The Epic Long Song – Part I: Beginnings

In 1970 there was a creative explosion that saw many bands attempting side-long epic songs, stretching over the 18-minute mark. The era of the side-long song had begun and carried on for a few years before fading but not going completely out of fashion. These days, the very long song continues and gets longer as memory storage permits larger files to be stored. But where did it all begin?

As rock and roll transformed into rock music in the mid-sixties, the recording of music was starting to change. Bands like The Beatles and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention began using the studio not simply for recording songs that would be performed live but for creating songs that were meant to be enjoyed on the album. The notion that songs could be longer than the average three-minute pop song was also setting in. Bob Dylan once claimed that he had imagined someday writing a song that developed like classical music and that might fill an entire album. His 1966 double album “Blonde on Blonde” featured the lengthy track “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” which reached 11:22 and occupied the whole of side four. This was possibly the first time a pop artist had committed one entire side of an album to a single song, though regarding the song length there was still more space that could have been filled. Love did just that in November of the same year, releasing a song entitled “Revelation” that clocked in at 18:57 and occupied the entire side B of their album “Da Capo”.

Song-writing was maturing and so was how the music was recorded. Along with Frank Zappa, The Beatles were at the forefront of studio experimentation and creating music for the album. Their 1966 release “Rubber Soul” was a step towards more mature song writing and recording. It is said that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was inspired by “Rubber Soul” and looked to song writing and the studio in a similar way when The Beach Boys recorded “Pet Sounds” later that year. Paul McCartney in turn was inspired by “Pet Sounds”, and when the Beatles decided to retire from touring and concentrate solely on recording, this inspiration lingered into the next Beatles album, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. This album was a paradigm-shifting approach to studio recording with numerous new techniques and technological innovations helping to realize the musical vision of the band. This was to be an album created in the studio with songs that were not intended for live performance. The album was printed with no rills (those gaps between songs that let you know where to drop the stylus in order to play a particular song from the beginning) as all the songs were meant to be heard as a continuous performance.

A new way of recording a popular music album

A new way of recording a popular music album

Although this was still an album of separate songs, with “Sergeant Pepper” the Beatles opened brand new doors in studio recording possibilities. The Who followed close behind with a similar idea on “The Who Sell Out”, an album of songs that were mostly connected by commercial jingles written by the band for existing products. Back across the ocean, Vanilla Fudge recorded their second album as a musical concept piece that paid homage to Beethoven and the Beatles. “The Beat Goes On”, though an ambitious and progressive piece for certain, is considered by most to be an awful album. In spite of that, the seeds for conceptual pieces had started to sprout.

In the year of 1968, at least three bands delivered songs surpassing the 17-minute mark. Iron Butterfly went into the studio to record a new song called “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. While waiting for the producer to show up, the engineer had them run through the song and do a sound check for each instrument. Guitar solos, a drum solo, an organ solo, and a leaping bass segment were recorded as the song stretched out. Doug Ingle included a hauntingly beautiful organ segment and the main theme of the song was reprised in between solo sections before the song returned for the coda. Though this extended instrumental affair was not part of the original plan, it was decided to put it on the album as it was and take up all of side two. Meanwhile, back in England, Procol Harum was following up on their debut’s success with an album called “Shine On Brightly”. Side two included a short track followed by a 17-minute conceptual piece entitled, “In Held ‘Twas In I”. The song was divided into five parts and is quite possibly the first of its kind – the epic long song that the prog bands of the seventies would generate. Meanwhile, back in California, the Canadian band The Collectors were recording their debut and chose to occupy side B with a song running 19:15, “What Love (Suite)”. According to guitarist Bill Henderson, the band wanted to write something with accents, with crescendos – write a rock song like classical music. This sounds like a precursor to the progressive rock movement that would soon see the side-long epic as an almost expected production.

The years 1967 and ’68 saw many studio songs clear the ten-minute mark and live performances gave musicians the opportunity to extend songs by featuring longer solo parts. But the conceptual, side-long epic would really come into its own in 1970. One of the first big productions of the year was Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite”. No stranger to studio experimentation, Pink Floyd had already established themselves as a band that created sonic palettes and musical experiences rather than just pop songs. Their album “Ummagumma” was perhaps their most experimental studio performance: manipulating tape, integrating sound effects, performing on a variety of instruments (most notably percussion), and writing songs in three parts or without any adherence to the standard pop song format.

The ambitious side-long, multi-part song for group, brass orchestra, and choir

The ambitious side-long, multi-part song for group, brass orchestra, and choir

“The Atom Heart Mother Suite” was their most ambitious effort by far. A 23-minute plus, multi-part epic with choir and brass orchestra, this was one of the band’s few ventures into collaborating with an outsider to compose their music. In this case, Ron Geesin, an established jazz musician who’d already worked with Roger Waters and the rest of Pink Floyd for a soundtrack to a biology movie, was involved in helping to create this weighty piece. It’s no surprise that inspiration for this long composition came from a movie soundtrack, Elmer Bernstein’s music for “The Magnificent Seven”. David Gilmour came up with the musical motif while Waters, impressed with a performance he’d seen with choir and orchestra, decided that Floyd’s new composition needed just that. Perhaps it’s also noteworthy to mention that Pink Floyd were also studio residents at Abbey Road, the same place where the Beatles recorded.

Recording with an orchestra was already highbrow status in this new world of rock music. In Britain, where listening to American rock and roll had been frowned upon for years, youths were taught to appreciate the culturally acceptable world of classical music to a greater extent than their transatlantic cousins. If you want to play music then you’re going to a proper academy. Many soon-to-become-famous musicians held music degrees from academies and knew how to compose music on paper as well as perform classical works. Deep Purple’s Jon Lord wrote “Concerto for Group and Orchestra” while The Moody Blues and The Nice were conducting their own experiments in adding classical instruments and classical compositions to rock band performances and recordings. Jazz also attracted many British youth and found its way into the new movement of progressive rock, as it came to be known. It is quite likely a combination then of the extended psychedelic rock song, the classical influence on British youth, jazz, and the new capabilities of the studio that inspired several young bands to attempt writing multi-part songs that stretched for 20 minutes or more. Some examples of these are:

“Lizard” by King Crimson (1970)
“Morning” by T.2. (1970)
“Symphony No. 2” by Egg (1970)
“Echoes” by Pink Floyd (1971)
“Nine Feet Underground” by Caravan (1971)
“Gravedigger” by Janus (1971)
“Eruption” by Focus (1971)
“A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” by Van der Graaf Generator (1971)
“Tarkus” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1971)
“Flying” and “Star Storm” by UFO (1971)
“A Tab in the Ocean” by Nektar (1972)
“Supper’s Ready” by Genesis (1972)

The two songs by UFO appear on their second album “UFO 2: Flying” and are little more than lengthy psychedelic adventures in guitar-driven effects, solos, and heavy psych-styled music with “Flying” reaching 26:30 of playing time. The reissued CD booklet for Nektar’s “A Tab in the Ocean” states that Nektar were the first band to write a cohesive composition meant for an entire album side; however, the list above shows that several bands had already begun treading those waters. Most of the songs were written as compositions in parts that were intended for live performance, but it’s interesting to note that both “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” and “Supper’s Ready” were actually composed by piecing together several originally unrelated ideas and creating a multi-part epic track. Genesis performed their grand masterpiece live regularly while on the other hand, Van der Graaf Generator only played their epic live once for a Dutch TV program. Also note that Focus is Dutch and not British. Their third album would include a massive jam and solo feature track called “Anonymous 2” running over 23 minutes.

A classic epic track

A classic epic track: ELP’s Tarkus

Of all the bands who tried their hands at side-long compositions however, one perhaps was the most notorious. Yes made 20-minute epics a staple of their career for a few years. And then Jethro Tull introduced the album-long song. That and more in part two.


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