I like Long Songs
Jerry Lucky Commentary October 2010
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2010 All Rights Reserved
This month I’m going to ramble a bit. And it was all sparked by some attentive listening to the new Spock’s Beard CD X,
which by the way is an amazing piece of work. Check out my review elsewhere. But while listening I noticed that not all of the longer
songs were actually made up of identifiable segments that were labelled part 1 or part 2 etc. Some of the longer songs were simply; longer songs.
So I started reflecting on this because one of the cornerstones of the Progressive Rock genre, like it or not is “Suppers Ready” by Genesis, which is a long song made up of seven parts each with it’s own title. And yet I’ve got plenty of discs with shorter songs that are made up of two or three parts too. So what is it that drives a composer to take one approach over the other.
Rightly or wrongly it seems one of the first things I do when I check out a new album is look at the back to see how long the songs are. It’s unfair I know, but its one of the ways that helps me sort through all the music out there. This is not to say that every disc with long songs will be a favourite of mine or that I’ll dislike an album with only short songs. In fact I can give you many examples where I have been fooled by both approaches.
Now I’m no writer of progressive rock tunes. There was a period in the mid-eighties where I did have a couple synthesizers, a drum machine and one of the first digital recorders and I did attempt to teach myself the rudiments of playing piano. I even wrote and recorded some rather simple pieces but that’s the extent of my musical prowess. Yeah, well that and the drum lessons I took when I was much younger…but that’s it.
I’ve often thought about what I would write if I could write a longer epic. One idea I had was to take the same chord and change it as many ways as possible to make a longer piece. But use the same chord. Invert it, augment it, make it a minor, make it sharp…but keep it the same chord. I’m not sure that that would make a very interesting song, but I’m intrigued by the idea. Another idea I had was to take a word with more than one meaning or application and work it into a series of bits to form a longer song or perhaps a concept album. Like using the word “eye” where in one section you talk about the actual seeing apparatus, and then the next section would be “I” the personal pronoun. Then the third might be using the word “eye” as in yes or agreement and so forth. You could do the same thing with the word “one.” Again I’m not sure if that’s a good idea either. I guess it’s what else you say in the context of using those words.
In any case it’s because of the little bit of knowledge I have in this area that I spend time thinking out song structure and what went into making a song what it is, why the composer took the approach they did. Because, I have to say I’m a fan of longer songs. Chris Squire once said something to the effect that he preferred songs that were eight to ten minutes in length at best. And yet almost any prog album seems to have a couple in around the fifteen minute mark and it’s not even rare these days to find a good twenty-five minute epic on a disc. So I guess I’m just intrigued by the idea of writing long songs.
But more than that it’s how and why they do it that is of most interest to me. As I said at the outset that first song on the new Spock’s Beard, “Edge of the In-Between” clocks in at 10:30 and based on how the lyrics are laid out it is one long song while “Jaws of Heaven” which is just a few minutes longer at 15:47 is made up of four distinct parts. Both these songs go through various musical change-ups so musically they’re equally complex. So what is it? Is it simply that the writer is trying to fit four distinct parts together or does it have more to do with the lyrics having to go through four chapters so-to-speak? I wonder.
In the end it really doesn’t matter. The songs are all good; one isn’t better for having the separate parts nor the other for being one long segment. Maybe it’s just because I enjoy them so much that I’m interested it. We should all have things in our lives that cause us to be so passionate that we ponder such incidental things like how a song is made. At least that’s what I think.