Legend has it that DJs in the 70s used to spin Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute opus ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ to free up time for an extended bathroom break… or maybe that was a smoke break. The song had been edited down to 2:52 to allow for radio airplay and released as a single in July of 1968, but DJs overwhelmingly prefered to air the 17-minute monster (Hey, man, removing the seeds from a dime bag takes a little bit of time, OK?) Repeated airings of the unedited track would help sell 3 million copies of the edited version in the first 18 months of its release; the ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ album would hit #4 and become the first-ever album to be certified Platinum. Yay, drugs!
Of course, ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ has a lot more going for it than just its epic length. The music in an extended piece like ‘Vida’ has to work as a proper ‘song’ in order to appeal to listeners. With rock music in general, when you push past the limits of accepted time frames for Top 40 radio play (3:00-3:30) or, years ago, 7″ record production (3:00-5:00), and kissing Top 40 airplay goodbye, an artist had better keep things interesting. ‘Da Vida is basically a 5-minute song with a couple of extended (reeeeeally extended) solos in it, but the underlying song itself works and the solos add much to the experience. Even if you’re not stoned.
Pushing a song past the 10-minute mark is a true test of what makes a song a song. When a band decides to dedicate an entire side of their record to one ‘song’, they are often attempting a grand, artistic statement, and hoping to hold your interest and attention. Hard Rock/Heavy Prog music has its share of side-long epics… but how many of them are worth the time it takes to listen? Pack a lunch, this is going to take a while…
As the 60s became the 70s, and Psychedelic Rock evolved into Progressive Rock, the ‘side-long epic’ seemed to be the ‘in’ thing. Side Two of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ follows the same path as Iron Butterfly’s magnum opus, as the masterful ‘Echoes’ seemingly slows the rotation of the Earth by extending an already-hypnotic song into otherworldly proportions by unspooling loooooong instrumental improv sections before briefly returning to its intial song structure to wrap up. Seriously, you can get lost in the middle of this song… And there’s some stuff hiding in there that’s scarier than anything Black Sabbath ever recorded. Be careful.
Fifty percent of Yes’ 5th album, ‘Close to the Edge’, is dedicated to the album’s title track, which clocks in at 18:12. Perhaps Yes’ most acclaimed recording, ‘Close to the Edge’ is a fantastic composition, with key musical themes asserting themselves, then reappearing further into the song. The composition is divided up into four sections, which flow and morph in and out of each other so well that in the end, the experience is that of a single song. Methinks we have found our benchmark.
Yes take another crack at the enormous on their 1975 ‘Relayer’ album, with ‘The Gates of Delirium’, a 21-minute, 55-second tale of war and peace that was actually inspired by Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, a novel that has become a reference point in popular culture to any work of literature of intimidating length. ‘Gates’ breezes along pretty swiftly, although it’s lightness of tone fails to reflect the weighty subject matter related through what is likely Jon Anderson’s darkest lyric. The ‘battle’ sequences are fuision-y fun, and the whole thing lopes along in that engaging, loose ‘Yes’ kind of way, until the final section (which was lifted as the album’s single, and titled ‘Soon’), resolves the hectic near-chaos of the first two thirds.
Pink Floyd’s ‘Sine on You Crazy Diamond’ kinda works as a side-long epic; if you remove the three standard-length songs in the middle of the record and snap Parts I – V together with Parts VI – IX, you get a single work clocking in at 26:01, longer than most mastering studios would recommend for cutting a vinyl LP. Experienced as one single piece of uninterrupted music, ‘Shine On’ is an amazing work, beautifully constructed and exquisitely executed. Although composed as one continuous piece of music*, splitting it in two actually benefits the song; with the two halves separated by three unconnected songs, ‘Diamond’s recurring themes don’t wear out their welcome, and revisiting them after ‘Wish You Were Here’s swirling synth-wind fade is a blast as they re-emerge and express themselves in new ways.
*David Gilmour argued against splitting the song; he was out-voted 3 to 1.
After toying with extended run-times with ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’ in 1974, Rush go for it on their 1975 album ‘Caress of Steel’. ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’ is a suite of six unique segments, each cross-fading into the next. This awkward method of flow makes ‘Lamneth’ a bit of a clunker. A unifying lyrical theme is threaded through the movements, but some early cassettes completely fucked that up, changing the intended track listing by switching the ‘Didacts and Narpets’ movement of ‘Lamneth’ with ‘I Think I’m Going Bald’ (a completely unrelated song from Side One) to balance out both sides of the tape. Rush: The Rodney Dangerfield of Rock.
Rush would follow-up immediately with their ‘2112’ opus, correcting ‘Lamneth’s mistakes and creating a true Hard Rock masterpiece. It was a bold move starting an album with a 20-minute and 33 second song suite (Really? They couldn’t extend the space noises at the intro for another 39 seconds???), but the move paid off, as ‘2112’ gave Rush their commercial breakthrough. The songs on Side Two are Good to Very Good, but that didn’t matter; Side One was all anyone talked about. ‘2112’ loses points for the story’s oft-misunderstood ending, where the Elder Race returns to liberate the people of the Solar Federation…Oops! SPOILER ALERT
Lerxst, Dirk and Pratt (that’s Rush, stay with me) would tempt fate with third side-long epic on 1978’s ‘Hemispheres’, with less than stellar results. But what’s interesting here is that the song ‘Hemispheres’ is actually a continuation of a song from a previous album, entitled ‘Cygnus X-1’. So in reality, the complete title of ‘Hemispheres’ is ‘Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres’, as stated on the album. Musical themes and ‘samples’ from the former song are featured in the latter, connecting the two works, but thematically… that’s where things get nuts. Rush apparently agreed, and would never write another side-long epic, but would redeem themselves with the much shorter (9:17) and much more effective multi-part ‘Natural Science’ on their next record.
So far we’ve imagined a combined 26-minute ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, which never would have fit on one side of an LP, and envisioned an uninterrupted ‘Cygnus X-1 Books I & II’ which would also break the side-long barrier at a monstrous 28:33… But, Ladies and Gents, breaking the single-side barrier is not merely an interesting thought experiment; it’s actually happened, several times…
Ever wonder why Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1973 radio hit ‘Karn Evil 9’ starts off with the lyric ‘Welcome back my friends…’? ‘Welcome back’ from where? From Side One! The album version of ‘Karn’, found on ELP’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ album, consists of three ‘impressions’, and due to the limitations of the vinyl format, the first impression starts at the end of Side One and completes on Side Two. The two parts are listed as ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part One’ and ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part Two’. It was Part 2 that we all heard on the radio in ’73. The ‘Welcome back’ intro was directed at listeners of the LP who had just flipped the record over to hear the other half of the piece.
The whole of ‘Karn Evil 9’ rolls out at 29:39. Thankfully, in the CD age, this having-to-flip-the-record-over nonsense was dispensed with, and CD editions of ‘Brain Salad’ combine ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part One’ with ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part Two’ into one unbroken audio track, entitled simply ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression’… rendering the nifty ‘Welcome back, my friends’ lyrical device moot.
Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, both the album and the ‘song’ (…well, really, there is no difference between the two; the song is the album, the album is the song), was composed as one continuous piece of music spanning both sides of the record, although as with ELP’s ‘Karn Evil 9’, concessions were made to the realities of the vinyl and cassette formats. Side One ends with a repeated section of music that slowly fades into synth hiss; Side Two opens with distant echoes of that same section, serving as a brief reminder of where we were before we had to flip the record. The 1985 CD version of the album combines both parts as one seamless track (43:46), but then that transition section just doesn’t work…
Tull would find a better way to cross the side barrier with their next album, ‘A Passion Play’, which is constructed as an opera composed of nine songs combined into one continuous piece of music. This time, Tull found a clever way of acknowledging the need to flip the record: by including an intermission. ‘Interlude – The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles’, is a short piece designed to resemble a children’s storytelling record. Halfway through the story, an electronic tone sounds, signaling the ‘child’ to turn the record over; the ‘Hare’ fable then completes at the start of Side Two. The complete work (with ‘Interlude’) clocks in at 45:05. Some CD versions remove the tone, and combine the two parts of the ‘Interlude’ device, which exists an unnecessary interruption within the larger work.
Exhausted yet? Well, gear up, because we have arrived at the Everest of epics… a record that defies evaluation, but still must be included: Yes’ ultra-humongous ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’.
To refer to ‘TFTO’ as a double album is a massive understatement. If you find side-long epics to be a tough slog, imagine an album of FOUR sidelong-epics, each based on a sacred Hindu text, with a total running time of 81:15! After the success of ‘Close to the Edge’, had Yes decided that creating protracted pieces of music was the way to go? Well, yes and no; Rick Wakeman said in 2006, “…because of the format of how records used to be we had too much for a single album but not enough for a double, so we padded it out and the padding is awful …” Once again, ambition clashes with the constraints of contemporary media formats. But by constantly testing the limits of physical format, Yes were also testing the patience and the attention spans of their critics and their fans.
But while critical reactions to the record were mixed, and despite its excessive weight, ‘TFTO’ became the first album to ever ship Platinum, topped the UK charts for 2 weeks, and hit #6 in the US. By all accounts, the record was a massive (heh) success. On the corresponding tour, Yes performed the ‘TFTO’ album in its entirety, along with the ‘Close to the Edge’ epic, night after night. But Rick Wakeman announced he was leaving the band during the tour, which included 2 sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden, citing ‘boredom’. I totally get it.
I have never made it 100% through this record in one sitting, and I am certain that I never will. Who has that kind of time?? This album and it’s ilk sealed Prog Rock’s fate, establishing the genre as an obnoxiously bloated Progosaurus, dragging its ponderous weight across the landscape, a sitting duck just waiting for a white-hot musical meteor to strike and render it extinct. Oh, hello, Punk Rock!
Note: I had a paragraph on Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ (23:06) prepared for this piece, but I felt the article was too long…