Deadwilder,” recorded during the sessions for her 2003 album You Are Free, turned up as a bonus track with her DVD Speaking for Trees a bit later. (She recorded a truncated version of it as “Willie,” on The Greatest, a few years later.)

But the endurance championship belongs to Chris Butler, best known as the Waitresses’ songwriter; his 1996 song “The Devil Glitch” clocked in at 69 minutes, and was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest recorded pop song. The best thing about “The Devil Glitch” is that it’s still growing. Butler’s been soliciting additions to it for years; now known as “The Major Glitch,” the expanded version of the song is hosted at http://majorglitch.net, and currently runs over three hours. If you simply don’t have the time, he’s also recorded a short version that’s barely five minutes long, below. But what fun is that?

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