Long Songs: Ego-trip or musical exploration

A blog about long songs – ironically, the longest I have written.

A very good friend and I had a great discussion the other day. He had just purchased the Duhaney Code album and was giving me some feedback about it. He said he thought ‘These Walls” was unnecessarily long and, when I explained to him it was done on purpose with the idea that we needed some long songs to put some meat on the bones of the short, ‘pop-like’ songs, he accused me of doing it simply for the sake of my ego. He said it takes discipline to keep a song short. I replied that it has nothing to do with discipline but it is simply a matter of musical exploration.

Well, let’s examine this premise.

I was involved in some recording sessions last year. I had around a dozen musical ideas to work with. The four that got developed first turned in Victory, And I Want You, Yesterday’s Love, a piano song, and These Walls.

Duhaney Code album cover

Victory is a neat little riff played on the acoustic guitar and the song breaks down nicely into a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus format. The instrumentation was interesting in that the riff was played on an acoustic guitar with chord accompaniment. The riff is imitated on the bass and some harmonic fill between riffs. It turned out pretty well as the hook played on the guitar and bass was really catchy.

After the recording was done, the song came in at 3:40. Pretty good length and, amid all the stuff going on in the song, there is no room for a guitar solo.

Similarly with Yesterday’s Love. The stripped down version that was the final product was simple piano and vocal, with enough lyrics to take up the whole of the 3:49 that that song timed out at.

And I Want You was 3:32 seconds long. During the sessions I flirted a little with some additional guitar and bass, (distorted), but felt, at the end, that the song was nice with just the acoustic. It is a very nice finger picking song with a descending bassline that stands out quite prominently. And, again, there were lyrics enough to fill the whole song.

So, I was about a third of the way through the sessions and I was thinking there was no guitar solos on this album yet. I looked at some of the other material that was on deck for arranging and saw there were some opportunities. What turned out to be a song called Lead Me On, and, subsequently, What’d I Say?, (watch for a spring 2014 release!) clocked in at a respectable  4:41 and includes a guitar solo as well as some back and forth between the singer and the lead guitar. Very enjoyable to record and listen to.

I had an interesting finger picking song that turned into These Walls. I decided to try to make it a bit of a show piece and fully explore the possibilities of the music. I also decided, explicitly, that I wanted to put a guitar solo on the record and make it a long one.

After fiddling around with the arrangement and writing some additional music for a bridge, (which turned into a non-vocal bridge but rather a brief piano solo), I came up with a 7 minute song, in my opinion, not that long at all, although many would disagree with that sentiment.

The way it evolved in the sessions was that the lyrics, initially, were done at the 3:30 mark so I had around another 3:30 to write a long guitar solo.  As it developed, additional singing was done, taking up about another minute. Since this singing was of an improvisational nature, I put some lead in as a call and response format and then the solo took off. Perhaps using the phrase ‘took off’ is misleading. The solo was there all right and it was going to be fairly lengthy but my idea was to make it long and unobtrusive. I like to think I accomplished that. With the original finger picking as a back-drop and some strings to round out the sound, the guitar solo flows along, covering a couple of octaves and coming back to the same root-5th note pattern, finishing on that, in fact, and fading gently away.

As the composer, arranger, performer and engineer, I rather enjoy the song and I have had feedback that others find it to be the best song on the album.

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The longest song to ever top the Billboard charts was American Pie by Don McLean. It is 8:33 and, while you will rarely hear the ‘short’ version anymore, there was a short version, (unofficial) that was played on some radio stations.

 

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Hey Jude topped the British charts and was 7:11 in length, although the coda at the end takes up most of the time.

 

 

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The Doors, on their debut album, heralded “The End” at 11:41. It turned out to be the perfect song for the movie Apocalypse Now, (12 years later), but one wonders at the audacity of putting a song that long on a debut album.

So, the question is, are these songs all about ego or musical exploration?

Is the Coda of Hey Jude really a great addition to the song or were the Beatles just out to prove they could still have a hit while sneering at the convention of hits being three minutes in length?

Is The End a legitimate platform for Jim Morrison poetical musings or is it just filler?

I would venture to say that all the verses of American Pie are vital to the song but, perhaps it could have been sung differently to fit into the standard format.

Stairway to Heaven. Ah, yes. The song that ended every high school dance in the ’70’s and ’80’s. What a great song. The live version is similar but has a longer solo and gets up to over 11 minutes. That’s even better.

So, is it too long? I submit that the song cannot be shortened.

And the other gem from Zeppelin IV, ‘When the Levee Breaks’. I think it is the best song they ever made. They only played it live once, (Chicago, 1975) and that was a completely lame attempt. The song as presented on the album is brilliant and the length is perfect, not only after the light and airy Goin’ To California, but as a coda to the album, even though it is not a ‘concept’ album. Everyone has noted the great drum track laid down by Bonzo but it is the swirling guitars sliding down into the vortex at the end that makes the song.  It neither goes on too long nor is it just a brief foray into the vortex.

The logo from my first album!

I have what I would consider one long song, Fire, from my Slideways album, coming in at 10:14. Wyatt Café, from the same album, is 7:49.

In thinking about this topic, I was chatting with my son, who is a capable guitar player, about the song Fire. It is basically a fusion of three separate riffs in Em, although the song has four parts and I was trying to tell him that the song should have been about 3 to 4 minutes longer! because all those ideas could have been expanded. The ‘train’ intro and then the three riffs treated in various manners. The intro ends at 2:14, which leaves 8 minutes for the three riffs to be expounded upon.

Really?!? That’s less than 3 minutes per section!!!!

The back story here is rather funny and embarrassing. I have a friend who writes poetry and is also a fireman and he told me a story once about a tragedy. I swear I was sober at the time and I heard the story correctly. It was about some kids who lived in a rural area and were out fooling around on some train tracks that ran past their land. A train goes by, and, inevitably, they are hit and, when the EMT guys show up, the kids are dead. The worst part is that the children’s dad was an EMT and it was he who answered the call.

Brutal you say? Yes!

Except it’s not true.

When I talked to him some time later, I told him about the song Fire and that I wrote it after he had told me that awful story and he said something like, “Hey, that wasn’t me. It must’ve been someone else who told you that.”

Well, by that time, the song was in the can. I looked at this friend incredulously. Huh? WTF?

A ten minute song is outrageous to some people. How can this song have been shortened? I could have chopped the intro, (but I wanted the drone building to the train whistle to build up). I could have chopped part 2. It is quite long and perhaps I should have not done the repeat but, I felt there needed to be a solo above the riff.

The link between parts 3 and 4 is around 45 seconds long and the link needed to be there.

Part 3 is too short as it is. And part 4 needed the fade out with the rain falling, (symbolizing the tears of the tragedy but also washing away the pain).

So, is it excessive or is it just proper development?

Now, Wyatt Café, similarly to These Walls, was a song that was arranged in such a manner that the intro and fade out mirrored each other and, hell, I just wanted to layer those guitars like maple syrup and butter on a stack of pancakes and play all day. So sue me! I love it. You know, there is the intro, 2 verses, chorus, verse, chorus, outro. That doesn’t sound unreasonable to me. And, hey, it’s a blues song.

When I was speaking to my brother about this idea, he said jazz and blues seem to be exempt from this rule. I don’t know why that is. I guess they are just considered genres that simply aren’t as commercial and there is more room for … a)ego,  or b)bloated self-expression, or c) improv or d)full development of musical ideas to their full.

I would choose either c) or d) from that multiple choice.