Long Distance Runaround

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…

 

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Of Pigs and Power

After appearing on classic albums by UFO, Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, one of the UK’s biggest rock stars is calling it a day. The name might not be familiar, but this legendary icon’s contributions to rock music are surely familiar to just about anyone who owned a turntable in the 1970’s.

The Battersea Power Station is located on the South Bank of the River Thames, in the Battersea District of South West London. This coal burning power plant is actually 2 identical buildings; Station A, built in the 1930’s, and Sation B in the 1950’s. The station stopped producing power in 1983, but has nonetheless become one of the most popular landmarks in London and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. Since its decomission, investors have sought to make the building into a theme park, a stadium, and even another, more modern power station. Since 2012, the site has been under development as a giant mall, with residential apartments and townhouses, and opened these rental untis to the public on May 1st of this year. Thankfully, the British government required all bidders on the 39-acre site to include the 4 iconic chimneys in their redevelopment plans, thus retaining the buildings’ iconic look and national landmark status.

So how does the largest brick building in Europe become a rock star? Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters lived near Battersea in the 70’s, and those famous chimneys constantly loomed as part of his local skyline. When the Floyd needed an image to communicate the ideas found on their upcoming ‘Animals’ album, Waters thought the coal burning, smoke spewing power station, which was then within a few years of outliving it’s usefulness, would be an effective way of communicating the record’s concept. Loosely based on George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, the album’s theme centered on the UK’s outmoded class system hierarchy. The pig floating between two chimneys sealed it, a mocking symbol of corruption hovering majestically between two of Battersea’s towering chimneys, as they belch black smoke into the sky. The image perfectly encapsulated Waters’ view of Britiain’s class system and the societal and moral decay he felt it produced.

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‘Animals’ was released in January of 1977. Today it is acknowledged as Pink Floyd’s reaction to the burgeoning Punk Rock movement, an attempt to tackle some of the same ideas and concepts so vociferously explored by punk music. Battersea provided Floyd with an iconic image (created by the legendary Hipgnosis graphics group) that helped the record achieve 4x Platinum status, which in turn helped make Battersea one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.

Next up for Battersea was an appearance on the cover of UFO’s ‘Lights Out’ album in May of ’77. Hipgnosis once again looked to our favorite power station for an image to communicate another Punk Rock-inspired idea: Who controls the ‘power’, and what happens after the ‘power’ goes out and no one is looking? And where better to question the goings on along the corridors of power than… along the corridors of power?

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‘Lights Out’ was not a concept album, but the lyric to the title track, with its artful allusions to the bombing of Britian during WWII, deals with such themes as war in the streets and a forced toppling of the status quo, a perfect description of what was going on in the UK’s music scene in 1976/77. Battersea provided the backdrop for an image of power station workers, ie those who control the power, disrobing while on the job, clearly up to something other than their work. It’s a subtle but striking graphic representation of the abuse of power.

In June of 1977, Hawkwind released their seventh studio album, ‘Quark Strangeness and Charm’. To many, the psychedlic Space Rock of Hawkwind, with it’s sci-fi lyrics and hippie jam band musical aesthetic, may have seemed immune to the siezmic shifts in rock music caused by the birth of Punk Rock. But the hippies shared with the punks a major imperative: ‘Question Authority’. Hawkwind had also shared members with UK proto-punks The Pink Fairies, so the self-appointed Psychadelic Warlords were a lot closer to the punk rock fray than most rock fans realized. In a timely attempt to underscore Hawkwind’s connection to punk’s ideals, Hipgnosis staged the image to illustrate the band’s political stance, and shot the cover to ‘Quark’ in one of the control rooms at Battersea.

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The image is set in the enterior of a high-tech control room, and depicts two machines interacting together, with dangerous-looking results; lightning and laser light are arcing into the nearby control panels, while a portal of some sort seems to be opening between them. The lab-coated human in the picture looks the other way, completely oblivious to the activity behind him. The back cover features a close-up of the ‘face’ of one of the machines, while behind and to the left, the human technician is shown to be asleep in a chair with paperwork covering his face. This artwork brilliantly captures the essence of Hawkwind’s underground philosophy: Let’s change the world while ‘The Man’ isn’t looking. It’s another compelling image with a charged political message, depicting those in control asleep at the switch.

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In the first 6 months of 1977, as the Punk Rock apocalypse poked, prodded and outright threatened more established rock acts, three major British bands rose to the challenge, and looked to the artists at Hipgnosis to graphically express their responses. Hipgnosis, in turn, found their go-to symbol to represent power, authority, and control; the perfect setting to stage three chilling tableaus of corruption, abuse and moral decay: the brick and wrought iron fortress known as the Battersea Power Station.

From coal-fired electric power plant to unlikely rock star to metrpolitian shopping mall. There’s a concept album in there somewhere.