Long Songs by Led Zeppelin, the Temptations, Yes, Iron Butterfly + Others: Odd Couples

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Most music fans, usually at some point in their youth (but not necessarily so), have had the experience of falling for that one song that they just can’t get enough of. Depending on the era, that obsession might have manifested itself as playing a 45 RPM single over and over by manually picking up and resetting the phonograph needle, or perhaps simply by hitting the “repeat” function on one’s digital device of choice.

This is kind of funny considering that rock ‘n’ roll has always been considered to be music of the moment. But there’s nothing wrong with anyone wanting their moment extended, which might explain why during live concerts some bands feel obliged to stretch out their hits with extended introductions, additional verses, “audience participation” routines, and instrumental solo showcases.

But the question arises: is a 15-minute long version of a song necessarily as good as playing the three-minute version five times in a row? Maybe the way around this absurdity is simply to write long songs in the first place. This could involve a spectrum of compositional approaches that range from connecting snippets of musical ideas until the desired length is reached, to simply plonking away at a riff until it takes on a self-sustaining life on its own.

For this musical face-off, live versions of songs are left out the competition (for instance, Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’” from Made In Japan), as are obvious attempts at subverting the form (Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick comes to mind here). We’re just talking about long, in the studio creations, minimum 10 minutes in length. That should be a plenty long enough moment to decide a winner in each round.

“ACHILLES LAST STAND” by LED ZEPPELIN VS. “HEART OF THE SUNRISE” by YES: Led Zeppelin has a reputation for long songs, especially in a live setting. And then there’s “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most-loved long songs of the classic rock era. Surprisingly, the mighty Zep only has three studio creations that clock in over 10 minutes: “In My Time of Dying,” “Carouselambra,” and “Achilles Last Stand.”

Yes is another band with a reputation for long songs, but at least they sometimes explicitly subtitle the songs into sections, so you know exactly what you’re getting. Hmmm … points awarded here for honesty, or maybe deducted for pomposity?

When it comes to lyrics, both bands have been accused on occasion of being obscure. “Sharp / Distance / How can the wind its arms all around me?” ponders Yes, “Oh to ride the wind / To tread the air above the din.” responds Led Zeppelin. As to whether the winds in question are breezes or hurricanes – well, likely only the singers know for sure.

Actually, there is some speculation that both songs are perhaps travel related. “Sunrise” references being “lost in the city,” while “Achilles” is supposedly about a trip to Morocco.

Winner: “Achilles Last Stand.” Both of these long songs are pretty good, but regardless what the lyrics actually mean, “Achilles Last Stand” musically sounds like the second coming of the Viking hoard from “Immigrant Song.” I dunno – did Norsemen ever holiday in Casablanca?

“A SAILOR’S LIFE” by FAIRPORT CONVENTION vs. “PAPA WAS A ROLLIN’ STONE” by THE TEMPTATIONS: On first glance, two very different sorts of long songs here, but on closer look they’re both about absent lovers and broken lives.

“A Sailor’s Life” is a version of a common English folk ballad as performed by folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention. The young girl in the song falls for a sailor who, of course, never comes back from the sea. To complete the tragedy, she goes out looking for him only to learn he’s drowned, at which point her own boat crashes on the rocks. Vocalist Sandy Denny spins this tale while accompanied by the rest of the band in a pretty cool folk-rock noodling session.

The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” is a glimpse of a family questioning their mother about their long-absent and now dead father. And though the questions are asked and the rumors addressed, there are no real solid answers given except to say, “Papa was a rollin’ stone / Wherever he laid his hat was his home.” Meanwhile, the backing track is a simple three-note riff; part soul, part blues, part psychedelic pop.

It’s also a production tour-de-force. Producer Norman Whitfield, who co-wrote the song with Barrett Strong, overlays the aforementioned riff with an assortment of orchestral instrumentation, percussion touches, as well as some wah-wah guitar effects.

Winner: “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Like a lot of similar, tragic folk songs, “A Sailor’s Life” attempts to tie up the loose ends in the narrative. On the other hand, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” suggests that maybe there are no easy answers – just survivors.

“IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA” by IRON BUTTERFLY vs. “SISTER RAY” by the VELVET UNDERGROUND: OK, maybe one of the “heaviest” contests of all time. Iron Butterfly’s signature piece and the Velvet Underground’s noise epic both clock in at more than 17 minutes, but after even half of either of these long songs has elapsed, who’s counting?

The lyrics of the two songs couldn’t be made of more polar opposites. Despite its unique title, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” contains a lot of standard June / moon / spoon stuff. On the other hand, “Sister Ray” is a seedy narrative about drugs, gender ambiguity, sailors, guns, blood, sex and death, although not necessarily in that order.

The musical backing is a perfect complement to Lou Reed’s lyrical catalog of debauchery. As the song progresses, the standard three chord rock ‘n’ roll buzz with a backbeat eventually degenerates into a one chord pulse, a musical mantra of confusion, distortion, and volume, volume, VOLUME.

Meanwhile, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is a textbook example of how to find a balance between a singular riff and enough differing sections to support it without distracting from it. Spooky organ intro, couple of catchy verses and choruses, spooky organ solo, guitar solos, drum solo, weird psychedelic organ interpolation, a build up to the riff again and back for another verse and chorus to bookend the whole thing. It’s so well done that most people are amazed to find out that 17 minutes of their lives just passed by in an instant – with or without hallucinogenic assistance.

Winner: Sure, it ought to be the Velvets, but this one goes to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” After all, you can’t discount the long song’s pop culture permanence – being part of a gag on The Simpsons where Bart switches the organist’s music during church has to count for something. “In the Garden of Eden,” indeed.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
JC Mosquito
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