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Prog Rock: How Long Is Your Song?

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During the golden age of progressive rock, there was a simple litmus test for the best song on a record. It was always the longest one. Something magical happened when a single track took up the whole side of an album.

An eight minute ditty like Don McLean’s “American Pie” is one thing, but 18:50 of “Close To The Edge” by Yes was an event. As it turns out, I have owned a fair amount of records featuring a single song on one side. In the case of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, one epic tune took up both sides of the LP.

Like so many worthy rock traditions, it all began in 1968, with Iron Butterfly’s immortal In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The record contains six songs, five on side one, and 17 glorious minutes of the title track on side two. It became the template.

While the idea of a song stretching out over ten minutes was not unheard of in '68, devoting a full side to just one was definitely a new thing. The Grateful Dead’s Anthem Of The Sun came out that year, and contained the 15 minute “Alligator.” But it was followed by five minutes of “Caution,” which spoiled the whole marathon experience.

John Lennon was the only one who really got it right that year, with his horrid Two Virgins collaboration with Yoko Ono. The album featured two cuts: “Two Virgins Side One” and (you guessed it) “Two Virgins Side Two.” The music was bad enough, but the nude cover, sheesh! These are two people I never, ever needed to see naked.

Solo Beatles led the one-song per side movement in 1969. Not one but two Lennon/Ono “experimental” records came out that year: Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album. Two sides each, four terrible “songs” total.

But George Harrison came up with something fairly worthwhile. Electronic Sound contained “Under The Mersey Wall” on side one, and “No Time Or Space” on side two, and both are actually pretty interesting.

The early seventies was the era when the side-long song concept really took hold. Pink Floyd got it all started in 1970 with their 23 minute title suite for Atom Heart Mother. Deep Purple gave us the endlessly amusing Concerto For Group And Orchestra that year as well.

1971 saw even more of these extravaganzas. As if they were in the Mafia, Uriah Heep paid tribute to elders Iron Butterfly with Salisbury. Just like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Salisbury contains six songs. Five crappy ones on side one, and the title cut taking up all of side two. Plus, the album features the classic “Heep In A Jeep” cover. Beautiful.

1971 also brought another Pink Floyd entry into the genre. Side two of Meddle consisted of the excellent 23 minute long piece “Echoes.”

Where would a list of LP length songs be without Emerson, Lake And Palmer? With their second album Tarkus, they entered the fray. But they switched things up a bit. The title song took up all of side one this time. Subversive as hell.

As fun as the previous years were, 1972 proved to be even more grandiose. Jethro Tull entered the field with guns blazing on their monumental Thick As A Brick. This song was spread out over both sides of the album. Terribly amazing.

Genesis’ Foxtrot came out that year as well, with the marvelous “Supper's Ready.” Now I know that all the Prog nerds out there are going to bust me by saying that “Horizons” technically opens the side. But I don’t care. “Horizons” works as a beautiful 1 minute acoustic guitar opening to “Supper's,” so I‘m gonna use it anyway. 

Richard Branson’s Virgin empire was launched in 1973, on the back of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. My feelings about the “Billionaire Bad Boy” are a little less than enthusiastic these days. But the fact that he took a chance on what would have seemed to be a blatantly un-commercial record at the time wins some points.

As it turned out, Tubular Bells became a monster hit, and Branson was on his way.

The best album of ELP’s career came out this year as well: Brain Salad Surgery. I have avoided discussing one of the major attractions of Prog LPs up to this point, the cover art. In so many cases, the cover was better than the music itself.

HR Giger’s original packaging for Brain Salad Surgery is spectacular. And in this instance, the side-long “Karn Evil 9” was as good as the artwork that came with it. The quintessential Prog year was 1974. Nixon resigned, and the most unbelievably excessive LP in music history was released: Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes.

Just thinking about this record cracks me up. It was a double, so there were four sides. And yes, four songs. It really doesn’t get any better than this. But wait, look at that Roger Dean cover. It’s like the old Windows 95 aquarium screen-saver came to life!

‘74 also saw Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, Utopia’s 30 minute “The Ikon” and Phaedra by Tangerine Dream. Marathon cuts like these would never rule the charts again as they did this year.

As far as I can tell, Todd Rundgren pushed the bar as far as possible in 1975. His Initiation holds what I believe to be the longest side-long song ever done, "A Treatise On Cosmic Fire" fills side two with 36 excruciating minutes.

Besides Rundgren, the period of 1975 to 1979 saw a sad decline in the genre. The “Space Rock” groups such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultz, Michael Hoenig, and Steve Hillage kept up the valiant fight, but it was really all for nought.

Strangely enough, those wacky Canadian mooks Rush scored two of the best side-length tracks ever in the latter part of the decade. 2112 was released in 1976, and Hemispheres in 1978. They may have been a little behind the curve, but both are among the band's  finest efforts.

Filling up a whole side of your album with one song was one of the hallmarks of a truly “progressive” rock band. It meant you were pretentious enough to think you could hold a listener’s interest for 20 some minutes, and that you actually had something to say as well.

It was usually just a bunch of crap, but that made everything more fun anyway. Besides, most of us were completely zonked back then, so it didn’t even matter.

I say bring back Prog Rock, good old vinyl LP’s, and maybe that damned Windows ‘95 aquarium screen-saver too.

We could use a little more fun in the world right now. If you’re feeling down, just give Tales From Topographic Oceans or Concerto For Group And Orchestra a spin. For this old Progger at least, they are guaranteed to deliver a wistful smile.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://trinimansblog.blogspot.com/ Triniman

    Great article, Greg! I’m going to try to find some of those long tracks and give them a spin!

    I’d love to see more articles on “prog-rock” as the genre has several newer bands carrying the torch.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Thanks Triniman, I have been thinking about doing another piece on newer Prog bands as well.

  • KS

    Love had a side long song called “Revelation” on DA CAPO, released in early 1967.

    Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” filled a (short) LP side on BLONDE ON BLONDE released in 1966.

    But even before that, Sandy Bull was recording songs that filled up an entire sides of albums in 1963-1965. Good stuff too.

  • Greg Barbrick

    KS, I missed the boat on Love – “Revelation” would have definitely qualified. Technically, Dylan does too, but the song is so short comparatively speaking that I didn’t mention it. Not real familiar with Sandy Bull…

  • JANK

    Very good essay and good reach to get most of the good ones. I will add one of my top 5; “Lizard” by King Crimson takes up most of side 2 of the album of same name. Does Chicago’s “Ballet To A Girl In Buchanon” qualify?

  • Greg Barbrick

    JANK you are the second person to mention that Chicago song, and I have to plead ignorance for not knowing it. Which album is it from? I always dug them as a “radio” band, but never had any of the LPs, except Hits.

  • JC Mosquito

    If you count live albums you get Deep Purple’s Space Truckin, Zep’s Dazed and Confused and a whole other can o’ worms to play with.