Bruce Springsteen says he learned more from a 3-minute record, baby, than he ever learned in school. I’m grateful to have graduated from a much better school system than the one Bruce was stuck in. I learned more in 3 minutes in any class at Somerset High, Somerset, Massachusetts (Go Raiders!) than I ever learned from Deep Purple, Three Dog Night, or Tommy James & The Shondells. But Springsteen was right to emphasize 3 minutes, and not just because “a 4-minute record, baby” doesn’t scan as well and anyway is too reminiscent of a 4-minute mile.

Three-minute records (which I take to mean 3:01 to 3:59) are still the bread and butter of popular music, even though the format they were created for, the 45rpm, no longer exists. This length gives you enough time to sink into a song but not enough time to drown. (In general. There are 2-minute songs that drag and 4-minute songs that fly. Anything by Coldplay is automatically too long.)

I’m guessing that most of the music I listen to (and you, too) is in the 3-minute range, with the next group following at 4:01 to 4:59, followed by 5 minutes, 6 minutes, etc. The number of recorded pop songs longer than 10 minutes thins out quickly, and for every triumph past that mark (The Door’s “The End,” David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” Love and Rockets’ “Body and Soul”) you trip over something like Mountains’ live version of their own “Nantucket Sleighride,” which weighs in at a hard-to-overlook 17:34.

I can only assume that back in 1972 the band performed their masterwork behind a screen of chicken wire to protect them from volleys of beer bottles. “Nantucket Sleighride” is a symphony as imagined by a quartet of metal-munching hippie delinquents. “Nantucket Sleighride” goes on so long that is has themes, movements, fugues, moods, tempos, lyrics, tides, a guitar imitating a triangle, a tugboat yearning for its mate, and what I think are wet blankets fired from a circus cannon.

The boys in Mountain, who did their best to out-bloat Wagner, produced a song that will never be included in any list of the 1 million songs you should listen to before the universe explodes. However, I took a lot of drugs to this album, Sludge Hammer*, and thanks to the miracle of nostalgia and disjointed synapses I still find “Nantucket Sleighride” to be audacious and irresistible.

What happens to pop music after 17 minutes and 34 seconds? That way lies “Tubular Bells,” Quicksilver Messenger Service, prog rock, Yes, Rick Wakeman of Yes, Phish, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, probably Yes again, motels, money, murder, madness, and today’s special guests, The Allman Brothers Band.**

The Allmans’ Eat a Peach (1972) is generally thought to be the band’s high point, though not by this critic. Give me the economy of Brothers and Sisters (1973) any day. I don’t care that Eat a Peach has all those live tracks because that’s where the problem is: “Mountain Jam,” which is not only 33 minutes and 41 agonizing seconds long, it was inspired by Donovan. Apparently, it’s impossible to keep Donovan out of a music blog these days.

I was bludgeoned by “Mountain Jam” at an Allman Brothers concert in 1975 and I didn’t even get a lousy T-shirt. The Allmans in those days packed enough amplification to sterilize everyone not wearing lead dirndls. I didn’t wear my dirndl that night and now you know why I’ve never had kids. Somewhere around the halfway point of “Mountain Jam,” my mind floated away and I could no longer hear the music. All I could do was stare at the band. If I had gone to a Bangles concert in 1985 and they had played a 33-minute version of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” I’m sure I would’ve lost containment then, too. But at least I would’ve been staring at The Bangles. The Allmans, even when they were flush with youth, were not stareable.

“Mountain Jam” makes the Allmans’ 22-minute “Whipping Post” from their At Fillmore East live set sound like a model of musical frugality. When I was 16 I thought the crescendo of “Whipping Post” was rock’s answer to the 1812 Overture. Now I just hear it as everyone barking at everyone else.

Is it possible to produce a 15-minutes-or-more recording that won’t put people to sleep or send them to their Kindles to read another chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey? Probably not, but one interesting attempt that I know of is The Byrds’ 16-minute go at their iconic “Eight Miles High,” from the album Untitled/Unissued (1970). It’s focused, it’s well-played, it crosses the line into jazz, and if I’d gone to that concert instead of to the Allmans’ I’d have 16 kids today. Oh, wait.

Reader challenge: I can’t think of any particularly lengthy songs (say 12-15 minutes or longer) after about 1990. If you can, please enlighten me. I have a hypothesis that song lengths have decreased since the hippie era, at least at the long end, but I need data. Phish, Widespread Panic, and Blues Traveler are disqualified. Come on, people, let’s move like we have a purpose!

* OK, the real name was Live (The Road Goes Ever On).

** Special D just raised her hand and asked where Pink Floyd is on this list, but I don’t see the point of her question.

  1. Michael Eichner says:

    Well, my personal favorite is Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Godda-Da-Vidda,” clocking in at 17:10. But, that’s not answering the question. Modern music is way out of my league, so I consulted with 20-something, audiophile, co-worker Double E who says there are no long songs in contemporary “popular” music. He states, however, that there are reams of sub-genres filled with endlessly protracted music. So if Mr. Run-DMSteve feels like researching through Folk Metal, Melodic Death Metal, Chill Wave, Shoe Gaze, or the traditional Experimental/Electronica he may still find what he’s looking for. Good Luck.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Excellent choice! By “excellent,” of course, I mean “crappy.” In the very early ’80s in Seattle I went to Parker’s, a club way up on 99 North to hear Iron Butterfly. However, when they got to the drum solo in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (I had to look it up), it was immediately obvious that this was not the original drummer. I’m not sure he’d even heard the original recording. He just started doing his own thing. People booed (there weren’t many people there) (by this time I was embarrassed that I was there) and somebody started a fight, or tried to, and was thrown out. I left right after that. I was afraid that they wouldn’t throw me out. The new drummer was still boogeying away….I like this Double E. I could learn a lot from him. However, I listen to a lot of trance and house and other forms of dance music I can’t name, and even the longest of those songs (Special D doesn’t believe that they’re songs) end before you get much past 10 or 11 minutes. Close but no e-cigar. Melodic Death Metal sounds fun, though. I’ll have to dive into that.

  2. Laurel says:

    Whoa – I got hallucinations and the munchies just reading the words Eight Miles High.

  3. Tttwitchy says:

    “The Island” by the Decemberists on their 2006 album “The Crane Wife” clocks in at a whopping 12:26, plus it’s a good song too. Actually, theyve produced many lengthy, non-radio friendly tunes in their time but I believe this one is their longest.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      The Decemberists aren’t my scene, man. Among Portland bands, I like The Dandy Warhols and Special D likes Pink Martini. The Decemberists’ “Why We Fight” was in heavy rotation on local radio; a year of that made Hulk want to smash. However, I try to be fair (shut UP), and I admit that the Warhols are often so pretentious that they’re unlistenable, so why should I discriminate against The Decemberists? I went to YouTube and fired up “The Island.” I liked it once it got a move on, around the 3-minute mark. It has all the drama you’d expect in a song of that length, and I really enjoyed it once the keyboards took the spotlight, because then the song sounded like a Yes-Boston mash-up! The ending was too quiet for me, but I’m not suggesting they should’ve let The Allman Brothers work on it. Thank you for the tip.

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