Zoo Story is an editorial column running bi-weekly on Aux.Out., Consequence of Sound’s space for longer and alternative writing. The column is based ever-so slightly on a 1959 play by Edward Albee, ever-so-slightly on topical events, and is mostly the thoughts of managing editor Jeremy D. Larson.
If Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin can do 10-minute songs and Queen can do 10-minute songs then why can’t we? We’ll figure out the radio edits later. – Justin Timberlake
I joked a couple of weeks ago that Kurt Vile’s new nine-minute song “Wakin on a Pretty Day” is about 40 minutes too short. Let me clarify: I wasn’t totally joking. There’s enough room in that song for all of my personal effects and emotional baggage, enough acreage to start a new utopian colony where President Vile would climb the tallest minaret in the city every morning and strum his acoustic guitar for three hours through the loudspeaker while the loyal citizens assume the position of prayer, supine on the ground, feet crossed, hands latticed behind head, and a long piece of wheat grass hanging out of the corner of the mouth. We don’t face Mecca, we face the sun, the brim of our hats just low enough.
Like all categorizing obsessives, I’m keeping a running list of songs that I like from 2013. Just two months into the year, out of the 21 tracks I have selected, “Wakin on a Pretty Day” and 11 other songs clock in at over six minutes. It’s a little embarrassing — like putting only track-ones on your year-end list (n.b. my year-end lists are so awful that a scientific Pazz and Jop metric dubbed me as having the #1 most centrist ballot, a.k.a. Music Journalism’s #1 Coward). I’m now purposefully stifling my impulse to put all kinds of long songs from all albums on there. Otherwise, “Supermoon”, the eight-minute closing track from The Men’s new album, would be added in an instant.
I just don’t have time for short songs. My life is already inundated with micro-interactions — chats, tweets, texts, swiftly deleted voicemails from the offices of Sorensen Dental Group asking where their goddamn money is. A long song helps me disassociate the too-fragmented parts of my life like an anxiety-free straightaway after a series of hairpin turns. Perhaps I perceive these songs as containing More Art than shorter songs, the same way the longest movies nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture win more than 40% of the time.
There’s just something about a long song that flips a different switch than a short song, setting in motion a direct challenge to demand more than eight minutes of my time. Every minute beyond the average four-minute mark becomes a risk, betting against the attention span of the listener, trying to hold court for as long as possible to make an impression. Long songs are intrinsically arrogant in their length. When one comes on, you know almost immediately if you’re going to stick through to the end.
For instance, if I hear the opening strums of “American Pie”, the chemicals in my brain immediately tell me what I am in for and I reflexively lunge for the radio dial. Or maybe I hear the opening notes of Can’s “Halleluwah” and I lunge for the volume knob. But why would you listen to a flighty album like The Minuetmen’s Double Nickels on the Dime (average length of 1 minute and 45 seconds per song) when you can feel the gravity of Swan’s The Seer (10 minutes and 45 seconds per song)? Again, I’m not totally joking.
I can’t argue that long songs are better than short songs because that’s obviously untenable. The five-minute difference between the classic “Everyday People” (2 minutes and 28 seconds) and the pappy “MacArther Park” (7 minutes are 27 seconds) makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk. But long songs rule. I will fall for a discursive rambler over a concise polished-type any day of the year. I love all 12 minutes and 860 words of Joanna Newsom’s “Emily”. I love how Liars just decides to investigate one measure of music for the better part of 20 minutes on “The Dust Makes That Mud”, a repetition that defines Einstein’s insanity. I’m currently loving all the bullshit nonsense noodling in this 13-minute lo-fi Dump song (a Yo La Tengo side project), “International Airport”. I don’t care if the longest slide at the water park is a fairly boring series of tubes, or just a 10 degree incline for 500 yards. I only care that I lie on my back, being carried by something other than myself, for longer than anyone else.
Length is trickier with more traditional pop songs. In January, I wrote about the radio edit, and how it made “Suit & Tie” a better pop song. In an act of divine providence, Timberlake recently revealed that eight out of the 10 songs on his new album The 20/20 Experience run almost seven minutes or longer, crooking the eyebrows of poptimists and DJs keen to parade Timberlake songs on mixes and at the club. The eight-minute “Mirrors” isn’t a groundbreaking format for a pop song (think of Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids”, or Kanye West’s “Runaway” as recent boilerplate). But when the lines of pop music once again starting to blur and morph into something seemingly new, it warrants a look at where pop might be eating itself again. The run-time on the tracks of The 20/20 Experience all look like they’re extended cuts, or 12-inch singles. So, what? Can JT top New Order and release the biggest-selling 12-inch single of all time?
Jump back almost 40 years to 1974, when Tom Moulton, an A&R rep for King Records, was about to make a mix of the Al Downing disco track, “I’ll Be Holding On”. Like so many great innovations of the modern age, he invented the 12-inch single by accident. In the book Record Players: DJ Revolutionairies, Moulton simply tells the history of the first 12-inch single: “The seven-inch blanks, they were out of them. So he had to give me a twelve-inch. And I said, that’s ridiculous. So they said, I know what we’ll do: we’ll spread the grooves and make it louder. And, of course, when I heard it, I almost died.”
This new format started to make the rounds with the DJs before any 12-inch singles were commercially available. It split the difference between the fidelity of the 40-minute, 12-inch 33-rpm LP and the brevity of the three-minute, 7-inch 45-rpm single. The 12-inch single emerged in the mid ’70s at the height of discotheques, as DJs called for longer songs to entertain the bell-bottomed girls who made the disco ball go ’round. As Moulton said, the grooves cut for a 12″ record are wider, which makes the bass deeper and the sound louder. The benefit of the 12-inch single is simple physics: Not only do the wider grooves allow the record stylus to create wider sound waves for louder amplification and bigger bass; but also the further out the groove is from the center of the record, the more space there is for the stylus to move. Just try spinning the 10-minute live version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Incident on 57th Street” from the B-side of the 1987 “Fire” 7-inch. You’ll hear what’s called “inner groove distortion” because the grooves on the 45 are so close the center. It sounds like shit.
Eventually, the 12-inch single started to creep out of the disco clubs blasting Double Exposure’s 10-minute “Ten Percent” and Donna Summer’s 17-minute “Love to Love You Baby” and into the mainstream pop consciousness. Everything from Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” to Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” saw 12-inch extended remixes that would examine the beat into the eight- or nine-minute range, strictly for the club or step-aerobic class. Then, in 1983, New Order releases the 12″ single “Blue Monday”.
“A seven-and-a-half-minute-long single was unheard of,” said New Order keyboardist Gillian Gilbert recently to The Guardian, “so we put it out on 12-inch. We couldn’t believe it when it became the biggest-selling 12-inch of all time.” With “Blue Monday”, New Order took the Manchester scene to the mainstream and united the rock fans and club-goers. The pop hit of “Blue Monday” clocks in longer than “Hey Jude” and “Riders on the Storm”, just 30 seconds shy of “Stairway to Heaven”. It became one of the first hybrid dance-rock singles, defined new wave, and was the nexus of about 10 or so other subgenres and cultural movements. It’s safe to say that the one true version of “Blue Monday” is the 12-inch version, it being the most famous 12-inch single of all time. As for my favorite New Order song, “Temptation”, the definitive version is a little harder to define.
New Order released numerous 12-inch versions of their songs, most of which are complied on the comp Substance 1987, which includes possibly the most famous version of “Temptation”, the one found on the Trainspotting soundtrack. The Trainspotting version was re-recorded in 1987 with a new milquetoast and overwrought vocal track from Bernard Summer that floats too far behind Peter Hook’s bass and that ARP Quadra synth line. The 1996 version is actually pretty good, in a kind of shellacked, retro way that, aptly, appeared on New Order’s box set, Retro. But to me, there is only one version of this song and of course: it is the longest version.
Peter Hook talked in an interview with the BBC about first experimenting with analog synths and sequencers, saying that all of a sudden you could make the same sound over and over again with no effort. The 1982 version is buoyed by Summer’s unhealed vocals and that abrasive Arp Omni-2 synthesizer, a leftover spectre from Joy Division’s catalog that cradles the whole track while the band oscillates between only two chords for nine minutes. The fear in Summer’s voice — that timidness that would return in later versions — is absent. While he spent much of New Order’s first album Movement trying to emulate the late Ian Curtis, “Temptation” is Summer trying to throw it all behind for nine minutes while taking arms against a sea of troubles.
Summer’s howl when he sings “Ohhh up, down, turn around / please don’t let me hit the ground” is that kind of last-breath energy you save for the very bottom, when all you’ve got is a wry smirk to give God when he strikes you with a bolt from above. If the song keeps going, if it never ends, maybe it can synch-up the endless line of dysthymic thoughts. If the sweetness of Summer’s “oooos” and the lift of Gilbert’s guitars can just stretch a little longer, then all this dread is alchemized into an endless dance. It’s the same apocalyptic melancholy that James Murphy trafficked in for the majority of his career, endless club ragas aiming to create a psycho-physical connection so strong that you purge your emotions our of every duct and pore on your body. The longer the song, the better. More is released. The longer the climax, the larger the catharsis.
In 2013, we are formatless and limitless. But is there room for the eight-minute pop song on the Top 40 chart, once again? Maybe, contrary to Timberlake’s quote, they won’t figure out radio edits later, and the intro to “Mirrors” on pop stations will be the same as the piano intro to “November Rain”. What knob would you reach for? You know my answer.
Here’s a bunch of the songs I just mentioned.
Jeremy D. Larson is the managing editor of Consequence of Sound. His work has appeared in VICE, Time, The Classical, Noisey, Paste, and Twitter.com.